The Meaning of May Day
by Clay Travail
May Day is almost upon us, and for most in L.A. this usually means that they’ll just avoid driving through downtown or near MacArthur Park, at least until the marches disperse. For others, the May 1st date probably conjures images of the massive rallies for undocumented migrants that took place across the country in 2006, and as such, they associate it with the immigrant rights movement. Still, there may be others who have next to no understanding of the day’s significance, beyond its seeming importance to the left.
Well, for the uninitiated, here’s a quick and dirty history of May Day.
Long before there existed labor laws to prevent children from working in heavy industry, or to guarantee you safety on the job, or even to stop your boss from forcing you to work 10, 12, or 14 hours a day, there was the labor movement.*
Here in the U.S., the emergence of industrial capitalism brought with it the necessary grime, hyper exploitation, and overall misery that you might expect. Masses of people were uprooted from the mostly agrarian lifestyles that they had known, cramming themselves into cities like New York and Chicago, with the hope of finding work in the numerous factories that began springing up.
Recognizing that the Industrial Revolution demanded a steady stream of human fodder, the federal government relaxed immigration laws, and in many cases, actively invited migration from Europe.
Though a homegrown labor radicalism was nascent in the U.S., the European migrants who flooded ports of entry in the late 19th century brought with them a revolutionary politics that had previously found little expression in this country.
Labor militancy throughout the mid-to-late 1800’s continued to escalate by way of growing union membership, strikes, and violent repression perpetrated by both government and private forces.
By the 1880’s, worker organizations began to coalesce around a series of demands, though chief among them was the call to reduce the work day to 8 hours. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (soon to become the American Federation of Labor), declared that May 1st, 1886 would serve as the deadline for industries to begin to implement the reform.
Anticipating refusal to comply with their demands, unions across the U.S. began to lay the groundwork for a general strike in the major industrial city centers. Organizers in Chicago, where much of the labor movement was centered, were especially invested in preparing for the day of mass action. Not as a matter of coincidence of course, Chicago also served as a center for anarchist and socialist organizing at the time.
Numbering in the thousands, anarchist workers in the city organized to support the demands of the labor movement, as well as to push for a revolutionary break that would in end capitalism entirely.
When the May 1st date arrived, hundreds of thousands of workers, in dozens of different industries across the country, walked off the job to demand an 8 hour day. In response to police violence on the third day of the general strike, anarchists called for a mass meeting the next night to take place in Chicago’s Haymarket Square.
On the night of May 4th, between 1,000 - 3,000 people crowded into the square, waiting to hear the variety of radical orators slated to address them. Watching from the street opposite the square was a growing police presence, prepared at any moment to intervene.
At around 10:30 p.m., just as the third speaker was finishing, police advanced on the crowd and ordered them to disperse. At some point in the fracas, a bomb was thrown into the police line. The resulting explosion killed one cop instantly, while six others suffered mortal injuries. The bomb sent demonstrators fleeing in the opposite direction of the police. In response, however, police began firing wildly into the crowd, killing 4 and wounding some 70 others.
The event is now referred to as the Haymarket Affair.
In the days that came after, major publications, politicians, and industrialists all began calling for the immediate apprehension and execution of anyone who could be even tangentially linked to the bloodshed. 8 important anarchist labor organizers were hastily arrested, a number of whom were not even present on the night of the explosion.
The trial of the anarchists lasted about a month. Despite the fact that the prosecution fundamentally lacked any sort of hard evidence, 7 of the 8 defendants; Louis Lingg, Samuel Fielden, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parsons, George Engel, Michael Schwab, and August Spies, were all sentenced to death.
After a year of failed appeals, and one day before the date of the scheduled execution, Fielden and Schwab had their sentences commuted to life in prison. The rest of the men however, were not as fortunate. Louis Lingg, refusing to allow the state to decide his fate, had a blasting cap smuggled into his cell, which he used to take his own life.
On November 11, 1887, Parsons, Fischer, Engels, and Spies were walked to the prison gallows. Moments before dropping to his death, Spies cried out “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!”.
The executions sent shockwaves through the labor movement around the world.
In 1891, the Second International (the large congress of socialist workers in Europe) adopted May 1st as a day for mass demonstrations in support of the call for an 8 hour work day.
Over time the date morphed into a celebration of workers’ struggle, eventually being dubbed ‘International Workers’ Day’. Today, a majority of countries around the world recognize May 1st as an official holiday.
Here in the U.S. however, the history of the date has been actively suppressed by the federal government. Most will know that so-called ‘Labor Day’ falls on September here in the states, a decision that has been kept in place so as to diminish the anarchist and socialist roots of the May 1st event.
So, this coming May Day, whether you’re able to join a demonstration and march, or not, remember to carry with you the memory of those workers who came before us. Not just those who walked to the gallows in 1887, but every worker who has lived and died struggling for an end to tyranny and exploitation — the same struggle we carry on today.
A struggle to ‘bring to birth a new world’, as the line from that most famous of all labor songs goes, ‘from the ashes of the old’.
This article appeared in the Spring 2019 edition of Salvo.