Mayday, Mayday! Labor activists come together in solidarity to honor labor and workers all around the world every May 1, except in the United States, that is.
I noticed that the media didn’t really mention any May Day and International Workers’ Rights Day rallies that were held on May 1 2014 around the United States. Most of the coverage if any, usually centers around more violent demonstrations than the peaceful ones. Let’s face it, in the immortal words of Megadeth lead singer Dave Mustain, “Peace sells but who’s buying“ (Yes I admit I’m an 80’s metal head). So with that said I thought I would try to separate the wheat from the chaff and talk a bit about the origins of May Day.
Labor Day marks the end of summer and back to school, but doesn’t truly honor the American labor movement or the American worker. In the United States, we typically honor the American worker on Monday, September 1 with a back-to-school sale from a big box retail establishment. (I really can’t think of a better way to honor someone’s hard work other than putting it on sale for 10- 15% off regular prices for 12 hours only. But that is besides the point, I digress!)
For those of you who don’t know, in many countries “Labor Day” is reminiscent of International Worker’s Day which falls on May 1. This day, ironically celebrates the working class – or as Larry the Cable Guy might say, “The people who know how to get ‘er done.”
Understanding the origins & significance of May 1 (May Day)
To have a better understanding of the significance of May 1 (May Day) we need to take a look back to the late 18th century during the Industrial Revolution. Product demand grew for most factories in the United States, in order to meet this growing need, factories began operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Workers were taxed with ensuring these factories ran at maximum capacity. It was not uncommon for an average factory worker to work 7 days a week with16 hour shifts in less than stellar working conditions. Unlike today, child labor was normal, the working class was considered expendable and compensation was paltry to say the least. It didn’t take long for the workers in these factories to realize that they were being exploited while the factory owners made massive profits.
It is easy to understand why there was such a need for an organized labor movement that fought for the rights of workers throughout the United States while also giving them a unified voice. Workers were open to an alternative economic system and political ideologies. Socialism and other political movements became popular among many workers at the time because they represented everything that “capitalism did not”!
A Defining Moment
The Haymarket Massacre on May, 4,1886 was the defining moment considered by many to be the shot heard around the world in terms of workers’ rights. In order to understand the importance of The Haymarket Riot you need to understand that workers were fighting for an eight hour work day with no cut in pay. As an organized labor movement began to gain momentum, thousands of workers across the United States became united and were willing to protest and do what was necessary to have their voices heard.
As you can probably imagine the thought of an eight hour work day with no cut in pay did not sit well with factory owners. To make matters worse, the mainstream media of the time supported the interests of the owners. Although it is reported that most the demonstrations by workers were peaceful in nature, the owners responded using various violent and nonviolent tactics to break the workers moral.
During one such rally on May 3 outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company a man named August Vincent Theodore Spies, a radical labor activist and one of the leaders of Chicago’s anarchist movement, was advising striking working workers to stand together in solidarity. As the workday ended, a group of workers working at the factory decided to confront the striking workers. It is reported that the police stationed on the site were entrusted to protect the workers, but instead decided to cross the picket line and fired bullets into the crowd. In the end 6 people were reported killed at the hands of police.
On May 4 a rally was organized by local labor leaders. It began as a peaceful rally in support of striking workers wanting an eight hour work day and to react to the killing of factory workers by the Chicago Police Department the previous day. During the rally an unidentified person threw a bomb at the police tasked with keeping the peace. Police opened fire. In the end it was reported that 7 police officers and 4 civilians died with many more wounded.
The Haymarket affair is generally accepted as the birth of the The International May Day observance for workers – except in the United States. It would seem obvious that the United States would commemorate the anniversary of The Haymarket Riot each year on May 1st, but it does not. Rumor has it that President Grover Cleveland feared commemorating “Labor Day” on May 1 would also commemorate the massacre at Haymarket Square. Instead, the President decided that we would honor worker’s on the first Monday in September. (Using that logic, maybe we should also think about changing the date of Pearl Harbor day to sometime in late June or July.)
I think the reason we don’t celebrate May Day on May, 1 in the United States is the early connection between organized labor, workers’ rights, socialism, communism and social anarchists. The irony is that the groups I just mentioned are the exact groups that embraced and supported the workers struggle during the Industrial Revolution and beyond. (Some would say some “capitalist” still can’t wrap their arms around that fact.)
It’s important to note that I am not “anti capitalism.” I am however” anti greed” although it seems that sometimes the two are connected. I don’t believe that money is the root of all evil. I do however, believe that the love of money is, there is a difference and it is important to distinguish between the two.
I guess after thinking about it, I don‘t actually expect the United States Government to embrace a holiday associated with a bunch of communist and socialists. Then again this is the same government that decided that the imperial unit system was far superior than the metric system.
I look forward to your thoughts!