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Civil Rights

May Day: A Most American Holiday


May 1st is celebrated around the world[1] as the International Day of the Worker, a holiday to recognize the immense contributions of the ordinary working man (and woman). Once upon a time, it was celebrated with parades as unions brought their members out in a demonstration of strength and solidarity. The political implications were clear enough: ‘pay attention to our demands, because this is how many votes we influence’. It was a message not lost on politicians, who had to balance the powerful business interest of capital – and the funding that came with it – against the mass bloc of votes that organized labor could bring to bear in an election. The successful politician needs both, dollars and ballots, in order to maintain themselves in office; and so a delicate balance was struck between the rival interests.

The United States conspicuously doesn’t celebrate the 1st of May; it is one of a handful of countries not to do so. Most Americans assume that the reason for this is that May Day is a “communist” holiday, part of a Red plot to radicalize workers around the world and prepare them for the proletarian revolution. This was indeed the propaganda line taken by American capital in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, which became mainstream after the Cold War was firmly established in the 1950’s. Most people – and not just Americans – assume that our Labor Day, which comes on the first Monday of September, is an afterthought; a sop thrown to the American worker after the fact and on a different date to accentuate the lack of any relation to the more universal celebration in May. But this view couldn’t be farther from the truth.


In fact, the American Labor Day holiday was already well established in eight states[2] before the Second International sponsored its first May Day commemoration in 1890. The organizers of the International weren’t out to create a holiday either; their intention was merely to organized large-scale demonstrations in support of the American workers killed during the Haymarket Affair of Chicago in 1886. They were taken by surprise by the numbers and enthusiasm of the turnout, as well as by the peaceful nature of the demonstrations. Workers across Europe had determined, largely on their own initiative, to treat the May Day event as more of a family outing than an opportunity for confrontation. This may be one of the reasons that repression by authorities was minimal. Emboldened, the International voted in 1891 to make it an annual event. By then, 30 US states already had a statutory Labor Day on the books.

The attitude of the workers should not, perhaps, have been too surprising. “May Day” has a long history in Europe as a pagan festival celebrating the first day of summer all over the continent. The Romans celebrated Floralia, in honor of the goddess of flowers; the Gaels had the bonfires of Beltane; while the Germans celebrated Walpurgisnacht, named in honor of St. Walpurga[3]. The festival is best known in England and North America for its secular connotations: dancing around the maypole, crowning the Queen of May, and the preparation of fragrant May baskets. The workers of Europe thus had a two thousand year history of family outings, picnics and revelry to draw upon when they planned their first May Day celebration.

The celebrations were peaceful, but what they were commemorating had not been.  Throughout 1886, American workers had been organizing, demonstrating and striking in support of an eight-hour day. At the time, shifts were as long as the bosses wanted them to be, limited only by the physical capacity of the workers to remain standing. Beginning on May 1st, up to half a million workers began to go on strike and demonstrate in rallies in cities across the country: New York, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Chicago. Most were entirely peaceful, though menacingly ringed and monitored by mounted police. In Chicago, however, where up to 100,000 workers and their families striking, tempers were already frayed over repeated strikes, dating back to 1885, and the efforts of factory owners to bring in strikebreakers. On May 3rd, the angry harassment of a group of strikebreakers by workers from the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company resulted in police opening fire and killing between 2 and 6 of the laborers. There was a call to another rally at the Haymarket to show solidarity with their fallen fellows. After a series of speeches, a large company of police arrived and ordered the crowd to disperse; there was a moment of hesitation as one of the speakers protested the peaceful nature of the rally and then the police charged. As they did so, someone threw a homemade bomb (an IED) at the charging officers, killing one policeman and mortally wounding six more. The police then opened fire, killing four demonstrators and wounding up to 70 more.

These events unnerved politicians enough that it was not long before Labor Day celebrations of were becoming officially recognized across the nation. Lawmakers wished to avoid commemorating the May 4th Haymarket events, perhaps spurring renewed violence, which is why September was chosen.  Even so, it took another bloody day of lawlessness before the Federal government acted. Railroad magnate George Pullman had fought hard and often violently to keep his railroad workers from organizing a union. They lived in a “model community” owned by the railroad on the South Side of Chicago. During the economic downturn of 1893, the railroad laid off workers and cut back wages, but kept rents at the same level: a wildcat strike was organized almost immediately. The strike paralyzed most of the rail transportation in the country west of Detroit. George Pullman refused to compensate workers or negotiate with their representatives; instead, he brought in strikebreakers. In growing desperation, the workers began to harass the “scabs” and to sabotage railroad equipment owned by the company. Conditions deteriorated to the point that President Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat elected to the White House since the Civil War, ordered in troops to disperse strikers and restore the operation of the railroads. Between May 11th and June 29th, 1894, 30 workers had lost their lives and at least another 60 had been injured.


The degree of support[4] the Pullman strikes had received, with over 250,000 workers taking part in cities and towns across the Midwest, spurred Congress to take action even before the disturbances had been quelled. On the 28th of June, the Congress passed a resolution establishing Labor Day as a Federal holiday and presented it to President Cleveland, who signed the bill into law six days later. Thus were our September barbecues and parades purchased with blood, pain and death. The eight-hour day would have to wait almost another half century, until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937, with the 40-hour work week we enjoy (in theory) today.

We don’t celebrate the 1st of May, but it is worth reflecting that this celebration pays tribute first and foremost to the American laborer. Today we think of unions and organized labor as “un-American”, something those socialist Europeans have; but the reality is that the American labor movement has always been at the forefront of the fight for workers’ rights. Un-American? It was those same workers who manned the factories and donned the uniforms to crush Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan; those same workers who constructed the machines that sent us to the moon; those same workers who built the most prosperous middle class in the history of the world. There is nothing more American than those hard-faced men and women fighting and scratching every day to build the American dream. What leisure and abundance we have, we have thanks in large part to them.

Happy May Day everyone; go out and celebrate a most American holiday.

Sources and Notes

[1] Nations that celebrate Labor Day on a day other than 1 May: United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan.  Nations that do not celebrate any day of labor: Denmark, Netherlands, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran,  Afghanistan, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Kuwait, UAE, Nepal, Mongolia, South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, New Guinea.

[2] The Oregon legislature had led the way with an ordinance passed on 21 February 1887, followed closely by New York.

[3] St. Walpurga was an 8th Century Christian missionary from England, but the festival long predates her arrival.

[4] Public opinion was generally in support of President Cleveland’s actions, especially in the North and East of the country. However, the situation grew more complex in the West, with a great deal of sympathy for the plight of workers and their families. Southerners mostly saw Cleveland as a “Yankee” and didn’t consider him a true Democrat; they were opposed to his use of federal power to break the strike, but not particularly supportive of the workers either.

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