The BOOKPRESS May 1998

May Day May Day


Ricky Baldwin

The first of May is a day of international solidarity for the working class in virtually 
every industrialized nation except the United States, where it started.  Here, instead 
of remembering the lessons of history and building momentum for current struggles, 
Labor Day has been celebrated in blissful ignorance on the first Monday in September 
for a hundred years, a feel-good time of well-earned relaxation, barbecues and the 
occasional flag-waving parade.  The question of what happened to May Day might seem 
as academic as the meaning of Christmas; after all, what difference does a holiday 
make?  But U.S. exceptionalism goes far beyond our calendars.  With one of the lowest 
rates of union membership in the industrialized world, the U.S. also has the greatest 
income disparity and the highest violent crime rates, the least access to health care 
and the worst job security, the lowest taxes and the most meager social services.
Now, with globalization shifting well-paying jobs to Indonesian child labor, with union 
membership continuing a forty-year tailspin, and with the Democratic Party pushing 
more NAFTA and workfare, labor is facing the fight of its life.  In the wake of the 
1980s' democratic reform in the Teamsters, the election of John Sweeney as President 
of the AFL-CIO, and the highly popular victory against UPS, labor is also enjoying 
renewed strength.  Whether it will be enough to counter the corporate attacks on 
occupational safety and health protections, the right to organize, and other labor laws, 
depends upon how labor will meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.  In short, 
labor finds itself at a turning point, much like it did on May 1, 1886.
It is unclear why an obscure labor coalition called the Federation of Organized Trade 
and Labor Unions (FOTLU), precursor of the AFL, decided in the final hours of their 1884 
convention to designate May 1, 1886 as the date after which "eight hours shall 
constitute a day's work."  An ancient European festival marking the first spring 
planting, the first of May had, by the Middle Ages, become a popular day of celebration 
among the trade guilds, each exalting their own patron saint. But by the nineteenth 
century, May Day was no longer celebrated.  What is clear, is that FOTLU had no plan for 
implementing this resolution, and never attempted any organizing more serious than a 
mass mailing to various unions in the country.  The mailing contained a sample 
agreement, to be delivered by each union to their bosses, simply fixing the eight-hour 
day.
The eight-hour movement was already immensely popular, however. Patterned after the 
ten-hour movement in the 1840s and 1850s, the campaign for an eight-hour day 
initially focussed on reform through political lobbying. Eight Hour Leagues were 
established around the country for this purpose, but they met with little success due 
to strong opposition from the business lobbies. There was as yet no legal right to 
organize, no right to strike, no minimum wage laws or social security of any kind; 
those involved in unions took part at great personal risk, with full knowledge that 
their bosses virtually owned the police as well as the state militias, and that the most 
peaceful rally could end in bloody mayhem.  Union membership was, nevertheless, 
growing by leaps and bounds.
The first national union in the U.S., the Order of the Knights of Labor, was even growing 
much faster than its leadership would have preferred. The Order had already all but 
lost control of its membership when hundreds of Knights of Labor locals and other 
unions received the modest little communique that would lead to a general strike of 
340,000 U.S. workers on one day, a total of 1,500 strikes in one year, and a day of 
international labor solidarity. The leaders of the Knights of Labor were categorically 
opposed to strikes, and the FOTLU had not called for one, but the idea caught on that 
May 1, 1886 would be the perfect opportunity for labor to flex its newfound muscles. 
The date was two years away, so there was plenty of time to organize, and hardly 
anybody in the U.S. labor movement was opposed to the eight-hour day. There were 
skeptics, of course, who argued that shorter days would drive away business, and cost 
jobs, but these were soon overwhelmed by the mass clamoring for eight hours.
The Knights of Labor were powerless to stop their own locals from organizing around 
the plan, and in the end their members led many of the May Day strikes.  Socialists and 
anarchists also played a prominent role in the organizing alongside the trade unionists, 
convincing many newspapers of the time that revolution was at hand. Police and 
militia turned out in force in numerous cities, prepared to put down a full-scale 
revolution.  The big day came and went, however, largely without incident. Thousands 
struck peacefully, and some won the eight-hour day.  Others continued to strike and 
march for it right through to the end of the century, and eventually it became the rule 
of the land.
However, on May 3, 1886, a police shooting of unarmed strikers in Chicago prompted a 
hasty rally the next day in the Haymarket Square.  It was rainy, and the turnout was 
low, but several labor leaders spoke at length.  Just as the rally was winding down, the 
police showed up and ordered the crowd to disperse, which they were already in the 
process of doing.  Suddenly a bomb went off, thrown by no one knows whom, killing one 
policeman.  In the hysteria that followed, several anarchists were rounded up and tried 
for the killing.  No evidence was ever presented connecting any of them with the bomb; 
their political beliefs were sufficient to convict them.  Albert Parsons, August Spies 
and two others were hanged, one committed suicide, and the three remaining men were 
pardoned later.
The incident was an international scandal, and in 1889 the International Workingmen's 
Association in Paris designated May 1 an international day of labor solidarity, to 
commemorate the Haymarket martyrs.  The Knights of Labor continued demonstrating 
every May Day for the eight-hour day until their organization died out, damned by the 
Left for not endorsing the strikes and by the Right for leading them. Later, the 
American Federation of Labor, under Samuel Gompers, began to emphasize the first 
Monday in September over the first of May, which had too many radical connotations 
for Gompers.  That day soon became a federal holiday called Labor Day.
May Day was revived by immigrant workers from the turn of the century up until World 
War I, when the Red Scare squashed it. The Communists popularized it again in the 
1930s, when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) enjoyed its heyday, and the 
groundswell of protest that accompanied the Great Depression led to the New Deal. In 
1947, the U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars designated May 1st as "Loyalty Day" in a 
conscious effort to cover up the radical commemoration. In the decade of McCarthy and 
the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, May Day in the U.S. finally died 
out, although student radicals did make a failed attempt to revive it in the 1960s.
The history of May Day is just a part of what has been edited out of American history 
as it is commonly taught, but it is symptomatic of an American identity that has been 
constructed to exclude certain possibilities for action. This year several major 
corporations and right-wing politicians have launched legislative initiatives called 
"paycheck protection" bills at the state and national levels that would prohibit the use 
of union dues for any purpose other than collective bargaining without the "prior, 
voluntary, written authorization" of each worker. Of course, no similar legislation has 
been proposed that would require any form of consent from stockholders before 
corporations could spend their money on politics, even though, in 1996, corporations 
reportedly outspent unions in the political arena by eleven to one. Unions, of course, 
are already barred by law from contributing money raised from dues or initiation fees 
to political campaigns or parties. The Business Roundtable, the National Association of 
Manufacturers, and other corporate interests put together over $150 million for the 
"paycheck protection" campaign, and the Americans for Tax Reform assembled an 
action kit.  They were organized, but so was labor, and the federal bill as well as many 
of its state-level clones have so far failed. They will certainly be back, though, and the 
State of California, which rescinded its eight-hour day two years ago, will decide on 
"paycheck protection" in June. 
The seriousness of this issue is illustrated by another example: There is presently no 
OSHA standard for ergonomics because UPS, Liberty Mutual Insurance, and other 
corporations mounted a well-funded campaign two years ago to prevent it.  Millions of 
dollars were spent on selective studies and political lobbying, with the result that 
last year Congress forbade OSHA from even doing the research for an ergonomics 
standard for another year. Meanwhile there is an epidemic of ergonomic injuries in the 
workplace, and OSHA is generally under  concerted political attack from U.S. business 
interests. If some version of the "Paycheck Protection Act" passes Congress, it is 
certain that occupational health and safety regulations will be severely impaired.
Under Sweeney's leadership, the AFL-CIO has vowed to step up its educational and 
organizing efforts. Since the mid-1980s labor-community coalitions have been 
proliferating, and current initiatives like the AFL-CIO's "union cities" campaign are 
encouraging them. Community support was crucial to the success of the Teamsters' 
strike at UPS, and that lesson has not been lost on other unions. 
There is still a tendency, however, to see the lessons of history as somehow remote 
from labor's current problems. But whether the threat to decent standards for working 
people comes from automation, "downsizing," or NAFTA, the credo of the early labor 
movement is as apt today as it ever was: Organize! 
Ricky Baldwin is an organizer who lives in Buffalo, NY. He covers labor issues for 
Buffalo Alternative Press.
Return to Front Page