The Real Reason We Celebrate May Day

Our world runs on consumption, which is why every single holiday has been watered down and reconstructed as a commercial product — usually with an alcoholic component. May Day is no different.

Arriving on May 1, many people think that this day is simply a celebration of Spring and its beauty. It’s true that people living in Europe and Africacelebrated “the fructifying spirit of vegetation”in May, a month named after Maia, the mother of all the gods. During this time, people”went a-Maying” by going into the woods and bringing back leaf, bough and blossom to decorate their persons, homes and loved ones with green garlands,” writes PeterLinebaugh in his book on the topic.

But these pagan rituals aren’t why May Day appears on your calendar. In fact, this day is meant to commemorate the successful uprising of the working class, and as a result, the freedoms enjoyed by every employed person. And don’t believe those who would tell you this uprising only occurred in communist countries. As Eric Chase wrote in 1993,”most Americans don’t realize that May Day has its origins here in this country and is as ‘American’ as baseball and apple pie.”

In the 19th century, working for a cruel boss had an entirely different meaning. Those lucky enough to have a joboften worked 10 to 16 hour days in unsafe conditions. Injured on the job? Too bad. Killed while working on unsafe equipment? Your employer paid no consequences. Working harder only benefited the company owner. And workers began to get frustrated.

“Literally thousands of working people embraced the ideals of anarchism, which sought to put an end to all hierarchical structures (including government), emphasized worker controlled industry, and valued direct action over the bureaucratic political process,” wrote Chase. Soon,the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labor), decided to take bold action.

At its 1884 national convention in Chicago, the FOTLUdeclared”eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” Any employers who ignored this mandate were to be targeted withstrikes and demonstrations. The following was printed by a sympathetic publisher. Funny how easily it could be applied to the current state of affairs in America:

Workingmen to Arms! War to the Palace, Peace to the Cottage, and Death to LUXURIOUS IDLENESS. The wage system is the only cause of the Worlds misery. It is supported by the rich classes, and to destroy it, they must be either made to work or DIE. One pound of DYNAMITE is better than a bushel of BALLOTS! MAKE YOUR DEMAND FOR EIGHT HOURS with weapons in your hands to meet the capitalistic bloodhounds, police, and militia in proper manner.

Days later,on May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history. For two days, the demonstrations were completely peaceful. Then, violence broke out between police and steel mill strikers. “For six months, armed Pinkerton agents and the police harassed and beat locked-out steelworkers as they picketed…Beatings with police clubs escalated into rock throwing by the strikers which the police responded to with gunfire. At least two strikers were killed and an unknown number were wounded,” recounts Chase.

Many protesters were injured and arrested, some even killed. Eight anarchists were wrongfully charged with and convicted of murder. But ultimately, the solidarity of the workers was stronger than the powers who sought to silence them. Thanks to these brave revolutionaries, we now enjoy an eight-hour work day, a minimum wage (outdated as that might be), and legal recourse against employers who fail to maintain a safe working environment.In the earlier part of the 20th century, the U.S. government tried to curb the celebration and further wipe it from the public’s memory by establishing “Law and Order Day” on May 1, but this too failed. TodayMay Day is an official holiday in 66 countries and unofficially celebrated in many more.

The spirit of worker solidarity that inspired the first May Day is still alive and well in America, despite ongoing attempts to silence and intimidate those who speak for their rights. The fight for a living wage is our century’s version of the original May Day fight.

Want to get involved? Check out the events below:

Occupy Wall Street – Occupy May Day in New York City

May Day Radical Education/Free University in New York City

May Day Actions in Chicago

Santa Barbara: Community Democracy America Beyond Capitalism

Madison: May Day International Workers Day March & Rally

Image via Thinkstock

52 comments

Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 months ago

thanks for the article.

Genoveva M M.
Genoveva M M.1 years ago

Thanks for sharing this article.

Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson1 years ago

It's been a long time since Valentine's day? I chose to celebrate any DAY with a "Y" in it. The summer gets mighty long without a holiday too. Oh 'Holiday' has a "y" in it.

Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe2 years ago

I had no clue that was why we celebrate May Day! I always thought it was to celebrate Spring!

Mauvette Joesephine
Catherine Fisher2 years ago

I always knew May Day was about worker's rights and not "spring" spirit.
March is partly a spring month.

Mauvette Joesephine
Catherine Fisher2 years ago

Even exploitation is more ethical than anarchy!

Claire Jordan
Claire Jordan2 years ago

An American friend has informed me that America celebrates Labor Day in the autumn - so you lot don't even *need* to hijack another culture's festivals and then trample your political boots all over them. Leave Beltane alone!

Nikolas K.
Nikolas K.2 years ago

We may have got an eight hour day but we soon went back to sleep and let big business buy of the politicians who supposedly are there to serve the people but serve money instead and sell their soul to the highest bidder and end up making up billions for big business by taxing us into enslavement.

Oleg Kobetz
Oleg Kobetz2 years ago

Thank you.

Vicky P.
Vicky P.2 years ago

interesting