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 Africa celebrated “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 Peter Linebaugh in his book on the topic.
In the 19th century, working for a cruel boss had an entirely different meaning. Those lucky enough to have a job often 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 FOTLU declared ”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 with strikes 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 World‘s 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. Today May 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:
Santa Barbara: Community Democracy – America Beyond Capitalism
Madison: May Day International Workers Day March & Rally
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