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Let’s Recapture May Day

by William McGaughey, Jr.

When most Americans hear of May Day, they picture a parade of missiles and Soviet troops moving through Moscow’s Red Square. It would be hard to accept a holiday like that, dedicated to our destruction. May Day was not always so. Once, in fact, it was an exclusively American event. This year is the 99th birthday of the original May Day, which took place in the United States.

The May 1 labor holiday began with the passage of a resolution by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, a forerunner of the American Federation of Labor, which was fighting for the 8-hour day. The following resolution was passed at its 1884 convention:

“Resolved by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from May First, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout their jurisdiction that they so direct their laws as to conform to this revolution by the time named.”

On May 1, 1886 - the first May Day - approximately 350,000 American workers went out on strike across the nation, affecting more than 11,000 business establishments. As a result of this action, more than 50,000 workers received an 8-hour day, and another 150,000 received it without striking. Chicago was the center of the May Day agitation, although workers in New York, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Detroit, and other cities also participated.

The Chicago strike precipitated an attack by police upon striking employees of the McCormack Reaper Workers, in which six workers were killed. On May 4, a mass meeting was held in Haymarket Square to protest police brutality. It was at this meeting that an unidentified person threw a bomb into the crowd, which killed a police sergeant. seven other policemen and four workers were killed in the ensuing melee. The leaders of the sponsoring anarchist group were brought to trial. Four were convicted and hanged for inciting violence. Several others were imprisoned. The eight-hour movement became associated with anarchist bomb-throwing.

While employers thus counterattacked, the labor movement was undergoing a realignment of forces. The Federation of Organized trades and Labor Unions was dissolved and the American Federation of Labor was organized to take its place. The new organization shied away from general strikes, although its dedication to the shorter workday was as strong as ever.

The American Federation of Labor made plans for another May Day demonstration. At its 1888 convention in St. Louis, this group decided to strike for the 8-hour day on May 1, 1890. Instead of a general strike, however, it selected one of its constituent unions, the Carpenters and Joiners, to carry on the fight for the entire movement.

Again, the May Day strikes were a smashing success for organized labor. Under energetic leadership, the carpenters union conducted a nationwide strike, aided morally and financially by other AFL unions. When the dust had settled, more than 23,000 carpenters in 36 cities had won the 8-hour day, and another 32,000 the 9-hour day. The success of this venture prompted the AFL to select other unions for May Day strikes. These struggles continued well into the 20th century.

It was in the late 1880s, though, that May Day became identified with international socialism. Karl Marx had noted with admiration how the American 8-hour movement ‘ran with express speed from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California,’ following the abolition of slavery. After Marx’s death, the Second International was organized in Paris on the 100th anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. American delegates brought the news of the May Day strikes to this body’s attention, and the following resolution was adopted:

‘The Congress decides to organize a great international demonstration, so that in all countries and in all cities on one appointed day the toiling masses shall demand of the state authorities the legal reduction of the working day to eight hours ... Since a similar demonstration has already been decided upon for May 1, 1890, by the American Federation of Labor at its convention in St. Louis, December 1888, this day is accepted for the international demonstration.’

The European socialists, unlike the AFL, retained the general strike in their observance of May Day. On May 1, 1890, socialists in Germany, France, and other nations demonstrated en masse for the 8-hour day.

In the hands of the socialists, May Day ceased to be simply a rallying point for the 8-hour day, and acquired a broader revolutionary significance. it became an annual occasion for Socialist-led strikes and demonstrations of working-class solidarity. The American trade union movement rejected that course, and eventually rejected the May Day tradition. Another holiday, Labor Day, was established in its place.

The momentum that an earlier generation of Americans had in expanding free time has been lost. The federal laws that established the 8-hour day and the 40-hour week have been in place for nearly half a century, yet a surprising number of Americans work long hours. One worker in seven regularly works more than five days in a week. One worker in 10 works 50 or more hours per week. Americans average two weeks of annual paid vacation, whereas four or five weeks are typical in Europe.

It’s time to have a new May Day in America, a day of peace rather than war. This can be done by linking peace with the day’s original theme, the advancement of leisure for working people. The idea of a new May Day is not to suggest that a communist system be installed in the United States; it would mean a decision for a positive rather than negative convergence with the Russians. Positive convergence would be a willingness to find common ground to share with one’s adversary.

Cooperative ventures between the superpowers for the peaceful exploration of space would be one area to exercise positive convergence. Without doing violence to our values and traditions, we can actively build peace by developing points of agreement between ourselves and our adversaries.

In one short year it will be the 100th anniversary of the strike that began this tradition. Let us use the occasion to rethink our attitude toward May Day. Having confidence in ourselves as a free society, may we accept the challenge of peaceful competition with the Soviet Union in demonstrating social and economic progress.

Twenty years ago the historian, Arnold Toynbee, observed that Americans appeared to have abandoned the worldwide revolution set in motion at Lexington and Concord by those embattled farmers who fired shots heard around the world. He posed this question: ‘Can America rejoin her own revolution?’ Likewise, the May Day strikes in Chicago and other American cities were heard by working people around the world as promises of economic liberty. Toynbee’s question is still valid.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 30, 1985, p. 3B "Let’s Recapture May Day It Originated in U.S. 99 Years ago to Promote the 8-Hour Day"

May Day being celebrated in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, on May 1, 2002. Portrait of Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

See Samuel Gompers' own account of the fight for the eight-hour day.

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