The Enduring Irony of May Day
On May 1, the majority of the world’s countries celebrate May Day, commemorating the international labor movement.
The United States is not among them.
This is despite the fact that May Day began as a way of marking the sacrifices of American workers in Chicago.
Instead, the United States has its Labor Day in September, and May 1 is known as “Loyalty Day” — a day for “the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.”
The Haymarket Affair and the Origins of May Day
On May 1, 1886, hundreds of thousands of workers across the United States went on strike and attended rallies in support of an eight-hour workday.
On May 3, in Chicago, police shot and killed two striking workers. In response, anarchist groups and union leaders organized a rally to be held the following day in Haymarket Square.
The rally was peaceful and was attended by several hundred people. Near its end, a large number of police officers arrived to disperse the crowd. Then, someone threw a homemade dynamite bomb toward the police.
In the ensuing chaos, the police and some armed demonstrators opened fire on each other. Ultimately, seven police officers and four demonstrators were killed.
The incident was immediately seized on by the authorities as an opportunity to attack and discredit the labor movement, as well as socialist and anarchist groups.
Anarchist groups were especially hated due to their radical opposition to business interests and state authorities. The police were determined to link them to the bomb that had been thrown at Haymarket.
Despite having weak evidence, eight anarchists and labor activists were charged and convicted of conspiracy for the bomb incident: August Spies, Albert Parsons, Samuel Fielden, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, and Michel Schwab.
The trial that found them guilty was marked by hysteria, a biased judge, and a biased jury. Neebe was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, while the other seven were sentenced to death by hanging.
Fielden’s and Schwab’s convictions were later commuted to life in prison, while Lingg committed suicide in his cell the day before his scheduled execution.
The remaining four were executed on November 11, 1887.
The convictions and executions were widely condemned by labor groups nationally and internationally. In 1893, John Peter Altgeld, the newly-elected progressive governor of Illinois, pardoned the three remaining living defendants.
The identity of the actual bomb thrower has never been conclusively proven.
In 1889, the Second International, the organization representing socialist and labor unionists worldwide, decreed that May 1 — May Day — would henceforth be an International Workers’ Day to commemorate the Haymarket affair and agitate for workers’ interests.
Since then, most countries have made May Day a national holiday, but the United States is not among them.
Labor Day and Loyalty Day
In the United States, the holiday dedicated to labor is known as Labor Day and occurs on the first Monday of every September.
A September date for a labor holiday had been proposed by some labor groups. But the real reason Labor Day became the official holiday and not May Day was because it was more convenient for the powerful.
President Grover Cleveland presided over the creation of Labor Day in 1894. Choosing a date in September was a way to absorb growing demand for a labor holiday while devaluing the radical roots of May Day and the anarchist Haymarket martyrs.
The creation of Labor Day occurred right after the end of the Pullman Strike, in which hundreds of thousands of railroad workers went on strike against the Pullman Company.
The Pullman Company had reduced wages and laid off a number of workers, while at the same time maintaining the cost of rent in its company town of Pullman in Chicago. The initial wildcat strike conducted by workers from Pullman soon spread to more than two dozen states, and most railroad traffic in the western half of the country came to a standstill.
In response, President Cleveland sent in more than ten thousand U.S. Marshals and soldiers to stop the strike. In the ensuing violence, 30 strikers were killed.
The strike convinced Cleveland to sign into law the creation of Labor Day in order to ameliorate class tensions. He was supported by more conservative labor unions that had sided against the strikers, such as the American Federation of Labor.
In so doing, the more radical elements of May Day were forgotten. Today, Labor Day is mostly associated with picnics, the end of summer, and going back to school.
To add insult to injury, May 1 itself came to be known instead as Loyalty Day, which began in 1921 and became an official holiday in 1958. Every American president has issued a proclamation marking the holiday since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Loyalty Day was instituted to replace and stand in contrast to May Day, which was celebrated by socialist and communist groups and self-described socialist states such as the Soviet Union. It’s not hard to see the blatant jingoistic tendencies behind Loyalty Day, created for the “reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States.”
The irony of most of the world celebrating May Day — created in part to commemorate American workers — while not being celebrated in the United States itself is not surprising.
It is simply another attempt by powerful institutions to downplay the achievements of the American labor movement while atomizing and propagandizing American citizens.
A May Day celebration in the United States would lead people to learning about the history of the Haymarket affair and perhaps entertaining more radical socialist ideas.
It would challenge the narrative of Americanism, in which we are all supposed to pretend we are one big happy family with no class divisions, that if we work really hard and follow the rules, then any one of us can get rich.
But that’s not really how it works. The game is rigged. The benefits workers enjoy today were not bestowed upon them by benevolent business owners — they had to be taken. People literally died to get the forty-hour workweek.
So let’s dump Loyalty Day and start celebrating May Day like everyone else. We’ll learn more about our history and incline ourselves to more often challenge the status quo.