Happy May Day!
May Day, May 1st, is International Workers’ Day. It has a much longer history as a spring festival, the generic “here comes the sun again, hooray!” type that gets celebrated throughout the world. The May Day I’m interested in, however, began in the late 19th century. The Second International, an organization of Communist and Socialist parties, declared in 1889 that May Day was to be dedicated to celebrating workers around the world.
It’s important to place this event in the proper historical context. The choice of May 1st as International Workers’ Day was not an accident. Nor was the Second International appealing to the broad, hopeful Easter-time sentiment of spring. They were commemorating the Haymarket Affair, a bombing that had taken place on May 4, 1886. Peaceful protestors were striking in support of an eight-hour work day and against the police, who had murdered several of their striking brothers the previous day.
After a day of peaceful speeches and demonstrations, the police arrived and ordered the rally to disperse. Someone — it has never been clear who — threw a bomb in front of the police, which detonated and killed or mortally wounded seven officers. Police and workers opened fire on each other. Overall, seven police and four workers died, and many more were wounded.
The Haymarket Riots stirred up a fervor of anti-labor and anti-anarchist sentiment in the media. Eight activists, six of whom were German immigrants or of German descent, were arrested and tried. From the start, the judge and jury were openly hostile to both the defendants and the labor movement in general. They were convicted and seven of the eight were sentenced to death, though two of those sentences were commuted. During the trial, the prosecution did not assert that any of the individuals was the bomber, only that they may have been involved in making the bomb. They were tried on a conspiracy charge to facilitate their executions. Some historians, such as Howard Zinn, identify Rudolph Schnaubelt as the likely culprit, acting as a provocateur to give the police cause to arrest strikers. This is controversial, and we will likely never know who threw the bomb.
Nevertheless, the Haymarket Affair left an indelible impression in the consciousness of labor. The police killed four strikers and the courts six more. The day after the riot, state militia in Wisconsin killed seven during a protest. The Second International formally recognized May 1 as International Workers’ Day in 1891. Three years later, May Day celebrations in Cleveland turned into a workers’ riot. Despite these violent beginnings, May Day was embraced by laborers. In 1904, the Second International called for workers in all countries to demonstrate on that day “for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.” The Catholic Church dedicated May 1st to St. Joseph, the patron of workers and craftsmen. May Day is not just a celebration of unions; it’s a day to celebrate the worker, to listen to his voice and heed his call to action. It is a day to remember the progress we have made and reflect on the progress yet to come.
The labor movement of the late 19th century was not peaceful or accommodating. They did not protest with hashtags or sit-ins. They did not read tongue-clucking New York Times editorials urging restraint. They fought, because it was that or be killed by the jack-booted thugs of the oppressor classes. They fought for their rights because they knew nobody would give them to them. They were striking for an eight-hour work day. Imagine it! Imagine a world where you have to face violence and death just to earn the right to work for only eight hours.
Today, we stand to lose so much of that hard-won progress. “Right to work” laws nationwide are starving unions, public union-busting is at an all-time high, and the Democrats, the traditional allies of labor, have abandoned them to chase the allure of high finance. Consider the case of American Airlines — after they recently announced a pay increase for its pilots and attendants, Wall Street reacted with anger. One analyst complained, “This is frustrating. Labor is being paid first again. Shareholders get leftovers.”
Well, yes. Shareholders get what they are given and are lucky to get that. Laborers create value for the airline; shareholders extract it. They are parasites, leeches that have deluded themselves into thinking that they have mastery over the great lumbering beast whose blood they eagerly drink. On the rare occasion that Labor manages to stand up for itself, these Titans of Industry whine bitterly that they are only allowed 90% of the pie instead of all of it. In the old days, Socialist parties put the fear of God into these wretched vampires, but a century of relentless capitalist pressure has forced socialism to the sidelines. Luckily, we are living in a time when the hollow lie of neoliberalism has been revealed for what it is. The DSA’s ranks are swelling. The Democrats are crumbling. They stand for nothing and so they have nothing to fall back on. The Left is on the march again.
On May Day, it is important to remember that the strength of the Left is solidarity. Stand with laborers, stand with immigrants, stand with racial minorities who face violence and bigotry every day. Our groups are weak individually and easy prey to the guardians of capitalism, but together we are unstoppable. Remember what your brothers and sisters fought and died for a century ago. Remember what they did to you last week, last month, last year. Remember the bread that was stolen from your mouth, the breath stolen from your lungs. Envision a better future, a future where no one has to starve or freeze because capital can no longer extract surplus value from them. May Day is the day to remember that you are not alone and never have to be.
Happy May Day! Solidarity forever!