May Day: Born in the USA

Still part of the fight for economic and social justice
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Over 1,000,000 people march in support of immigrants’ rights - May 1, 2006, Los Angeles. Photo by David Bacon.  http://dbacon.igc.org

For generations, May Day, the International Workers Day celebrated by working people in more than 200 countries, was ignored in the United States, the country of its origin. In fact, the annual holiday is as American as cherry pie, commemorating as it does the 1886 nationwide general strike in which U.S. trade unionists — largely foreign-born — walked off the job in support of an eight-hour workday.

This year’s observance marks the 127th anniversary of that campaign to humanize the workday — and of the tragedy at Chicago’s Haymarket Square that followed three days later.

Back in 1886, when the typical work day was 10, 12 or even 14 hours long and joblessness was rife, the demand for a work day limited to eight hours at decent wages was viewed as dangerously radical. The eight-hour-day movement was spearheaded by two organizations, the craft-dominated Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor) and the Knights of Labor.

An 1884 proclamation from the Federation pledged that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” A circular of the time calling for a massive work stoppage on that date read, “Lay down your tools, cease your labor, close the factories, mills and mines” and demand “eight hours of work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what you will.” Nationwide, anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000 workers — the number is in dispute — answered the call, though the epicenter of the strike effort was indisputably Chicago.

University of Massachusetts-Boston historian James Green, whose 2006 book Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America is both indispensible and gripping reading, wrote that “What happened on May 1, 1886 was more than a general strike; it was a ‘populist moment’ when working people believed they could destroy plutocracy, redeem democracy and then create a new ‘cooperative commonwealth.’” It was not to be; at least not yet.

Today’s May 1 observance is also associated with Chicago’s infamous May 4 Haymarket Square tragedy that same year. Thousands of labor activists had gathered in the square that evening to protest law-enforcement attacks on the strikers. When the peaceful rally was winding down, riot police marched into the crowd, demanding that everyone disperse. An unknown assailant tossed a homemade bomb at the line of police, killing one. In the chaos that ensued, at least a dozen people were killed, including six more police officers, all from gunshot-related wounds. Eight of the movement’s leaders, two of whom were not even present at the rally, were charged with murder and conspiracy.

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Socialists rally in New York’s Union Square.  May Day, 1912. Socialist Party membership was about 110,000.

The prejudicial trial took place in a hothouse atmosphere. Typical was the Chicago Tribune’s demand for the deportation of immigrants it labeled “ungrateful hyenas” and “foreign savages who might come to America with their dynamite bombs and anarchic purposes.” The prosecution offered no evidence for its contention that the defendants plotted to target police at the demonstration; it argued simply that the remarks of the rally speakers constituted incitement to violence. All eight were found guilty of murder and four of the eight were eventually hanged. Authorities used the incident to launch a massive witch hunt and arrest hundreds of labor leaders, which put a halt to the eight-hour campaign for years.

The eight-hour day finally became a reality only in 1938, when the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act made it a legal day’s work throughout the nation.

May 1 was adopted as a holiday internationally in 1890 and is even a national holiday in more than 80 countries, though not in the United States. In 1921, following a postwar Red Scare and the forced deportation of thousands of foreign-born workers — virtually all Southern and Eastern Europeans — May Day was named “Americanization Day” as a slap at all foreign-born workers, then seen as dangerous radicals. During the Cold War, Congress sought to reclaim May 1 from “red sympathizers” by proclaiming it Loyalty Day, a day to reaffirm loyalty to the United States. The association of May 1 with communism was abetted by the Soviet Union, which used the date for parading military hardware and rattling sabers.

Despite these efforts to sanitize May Day and make it a holiday celebrating national and ruling elite interests as opposed to working class and common people’s needs and dreams, May Day  for the most part maintained its traditional focus, especially in Europe and Latin America, where socialist and labor parties of various hues put forward a variety of reform and radical demands. In some Latin American countries, May Day is even used by their governments to announce wage increases.  

May 1 was revived as a day to mark worker rights in the United States in 2006, when immigrant workers participated in giant demonstrations on that day in New York and Los Angeles in their fight for immigration reform and a path to citizenship. In 2012, much of the Occupy movement added its support and presence as well.

Uniting the twin fights for worker and immigrant rights that trace back to the birth of May Day, rally participants this year will protest a variety of inequities, from union busting and attacks on public and private-sector workers, long-term unemployment, outsourcing and the shift of jobs overseas, the soaring cost of higher education and the increasing precarious conditions for even the college-educated, to anti-immigrant attacks and mass deportations and the need for  equitable legislation establishing a path to citizenship.

Things you can do. Join with DSA in our Immigrants’ Rights campaign. http://www.dsausa.org/current_campaigns Participate in a May Day/ labor celebration in your area.

Michael Hirsch, a longtime union activist and DSA member, is a New York-based labor and political writer. An earlier version of this article appeared on Talking Union, DSA’s labor blog, on May 2, 2011.

Film Discussion: The Price We Pay

January 30, 2017
· 44 rsvps
The Price We Pay blows the lid off the dirty world of corporate malfeasance — the dark history and dire present-day reality of big-business tax avoidance, tax havens - and what we need to do to stop this.  DSA member Bill Barclay, who has a cameo role in the film, will facilitate the discussion. Watch the film prior to the discussion.

Full film available on Vimeo.

How to Plug in New Members

February 01, 2017
· 13 rsvps

Is your DSA chapter growing quickly and you're trying desperately to find ways to plug new members into your chapter's work? Never fear! On this conference call an experienced DSA organizer will go over the basics of new member outreach and developing a plan for plugging new members into your chapter's work. Most of the call will be devoted to troubleshooting specific issues you're facing, so please brainstorm some issues beforehand that you want to bring up on the call.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 7 PM PT.

Film Discussion: Salt of the Earth

February 05, 2017
· 9 rsvps

Join DSA members Shelby Murphy and Deborah Rosenfelt in discussing Salt of the Earth, a captivating film made in 1954 by blacklisted writers and actors about a strike at a New Mexico zinc mine. Well before the resurgence of feminism in the 1960s, these filmmakers were exploring gender inequality and solidarity. Available on Netflix.

Shelby Murphy is a Latina from Texas and former Young Democratic Socialists co-chair. Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, Deborah Rosenfelt researched the making of the film and its aftermath for the reissued screenplay. Here is her blogpost about the film.

 

Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 4 rsvps

Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But also check out the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961.

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 7 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 4 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion.