Remembering workers on May Day


The heroic, impressive activism of new immigrants has put many issues on our agenda: Their relations with earlier generations of immigrants and their children and grandchildren, their relation with our country’s political traditions, their relations with African Americans, the relationship between the organized labor movement and new immigrant workers, how we understand “human” and “civil” rights, the dynamics of race and racialization in the U.S., from the “black/white binary” to the making of “whiteness”; how we United Statesians understand our relation to other “Americans,” and our place in the world as a whole. I will be forever greatful to the new immigrant activists for having stirred up all of this, and more. Asking about the legacy and meaning of May Day can provide a valuable window into some of these issues.

In the first place, given the ways this world is organized (racism, the pursuit of profit, the exploitation of women, the destruction of the environment, and more) how can one possibly “celebrate” workers’ “rights” without protesting? Yesterday I gave a talk to skilled trades students at St. Paul College about the significance of labor history, and the first question I was asked was: “As a worker, where in the world might I find decent treatment?”

I could not offer an answer. From the U.S. to Mexico to Brazil to India to South Africa, and everywhere in between, global neoliberalism is attacking the work, the working conditions, the compensation, the economic security, and the quality of life of working women and men. Perhaps, perhaps, May Day can provide an opportunity to celebrate what workers have won over the years, and it can express coming together in solidarity, but this has never been and should never be separated from the need to struggle in the present to secure past gains and respond to contemporary challenges.

Some would argue (see David Roediger and Franklin Rosemont’s Haymarket Scrapbook and David Roediger and Philip Foner, Our Own Time) that May Day began as a pagan holiday to celebrate the coming of spring and the renewal of life. This is certainly the core spirit of the annual events organized by the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater in Minneapolis. They call this the holiday’s “green” roots. Others have noted that workers’ activities around seasonal hiring and the traditional beginning of the construction season made May Day a pivotal workers’ calendar date in workers’ lives.

French labor historian Michelle Perrot in her path-breaking history of 19th century strikes (Les Ouevriers en Greve) crunches masses of police file data to conclude that the first of May was the most strike-prone day of the year. Building trades unions often struck on that day to establish the wages, work rules, and conditions for the coming season. May Day clearly has multiple roots, which is probably what makes it such an evocative and symbolic day for labor activists.

Most labor historians and activists trace the modern origins of May Day to the Knights of Labor’s call for a national general strike on May 1, 1886, to establish the eight-hour day as the standard for all United Statesian workers. They had a simple, inspired/inspiring idea—for all workers to walk off the job on May 1, pledged that none of them would return until all of them had been granted the eight-hour day. Hundreds of thousands of workers around the U.S. heeded that strike call in 1886 (see Jeremy Brecher, Strike!). Chicago became the center of attention and, within Chicago, the largest factory in the U.S., the McCormick Harvester Works. There, KofL organizers held a series of rallies and demonstrations urging the largely new immigrant (Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Bohemian, etc.) workforce to put down their tools and join the strike (see the wonderful new book, Death in the Haymarket by James Green). On the fourth day of the campaign, police broke up a rally, charging that the activists did not have a permit. A bomb was thrown into the ranks of the police, other police opened fire on the crowd, a number died on both sides, and the movement’s organizers were arrested and charged with murder. Several were executed.

Out of the protests that spread across the world came the tradition of observing May 1 as an international workers’ holiday.Ironically, in the country where the events happened that inspired the holiday, May 1 was erased from the labor movement’s calendar. In the 1890s, President Grover Cleveland mandated the first Monday in September as “Labor Day” and it was embraced by the relatively conservative leadership of the American Federation of Labor. As this day became a legal holiday, politicians and labor “leaders” discouraged workers from celebrating May Day.

Nevertheless, labor activists of all sorts continued to celebrate (see Bruce Nelson,Beyond the Martyrs) and, at times, their ranks and spirits were renewed by new immigrants who brought passionate May Day traditions with them into the United States.

On rare occasions, May Day has continued to serve as a rallying point for workers’ militancy in the US. In 1937, for instance, thousands of steelworkers on strike for union recognition at Republic and Bethlehem Steel organized a massive march in South Chicago. As they neared one of the mills, private security guards opened fire, killing a number of strikers. This “Memorial Day Massacre” entered the pantheon of labor commemorations in the ensuing years (see Irving Bernstein, The Turbulent Years).

Today is an opportune moment for us to investigate and identify the roots of this holiday. It has always been about “protest,” albeit often with a celebratory spirit. That the movement for new immigrant rights has selected May Day for its next demonstration is stunningly appropriate. It is also a wonderful opportunity for the rest of us to connect not only with them, but also with our submerged past.

Peter Rachleff is a professor of history at Macalester College in St. Paul.