Into the streets May First!
Into the roaring Square!
Shake the midtown towers!
Shatter the downtown air!
Come with a storm of banners,
Come with an earthquake tread,
Bells, hurl out of your belfries,
Red flag, leap out your red!
Out of the shops and factories,
Up with the sickle and hammer,
Comrades, these are our tools,
A song and a banner!
Roll song, from the sea of our hearts,
Banner, leap and be free;
Song and banner together,
Down with the bourgeoisie!
Sweep the big city, march forward,
The day is a barricade;
We hurl the bright bomb of the sun,
The moon like a hand grenade.
Pour forth like a second flood!
Thunder the alps of the air!
Subways are roaring our millions–
Comrades, into the square!
- Alfred Hayes
New Masses, May, 1934
May Day originated in the struggle for the eight-hour working day. Rosa Luxemburg explains:
The happy idea of using a proletarian holiday celebration as a means to attain the eight-hour day was first born in Australia. The workers there decided in 1856 to organize a day of complete stoppage together with meetings and entertainment as a demonstration in favor of the eight-hour day. The day of this celebration was to be April 21. At first, the Australian workers intended this only for the year 1856. But this first celebration had such a strong effect on the proletarian masses of Australia, enlivening them and leading to new agitation, that it was decided to repeat the celebration every year.
In fact, what could give the workers greater courage and faith in their own strength than a mass work stoppage which they had decided themselves? What could give more courage to the eternal slaves of the factories and the workshops than the mustering of their own troops? Thus, the idea of a proletarian celebration was quickly accepted and, from Australia, began to spread to other countries until finally it had conquered the whole proletarian world.
The first to follow the example of the Australian workers were the Americans. In 1886 they decided that May 1 should be the day of universal work stoppage. On this day 200,000 of them left their work and demanded the eight-hour day…
- Rosa Luxemburg, 1894 (full text here)
What happened that first week of May in 1886? The setting was the city of Chicago.
Chicago epitomized the upheavals that were transforming America: rapid industrialization, urbanization, immigration, economic crises, and class conflict. In the fifty years from 1840 to 1890, a tiny town of 5,000 became a teeming metropolis of over a million. Immigrants, particularly German and Irish, flooded in to work in the shipping, steel, meatpacking, lumber, and manufacturing industries. Chicago was the gateway between East and West: the central hub of the new railway system, and the node linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi, via the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal.
Being at the forefront of industry meant also being at the forefront of labor unrest and radical political activity. Class tensions mounted during the Depression of 1873 and the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. By the mid-1880s, the most vocal and notorious among Chicago radicals were the anarchists of the International Working People’s Association, with their incendiary papers – the Arbeiter-Zeitung, the Alarm, the Anarchist – and an occasional unhelpful fascination with dynamite. An editorial in the Alarm of November 15, 1884 exalted:
Dynamite is the emancipator! In the hand of the enslaved it cries aloud: “Justice or—annihilation!” But best of all, the workingmen are not only learning its use, they are going to use it. They will use it, and effectually, until personal ownership—property rights—are destroyed, and a free society and justice becomes the rule of action among men. There will then be no need for government since there will be none who will submit to be governed. Hail to the social revolution! Hail to the deliverer—Dynamite.
(source here, under “Anarchist Ammunition”)
But many Chicago anarchists were also prominent spokesmen in the trade unions and the eight-hour movement, which since 1884 had been building toward a national strike set for May 1, 1886. The Railroad Strikes earlier that year set the stage, and on May 1 several hundred thousand workers took to the streets. In Chicago, where the largest demonstrations took place, the day came and went with little incident. The story of what happened next has been told many times. On Monday, May 3, several workers were killed by policemen during a lockout rally at the McCormick Reaper Works. The speaker at a nearby Lumber Shovers’ Union strike, August Spies – anarchist and editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung – was infuriated, and called a mass meeting for the following evening in Haymarket Square:
On May 4 the speakers spoke, and as the rally was winding down, two hundred policemen arrived. Suddenly a bomb was tossed into their ranks, and in the gunfire and chaos that followed, seven policemen and at least four workers were killed and many more injured. A witch-hunt ensued, in which anarchist labor leaders were rounded up and imprisoned. Eight were brought to trial and found guilty of murder, and on November 11 four of these – Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and George Engel – were hanged. Louis Lingg committed suicide in his cell, and the remaining three – Michael Schwab, Samuel Fieldon, and Oscar Neebe – were eventually pardoned in 1893 by Governor Altgeld, who acknowledged the innocence of all the accused.
It is easy to see in the Haymarket Affair a symbol of the gross miscarriage of justice, a story of men framed and executed for their political beliefs and activities. It is more difficult to assess the real impact of these events on the labor movement. At the time of the trial, public feeling – including that of all “respectable” elements in the trade unions – weighed heavily against the defendants. By splitting the labor movement, and focusing debate on dangerous and “un-American” radical doctrines, Haymarket may well have retarded workers’ struggles in the United States. The eight-hour day was not enshrined in law until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937.
But Haymarket did create May Day. The accused quickly took on the status of martyrs in the international labor movement. In Paris in 1889, the first congress of the Second International agreed that on May 1, 1890, international demonstrations should be held to commemorate the Chicago protests and to continue the struggle for the eight-hour day. May 1 would eventually become a national workers’ holiday in over 80 countries.
May 1 became a national holiday in the United States too – but not in celebration of labor. In 1921, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, May 1 was proclaimed “Americanization Day”, and amidst the hysteria of the Cold War further evolved into “Loyalty Day”. In 1958 Congress enacted Public Law 529, declaring Loyalty Day an official holiday: “a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom”.
We conclude our story with Rosa Luxemburg:
The first of May demanded the introduction of the eight-hour day. But even after this goal was reached, May Day was not given up. As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands. And, when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past. (Op. cit.)
May it be so again. But until then…
Happy Loyalty Day, folks!