Afscme Local 444, retired
May 1st, Mayday, is International Workers' Day. When I first came to the United States from Britain in the early seventies, most American workers I spoke to thought May Day was a Soviet or Russian holiday. But Mayday is as American as apple pie as they say. It is a workers' holiday officially celebrated throughout the world but not here.
Mayday has its roots in the history of the American working class movement. During the latter half of the 19th century there was an ongoing struggle for the eight hour day and fewer work hours in general. Craft Unionism, where workers organized around their individual trades, was the dominant form of organization and the brutality of the employers was widespread.
At a meeting of the Central Labor Union of New York City on May 18th 1882, P.J. McGuire, a socialist and founder and General Secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, introduced a resolution for a day of festivities and parades in New York commemorating Labor and it proposed the first Monday in September. The first national organization that supported a day of celebration in honor of Labor was the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions at its convention in Chicago in 1884 and it was these developments that led to Labor Day.
“To capitalists, bankers and their hirelings” the Federation announced. As workers, “..drudge and toil your away your lives for a bare existence, these idlers and non-producers live in luxury and debauchery, squandering with a lavish hand that which belongs to you ---that which your labor produces..” (Sound familiar?)
“They have tried to deny us the right to organize---a right guaranteed by the constitution of this government. Therefore we call on you to show that we defy them; that you will organize; that you have organized; that the day of your deliverance is approaching. To do this we ask you to join the our ranks in celebrating the day.”
The Federation went on to proclaim: “The Trades and Labor Assembly proclaims labor’s annual holiday the first Monday of September. Leave your benches, leave your shops….”
The first national observance took place in September 1885 and the US Congress adopted Labor Day, the first Monday in September, as an official holiday on June 28th 1894. The bill was introduced by a member of the Typographical Union.
Alongside these developments, every Labor demonstration at the time, including the Labor Day celebrations, had the eight hour day as a dominant theme, “Eight Hours to Constitute a Days Work” was a prominent slogan and at the same Federation’s 1884 convention where a national Labor Day was proclaimed, another resolution was passed that stated:
“Resolved by the Federation of Organized Trades Labor Unions of the United States and Canada that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1st 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this district that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.”
So May Day began and has always been associated with the struggle for the eight-hour day and the movement around this struggle that arose in the 1880’s culminating in May 1st 1886.
Some bosses had conceded and some city councils gave public sector workers the eight-hour day. But like today when we sign a contract, the minute the ink is dry they are trying to violate it. In addition, the bosses would often reduce pay by 20% to compensate for the lost time so they actually lost nothing at all.
It became clear, as it is today, that workers cannot rely on legislation, capitalist politicians or their parties to defend our economic and material interests. All the social legislation that came out of the great upsurge of the 1930’s the occupations and the CIO and the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s from sick leave to title 7 were already rights taken in the streets through mass action; they were simply forced to legitimize them on paper and then write history to show that legislation and “responsible” political lobbying is what produces results.
If they wanted the eight-hour day, “The way to get it” Carpenter’s leader P.J. McGuire said, was “….by organization. In 1868, the United States passed an Eight-Hour Law, and that law has been enforced just twice. If you want and Eight-Hour law, make it yourself.” McGuire added, “We want an enactment by the working men themselves that on a given day, eight hours should constitute a day’s work, and they ought to enforce it themselves.” **
So it was the Carpenter’s that introduced the resolution stating May 1st 1986 as the first day for the establishment of eight hours as the legal workday. Another proposal stated that votes be taken in all Labor organizations for a “universal strike” for an eight-hour workday on May 1st. A writer for the well known Labor journal John Swinton’s paper who was covering the convention, wrote:
“It is useless to wait for legislation……A united demand for a shorter working day, backed by thorough organization, would prove vastly more effective than the enactment of a thousand laws depending for enforcement upon the pleasure of aspiring politicians or sycophantic department officials.” ***
“To accede the point that capitalists have the right to eight hours of our labor is more than a compromise, it is a virtual concession that the wages system is right” the anarchist journal wrote.
But the working class took up the idea seriously and revolutionaries of all types joined the movement and played a crucial role in the success of May day, especially in Chicago which was a hotbed of radical activity. Agitation for the eight-hour day was everywhere and rallies and protests, parades and gatherings took place throughout the country prior to Mayday. By mid April, 250,000 industrial workers were involved and in the face of the movement and to head it off, many bosses made concessions on hours.
They responded with the stick and the carrot as they always do and always will. In the mass media that they owned then as now, their propaganda said that society would collapse, the country would go broke, the money is not there. The eight-hour day was “communism, lurid and rampant” . they claimed it would encourage “loafing and gambling, rioting, debauchery and drunkenness.” (they think we are like them you see) They wrote that it would bring “lower wages, poverty and degradation for American workers.”
But there was no stopping the movement. Foner points out that workers were smoking eight-hour tobacco, buying eight-hour shoes and sang eight-hour songs:
We mean to make things over;
we’re tired of toil for nought
|We sure don't have this today|
an hour for thought.
We want to feel the sunshine; we
Want to smell the flowers;
We’re sure that God has willed it,
And we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces from
Shipyard shop and mill:
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest
Eight hours for what we will.
On May Day 1886 some 350,000 workers in more than 11,000 workplaces went on strike for the eight-hour day. 40,000 went out in Chicago. These are impressive figures for the time and the conditions and the limited Union organization. 45,000 workers were granted the eight-hour day without striking. The city of Chicago was paralyzed and the meatpacking workers, some of the most abused in the city won the eight-hour day with no reduction in pay, a huge victory. May Day 1886 was also a great organizing tool and thousands of workers joined Labor organizations. The same happened during the great strike upsurge that led to the CIO as millions joined Unions.
The bosses won much of this back but there were permanent gains made as hours were lessened in many industries. But May Day terrified the bosses and they responded with extreme violence attacking gatherings continuously. Then on May 3rd at the McCormick Harvester factory where workers, members of the Knights of Labor were locked out for striking for the eight-hour day, scabs, escorted by hundreds of cops were brought in. As the workers demonstrated against the strikebreaking, the cops shot in to the crowd and killed four strikers. The following day, a meeting was called in Haymarket Square to protest the brutal killings and indiscriminate violence by the police. It was a peaceful rally until the end of the day when it was almost over. A couple of hundred cops waded in to the crowd to force them to disperse despite it being a legal gathering and attended by the mayor who had left earlier.
A bomb was thrown at the cops killing a bunch of them and the cops responded by shooting in to the crowd killing a number of workers and wounding hundreds. In the aftermath of the bombing, hundreds of workers were arrested, tortured and beaten. The cops eventually chose the prominent anarchist workers’ leaders to put on trial. These were among the most successful organizers and were hated by the employers and the cops. They were accused of murder even thought they weren’t at the rally because the “unknown” bomb thrower must have been influenced by their speeches.
Throughout the struggle for Labor rights, and the eight-hour day culminating in May Day, the tendency is for workers to overcome the barriers that the bosses use to divide and weaken us. “Every worker who toiled for a living would be welcome. No distinction of color will be made; race prejudice will be ignored; religious differences will be set aside; but all men will be on an equality provided he earns his daily bread” proclaimed the New York Central Labor Union in its appeal to all Labor bodies to support Labor day. It is a reflection of the times that the mention of women is not as prominent which reflects the terrible legacy of sexism but we learn through struggle.
The reason May Day is ignored by the officials, legislators of laws, and the Democratic and Republican parties, is that it was an independent movement of the working class in this country. As McGuire said, we have to take independent action if we want something. The same applies today. The leaders of the organized working class today are also terrified of independent working class action, either direct action like strikes, or political action like a mass workers party as they support capitalism, they have the same world view as the boss. Labor Day is a legislated day that they were forced to approve and they even hide that history but it is the "official" and safe holiday where we eat and drink and support the Democrats.
What a combination of the present day heads of organized Labor and the Democratic politicians did after the Seattle events of 1999, and in Wisconsin some years ago is divert a potential independent mass movement of workers in to a struggle for legislation through reliance on one of the two parties of Wall Street and the bankers. This same coalition is trying to direct the campaign for a $15 an hour minimum wage in the same direction. Bernie Sanders has tapped in to the anger at the austerity agenda of the bosses and has directed it in to that graveyard of social movements, the Democratic party. But they won't all follow. These tactics PJ McGuire learned not to do 150 years ago.
May Day is a uniquely American creation. May Day began as our day but we share it with the rest of the workers of the world because we are not simply “one” with workers in our own country, we are “one” with workers of all countries. The history of US Labor is a rich and militant one. We have faced incredible violence and survived it. Despite the history of racism and sexism that the bosses introduce in to every institution and pore of society in order to divide us, we have come this far.
On May 2006, some of the most oppressed and abused sections of the US working class, a couple of million immigrant workers reminded us of the importance of this holiday to our class. We thank them for it.
Have a happy Mayday and join one of the events planned throughout the country
* St Paul Globe Democrat, 8-16-1855 Quoted in P Foner, History of the Labor movement of the United States Vol.2 p97
** ibid p 99
*** ibid P99