MAY DAY — MADE IN THE U.S.A.
A BRIEF HISTORY
When the immigrant-rights movement chose May Day for its big demonstrations a few years ago, people shouldn’t have been surprised. The worldwide workers’ holiday was “Made in the U.S.A.”
May Day’s roots are deep in American history. In 1886, seeking the spark that would ignite the struggling labor movement, the fledgling American Federation of Labor called a general strike for the eight-hour day to begin on May Day, the carpenters’ traditional day for setting wages and conditions.
As young men in the 1870s, AFL leaders like Sam Gompers and the Carpenters’ P.J. McGuire — both members of immigrant families in New York — had seen a long building trades strike win the eight-hour-day, then lose it in the Crash of 1872. They also knew that the 10-hour day, won in the Philadelphia general strike of 1835, had energized labor before the Civil War.
With the expansion of the railroads, what had once been local and regional labor markets had become national. And by the 1880s it made sense to call for a national general strike for the eight-hour day.
Since wages were then paid by the day, not by the hour, such a strike would reduce working hours at a full day’s pay. And that would leave working people more time for their families, for bettering themselves, and for taking an active part in politics.
The AFL’s call indeed unleashed a popular movement across America, well beyond its means to control. In that era, the Knights of Labor was by far the strongest labor federation in the U.S., but its leaders did not endorse the strike. As a result many members and lodges abandoned the Knights.
As the first national action for the eight-hour day, the 1886 strike had international significance. All the world was watching on May 1st, when the walkout brought much of the nation’s work to a halt. It watched as, acting for the employers — for capital — Chicago police killed strikers on May 3 and again in the Haymarket affair on May 4, then rounded up a number of the city’s leftist labor leaders and put them on trial, executing four. (A fifth killed himself before execution) At the request of the AFL in 1889, the world labor movement adopted May Day as its international holiday.
All of that has been written out of most American history books. They also omit that organized labor — P.J. McGuire again in the fore — unilaterally declared our first Labor Day as a show of strength in New York in September, 1882. We can be proud of that, too. But we are denied an important part of our heritage by not celebrating May Day. We can be grateful that another generation of immigrant workers who, demanding their rights, should have reminded us of that fact. Now we can all move to reclaim what is collectively ours.
For more on May Day, its history, links and information contact May Day U.S.A. at: www.maydayusa.org or call: 215-301-2633