The Resurrection of May Day

by Gregory VanWagenen

For 120 years, May Day has been synonymous with International Worker’s Day. As the name implies, the first day in May is a holiday celebrating the achievements of the world’s working people in their historic struggle for social and economic justice, and a day to organize and network as we continue the long march toward universal equality.

There remains a common misconception in the United States and Canada that May Day is a foreign holiday, symbolizing concepts which are inherently hostile to our way of life. In reality, May Day is as American as apple pie, and as Canadian as the maple leaf. The holiday began humbly, with a resolution passed unanimously on 1 May 1884 by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada.

The resolution demanded an 8-hour workday and an end to child labor in the factories and farms of North America. It provided a generous 2-year window for industry and agriculture to make the necessary transitions, and promised no stoppages or slowdowns in the interim.

May Day 1886 approached with no concessions from capitalists and landowners. In the weeks before the deadline, workers and intellectuals in the U.S. and Canada prepared to strike despite threats from the ruling class in Britain and America. The strike took place peacefully across the continent with little fanfare, with one notable exception. In Chicago, the general strike was brutally suppressed by city police and private security, leaving several dead and dozens wounded. The widespread injuries and deaths remain infamous today as the Haymarket Massacre.

In 1891, the Second International honored the heroic workers and farmers of North America with a declaration that the first day of May was henceforth an annual holiday for working people in all countries. It caught on almost immediately, with strikes in Europe and South America becoming common, and local resolutions being passed worldwide. Cleveland, Ohio saw a series of demonstrations on May Day 1894, as workers rose up to protest widespread unemployment. May Day of 1919 featured demonstrations brutally suppressed throughout the American industrial mid-west. Dozens were imprisoned in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Ontario. In 1971, Washington DC was the site of a May Day strike which was estimated to include over 50,000 protesters opposing the ongoing war in Vietnam. The strike shut down the capitol of the United States for nearly a week, and required 10,000 armed soldiers before it was finally quashed.

In 2006, 2 million people marched in the United States and Canada to protest the injustices faced by migrants on all sides of the continent’s frontiers, and to express solidarity with the Latino and Haitian workers who continue to keep America’s farming and industrial economies solvent despite being subject to raids and deportation. Los Angeles alone saw 400,000 protesters, with small groups of strikers celebrating in places as far-flung as Sandpoint, Idaho and Homestead, Florida.

On May Day 2008, The International Longshoremen and Warehouser Union (ILWU) made good on a promise to walk off the job and into the streets to protest the ongoing aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the day long general strike, longshoremen from Seattle to San Diego successfully brought American shipping and international trade to a standstill, calling for an end to the war and an amnesty for undocumented workers in the United States.

In the strike of 2008, the ILWU expressed solidarity with the General Port Workers and the General Union of Oil Employees, two large Iraqi unions which had been striking since 2004 in response to the increasingly desperate plight of working people in their own countries. “We’re standing down on the job, standing up for America, supporting the troops, and telling politicians that it’s time to end the war now!” declared the ILWU. The union went on to express frustration with neoliberal American politicians from establishment parties, who had been supported by the American working class with a mandate for ending the aggression in South Asia, but who had refused to take any decisive action after being elected. In their heroic expression of direct action, timed to support their brothers and sisters on the other side of planet earth, the ILWU attested to the solidarity of class interests across national, religious, ethnic and cultural lines. In doing so, the strikers were celebrating the concepts of worker’s solidarity which were the hallmark of the actions taken 12 decades earlier.

The most groundbreaking aspect of the resolution of 1884 was the concept of a working-class unity which transcended national boundaries. The resolution was passed by an association of unions in both the United States and a British dominion, and as such it inherently recognized the nature of class distinctions as they existed (and still exist) in every country of the world, among people of all races, nationalities and religious persuasions. The structure of capitalism is homogeneous, despite the cultural trappings that differ from place to place. It is imperative to recognize the inherent solidarity of workers everywhere, as we all struggle for a civilized life in the face of increasing economic injustices.

The unity of American workers of all backgrounds, and the increasing solidarity with their brothers and sisters in other nations is a promising development, and one which is long overdue. It reminds us of Marx’s critique of 19th century racial and national chauvinism, when he optimistically wrote: “Labor with a White skin can not emancipate itself where labor with a Black skin is branded and owned outright; but with the death of slavery a new and vigorous life has sprung. The first fruit of the American civil war included the agitation toward an 8-hour workday, and this was a movement which moved instantly from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

Throughout the cold war and into the turn of the 21st century, American labor was lulled into thinking that it was an aristocracy unto itself. Now, after an 80 year absence, May Day has been reborn as a workingclass tradition which cuts across all the meaningless divisions and borders which have traditionally separated common men and women.

International Workers Day is a living testimony to the true power of society’s laborers and thinkers. The ability of workers to transcend the petty divisions of race, language, nationality and religion is the first step toward ending the cruel occupation of Iraq today, and the key to real and lasting social justice in the world for generations to come. As it was in the beginning, May Day is once again our holiday, and it reminds us that we have nothing to lose but our chains.