Mass amnesia makes Americans forget the story behind May Day
Rudolph J. Vecoli, Barre Montpelier Times Argus, April 26, 2007
MAY DAY: The holiday of the workers. In days gone by, when men, women
and children often worked 10 or more hours a day, seven days a week, May
Day was an assertion on the part of wage-slaves that they were sovereign
human beings with control over their own lives and destinies. They
celebrated the day with marches of tens and hundreds of thousands
throughout the world.
May Day was an expression of the international solidarity of the working
class. "Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your
chains," was not just a slogan. It was a battle cry in the war between
classes. Their marches and rallies, with fiery speeches, impassioned
poetry and stirring anthems, gave them a sense of their collective
strength. It was an act of defiance of the combined forces of employers
and public authorities. Often their gatherings were brutally attacked by
police or thugs with clubs and guns.
Many of us have grandparents or great-grandparents who participated in
these observances. Few of us acknowledge or are even aware of this
inspiring part of our family histories. We Americans suffer from mass
amnesia of the remarkable and some times glorious history of workers'
struggles for liberty of expression and social justice. Who now
remembers May Day?
Although not often taught in American history classes, May Day
originated in the United States during the campaign for an eight-hour
day. The Knights of Labor, the nascent American Federation of Labor and
various anarchist groups designated May 1, 1886, for nationwide
demonstrations for the eight-hour goal. An incident which occurred
several days later in Chicago made this the beginning of a global
workers' movement. Following a clash between strikers and police in
which several workers were killed, a protest meeting was held in
When police attacked the gathering, a bomb was thrown, killing several
officers. In the trial of anarchists (who were not accused of the
bombing, but for advocating violence) which followed, eight were found
guilty and four subsequently executed. These "Haymarket martyrs" quickly
became revered heroes of labor movements throughout the world.
With this tragic episode in the class war in mind, the International
Socialist Congress meeting in Paris in 1889 designated May 1, 1890, as
an eight-hour holiday to be observed by workers in all countries. An
increasingly conservative Samuel Gompers and AF of L had by the
mid-1890s distanced themselves from May Day and embraced the legally
sanctioned Labor Day, which was observed the first Monday in September.
Coming from radical backgrounds, Finns, Slavs, East European Jews,
Italians and other immigrants found their cherished May Day opposed not
only by capitalists but often by American workers as well. Despite being
denounced as "foreign born reds," they kept the torch of May Day
idealism burning for another generation.
The response of the "bosses," political and economic, was twofold: to
allay the anger of the workers, measures were taken to ameliorate the
worst abuses of the capitalist system; while extreme repression was used
to silence the most vocal and active labor advocates. The case of Nicola
Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian anarchist immigrants,
electrocuted on Aug. 23, 1927, following a blatantly biased trial, is
the most heinous example of the latter.
However, the ideal of May Day had already been shattered by the
collision of international solidarity of the "proletariat" with the
fervid nationalism resulting from World War I. Patriotism trumped class
consciousness, and millions of workers killed each other in the name of
the fatherland. Meanwhile, the Bolshevik Revolution which appeared to
fulfill the vision of a collective republic turned out to be a Trojan
horse in the socialist camp. The Leninist-Stalinist regime proved to be
a ruthless dictatorship presiding over state capitalism. Among the
earliest and most passionate opponents of Communist Russia were
socialists and anarchists whose comrades were being liquidated by the
The aspiration for the unity of workers was shattered by these
In the United States, the Great Depression of the 1930s did not usher in
communism but the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which saved
capitalism and laid the basis for a welfare state.
May Day was hijacked by the Soviet Union with its displays of military
prowess in Red Square. The association of May Day with Soviet Communism
has given it a bad name to this day.
In this age of globalization, when workers are pitted against each
other, across oceans and continents, we have returned to conditions of
pitiless exploitation of human beings. If greed ever was constrained by
patriotism, it certainly is not today. The quest for profits knows no
inhibitions by national ideologies or loyalties. Yes, we are involved in
a class war, a war of oil companies, the military-industrial complex,
the corrupted political institutions, against the workers and consumers.
We, the American working people, remain beguiled by symbols, the flag,
the Fourth of July, the Thanksgiving turkey. It is time to revisit May
Day in the spirit in which it was conceived over a hundred years ago.
Only an international labor movement can hope to match the prowess of
the amoral trans-national capitalist system. Freeing ourselves from the
sordid history which stained the banner of May Day, we need to raise a
cleansed, purified standard on which is emblazoned once again: "Workers
of the World Unite!"
Rudolph J. Vecoli is professor emeritus of history and former director
of the Immigration History Research Center University of Minnesota-Twin
Cities. He lives in St. Paul, Minn.