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The American perspective on May Day – or, I am not a Commie

Each of us is undoubtedly influenced by the environment that we encounter throughout our lives. Which is why I, as an American, have a different attitude on May 1 than the attitude held by much of the world.

Many people throughout the world celebrate May Day in different ways. Some attend military parades. Some dance around poles in post-pagan rituals. Some throw sailor hats into the air – well, at least I call them sailor hats.

I do not do any of these things.

For the modern outlook on May Day, we need to travel to Chicago, Illinois in the spring of 1886. Here’s one account of what happened that spring:

On May 1, 1886, Chicago unionists, reformers, socialists, anarchists, and ordinary workers combined to make the city the center of the national movement for an eight-hour day. Between April 25 and May 4, workers attended scores of meetings and paraded through the streets at least 19 times. On Saturday, May 1, 35,000 workers walked off their jobs. Tens of thousands more, both skilled and unskilled, joined them on May 3 and 4. Crowds traveled from workplace to workplace urging fellow workers to strike. Many now adopted the radical demand of eight hours’ work for ten hours’ pay. Police clashed with strikers at least a dozen times, three with shootings.

At the McCormick reaper plant, a long-simmering strike erupted in violence on May 3, and police fired at strikers, killing at least two. Anarchists called a protest meeting at the West Randolph Street Haymarket, advertising it in inflammatory leaflets, one of which called for “Revenge!”

The crowd gathered on the evening of May 4 on Des Plaines Street, just north of Randolph, was peaceful, and Mayor Carter H. Harrison, who attended, instructed police not to disturb the meeting. But when one speaker urged the dwindling crowd to “throttle” the law, 176 officers under Inspector John Bonfield marched to the meeting and ordered it to disperse.

Then someone hurled a bomb at the police, killing one officer instantly. Police drew guns, firing wildly. Sixty officers were injured, and eight died; an undetermined number of the crowd were killed or wounded.

Recently some Americans have been looking back at the original Rodney King verdicts as a tragic miscarriage of justice. A similar event happened after the Haymarket riots – several people were sentenced to death despite no real evidence that any of them were involved in the bombing.

After 1886, many countries celebrated May Day as a workers’ holiday, remembering the events of 1886. The 1890 celebration was heard around the world:

The first international May Day was a spectacular success. The front page of the New York World on May 2, 1890, was devoted to coverage of the event. Two of its headlines were “Parade of Jubilant Workingmen in All the Trade Centers of the Civilized World” and “Everywhere the Workmen Join in Demands for a Normal Day.” The Times of London listed two dozen European cities in which demonstrations had taken place, noting there had been rallies in Cuba, Peru and Chile. Commemoration of May Day became an annual event the following year.

But by the time I was born in the late 20th century, “May Day” was primarily viewed by Americans as the day that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics held big military parades. We certainly didn’t go around celebrating that Commie holiday. What happened?

Grover Cleveland happened. Here’s how Alternet describes what happened:

Yet in the United States, with some exception, the workers’ tradition of May 1 died out. Partially this was because the Knights of Labor had already established a labor day in September. Opportunistic politicians, most notably Grover Cleveland, glommed onto the Knights’ holiday in order to diminish the symbolic power of May 1….Like International Women’s Day (March 8), which also originated in the U.S., International Workers’ Day became a holiday the rest of the world celebrates while Americans look on in confusion, if they notice at all.

The Massachusetts AFL-CIO, however, casts the competing holidays in a different light:

There were many different incarnations of what we now observe as Labor Day, long before President Cleveland signed legislation making it a national day of recognition for labor. The first Labor Day observance occurred in New York City on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. On this day, 20,000 working people marched in New York City to demand an eight-hour work day and other important labor law reforms. With a quarter-million New Yorkers watching, the marchers paraded up Broadway, carrying signs reading, “Labor Creates All Wealth” and “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for Recreation.” The event was organized by the Central Labor Union of New York, and the idea can be traced to either Peter McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, or Matthew McGuire, a machinist who later became the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey….

Despite the popularity of May Day and the appeal of an international holiday, the American Federation of Labor pushed to secure Labor Day as America’s primary celebration of its workers. This was due to the more radical tone that May Day had taken. Especially after the 1886 Haymarket riot, where several police officers and union members were killed in Chicago, May Day had become a day to protest the arrests of anarchists, socialists, and unionists, as well as an opportunity to push for better working conditions. Samuel Gompers and the AFL saw that the presence of more extreme elements of the Labor Movement would be detrimental to perception of the festival. To solve this, the AFL worked to elevate Labor Day over May Day, and also made an effort to bring a more moderate attitude to the Labor Day festivities. The AFL, whose city labor councils sponsored many of the Labor Day celebrations, banned radical speakers, red flags, internationalist slogans, and anything else that could shed an unfavorable light upon Labor Day or organized labor.

These efforts were successful, and Labor Day eventually became a federal holiday, signed into law by Grover Cleveland in 1894.

And this is why the United States differs from the rest of the world on this day. “Anarchy in the USA” wasn’t a popular song in the 1890s, or in the 1970s, or today.

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