Today is May Day! Also known as International Workers’ Day. May Day is considered an international labor holiday. This post highlights some of the materials in our collections related to May Day. Much of our May Day material can be found in the May Day, 1885-1986 folder in the vertical file collection, and the Haymarket folders in the Morris B. Schnapper collection!
May Day was created by a resolution initiated by American Socialists at the International Socialist Congress in Paris, France, in July of 1889. The purpose of May Day was to gain support for an eight-hour work day. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, precursor to the American Federation of Labor, and the Knights of Labor cooperated in preparing for a general strike in U.S. cities on May 1, 1886. And on that day, approximately 350,000 American workers went on strike, impacting over 11,000 businesses. Although workers in New York, Baltimore, Detroit, Milwaukee, and other cities participated, Chicago was widely considered the center of May Day agitation, largely due to Chicago being one of the few cities with broad union and radical solidarity in support of the eight-hour day.
In Chicago, May Day demonstrations were large and continued for several days, with roughly 80,000 workers marching down Michigan Avenue, led by Albert and Lucy Parsons. According to a 1935 article written by Lucy Parsons, titled, “The Story of Haymarket,” between May 1st and May 3rd, “the strike was spreading like wild fire. The bosses were hostile, the police were brutal to the last degree!” On May 3rd, employees of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company held a noon meeting to discuss the strike, when, according to Parsons, “two patrol wagons, loaded with police, dashed down upon them and began clubbing and shooting those unarmed workers.” After the incident, August Spies, a speaker at the meeting, returned to the office of the German radical newspaper, Arbeiter Zeiting, and issued a flyer that called the famous meeting in Haymarket Square to “protest against this outrage.”
The next day, approximately 3,000 people attended the meeting at Haymarket Square. According to Lucy Parsons recount, “the Haymarket meeting was a perfectly peaceful meeting,” but as the meeting ended, “about two hundred police rushed upon us with drawn clubs and pistols, clubbing and shooting into this peacefully assembled meeting of men, women, and children.” After police rushed the meeting, “someone hurled a bomb into their ranks. Who threw that bomb was never known.” The bomb killed one policeman, and several others were fatally injured either by the bomb, or the rioting that followed.
Here is a publication from 1915 comparing May Day with Labor Day, written by Socialist Labor Party member Boris Reinstein, titled “International May Day and American Labor Day.” Reinstein compares May Day and Labor Day, arguing that May Day is the “drilling day for the Social Revolution,” that was “created by the workingmen themselves, in defiance of the capitalist class and its governments,” while Labor Day, on the other hand, was a “gift” that workers “received from their masters, the capitalists, through the capitalist politicians,” further arguing that Labor Day was “created by the political agents of the American capitalists to fan the sleeping giant, the American working class, while the capitalists are sucking its blood.”
Next, we have a 1931 “May Day Manifesto,” published by the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party, and printed by the Victoria House Printing Company in London. The manifesto calls for unity and organization, and “renews its pledge to strive in politics and industry for the creation of a saner system in which work and wealth will be equitably shared, leisure will be organised, and science and invention will lighten the toll of all, rather than service to enrich the few.” The manifesto also argues that “organisation is our most pressing and immediate task. In unity of purpose, in fidelity to the principles which inspired the pioneers of our Trade Union, Co-operative and Labour Organisations, we pledge ourselves afresh on this May Day to the ideals of freedom, peace, and social justice which our organised Movement exists to serve.”
Next, we have the front page, and main article the 1937 May Day issue of Miner’s Voice, published by the Butte Miners’ Union. The article revisits the 1917 Butte Miners’ Strike, where “miners, smelter workers, and mechanics in Butte and Anaconda, betrayed by the American Federation of Labor officials, national, state and local, struck against the rustling card system, for the right to organize and live like human beings.” For “the members of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers–the bearer of the militant tradition of the Western Federation of Miners and of the long fight for industrial unionism shared with the United Mine Workers–,” May Day 1937 was “a day of rejoicing over signal victories gained and of confidence of victory in the serious struggles for the extension of industrial unionism to the mines, mills, and smelters as yet unorganized.” The article also expresses support for the Peoples Front in Spain, arguing that “the fight against Spanish Fascism is a fight against Fascist reaction in America.”
Next, we have a flyer from the Daily Worker for the 1948 May Day Rally at the National Press Building in Washington, D.C., held on Sunday May 2nd. The rally included speakers Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Gerhart Eisler, George Meyers, and William C. Taylor. Written from the perspective of “The Spirit of May Day,” the flyer provides background information on the history of May Day, while calling into question its current legacy, suggesting that mainstream media “spent the last 62 years trying to keep me locked in a closet so the people won’t hear my message.” Echoing the comparison made by Boris Reinstein in 1915, the flyer argues that the media “persuaded the leaders of the American Federation of Labor to change Labor Day from May 1 to the first Monday in September.” The flyer argues that, arriving in Washington, D.C. on May 1, 1948, “the Spirit of May Day finds, in fact, that the rulers of America, in the name of sacred American institutions, are out to dominate the world and establish a police state at home,” while providing a short and simple message: “Get together! Organize! Regardless of race, color or creed, unite!”
Next, we have a full-page article from the May 2-8, 1979 issue of In These Times, written by noted labor historian Richard Schneirov (a graduate student at Northern Illinois University at the time), titled “Haymarket: Albert Parsons and the American origins of May Day.” Suggesting that “May Day goes by quietly” in the U.S., Schneirov provides detailed history not only of May Day, or Haymarket, but the broader history behind the labor movement in Chicago, and the history of Albert Parsons, the “most prominent Chicago anarchist of the period.” Parsons’ political career, Schneirov argues, makes it clear that Haymarket radicals “were neither lone terrorists nor isolated radicals removed from mass trade union activity,” further arguing that “Parsons and the Chicago anarchists played a major formative role in the shaping of the American socialist and labor traditions. And it was those traditions that created the May Day labor holiday, celebrated now in almost every country in the world–except the U.S.”
For more information on May Day materials in our collections, please contact the Meany Labor Archives!
By Alan Wierdak, Archives Specialist for the George Meany Labor Archive.