The Brief Origins of May Day by Eric Chase

Occupy May Day 2012

Image by brent granby via Flickr

Dandelion Salad

Republished with permission from IWW

by Eric Chase
IWW, 1993
May 1, 2015

Most people living in the United States know little about the International Workers’ Day of May Day. For many others there is an assumption that it is a holiday celebrated in state communist countries like Cuba or the former Soviet Union. Most Americans don’t realize that May Day has its origins here in this country and is as “American” as baseball and apple pie, and stemmed from the pre-Christian holiday of Beltane, a celebration of rebirth and fertility.

In the late nineteenth century, the working class was in constant struggle to gain the 8-hour work day. Working conditions were severe and it was quite common to work 10 to 16 hour days in unsafe conditions. Death and injury were commonplace at many work places and inspired such books as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Jack London’s The Iron Heel. As early as the 1860’s, working people agitated to shorten the workday without a cut in pay, but it wasn’t until the late 1880’s that organized labor was able to garner enough strength to declare the 8-hour workday. This proclamation was without consent of employers, yet demanded by many of the working class.

At this time, socialism was a new and attractive idea to working people, many of whom were drawn to its ideology of working class control over the production and distribution of all goods and services. Workers had seen first-hand that Capitalism benefited only their bosses, trading workers’ lives for profit. Thousands of men, women and children were dying needlessly every year in the workplace, with life expectancy as low as their early twenties in some industries, and little hope but death of rising out of their destitution. Socialism offered another option.

A variety of socialist organizations sprung up throughout the later half of the 19th century, ranging from political parties to choir groups. In fact, many socialists were elected into governmental office by their constituency. But again, many of these socialists were ham-strung by the political process which was so evidently controlled by big business and the bi-partisan political machine. Tens of thousands of socialists broke ranks from their parties, rebuffed the entire political process, which was seen as nothing more than protection for the wealthy, and created anarchist groups throughout the country. Literally thousands of working people embraced the ideals of anarchism, which sought to put an end to all hierarchical structures (including government), emphasized worker controlled industry, and valued direct action over the bureaucratic political process. It is inaccurate to say that labor unions were “taken over” by anarchists and socialists, but rather anarchists and socialist made up the labor unions.

At its national convention in Chicago, held in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labor), proclaimed that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” The following year, the FOTLU, backed by many Knights of Labor locals, reiterated their proclamation stating that it would be supported by strikes and demonstrations. At first, most radicals and anarchists regarded this demand as too reformist, failing to strike “at the root of the evil.” A year before the Haymarket Massacre, Samuel Fielden pointed out in the anarchist newspaper, The Alarm, that “whether a man works eight hours a day or ten hours a day, he is still a slave.”

Despite the misgivings of many of the anarchists, an estimated quarter million workers in the Chicago area became directly involved in the crusade to implement the eight hour work day, including the Trades and Labor Assembly, the Socialistic Labor Party and local Knights of Labor. As more and more of the workforce mobilized against the employers, these radicals conceded to fight for the 8-hour day, realizing that “the tide of opinion and determination of most wage-workers was set in this direction.” With the involvement of the anarchists, there seemed to be an infusion of greater issues than the 8-hour day. There grew a sense of a greater social revolution beyond the more immediate gains of shortened hours, but a drastic change in the economic structure of capitalism.

In a proclamation printed just before May 1, 1886, one publisher appealed to working people with this plea:

  • Workingmen to Arms!
  • War to the Palace, Peace to the Cottage, and Death to LUXURIOUS IDLENESS.
  • The wage system is the only cause of the World’s misery. It is supported by the rich classes, and to destroy it, they must be either made to work or DIE.
  • One pound of DYNAMITE is better than a bushel of BALLOTS!
  • MAKE YOUR DEMAND FOR EIGHT HOURS with weapons in your hands to meet the capitalistic bloodhounds, police, and militia in proper manner.

Not surprisingly the entire city was prepared for mass bloodshed, reminiscent of the railroad strike a decade earlier when police and soldiers gunned down hundreds of striking workers. On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history. In Chicago, the epicenter for the 8-hour day agitators, 40,000 went out on strike with the anarchists in the forefront of the public’s eye. With their fiery speeches and revolutionary ideology of direct action, anarchists and anarchism became respected and embraced by the working people and despised by the capitalists.

The names of many – Albert Parsons, Johann Most, August Spies and Louis Lingg – became household words in Chicago and throughout the country. Parades, bands and tens of thousands of demonstrators in the streets exemplified the workers’ strength and unity, yet didn’t become violent as the newspapers and authorities predicted.

More and more workers continued to walk off their jobs until the numbers swelled to nearly 100,000, yet peace prevailed. It was not until two days later, May 3, 1886, that violence broke out at the McCormick Reaper Works between police and strikers.

For six months, armed Pinkerton agents and the police harassed and beat locked-out steelworkers as they picketed. Most of these workers belonged to the “anarchist-dominated” Metal Workers’ Union. During a speech near the McCormick plant, some two hundred demonstrators joined the steelworkers on the picket line. Beatings with police clubs escalated into rock throwing by the strikers which the police responded to with gunfire. At least two strikers were killed and an unknown number were wounded.

Full of rage, a public meeting was called by some of the anarchists for the following day in Haymarket Square to discuss the police brutality. Due to bad weather and short notice, only about 3000 of the tens of thousands of people showed up from the day before. This affair included families with children and the mayor of Chicago himself. Later, the mayor would testify that the crowd remained calm and orderly and that speaker August Spies made “no suggestion… for immediate use of force or violence toward any person…”

As the speech wound down, two detectives rushed to the main body of police, reporting that a speaker was using inflammatory language, inciting the police to march on the speakers’ wagon. As the police began to disperse the already thinning crowd, a bomb was thrown into the police ranks. No one knows who threw the bomb, but speculations varied from blaming any one of the anarchists, to an agent provocateur working for the police.

Enraged, the police fired into the crowd. The exact number of civilians killed or wounded was never determined, but an estimated seven or eight civilians died, and up to forty were wounded. One officer died immediately and another seven died in the following weeks. Later evidence indicated that only one of the police deaths could be attributed to the bomb and that all the other police fatalities had or could have had been due to their own indiscriminate gun fire. Aside from the bomb thrower, who was never identified, it was the police, not the anarchists, who perpetrated the violence.

Eight anarchists – Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer and Louis Lingg – were arrested and convicted of murder, though only three were even present at Haymarket and those three were in full view of all when the bombing occurred. The jury in their trial was comprised of business leaders in a gross mockery of justice similar to the Sacco-Vanzetti case thirty years later, or the trials of AIM and Black Panther members in the seventies. The entire world watched as these eight organizers were convicted, not for their actions, of which all of were innocent, but for their political and social beliefs. On November 11, 1887, after many failed appeals, Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fisher were hung to death. Louis Lingg, in his final protest of the state’s claim of authority and punishment, took his own life the night before with an explosive device in his mouth.

The remaining organizers, Fielden, Neebe and Schwab, were pardoned six years later by Governor Altgeld, who publicly lambasted the judge on a travesty of justice. Immediately after the Haymarket Massacre, big business and government conducted what some say was the very first “Red Scare” in this country. Spun by mainstream media, anarchism became synonymous with bomb throwing and socialism became un-American. The common image of an anarchist became a bearded, eastern European immigrant with a bomb in one hand and a dagger in the other.

Today we see tens of thousands of activists embracing the ideals of the Haymarket Martyrs and those who established May Day as an International Workers’ Day. Ironically, May Day is an official holiday in 66 countries and unofficially celebrated in many more, but rarely is it recognized in this country where it began.

Over one hundred years have passed since that first May Day. In the earlier part of the 20th century, the US government tried to curb the celebration and further wipe it from the public’s memory by establishing “Law and Order Day” on May 1. We can draw many parallels between the events of 1886 and today. We still have locked out steelworkers struggling for justice. We still have voices of freedom behind bars as in the cases of Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier. We still had the ability to mobilize tens of thousands of people in the streets of a major city to proclaim “THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” at the WTO and FTAA demonstrations.

Words stronger than any I could write are engraved on the Haymarket Monument:


Truly, history has a lot to teach us about the roots of our radicalism. When we remember that people were shot so we could have the 8-hour day; if we acknowledge that homes with families in them were burned to the ground so we could have Saturday as part of the weekend; when we recall 8-year old victims of industrial accidents who marched in the streets protesting working conditions and child labor only to be beat down by the police and company thugs, we understand that our current condition cannot be taken for granted – people fought for the rights and dignities we enjoy today, and there is still a lot more to fight for. The sacrifices of so many people can not be forgotten or we’ll end up fighting for those same gains all over again. This is why we celebrate May Day.

from the archives:

Can the Working Class Still Change the World? by Kyle Brown

Jump Out of the Pot! Capitalism Can’t Be Fixed From the Inside by William T. Hathaway

The Haymarket Riot: “It is a Subterranean Fire” by Elizabeth Schulte (repost)

Buddhagem Speaks with Noam Chomsky on May Day, 2009: Labor history and anarchism

The Iron Heel (1908) by Jack London

20 thoughts on “The Brief Origins of May Day by Eric Chase

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  8. I so agree with Frank and Lo. As Frank says, the misanthropic “ruling class” continue to perpetuate the gross injustices that have been fought against so consistently by those most exemplary of our ancestral movements; the tireless struggles of brave men and women against impossible odds and tyrannies of privilege, exploitation (of both society and nature) and fanatical exceptionalism.

    Huxley’s dystopian depiction portrays the mute resignation of a conditioned, medicated mass, seduced into “loving their servitude.” Bullshit to that.

    We should promote two huge national “thought” experiments…the first of which I believe was already proposed by Jerry Mander ~ namely, to have people turn off their msm “mind-feeds” for a set period of time; & the other, would be to ask them to change their diet (!) & also to abstain from non-essential “pharmaceuticals.” I wonder what the results of that might be?

    Eric C. refers to the roots of radicalism. Sometimes, metaphors can reveal more than they were intended to. The roots of radicalism are literally deep in the ancient soil.

    The huge devastation in Nepal illustrates a crucial point. Plate tectonics are barely two generations old. Knowledge over the past hundred years or so has greatly advanced in multiple leaps. Although we know a good deal about the dynamics of the Earth’s crust, soil biology is still a relatively new and little understood science. Ecology, and marine ecology (confer Sylvia Earle’s “MIssion Blue” for example) in particular, are also developing dramatically too; while enormous advances in health and occupational health have met yet another great paradigmatic cusp; with the recent discovery of the human microbiome ~ and the alarming facts about lethal carcinogenic & mutagenic industrial toxins, like glyphosate.

    So what does all this have to do with May Day you may well ask? I would say, actually….everything.

    Memory and knowledge are dynamic. Life never stops, despite this grotesque age of ecocide we are currently entrapped by

    The global misanthropes may try, in their desperate hubristic desire to control all life on Earth, to erase our past and rewrite reality, or as some historians love to quip “predict the past;” but they cannot ~ because memory is not static but is profoundly synonymous with spiritual identity.

    Indigenous peoples have been genocidally annihilated everywhere and their cultures “erased;” but those cultures are not just about people, they exist in living contexts of ecological experience, that constitute real interactive identity. So long as we live in this Earth, we are a natural function of it ~ we are our Sacred Planet’s gifted children.

    So ~ work, existence and meaning cannot be reduced to industrial processes alone.

    Everything is a subset of something else. So, we should not only celebrate and remember (forensically) the great achievements of the past, but strive to shape the environments of our common future; in order to secure the viability of the next seven generations of humanity ~ no matter what those demented, sick money-junkies “want” as their promised Santa Claus reward.

    Spoiled juvenile bastards are a feeble substitute for enlightened governance….we all get the corrupted law we deserve, unless we can live up to something purer than that.

    • David, You never cease to amaze me with your insightful and profound comments and poetic use of the English language on the issues presented on Dandelion Salad. Your comment on the May Day article is unusual – meaning it’s not the typical response as in my comment, but extraordinary in the sense that you encompass a broad spectrum of related and inter-related things, both tangible and intangible corresponding to the whole.
      I do admire your mystical approach to our worldly man-made problems with ways to resolve and a remedy for this gross insanity which we are dwelling in.

      You stated: “The global misanthropes may try,in their desperate hubristic style to control all life on earth,to erase our past and rewrite reality….” brings up the celebration in Moscow this week on the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. AS you know, the IPA (Imperial States of America), the UK, France, and a host of NATO vassal states are not sending their heads of state to the Russian event in order to “slight Putin” and are now busily rewriting the events of WW2 making the former Soviet Union’s sacrifices and military victories irrelevant and trivial in their continued effort to demonize the “Bear” who inflicted approximately 85% of the casualties of the German Army, and troops from the “international community” allied with Germany in their fanatical effort to eradicate the Bolsheviks and destroy communism from the face of the earth.

      AS they say: “yeah, right.”

      You are an inspiration, David!

      • Thanks Frank, you’re very kind and I appreciate your reading my occasional remarks. Sometimes it comes out right, other times I struggle. Truth is, I am one of those people who have to write my perceptions, or I’d go crazy.

        It’s also cathartic and, in a certain sense, empowering; because we as individuals can only achieve very little, but when we can share our thoughts and passionate responses to the cruelty and ignorance that is obviously so prevalent, it helps.

        Getting older, I find that past errors press hard on an awakened conscience. Admittedly perhaps in my own case they were more errors of omission than commission, but it’s all precious time and opportunity wasted and gone forever; so carefully expressed sensibility means a lot to me these days.

        Although we do not share certain religious nuances, I admire Lo enormously for her profound commitment, tireless work, generosity and refined sense. The Internet is an amazing thing, like Archimedes said, a place to stand to move the world.

        • David, “occasional remarks” is an understatement. Your comments are quite positive and very constructive and bring out the best thoughts (and words) on the higher nature of what we should be striving to achieve: An awareness of our at-one-ment with humanity, the animal kingdom and for that matter, other sentient beings as well as Mother Nature and Mother Earth and of course the difficult and arduous path to personal development leading up to Enlightenment, which, in a nutshell is having wisdom and understanding of Universal Law or Cosmic Law.

          You’re doing fine, educating the readers (myself included) on the innumerable self-created problems created by unscrupulous and possibly naive people in places of power, which is why the pure anarchists distrusted centralized organizations ruling from afar, and believed that small, localization and consensus or majority vote if consensus wasn’t achieved represented the best modal for a democratic society.No easy answer in that regard.

          While in Europe, we stopped at a bookstore in Paris and I purchased a gem of a book which for me is priceless. I’ve been eager for many years to find out which systems worked or failed, pertaining to local communities, after reading about the socialist/anarchist type egalitarian communities of the Catalan Region of Spain where they seemed to have flourished, which, as you know,was the reason for the Spanish Civil War.
          Also Findhorn, in Scotland interested me, and now the “kins domains” in Russia and former Soviet states.

          Anyway, the book is titled: Utopian Communities In America, 1680-1880
          by Mark Holloway, published by Dover Publications, Inc. of Mineola, New York, in 1966, and is a revised edition of the work first published by Turnstile Press, Ltd., in 1951 under the title and subtitle: Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America, 1680-1880.

          And yes, without the vigorous effort of Lo, we wouldn’t be corresponding and sharing of our thoughts on the issues of the day, and hopefully, constructive and beneficial ways to fix the multitude of problems for the betterment of Planet Earth and it’s inhabitants.


        • Thanks for the book info Frank, I already followed up your Russian suggestion way back, quite an eye opener.

          I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Spain, mostly in the Celtic North West, Galicia…and Asturias as well. It’s an amazing culture, but although the South has many real problems ~ some quite dire ~ it also has some great examples of cooperative, socialist community initiatives. I have a great sense of optimism about what could happen on a larger scale with the right impulses ~ perhaps sometime we can refer to these issues in more depth.

          Next time you’re around this part of the big bad world, you should look me up!

        • Thanks, David. Dandelion Salad is here for that reason to be able to discuss issues more completely and is made all the better by your and other readers’ commentary. It’s a busy time for me at the moment getting the new gardens planted, but hope to be posting a bit more over the Summer.

  9. What an outstanding article by Eric Chase, highlighting little known history within the American labor movement which is not taught in schools in the capitalist system of “education,” almost an oxymoron of a word.
    If I remember correctly, the “8 hour workday” wasn’t established by the U.S. government until 1938, under FDR’s Administration.

    When one thinks of the struggle – the beatings, imprisonment, deportations, blacklisting, and the ultimate sacrifice, execution by the state for simply fighting for human, civil, and labor rights, of those who came before us in order for their and future generations to have a better and more equitable life, I am saddened (as a trade unionist) by the apathy, complacency, and lethargy of American working-class people today.

    They/we are starting to lose all that was achieved through persistent struggles mentioned above and for the most part, our union reps have given in to the system and their ridiculous zealousness in support of the Democratic Party which is in cahoots with their Republican brethren to keep working people down. For forty years, when the Dems controlled Congress, not one of those scallywags ever brought up a bill to repeal the anti-union/anti-worker Taft-Hartley Act, sacrosanct to the capitalist ideology of greed and the insatiable desire for more and more for themselves, and less for those WHO PRODUCED THE WEALTH!

    And the sports and entertainment crazed public goes along with this whittling away of the progress made in years past which Mr. Chase illustrates.

    The cops, national guard, and the army are no friend of labor whether here or abroad. They are the well-paid goons for the ruling-class of misanthropes, supposedly to preserve “law and order” by unruly strikers.

    Thanks again, Lo, for posting another great article!

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