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The True Meaning Of May Day

Guest Column Brice Smith

The first of May is International Workers’ Day, a holiday founded to honor the long and bloody struggle of working people throughout the world against their oppressors.

Over the past several weeks, there has been a lot of discussion of the so-called “Free Trade Area of the Americas” and the recent mass civil disobedience in Quebec. One has only to compare the reports of those who were actually there to the corporate media’s carefully crafted accounts or to the dismissive statements issued by the government to realize the stark contrast between reality and what those in power want us to believe.

In light of this climate it is interesting to note that International Workers’ Day is recognized in every industrialized country in the world except the United States and Canada. This fact becomes even more telling when one learns that the connection between May Day and the labor movement began in the 1880s in response to the brutal massacre of workers and labor leaders demonstrating for an eight-hour work day in Chicago. The history and meaning of May Day and the many attempts to wipe it from the popular conscience of Americans seems even more relevant today as we celebrate the first May Day of the new millennium sitting on the cusp of the next great human struggle, namely that between totalitarian trans-national corporations and a globalized work force.

It is important to touch on the events surrounding the history of May Day briefly. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions declared that eight hours would constitute a legal day’s work from and after May 1, 1886. When workers went on strike at the McCormick Reaper Works Factory in Chicago on May 3, 1886, police fired into the peacefully assembled crowd, killing four and wounding many others. The anarchists, who had been integral in the eight-hour movement, called for a mass rally the next day in Haymarket Square to protest this brutality. The rally proceeded peacefully until the end when 180 police officers entered the square and ordered the crowd to disperse. At that point, someone threw a bomb, killing one police officer and wounding 70 others. The police responded by firing into the crowd, killing one and injuring many others.

The violence at Haymarket was used as an excuse to try to destroy the progressive labor movement in Chicago. Eight of the city’s most active anarchists were charged with conspiracy to commit murder even though only one even present at the meeting was on the speakers’ platform. All eight were found guilty and sentenced to death, despite a lack of evidence connecting them to the person who threw the bomb. Four were hanged on November 11, 1887, Louis Lingg committed suicide in prison, and the remaining three were finally pardoned in 1893. Lucy Parsons, the widow of Albert Parsons, traveled the world urging workers to celebrate May Day and to remember the events of Haymarket and the subsequent government-sponsored murder of those fighting for the rights of all workers. Instead of destroying the anarchist movement, these events served to strengthen the movement, spawning other radical organizations, including the Industrial Workers of the World.

Over time, May Day grew to become an important day for organizing and unifying the international struggle of workers. In this country, however, every effort was made to prevent the working class from seizing this day as their own. The first serious attempt to undermine May Day occurred in the wake of the violence surrounding the end of the Pullman strike. In 1894 President Grover Cleveland declared the strike of Pullman workers a federal crime and deployed 12,000 troops to break the strike. When the violence ended, Eugene Debs was in prison, the American Railway Union was disbanded, and Pullman employees had to sign a pledge that they would never again try to unionize. Protests against Cleveland’s use of force were met with legislation establishing a Labor Day in September being rushed through Congress and signed into law just six days after federal troops broke the Pullman strike. This attempt at appeasement helped to diminish May Day in this country, but not eliminate it.

More than half a century later, as the Cold War developed between the United States and the Soviet Union, May Day once again entered the national conscience. This time, it was portrayed by those in power as a Communist holiday founded on nothing but “anti-American” propaganda. In 1949, the Americanism Department of the VFW began a campaign to have May 1 designated as Loyalty Day. This was an organization whose founding statement included such principles as:

“We accept as a basis for action that Communists -- whatever they profess at any given moment -- are seeking by any and all means to subvert and destroy our ideals and national security ... We recognize that one of the greatest needs in our country today is education against Communism.”

Their goal was achieved in 1958 when Congress adopted Public Law 529 designating May 1 as Loyalty Day. Each year, on this day first set aside to honor those who gave their lives fighting the system of greed that would work entire families to death in the name of profit, we are told by our government that it is a day to reaffirm our loyalty to that very same system. Not satisfied with perverting a day of international worker solidarity into a nativist anti-Communist farce, in 1958 President Dwight D. Eisenhower carried out the wishes of Charles S. Rhyne, a Washington attorney and head of the American Bar Association, and established Law Day USA. In 1961 a joint resolution of Congress designated May 1 as the official day for celebrating Law Day USA. To this day, our government calls upon us to come together on this of all days to celebrate the same legal system that has locked away over two million of its own citizens, that has legalized state-sanctioned lynching of minorities, and that has locked away those peacefully trying to assert their First Amendment rights, to name a few of its many sins.

If this bizarre and at times downright absurd series of actions were to happen in any piece of fiction, we would discount it out of hand. It is truly a testament to the power of the mass media and our educational system for disseminating propaganda that tomorrow when you watch TV or read a paper, if anything, you will likely find more stories about the Loyalty Day parades and Law Day lectures occurring today than you will about the mass uprisings of workers around the world, and right here in Boston, who will no longer remain silent. In memory of the true heroes who were murdered by our own government while fighting for the rights we all enjoy today, it is our duty to stand up now and to fight for all of those who will follow us. That, I believe, is the true meaning of May Day.

Brice Smith is a graduate student in the Department of Physics.