By Jim Miller
Last week, May Day came and went and, while there was a small march downtown, most people barely noticed. Indeed most Americans don’t know much about May Day and if they do, they associate it with the state sponsored holiday in the former Soviet Union.
The truth of the matter is, however, that May Day has deep American roots. It started in 1866 as part of the movement pushing for the 8-hour day. As historian Jacob Remes reminds us:
The demand for an eight-hour day was about leisure, self-improvement and freedom, but it was also about power. When Eight Hour Leagues agitated for legislation requiring short hours, they were demanding what had never before happened: that the government regulate industry for the advantage of workers. And when workers sought to enforce the eight-hour day without the government—through declaring for themselves, through their unions, under what conditions they would work—they sought something still more radical: control over their own workplaces. It is telling that employers would often counter a demand for shorter hours with an offer of a wage increase. Wage increases could be given (and taken away) by employers without giving up their power; agreeing to shorter hours was, employers knew, the beginning of losing their arbitrary power over their workers.
In the course of this effort, the nationwide American labor movement was born. Workers joined together in the service of the principle that, in the emerging industrial age, they should have a say in their economic lives and a voice in our politics—neither of which would come without a struggle.
This campaign led to the passage of the first 8-hour day law in Illinois that was set to take effect on May 1st 1867. Chicago workers celebrated its enactment with a huge parade and other festivities. Unfortunately, the next day, employers refused to recognize or implement the law making their workers stay for the customary 10 or 11 hours. The workers responded with a massive general strike that was eventually crushed by the state militia. A year later the Railroad Strike of 1877 also showed great worker militancy and power, but that too was put down, this time by Federal troops, which deeply damaged the labor movement for the time being.
By the 1880s a revitalized labor movement took up the issue of the 8-hour day once again. In 1886, workers in Chicago, led by anarchists, called for a General Strike on May 1st, and they vowed not to return to their jobs unless employers agreed to an 8-hour day. As Remes notes, “The demands of the militant Chicago anarchists coincided with a massive upswing in other militant movements. Workers and Texas farmers were rebelling against a monopolistic railroad system. The Knights of Labor were rapidly organizing and spreading their vision of a cooperative, rather than capitalistic, society.”
It was more than a general strike; it was a struggle against plutocracy and a call for a cooperative commonwealth where democracy was not controlled by the big money of the robber barons of that earlier Gilded Age.
This was, of course, met with fierce resistance from police and the powers that be, and it led to the famous events at Haymarket Square in Chicago. There, an unidentified man threw a bomb into a crowd of protesting workers, killing a policeman, which led the police to fire on the crowd. This resulted in the arrest and conviction of eight anarchists with no hard evidence of their guilt. Four of them were eventually hanged and became martyrs for the cause of workers’ rights internationally. As August Spies shouted out before meeting his end, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”
Eventually, American workers would win their struggle for the 8-hour day, but May Day itself has been largely forgotten in the United States despite its continued recognition internationally. In the early twentieth century an attempt was made to bury May Day under “Law and Order Day,” which never quite stuck either.
Still, as a result of over a century of redbaiting, May Day is frequently demeaned as a relic of the former Stalinist block, which ignores its uniquely American roots. Despite this history, the immigrants’ rights movement, Occupy, and other activist groups have revived May Day to inspire new struggles for workers’ rights.
What is important for us to keep in mind during this new Gilded Age is how hard the struggle was to get many of the things we take for granted in the American workplace and in our democracy. There are forces afoot in America that are in the process of returning us to the era of the old robber barons when the notion of a world with workplace democracy and basic workers’ rights was merely a dream. They’d also like to permanently bury the idea that working people standing together can play a key role in our society and have real political power.
Across the country, not just collective bargaining but many other hard won gains from worker safety laws to Social Security are now in jeopardy with billionaire-funded groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) pushing roll-backs of once taken-for-granted rights in state houses and the nation’s capitol.
Here in San Diego our contemporary local robber barons are working hard to stop the minimum wage increase and to run roughshod over the working class community of Barrio Logan in the service of corporate interests. They are using their wealth to undermine the commonwealth as they seek to silence the voices of those whose actual speech they hope can’t match their spending.
Let’s not let them do it.