May Day: America's traditional, radical, complicated holiday, Part 2
This post is part two in a series. Part one traced how the holiday of May Day was revived in the United States by wealthy reformers who were concerned about how working class Americans spent their leisure time. Below, part two continues the story, showing how a contemporaneous group of reformers — labor leaders — tried to redefine May 1 as a holiday where America’s workers could agitate for better treatment and working conditions.
At the same time as elite reformers were busy resurrecting May Day's traditional past, labor leaders from the nation's working classes were trying to redefine May 1 as a holiday set aside for the American laborer. When industrialization took off in the late 1800s after the Civil War, workers organized into unions and joined pro-labor organizations in order to gain bargaining power, elect sympathetic politicians, and generally protect their interests. One of the earliest rallying points for labor organizations was the fight for the eight- hour work day. In the 1880s most workers still worked a daily shift of 10 or more hours, six days a week (or half a day on Saturday).
Unfortunately, the triumphs that workers celebrated on May Day 1886 were quickly overshadowed by violence. On May 3, members of the Chicago police fired at a group of striking workers at a McCormick reaper plant, killing at least two. The next day, when laborers staged a protest meeting in Haymarket Square, a protester hurled a bomb at the police, killing one and injuring dozens more. For many Americans at the time, the "Haymarket incident" and the contentious public trials that followed sullied May 1, forever tying the day to anarchists, socialists, and other "radical" groups that stood outside the mainstream of American society.
In 1889, just as public opinion about May Day within the United States was shifting, the labor holiday went international. When the International Socialist Congress met in France that year, its members adopted a resolution to hold a "great international demonstration" on May 1, 1890, to coincide with protests that had already been scheduled by the AFL. Their resolution sparked a series of demonstrations across Europe. In the years that followed, European workers embraced May 1 wholeheartedly—so much so that by the end of the century most Americans associated May Day with international socialism rather than the homegrown unionism that had set the holiday in motion. Wary of any association with radicalism, more conservative unions in the U.S. dropped the May 1 holiday entirely in favor of celebrating Labor Day in early September.
In the early 1900s, it may have appeared that the nation's wealthy reformers had won the day. Traditional maypole celebrations were a common May Day attraction in the nation's colleges and schools, while militant protests and strikes were only pursued by socialists, communists, and the most militant unions. Viewed with hindsight, however, the elites' victory seems far less assured. While countless Americans did (and continue to) celebrate May Day in the traditional English style, it would be quite a stretch to say that these festivities displaced any of the popular amusements that so worried genteel intellectuals. And while the significance of May Day as a labor holiday dimmed in the United States, that celebratory energy has been more than replaced by the millions of workers who continue to make the first of May International Workers' Day. In the case of American workers, the loss of May Day did not end the struggle for better treatment. Laborers continued to strike, march, and celebrate—just on different days of the year.