Discover more from JoeWrote
May Day: What It Is & Why It Matters
An international celebration of labor.
This is the last week to get JoeWrote premium for 40% and receive a FREE 3-pack of “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS” pencils.
For just $2.50 a month, you’ll get this free gift plus:
12 months of exclusive premium articles (56 in total),
Access to hundreds of articles in the JoeWrote catalog,
My book: The Case for Economic Democracy,
Additional bonus content, such as activist interviews, book reviews, podcasts, and more,
The satisfaction of knowing you’re supporting independent media that explains, explores, and promotes politics we need to build a better world for all.
You can take advantage of this exclusive offer at the button below. Thank you for your support. Without it, JoeWrote wouldn’t exist.
Next week will be May 1st, the criminally under-celebrated holiday of May Day, a.k.a. International Labor Day. Many Americans are naive to May Day, and the greater project of workers’ rights it embodies. Some have a passing familiarity with the day, though they often mistake it for originating elsewhere, most commonly the Soviet Union or Cuba. (My girlfriend confused May Day for “D-Day” and was perplexed as to what the invasion of Normandy had to do with workers’ rights).
Despite the misunderstandings, May Day started right here in the United States of America. It is as American as George Washington and baseball. Yet, it is not treated as such. Instead of celebrating the day, the U.S. Government and business interests have tried to scrub it from the historical record for fear of the American working class actualizing the cross-border solidarity it represents. (They’ve even tried to rebrand May 1st as “Law Day,” a ghoulish attempt at revisionist history.)
In 2023, celebrating May Day is as important as ever. Amidst the swelling support for labor unions and the increasing (but still small) interest in the political left, it is important to remember what we are fighting for. For the same reasons capitalists want us to forget it, we must raise the banners of May Day as high as we can to remind the workers of the world not only how far we have come, but how much further we have to go.
The History of May Day
One of the great failings of America’s public education is to fully convey the reality of post-Civil War Capitalism. The Second Industrial Revolution (1870 to approximately the start of World War I) brought many quality-of-life improvements, such as mass-produced cars, wider access to electricity, and developments in steel production that enabled the rise of metropolises. But driving these advancements was the industrialized exploitation of workers, which was only slightly better than the conditions of chattel slavery.
Experience teaches us that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.” - Frederick Douglass, 1883
During this time, workers labored over 10 hours a day, six days a week, with no holidays. Native-born men earned about $1.55 per day, which, adjusting for inflation, equals about $13,000 a year in today’s money. Immigrants were paid less, women less than them, and children (who were always present) earned the least, about a third of what an adult brought in. With no regulation to speak of, factories were hazardous. A single misstep could cost a worker their limb or life. Records vary, but it is estimated that in 1900 there were over 35,000 workers killed in factories with another million severely injured. The most notorious event of this era was the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. With the doors locked by the bosses, 146 workers, who were mostly immigrant girls and young women, burned or jumped to their death in front of a crowd of onlookers in Greenwich Village, Manhattan.
JoeWrote is an independent media outlet explaining, exploring, and promoting worker-first politics. Please support us with a free or paid subscription.
Faced with a system that treated them as nothing but fodder for Capitalist profit, the working class fought back. Anarchist, Communist, and Socialist groups sprung up all across America, voicing the complaints of the exploited. As part of their push for a more equal society, they began to advocate for workplace reforms we still enjoy today, such as 8-hour workdays, paid holidays, the outlawing of child labor, and more.
In 1884, a national labor convention was called in Chicago by a group that would soon become the American Federation of Labor (which is now the “AFL” in AFL-CIO). A platform was put forth that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” Over the next two years, the labor movement fought hard for an 8-hour workday. Strikes, protests, and other actions were abundant, which the bosses responded to with directed police brutality. Tensions rose as May 1st, 1886 approached. Just days before the deadline, The Alarm, an anarchist newspaper, printed this bellicose pamphlet.
April 24th, 1886.
"WORKMEN 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
With weapons in your hands to meet the capitalistic bloodhounds--police and militia in proper manner.
The above hand-bill was sent to us from Indianapolis, Ind., as having been posted all over that city last week. Our correspondent says that the police pulled them down wherever they found them.
When May 1st, 1886 finally came, more than 300,000 workers in over 13,000 businesses walked off the job in protest, marking the first May Day celebration in history. Many more workers followed over the coming days. Backed by Capitalists, the police increased their strike-breaking brutality. To draw attention to the police crackdown, the labor movement called an impromptu rally at Haymarket Square in the heart of Chicago. Over 3000 people attended, including the mayor himself.
To those who are naive about the devious lengths Capitalists will go to in order to protect their own interests, what happened next has been one of history’s great mysteries. To those who recognize capital as the malignant force that it is, there are no such illusions.
As the police tried to break up the crowd, a bomb went off. As cops are known to do, they opened fire in the crowd, killing several. One cop was killed by the initial explosion, and another seven died in the following week, hit by their own bullets. To this day it is still unknown who threw the bomb. But considering the Capitalists’ precedence for violence, and the fact that anarchists were unlikely to bomb their own rally, filled with their supporters, one does not need a Time Machine to conclude it was likely an agent provocateur acting on behalf of the bosses.
In the following days, eight anarchist leaders were arrested and charged with the bombing. Only three of the eight had been present at Haymarket, and, as the leaders of the rally, were clearly visible on stage where no bomb was thrown from. Convicted by a jury of upper-class businessmen, four anarchists — Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engle, and Adolph Fischer were hung to death. Another, Louis Lingg, took his own life the night before his execution. The remaining three convicts were eventually pardoned by the Illinois Governor, who loudly claimed the trial had been a grave miscarriage of justice.
Why May Day Matters
In 21st-century America, May Day is a foreign concept. We do not have it off from work, celebrations are sparse, and it’s omitted from the list of holidays that come pre-installed on our iPhones. This cultural ignorance is not because Americans do not care about workers’ rights, but because Capitalist interests have done everything in their power to scrub the memory of May Day from the historical record. Make no mistake; they have not done so because they fear the date May 1st — They fear that American workers will realize the great sacrifices that have been made for the cause of labor and will carry that realization into every union negotiation, manager 1-on-1, and job interview.
Today, May Day does not just commemorate the 300,000 workers who bravely stood up to their bosses on May 1st, 1886. It enshrines the legacy of the five Haymarket Martyrs — and the unknown number of others who gave their lives struggling against Capitalist violence — for their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of a better humanity. It is a day that represents the eternal resolve of the working class in its struggle against the three-headed hydra of Capitalist bosses, state power, and police brutality. It is a day to remember that even when the Capitalists send the police to break skulls and instruct the hangman to tie a knot around the neck of an innocent, the working people will soldier on.
May Day reminds the working class of our potential: there is no barrier too high, no threat too great that will cause the workers of the world to forget their most dearly held principle, that they are human beings entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In 2023, we must carry the spirit of May Day with us, 365 days a year. The Government shot Americans who fought for an 8-hour workday. Let us not take their sacrifices for granted.
If you enjoyed or learned from what you just read, please like, share, comment, and subscribe. All of these are invaluable to helping JoeWrote grow and continue to promote pro-worker politics.
As I mentioned up top, JoeWrote premium is 40% off until the end of April. That gets you everything JoeWrote has to offer, for just $2.50 a month.