May Day Is Coming – Spread the Word! The History Of May Day

by Sarah Harper, April 25, 2020

There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

Those were the last words of August Spies on November 11, 1887 as the hangman’s noose was tied around his head, murdered along with three of his class brothers by the U.S. ruling class for having helped organize the working class of Chicago and the country in the fight for the 8-hour day.

It was out of that struggle that May Day was born, an event proclaiming the solidarity and common goals of the international working class. It represents the revolutionary communist aspirations to create a world run by workers without the atrocious inequalities so transparent today. Many groups organize May Day strikes and marches to demand fairer conditions, and an end to wars and occupations.

U.S. bosses have tried to portray May Day as something “imported” from “foreign” shores, as something old and irrelevant. Actually, May Day is one of the great contributions made by U.S. workers to the struggles of the world’s working class. No wonder bosses here try to bury May Day as they did the scores of workers they killed when it began.

In answer to the 14-hour day, 6 and 7 day work week of the 1880’s, along with the mass unemployment of capitalism’s periodic crises, more than half a million workers became directly involved in planning a national strike for the 8-hour day. Mainly the then-militant American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the short-lived Knights of Labor planned it. The Chicago Central Labor Union, a center of left wing activity, called for a general strike for the 8 hour day for May 1, 1886. May 1 came and Chicago stood still. “No smoke curled from the tall chimneys of the factories and mills,” reported on paper. “Tens of thousands downed their tools and moved into the streets.”

The Chicago ruling class became hysterical as they saw their profits being stamped out by thousands of marching workers. 

They began locking out workers throughout the city and ordering the cops to break the strike. On May 3, the cops murdered six strikers at the McCormick Reaper Works. The next day thousands marched in protest into Haymarket Square. The cops attacked. A bomb was thrown (later revealed to be most probably thrown by a police agent). In the ensuing battle seven cops died and four workers were murdered. Over 200 were wounded in what became known as the Haymarket Massacre.

Scores of militant workers were rounded up in a massive witch hunt. Left wing union leaders were convicted of “conspiracy” in a thorough going frame up, and four were later hanged. While nearly 200,000 workers won a shorter workday, within six months the bosses’ counteroffensive took it away from all but 15,000. But the fight would not be stilled.

Another general strike was called for May 1, 1890, the beginning of the historic May Day working class holiday. At the July, 1889 meeting of the Second International (an international working class organization patterned after the First International led by Karl Marx), after a report from the U.S. delegate on the 8 hour struggle, the members passed the resolution adopting May 1 as the international demonstration worldwide to fight for the 8 hour day and eventually for communism. 

On the eve of the first of May, Frederick Engels, a close associate of Karl Marx, wrote: “As I write these lines, the proletariat (workers) of Europe and America is holding a review of its forces; it is mobilized for the first time as One army, One flag, and fight for One immediate aim: an eight hour working day…The spectacle…will make the capitalists and land owners of all lands realize that today the proletarians (workers) of all lands are, in very truth, united.

Multiracial Unity Is Key

May Day has been a struggle against racism. On May 1, 1945, Soviet soldiers hoisted the Red Flag over the Reichstag in Berlin to symbolize the defeat of the Nazi regime. In the U.S. May Day marches were held to protest lynchings in the South and to defend the Scottsboro Boys who had been falsely accused of rape. In 1975 in Boston, Progressive Labor Party held its May Day march in South Boston to counteract the racism of the anti-busing movement of ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights). In South Africa, during the Soweto rebellions against apartheid, May Day demonstrations were at the highest peak.

People celebrate May Day around the world with massive demonstrations to promote unity and class struggle. May Day continues even under quarantines to demand power.

To learn more about May Day, tune in on SUNDAY, APRIL 26 at 4pm Eastern Standard Time (US) to:

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