Depending on your age, May Day might not have any particular significance at all. Or if the day does evoke a memory, it might be the annual display of Soviet military might in Moscow’s Red Square. But in fact, for over 100 years American workers and their unions have used this day to launch campaigns for improved working conditions, a shorter work week, and better lives.
It all started in the United States in 1884. Meeting in Chicago, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions declared that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” The idea picked up steam right away. In Hartford, painters, horseshoers and gas company employees made May 1st their deadline for a wage hikes or a reduction in hours without a pay cut. It was such a popular notion that a local music store urged Hartford consumers to buy its products right away because “the Eight Hour Labor Agitation if successful will certainly cause an advance in the prices of pianos and organs.”
Such a lofty goal from the federation (forerunner of today’s AFL-CIO) was easy enough to declare, but achieving it became a bloody battle. On May 1, 1886, hundreds of thousands of workers across the country walked off their jobs to win the eight-hour day. By May 4th, cities were paralyzed and workers were holding mass meetings in the streets. At Chicago’s Haymarket Square a peaceful rally called to condemn police picket line violence was disrupted by a police attack. A bomb was thrown, killing and wounding a number of officers. The cops responded with indiscriminate shooting into the crowd, killing and wounding many participants.
To this day no one knows who threw the bomb, but it was certainly not the “Haymarket Martyrs” who eventually were hanged for it. The incident became the excuse for a nationwide crackdown on anarchists, or those labeled as radicals because their demands seemed too outrageous at the time. The Hartford Evening Post editorialized, “Whatever justice there may be in the eight-hour movement must necessarily be lost sight of for the time, until order and quiet shall be restored.”
Hartford workers didn’t see it that way. For the next decade, May 1st was the day carpenters, painters, sheet metal workers and carriage makers organized, struck and frequently won their demand for eight hours. One of the most persistent and creative groups who took May Day as their own were the Jewish bakers from Hartford’s east side. May 1st was their deadline for shorter hours and a wide range of other changes, including a demand to provide part-time work for their unemployed members. During a 1910 strike they purchased supplies in New Britain, baked bread on their own, and sold it from pushcarts on Front Street and Windsor Street. It was a popular item; they won their demands.
Although Hartford’s skilled building tradesmen were the most organized and often led the way with the eight-hour demand, other workers were inspired by May Day as well. Local cigar makers, hod carriers and vaudeville theater stage hands began or ended their strikes on May 1st. In 1909, over 200 newsboys with their own drum corps marched through Hartford streets carrying signs and waving flags. They were protesting the refusal of newspaper distributors to accept their unsold copies of two New York dailies. The boys urged customers to support their cause by only buying Hartford papers.
May Day became so popular that famous composers like Aaron Copland and Earl Robinson (Ballad for Americans) wrote tunes to be sung at the rallies and picnics that were often held when May 1st landed on a Sunday. But by 1920, the National Guard was called out on May Day to defend against an alleged “communist plot” to blow up the State Capitol, City Hall and the Bulkeley Bridge. At this point May Day was being smeared by business interests and other groups who, instead of acknowledging the authentic nature of the day, found it more useful to discredit the labor movement’s accomplishments.
May Day’s history was consciously blurred by those who linked its origin to the 1889 Socialist International meeting in Paris rather than the rich American tradition established five years earlier. Local governments began to declare May 1st as Children’s Health Day, lawyers and judges celebrated it as Law Day. For many years it was promoted as “Moving Day,” when families were supposed to transfer their household belongings to new locales. In the 40s and 50s, the VFW held “Loyalty Day “ parades in area towns to challenge the massive demonstrations in the U.S. and around the world.
In Middletown, the group’s 1954 parade was disrupted by Wesleyan students who jumped into the line of march with their own musical instruments. These merry pranksters were part of a plan that was “very likely Communist-inspired,” according to the VFW’s state commandant.
But May Day persists despite all the attempts to obscure its purpose. It is an official workers’ holiday in sixty-six countries. Many of America’s newest workers, the 12 million immigrants who are integral to our economy, used May 1, 2006 to demand justice in rallies across the country.
In the same tradition that Hartford’s Irish, German and Italian workers struggled for decent lives, so too are Mexicans, Peruvians and Colombians demanding the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor in the country they have adopted. For today’s newcomers, May Day still exemplifies a real American Dream.