May Day = Labor Day?


Frank Thomas Smith


I was educated in the United States, and as far as I knew May 1 was “May Day”, when kids (somewhere) swung around Maypoles with garlands on their heads. I must have read that it was also Labor Day in other parts and had something to do with the Workers and Socialist/Communist movements, but that was completely irrelevant in the USA.


When I moved to South America, then Europe and back to South America, I got used to May 1 being a holiday – Labor Day or Workers’ Day. No one seemed to make much of it though, so it was like any other excuse for giving presents or not working. Mothers Day, Fourth of July, San Martin’s Death-Day – who cares. The only national holiday I gave two cents for was Thanksgiving. I never knew how or when May the First became Labor Day everywhere except in the United States – until today: May 1, 2001.


A week before May 1, 1866, a young anarchist named Albert Spies dared to defy the industrial power class of the United States (and indirectly of the world). At a workers’ Congress in Baltimore he called for a general strike to obtain an eight-hour workday instead of the 14 to 16 hours that was the norm. This demand was similar to the one made by the International Workers of the World (Wobblies) two years earlier. But to Spies they lent their ears. 360,000 workers adhered to the strike. In Chicago alone 80,000 office workers, construction workers, butchers, shoemakers and pressmen took to the streets.


The corporate reaction was swift. Through their influence in political circles, they were not only able to get the strike declared illegal in order to effect massive lay-offs; they were also able to brutally repress the strikers in order to discourage future similar actions.


The violent police reprisals spread to Philadelphia, Louisville, St. Louis, Baltimore and Milwaukee – where six workers were shot to death.


In Chicago, due to pressure from the strikers, Mayor Carter Harrison authorized a demonstration in the Haymarket Square. Its two square blocks was insufficient to accommodate the multitude however. From a speaking stand improvised from a railway car, Albert Spies urged that no one return to work until their demands were met. Nearby on Desplaines Street a force of 200 police had assembled. Suddenly a bomb exploded amongst them, killing one of their number. The reaction was immediate: the police opened fire, killing six more workers.


An official investigation followed, resulting in the intervention of the Supreme Court. On October 6th of that year the Court condemned Albert Spies and several others to death by hanging “for having instigated the murder of a public servant”. A year later the sentence was carried out – and the condemned became known as “The “Chicago Martyrs”.


The IWW Congress of 1889 in Paris declared May the First “International Labor Day”. This day is now recognized all over the world, with the exception of the United States where, ironically, the events it commemorates took place 135 years ago.


I never learned that in school.