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What is May Day? For the most part, the opposite of capitalism

May Day demonstrators march through downtown Los Angeles last year. Thousands of people took to the streets across the nation that May 1 in rallies calling for immigration reform, workers' rights and police accountability.
Ringo H.W. Chiu
May Day demonstrators march through downtown Los Angeles last year. Thousands of people took to the streets across the nation that May 1 in rallies calling for immigration reform, workers' rights and police accountability.

Updated May 01, 2024 at 09:15 AM ET

May Day, celebrated by workers across the globe as International Labor Day, falls on May 1.

But you'd be forgiven if that's news to you. While the day traces its origins to an American laborers' fight for a shorter work day, the U.S. does not officially recognize International Labor Day.

Like other countries that mark Labor Days on different dates, the U.S. and Canada celebrate their Labor Day in September.

U.S. resistance to celebrate International Labor Day — also called International Workers' Day — in May stems from a resistance to emboldening worldwide working-class unity, historians say.

"The ruling class did not want to have a very active labor force connected internationally," said Peter Linebaugh, author of The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day. "The principle of national patriotism was used against the principle of working-class unity or trade union unity."

That hasn't stopped American workers from commemorating the day, which in recent years has ranged from marching for labor rights to reading literature about Marxism.

"The meaning of that day keeps changing," Linebaugh said.

Before we consider how May Day has evolved in the U.S., let's dive into how it all began.

The traditional May Day is an ancient European export

If you instead associate May Day with baskets of flowers, dancing around maypoles, or simply, the start of summer, those May Day celebrations recall the holiday's much earlier origins. Before May Day was adopted as a day to champion workers, its roots belonged to pagan tradition.

The springtime tradition was inherited from pagan tribes in Ireland and Scandinavia, said Linebaugh, borrowing ancient Roman practices celebrating the Earth's flowering season. When the first Europeans came to North America and erected a maypole in Quincy, Mass., they imbibed copious amounts of beer and danced with the Indigenous people, he said.

"The Puritans of Boston put an end to it by military force," Linebaugh said. "And yet this tradition of May Day as a time of dancing and play and pleasure persisted right into many parts of the U.S. today."

At the end of the day, no matter your version of May Day, it remains a time meant to celebrate togetherness. Inevitably, history shows, that May Day comradery has been met with suppression.

May Day in America has bloody origins

May Day in America was born out of the 8-hour workday movement in 19th-century Chicago. At the time, as the capitalist system gained a foothold in industrial-era America, working-class conditions had worsened. A 16-hour shift wasn't unusualfor workers at the time.

Decades before the 8-hour work-day became the country's norm, the organization now known as the American Federation of Labor set May 1, 1886, as the date that workers nationwide should go on strike to demand the 8-hour workday.

"The reason was that the decade before there had been terrible unemployment ... and yet new technology had made the employer richer," Bill Edelman, a professor of labor studies, previously recountedon Talk of the Nation.

The workers followed through. On that May date, anarchists and labor activists in Chicago began a multi-day strike in what became known as the Haymarket affair of 1886. By May 3, the protests turned violent when police — "which were basically the armed force of the capitalist masters," according to historian Linebaugh — attacked workers demonstrating near the McCormick Reaper plant. The following day, a meeting held in the city's Haymarket Square turned even bloodier. Again, the police intervened, said Linebaugh, triggering clashes that killed both officers and civilians.

A bomb exploded among police ranks in the melee, but historians say it's unclear whether it was intended for the police or the crowd of civilians.

"There was a trial of eight men who were found guilty of conspiracy to murder," Linebaugh said. "Even though no evidence was ever produced that any of them had any relationship to this bomb, and four of them were eventually hanged despite a worldwide campaign in England, Europe, Mexico to save their lives."

Linebaugh points to the influential words of August Spies, one of the convicted men, who just before his execution cried out the famous words: "There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today."

His words "swept the globe," Linebaugh said. "Throughout Latin America, throughout Europe and in North America, to many, the day became this holiday to celebrate working people."

To honor the Chicago workers, the International Socialist Conference in 1889 named May Day a labor holiday, birthing what many nations now call International Workers' Day.

But in the U.S., anti-communist attitudes during the Cold War, as well as opposition to working-class unity, led authorities to suppress May Day's association with labor movements.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower instead declared May 1 "Law Day" — dedicated to the principles of government under law — and Labor Day is now celebrated in September.

It's not just a "communist" holiday

Despite International Labor Day's U.S. origins, said Linebaugh, many Americans, still view May Day as strictly a holiday enjoyed by "communist countries."

In the former Soviet Union, May Day was an occasion to honor workers' contributions with giant parades in Red Square, a tradition that has dwindled in the decades since — a fading remnant of the Bolshevik Revolution that's lost its meaning in modern Russia.

"Some of the workers of Czarist Russia also celebrated May Day, but quickly within 10 years, say by the 1930s, it becomes [for] the Soviet Union a day to display military hardware, military weapons," Linebaugh said.

As for Americans this year, he mused, "How it will be celebrated this day?"

"I'm not sure. I think it'll be exciting to pay attention to see the ways in which its history is remembered."

For a day that celebrates reform and revolution, political discussions and petitions, said Linebaugh, there's something in it for everyone. Well, maybe not.

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