A Day in May

International Labor Day Throughout History

Whoever you are, it’s worth setting aside a moment on May 1 to recall just what it means, and why it matters.

Road signs with graffiti reading ZAD (Deferred Development Zone) is seen after clashes at the May Day labour union march in Paris, France, May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

The workers of the world may not be united, but at least in theory a day has been set aside to celebrate their rise in status, won with sweat and toil over centuries of graft.

A radical birth

Workers’ May 1 celebrations date back to far less leisured times. To May 1, 1886 to be precise, in a republic barely 100 years free of the colonial yoke.

Because on that date in the US over 300,000 workers from 13,000 companies across the nation downed tools to set a remarkable precedent. In the windy city, 40,000 Chicagoans protested, leaving an indelible memory on the public consciousness.

What the strikers wanted was a regular eight-hour day.

Tragedy would mark the event after police called for the crowd to disperse. Just as a speaker was protesting the right to peaceful speech, a bomb exploded, killing several policemen and wounding many others.

A return of fire killed several protesters and wounded 200 others. Three years later on that date, the International Socialist Conference announced that in commemoration of the tragic event May 1 was to be an international labor holiday.

It later adopted the more familiar moniker of International Workers’ Day. As the US slid into its inglorious reds-under-the-bed period of McCarthyism, President Eisenhower rebranded the holiday as “Loyalty Day” in 1958 to deflect attention from work to flag.

In the intervening years May 1 never quite lost its radical roots, and has on many occasions been subverted by wider, not to mention more energetic, and illegal elements. This year while Taksim Square in central Istanbul was locked down by the authorities to prevent historic protests of wider spectrum, Paris saw some vehicles and property put to the flame, though one suspects not by actual workers.

The date in recent times

Subsequent historic events have graced the date, too, so in a fun rundown… in 1931 the Empire State Building was dedicated, destined to become the Big Apple’s even bigger attraction.

In 1952 US marines in Nevada sat under an atomic explosion. Mr. Potato Head hit the toy market the same day.

The two events are reportedly unconnected.

In 1961, becoming the source of a lingering meme, a hijacker pioneered the phrase “take me to Cuba.” Fidel Castro also announced a cessation of ballot box action. The two events are reportedly unconnected.

A year later on May 1 the French realized their first underground nuclear test. In 1978, more auspiciously, New Orleans inaugurated its first black mayor, Ernest Morial.

Still further in radiation news, in on May 1, 1986, the Soviet Union’s TASS news agency officially said “whoops!” over Chernobyl.

Politics seems to like the date; in 2003 President George W. Bush declared that so far as Iraq was concerned “major combat operations” were over. Meanwhile President Barack Obama chose May 1, 2011, to announce the death of Osama Bin Laden at the hands of US special forces in Pakistan.

Despite the day being repeatedly rededicated the world over, May Day has remained the one secular holiday that merits a moment of deeper reflection by wage slaves from all walks of life.