Events

Friday, May 1, 2009

1 May: International Working-Class Holiday

From Historein

For most Americans, May Day conjures up images of rigidly orchestrated military parades on Red Square. Well, actually, maybe just for Americans of a certain age (never thought I would utter that phrase) and political awareness, and maybe not even them anymore. Most of us probably think of maypoles and spring festivities. Can Memorial Day, the unofficial start of the "summer" recreational--and advertising--season (this, although the astronomical summer still lies almost a month ahead) be far off?

Our relationship to, or better put, ignorance of, May Day, reminds us of our peculiar and fraught collective attitudes toward class, politics, and history. Judging from conversations and coverage in the American media, one could remain completely unaware that it is the international holiday of labor, for participants ranging from strict leftist political parties the likes of which we do not have, to trade unions scarcely distinguishable from our own.

That Americans, ever the exceptionalists, celebrate their Labor Day--now generally reduced to serving as the symbolic end of the summer vacation, the return of the school year, and yet another excuse for capitalist advertising and sales--in September is a story in itself.

It was actually American workers who in many ways took the lead in celebrating the traditional holiday of May 1 as the occasion to honor labor and mark the struggle for the eight-hour day. The target date for achieving that then-radical goal was May 1, 1886. It was in pursuit of that goal in the course of a strike in Chicago that both police and workers died in the notorious Haymarket Affair of May 4. In 1888, the American Federation of Labor renewed its push for the eight-hour day and a celebration on that date, in part as an hommage to the Haymarket martyrs. The Second International adopted May 1 as its common holiday in 1889 (and went on to create International Women's Day in 1910):
There shall be organized a great international demonstration on a fixed date, so that in every country and every town on the given day, the workers shall formally summon the public authorities to reduce the working day by law, and apply the other resolutions of the international congress of Paris.

Seeing that such a demonstration has already been decided on for 1 May 1890 by the American Federation of Labor during its congress held at St Louis in December 1888, this same date has been retained for the international demonstration.
As influential German socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht--one of the institutors of the May holiday--observed, there had been some debate within the working-class movement over celebrating May 1 or the first Sunday in May, in part over the question of whether it was wise or even possible for workers to absent themselves from work. The point was to make manifest the discipline and resolve of the working-class movement, not to give the impression of shirking obligations.

The discipline and quiet dignity of the workers impressed even many of the most skeptical or scared among the bourgeoisie. Stefan Zweig wrote in his elegiacal memoir, The World of Yesterday (1943):
I can still recall from my earliest childhood the day which marked the turning point in the the rise of the Socialist Party in Austria. The workers, in order to demonstrate visibly for the first time their strength and numbers, had given out the word that the first of May was to be declared the working people's holiday, and they had decided to march in closed ranks in the Prater, in whose main avenue, a lovely, broad, chestnut-lined boulevard, usually only the carriages of the aristocracy and the wealthy middle classes appeared. This announcement paralyzed the good liberal middle classes with fright. Socialists! The word had a peculiar taste of blood and terror in the Germany and Austria of those days, like 'Jacobin' before and 'Bolshevik' since. At first it was thought impossible for this rabble of the faubourgs to carry out its march without setting houses on fire, plundering shops, and committing every sort of atrocity imaginable. A kind of panic set in. The police of the entire city and the surroundings were posted in the Prater, and the military were held in reserve, ready to shoot. Not a carriage, not a cab, dared to come near the Prater; the merchants let down the iron shutters in front of their shops, and I can remember that our parents strictly forbade us children to go out on the streets on this day of terror which might see Vienna in flames. But nothing happened. The workers marched in the Prater with their wives and children in closed ranks, four abreast, with exemplary discipline, each one wearing a red carnation in his buttonhole as a party emblem. While marching they sang the 'Internationale,' and the children, who trod on the lovely green of the Nobelallée for the first time, chanted their carefree songs. No one was insulted, no one was struck, no fists were clenched; and the police and the soldiers smiled at them like comrades. Thanks to this circumspect conduct, the middle classes were no longer able to brand the workers as 'revolutionary rabble' and they came to mutual concessions, as always in wise old Austria. The present-day system of suppression and extirpation had not yet been discovered, and the ideal of humanity (although it had already begun to fade) was alive even among political leaders.
The United States establishment made every possible effort to separate the American celebration of a day of labor from the generally accepted socialist date and goals. Although New York unions celebrated a labor day in September in the early 1880s, the subsequent Haymarket affair is generally regarded as having spurred the choice of a September rather than May Labor Day as the national norm on the part of both more cautious unions and the government. If the message needed to be made any clearer, May 1, marked as "Americanization Day" since 1921, became the date for the federal holidays of "Loyalty Day" and "Law Day" during the Cold War.

Today, as the Employee Free Choice Act is debated, a supportive petition circulated by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts reads, in part:
As historians, we understand the contribution of the labor movement to the well-being and quality of life of America’s workers, union and non-union alike. Unions and collective bargaining are essential to workplace democracy and justice on the job. Unions truly are the people who “brought you the weekend”— and contributed to the creation of Social Security, free and universal public education, equal rights, and much else. We are keenly aware that the majority sign-up route to union recognition provided by the Employee Free Choice Act has a long history and is in widespread use today in the U.S. and many other countries.
The history of May Day is a part of the history behind that history.


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