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?
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.
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.
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.