May 1st Belongs to Labor, Not Loyalty

April 29, 2004

An Email sent yesterday by Chris Paulitz, Press Secretary of the National Republican Congressional Committee to local GOP press secretaries suggested events that could be held in the month of May, including:

“Loyalty Day (May 1): Loyalty Day is simply a day for all of us to show our loyalty to the nation. In addition to op-eds and a release, our member can call on all local governmental buildings to fly the American flag that day, as President Bush has asked all federal government buildings to do. Your member can also lead a class of young school children in the Pledge of Allegiance or address a school assembly on the importance of loyalty to the nation. This is also another good PSA opportunity, reminding all of your constituents to be aware of the day and to honor it in their own way.”

Other than the recommendation of events at charter or voucher schools on May 17, the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, it was the May 1st event that disturbed me the most in Paulitz’s Email. May First belongs to labor and should not be used for something else, particularly not a McCarthy-era holiday focused now on loyalty to the most anti-labor government we’ve seen in many years. Last May First, George W. Bush dressed up in a flight suit and declared the “mission accomplished” in Iraq. Marking the one year anniversary of that lie with pledges of loyalty to the same administration that made it seems obscene. We’ve got too much servility as it is. We need more healthy democratic dissent. A proper understanding of Labor Day – of May First as Labor Day – is of a day of dissent.

May Day as a labor day on the first of May is celebrated all over the world, but only minimally in the United States, although its origins are in Chicago.

May Day had a long history in Europe as a seasonal celebration of rebirth and hope. It was also the first of a month, an ideal time for strikes in industrialized nineteenth-century America where workers tended to be paid at the end of the month. At its 1884 convention the American Federation of Labor adopted a resolution that all labor would strike on May 1, 1886, to demand an eight-hour day. The media, which in this country has always been completely fair and balanced, predicted a violent Communist insurrection. The Chicago Tribune reported responsibly: “Every lamp-post in Chicago will be decorated with a communistic carcass if necessary to prevent wholesale incendiarism or prevent any attempt at it.”

As documented in “Labor’s Untold Story” By Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, 62,000 workers in Chicago committed to strike on May 1, another 25,000 demanded an eight-hour day without threatening to strike, and 20,000 were given the eight-hour day before May 1. Meanwhile, the Armours, Swifts, Medills, Fields, and McCormicks (Chicago’s royalty, people who would have adored Loyalty Day) mobilized the National Guard, the Pinkertons, and specially deputized police.

Workers marched down Michigan Avenue in Chicago instead of working on May 1, 1886, and 340,000 did the same nationwide. Albert Parsons and August Spies spoke at the rally in Chicago, which ended peacefully. The Communist insurrection proved as real as Saddam Hussein’s long-range missiles. But two days later, Chicago police shot striking workers outside McCormick Harvester Works, and labor leaders organized a protest in Haymarket Square for the next day. In the meantime, thousands of workers all over the country were winning the eight-hour day and returning to work.

As the relatively small and peaceful meeting at Haymarket Square was wrapping up, 180 policemen marched on the crowd, and a bomb went off — which many believe was thrown by an agent provocateur. The Chicago Tribune demanded that Parsons, Spies, Michael Schwab, and Samuel Fielden be hanged for murder. The police began smashing up labor offices and beating up innocent people. “Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards,” said John Ashcroft – oops, I mean Julius Grinnell, Chicago’s State’s Attorney. The four men named above were indicted for murder, along with George Engel, Adolph Fisher, and Louis Lingg. Parsons, who had escaped, became a modern Socrates and turned himself in to face certain death. Testimony from “witnesses” who had been threatened with torture and others who had been paid turned out so contradictory that the prosecution shifted to a focus on the defendants’ thoughts and politics. Fielden and Schwab ended up with life sentences; Lingg died in his cell; the others were hung. Parsons left behind a note to his children that included this:

“We show our love by living for our loved ones. We also prove our love by dying, when necessary, for them.”

Don’t talk to me on May First about loyalty to chicken hawks. Talk to me about labor and the International Labor Day that was born in Chicago out of the struggle for an eight-hour day. In 1888 the AFL set May 1, 1890, as the next major day of action. Workers all over Europe joined in, and a holiday worthy of the name was born.