The threat of rain kept the crowd small, but it did not keep them silent. In New York, May Day demonstrators gathered in front of the bronze statue of George Washington in Union Square, echoing the passionate speeches given. Though a number of social issues were raised, only the campaign to unionize fast food workers and raise the minimum wage was consistent with the day’s origins.
“It began as a labor movement,” explained a lawyer for a New York City union. “A lot of people attach labels like socialist or anarchist to things, and people have different ideas about what that means…but this movement is about workers.”
In ancient Europe, May Day was celebrated as the summer solstice, but beginning in the late 19th century it was chosen as International Workers’ Day to commemorate the bombing during a labor demonstration at Haymarket Square in Chicago. Though the perpetrator was never found, eight anarchists were tried for conspiracy and seven were sentenced to death. One of them was pardoned by an Illinois governor years later.
The executed anarchists became martyrs for their ideology, and as the labor unions grew in size so did the strength of various communist, socialist and anarchist groups, who continued to unite and campaign for an eight hour workday in Europe.
Years before the Haymarket Massacre a parade in Union Square in celebration of organized labor sparked proposals by different groups for a designated holiday, and in 1887 Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day official. Other states soon followed.
During the Panic of 1893, an economic depression in the United States, railway workers at the Pullman Company went on a wildcat strike as a response to the reduction in wages and the fixed rent of their housing in the company town. When strikers became violent, derailing a locomotive and attacking strikebreakers, an injunction was filed in federal court. As a threat to public safety and in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, President Cleveland crushed the strike with the military. To soothe relations with organized labor following the strike, President Cleveland made Labor Day a federal holiday.
Throughout the late 20th century, socialist regimes in South America, Eastern Europe and Asia celebrated May Day as the equivalent of the United States’ Labor Day, albeit with military parades instead of barbecues.
May Day was still celebrated after the fall of Communism in Western Europe, with a more Western feel. Chants for lower taxes are still heard in Red Square, but peaceful and colorful parades make the celebrations more reminiscent of the pagan holiday. This year it fell on Orthodox Easter. In China, highways are deadlocked with traffic, as tourists travel for the extended weekend.
Understandably, the United States does not observe a day when fringe ideologues, co-opting legitimate labor concerns, killed innocent people. The honorable method for recognizing the efforts of labor were those peaceful celebrations that more than thirty states adopted before the unsuccessful Pullman Strike forced a rueful federal compromise. But this dissociation with May Day in the United States has given cause for modern anti-capitalists to riot for personal concerns: in Seattle, where the weather did not affect turnout, peaceful calls for immigrant amnesty and a higher minimum wage were eclipsed by violence, when demonstrators in black tossed rocks and Molotov cocktails at police.
These oblivious actions by misguided ideologues discredit struggles of the modern worker. But there are some American protesters that understand the day’s relevance for labor: “It is to acknowledge and recognize working people, and the fact that everything around us was created by them, and maintained by them.”
The Economist was seeking an intern in its International Department and accepting applications that included an unpublished article. I’m not sure if ‘self-published’ is considered published, but I’m posting anyway because I haven’t heard from them in a week.