Posted April 23, 2015 by Cooper Point Journal in Community

What is May Day?

Commemorating the Working Class Struggle at Home and Around the World

By Josh Wolf

The Pacific Northwest has a strong history of protest, and on May 1, Olympia, Seattle, and Portland will continue the tradition of marching in the streets to celebrate May Day. While celebrating May Day in the region is anticipated and established, the manner of celebrating can vary wildly.

In 2012, Seattle saw thousands of people take to the streets for May Day, while some protesters damaged corporate banks, businesses, and courthouses causing thousands of dollars in damage. Later that year, an FBI and grand jury investigation regarding a “conspiracy to destroy government property” and “interstate travel with intent to riot,” resulted in the imprisonment of four people, including three Evergreen students. The issue stirred controversy in the media and caution in activist communities, but May Day celebrations in the Pacific Northwest continue to take place every year

While different cities have different levels of participation, the demonstrators’ demands are unified in support of workers’ rights, and in opposition to injustice and exploitation of the working class. But why do we recognize labor struggles and the working class on May 1?

The History of May Day

International Workers’ Day was established to commemorate the Haymarket Affair that took place in 1886 in Chicago, during the fight for the eight-hour workday. At the time, labor unions across the United States demanded an eight-hour workday, and planned for a national general strike on May 1, 1886. In “A People’s History of The United State,” historian Howard Zinn puts the number of strikers in the U.S. at 350,000.

Chicago was a focal point for the labor struggle with strong unions and dozens of leftist newspapers championing workers’ rights. By May 3, some 40,000 workers were on strike in Chicago, effectively shutting down railroads, and debilitating industry. As the strike was going strong, the police fired upon a group of strikers outside of a factory, killing four people and wounding others.

In response to the police violence against the strikers, the German language newspaper, Arbeiter Zeitung (Workers’ Times), edited by anarchist union leader August Spies, called for a public meeting at Haymarket Square. According to Zinn, about 3,000 people attended, but as the meeting was winding down, and only a few hundred people remained at Haymarket Square, 180 police officers approached the speakers platform and ordered the crowd to disperse. As the speaker said that the meeting was almost over, an unknown individual threw a bomb into the crowd of police, injuring 66 officers and killing seven. The police then opened fire on the public meeting, killing several people and wounding 200.

Although no one knows who threw the bomb, eight anarchists were arrested and found guilty in connection with the explosion. Four of the convicted anarchists were hanged at the gallows, and one committed suicide in his cell on the eve of his execution. Another two received life imprisonment, while another was given 15 years.

As he was led to the gallows, August Spies spoke his last words: “There will be a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”

Six years after their imprisonment, the surviving three anarchists were granted a pardon by Governor of Illinois John P. Altgeld. In his justification of the pardon, Governor Altgeld wrote, “The state has never discovered who it was that threw the bomb which killed the policemen, and the evidence does not show any connection whatever between the defendants and the man who did throw it.”

In 1890, the Second International, a leading radical leftist group at the time, officially adopted May 1 as International Workers’ Day, to commemorate the Haymarket Martyrs.

May Day Today

In the U.S., International Workers’ Day is not officially recognized as a government holiday. Nonetheless, large cities throughout the country typically have their own celebrations—which are generally public rallies or marches—directing attention to the working class, and demanding better conditions for workers. An assortment of radical leftist groups and unions help organize many of these marches, and play a role in keeping the tradition of May Day alive in the U.S.

Over the last decade, Latino groups have played a major part in May Day. On May 1, 2006, hundreds of thousand of people marched in cities throughout the U.S., after a general strike and boycott of American schools and businesses was organized by immigrant advocacy groups. The strike was organized to protest a proposed bill that would have imposed harsher penalties against illegal immigrants, and strengthen U.S. border security. Since the 2006 May Day demonstration—which is known as “The Great American Boycott”—there have been several other immigrant’s rights focused May Days.

This year, people can expect a progression of activist groups commemorating labor struggles of the past, while bringing current day issues into the forefront.