Remember the Legacy of International Workers’ Day
International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day, began because of events in the United States. Socialists should remember the sacrifices of those who came before us by celebrating May Day.
On November 11th, 1887, four anarchists were hanged in Chicago. Mostly German immigrants, the group were outcasts in a society that prioritized white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, especially due to their unorthodox political views. Two of the four – August Spies and Albert Parsons – worked as employees for Arbeiter-Zeitung, the city’s preeminent radical newspaper. Others, like George Engel and Adolph Fischer, simply voiced their anarchist sympathies too loudly.
All four of these men were victims of a frenzy that overtook American public life after the Haymarket Square incident. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) decided May 1st would mark the beginning of an international strike in favor of the eight-hour work day. Roughly 65,000 Chicago workers gathered on May 3rd in solidarity, only to be met with guns and batons from police. Another 3,000 people met the next day at Haymarket Square to oppose the police brutality of the day before. But a bomber, an explosion, and seven dead policemen put an end to it, replacing it with the braying of an outraged political, business, and media class, seeking to draw socialist blood.
Months of mass arrests, coerced admissions, and sensationalized news coverage ended with the death sentence and the murder of Spies, Parson, Engel, and Fischer. History records the men singing La Marseillaise as they clamored up the gallows, and Spies saying “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today” as his last words.
Eventually, Spies was proven right. The horror induced silence caused by their deaths, and the mass hysteria that overtook the United States, would provoke decades of labor organizing far stronger than anything Spies’s executioners thought possible. When the Second International – a collection of socialist and labor parties throughout the globe – met in 1889, they called for global demonstrations on the anniversary of the Chicago protests, a pronouncement that reached thousands of workers in Europe, the United States, and even the Caribbean. By 1891, the Second International declared International Workers’ Day, or “May Day,” to be an annual event.
Unlike Labor Day – celebrated in September and authorized by the federal government – May Day never became a statutory holiday, and is rarely mentioned by political leaders outside of the Left. The US government treated it as an afterthought at best, and a dangerous embodiment of Cold War fears at worst. So disturbed were the western powerbrokers by this example of multinational worker solidarity that President Dwight Eisenhower created Loyalty Day, asking people to express their patriotism by “reaffirming their loyalty to our beloved country,”
However, it’s the United States which stands in the minority. Across the world, people young and old unite to celebrate International Workers’ Day on the first of May, and commemorate the sacrifices made by workers to secure their rights. More than sixty countries participate in International Workers’ Day, with regular mass mobilizations across Latin America.
Perhaps this cultural disconnect is due to the larger influence labor holds in these countries compared to in the United States. Decades of anti-union policies and loosening of labor laws has left the American labor movement a shell of its former self. Union density has dropped dramatically, from 25% in the 1970s to 11% today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11.3% of US workers were represented by unions in 2022, a drop of 0.3% from the year prior. Over the same period of time, worker’s wages have remained stagnant, despite CEO pay increasing by 1460%.
Meanwhile, the mindset of “business unionism,” has captured most of America’s prominent labor groups, creating a culture where more militant labor strategies are disregarded, in favor of cultivating relationships with business leaders in the hope they’ll favor you when the time comes. Compare this to Brazil, whose ruling party was birthed from the actions of trade union leaders in the aftermath of its brutal dictatorship. Or France, a nation which, when its leaders proposed raising the retirement age, began protesting in the millions with a rage that still hasn’t died down. Corporations, in partnership with their chosen politicians, have spent the last thirty years unrelentingly decimating the position of the US labor movement. The rejection of International Workers’ Day is more than a relic of Cold War paranoia, but a symbol for the stymying of all radical labor action in the United States.
Though understanding the difficult reality is vital, it shouldn’t stop us from creating the militant labor movement we want to see. From college campuses to Amazon warehouses, hospitals to newsrooms, the post-covid economic landscape is one defined by furious workers demanding higher pay, better working conditions, and more humane workplaces. Even the structural boundaries inside unions are starting to break, with Shawn Fain being elected president of the United Auto Workers on the promise of internal reform. Millions have banded together to undo the work of CEOS, lobbyists, and elected officials, leading fights that remade the history of the US labor movement only in the span of a few years.
Such accomplishments were only possible because of the willingness of a large group to stand in solidarity with one another regardless of the emotional, physical and psychological toll. In spite of the retaliation threats and culture of fear used in workplaces to keep workers docile and complacent. Progress only comes when people, in one voice, say that no matter the consequences, the world cannot continue as it is. That is the passion which builds movements, sparks revolutions, and deposes regimes. It’s what brought the 65,000 striking workers who met in Chicago over a century ago. It’s what ignited the battle against Amazon and other massive, exploitative corporations. And it’s what will inspire and encourage workers and organizers for years to come.
Remember the names Spies, Engels, Parsons, and Fischer this May Day. The history of the American labor movement is written in their blood, and the gore of people who risked their lives to ensure their fellow man was no longer exempted from human rights when they walked into the mine, factory, or mill. Both current and future organizers should strive to leave a legacy, whether on your campus or off of it, that those forebearers would commend.