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Tyler McClelland

Of Maypoles and Massacres: A Short History of May Day in America

While I’m sure many of us would rejoice in having a little more maypole in our day, lurking behind the glamorous façade of giddy children brandishing ribbons and girdled Saxons clicking their heels is a May Day far more sobering. It was not always a day at the park.

But first, the glamorous façade:

Like many of our modern holidays, May Day began as a pagan celebration: it marked the beginning of summer and a new pastoral season. It was a holiday that the Celts and Saxons referred to as “Beltane,” a festival distinguished by the lighting of bonfires at important ritual sites, overeating, and intoxication—a veritable reverie of merrymaking. Hewn tree trunks erected in town centers were adorned with garland and wreaths, around which revelers methodically weaved a colorful shroud of ribbons through dance. Not bad, really, as celebrations go—it sure beats grazing at a buffet of finger foods and drinking wine from a box at your office Christmas party. But far from awkward conversation with your boss after too many drinks, “May Day” celebrations in America today in some ways resemble the ancient celebration—only in September instead of May. Oh yeah, and we call it Labor Day.

The last Labor Day celebration I attended was a gathering of friends on a Saturday after working a seven hour shift making lattes. While we weren’t ushering in the summer or leading our sheep out to graze in the hillsides, the plethora of food and drinks certainly resulted in some overeating and intoxication. I’m sure there were people dancing, but not around a maypole and we might have had tiki-torches instead of a bonfire, but who’s counting? Our Labor Day festivities definitely resulted in a veritable reverie of merrymaking, but there wasn’t much celebration of labor at all, nor even a day of rest for Yours Truly. This is a fate I undoubtedly shared with many of the at least 110 million other service sector employees and non-union workers in America. But no one was rallying, giving speeches, talking about or even really thinking about labor—we were more worried that our chicken wings would burn on the grill. In much of America, this characterization of Labor Day stands dismally accurate. So really, our labor holiday isn’t always such a holiday for labor, but even the September date belies the tragic history of labor and May Day in America.

This is where it gets more sobering.

The meaning behind May Day was altered significantly after a series of massive, nation-wide strikes for enforcement of the 8-hour workday were called for on May 1st of 1886. In Chicago, 80,000 workers marched up Michigan Avenue resulting in a lockout at McCormick Harvester Works two days later. Fifteen-hundred workers protesting the lockout became agitated when a group of temporary replacement workers arrived and began entering the factory. The fight between the locked out workers and their replacements escalated when police violently intervened and killed four of the protesting workers. Countless others were wounded. What ensued was the famous “Haymarket Massacre.” On May 4th, a large gathering of workers in Haymarket Square in Chicago gathered to peacefully protest the violent police oppression from the day before. As the protest was winding down, 176 police officers suddenly stormed the meeting, demanding that it disperse. It was in this intense environment that an unknown assailant threw an incendiary device into the crowd killing a police officer and wounding many others. Police began wildly shooting and clubbing the panicking mass of workers, killing seven of their fellow police officers, injuring sixty more and killing or maiming unknown numbers of the protesting workers. Following the massacre, prominent labor leaders were gathered up and jailed despite a lack of evidence linking them to the bombing—some were not even present at the protest. One committed suicide in prison. Another leader was sentenced to 15 years in prison while two were sentenced to life. On November 11, 1887, four of the labor leaders were sentenced to death and hanged. May 1st was declared International Worker’s Day a few years later. Congress, however, has since declared May 1st "Loyalty Day." Go figure.

While it’s been decades since a labor leader was executed or shots fired into a crowd of striking workers in the U.S., an anti-labor sentiment still pervades America today. Membership in labor unions has been suppressed by retail giants and super-chain stores—membership hangs at a low 12% while millions of non-union workers say they want a union at work. What’s more, minimum wages aren’t even close enough to cover the cost of living in today’s economic fugue, and millions of people cannot afford basic benefits. Days off for many are few and far between. And although unions played a major role in establishing America’s middle class, this May Day I don’t expect to see a celebration of labor or even a parade.

I guess we’ll have to wait for September.

Tyler McClelland: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:01 AM, May 01, 2008 in Labor
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