It's Gonna Be May Day
Brooke Gladstone: Around the world nearly everywhere, but the US, May the 1st is a big deal. It's called International Worker's Day or May Day. Here in the US, it's called this coming Saturday. In a way, the American worker last year revived international worker's day's American roots, we created it after all.
Donna Haverty-Stacke is a Professor of History at Hunter College at the City University of New York. She's also the author of America’s Forgotten Holiday: May Day and Nationalism, 1867–1960. She began the story in 1886. Labor unions had been fighting for the eight-hour workday for years and years, but they'd only won battles city by city. They needed a new strategy.
Donna Haverty-Stacke: This was the era of the second industrial revolution, the rise of corporate capitalism. They needed to come together and so that was the goal for 1886.
Brooke Gladstone: Why did these labor unions, going for the big push, choose May 1st?
Donna Haverty-Stacke: For the building trades, May 1st was the date when the annual contracts were renewed. The goal was they begin organizing in 1884, making demands, hopefully, they would succeed, and they would celebrate on May 1st, 1886. If they did not succeed, they held out the threat of striking on May 1st, 1886, which in many cases happened. Once that date was chosen, the more traditional trade unionists and the anarchists and socialists who have a broader revolutionary goals also tap into the associations of May Day with the spring writes, with gathering flowers, with bringing in the green, with--
Brooke Gladstone: What do the spring writes have to do with labor?
Donna Haverty-Stacke: Nothing.
Donna Haverty-Stacke: They use it in their iconography, in poetry, in plays, and things that become central to the annual anniversary.
Brooke Gladstone: Now it's May 1st, 1886, 80,000 people march in Chicago, 30,000 in Baltimore, how many in New York?
Donna Haverty-Stacke: 30,000 in New York. St. Louis, Baltimore, Akron, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, all across the country, workers came out, union leaders giving speeches, and anarchist Albert Parsons, a well-known anarchist in Chicago, was at the head of the march with his wife, Lucy Parsons. They almost didn't participate, because initially when they heard of this movement for the eight-hour day, they felt it was-
Brooke Gladstone: Too small.
Donna Haverty-Stacke: -too small, not what they really wanted, which was revolution. When they saw the momentum, they realized that's where the workers were. They needed to be out in front of it, in front of the parade.
Brooke Gladstone: It's the anarchists that get even more closely associated with it. Even in our editorial meeting, when we were discussing this, someone raised the Haymarket Affair that happened a few days after May Day. You note that that association is a manipulation. It's purposefully wrong.
Donna Haverty-Stacke: It was a peaceful protest in Haymarket Square in Chicago, organized by local anarchists in response to the police killings of six strikers on May 3rd. Initially, I think about a thousand people gathered, and as the evening wore on and it started to rain, their numbers dwindled down to about 300.
One of the anarchists was speaking on a wagon and when the police came into the square to order the meeting to disband, there was concern that some of the speech may have been inflammatory.
Someone threw a bomb into the square. The bomb killed one police officer immediately. Six other policemen died subsequently of their wounds, most likely from the bullets the police began firing indiscriminately. Eight anarchists were arrested and tried and convicted for conspiracy, four of whom were executed, and they became martyrs to the anarchist cause. It seemed to prove the anarchists write about the oppressive nature of the state.
Brooke Gladstone: It was the anarchists that tried to link the two events?
Donna Haverty-Stacke: The anarchists conflated the two. Socialists embrace that as well because I think they shared a concern about the reactionary nature of the state, and if it were not won over by workers, workers would never find justice, and for socialists, that was to be achieved through the ballot. For anarchists, that was to be achieved through revolution, possibly acts of direct violence, depending on which anarchist group you're looking at.
There was sympathy and support for the anarchists in that moment. Samuel Gompers came out to their defense. He became the head of the American Federation of Labor in December 1886.
Gompers and the AFL and the craft unions that became affiliated with that quickly came to realize that the association with May 1st and Haymarket didn't necessarily help them advance their goals because they were attempting to get public support for the existence of unions. It was very easy for employers and more conservative Americans to smear the labor movement as illegitimate by associating it with the anarchists.
Brooke Gladstone: May Day itself seem to have become associated with red organizations, communism. Many might have guessed that the entire holiday was invented in Moscow.
Donna Haverty-Stacke: Yes, exactly. May 1st takes on an international component earlier than you might think, in 1889 when socialists are meeting in Paris, representatives from the AFL attended and spoke about the great success of May 1st, 1886. Even though it didn't secure the eight-hour day forever, the struggle continued pulling workers together and united demand was appealing to the socialists in Europe. They said, "You know what, starting in 1890, we're going to do the same thing." European socialists began to use May Day, May 1st for their labor demands.
Brooke Gladstone: It continues to this day, unlike here?
Donna Haverty-Stacke: Exactly. By 1903, the AFL doesn't want to go near May Day with a 10-foot pole. It's been urging its members to turn out instead on the September Labor Day.
Brooke Gladstone: What's the difference between May Day and Labor Day?
Donna Haverty-Stacke: May Day was becoming known as International Workers Day in the 1890s. Labor Day began in 1882 here in New York, launched by Matthew Maguire, who was a machinist and a socialist from Brooklyn who had a very radical vision.
Brooke Gladstone: It was a precursor to May Day?
Donna Haverty-Stacke: Yes. Had nothing to do with the eight-hour day. It had, in essence, a more broader utopian vision. It starts out radical, but the AFL rises and it takes over this event and shapes it to suit its own goals.
Brooke Gladstone: How did its message differ from May Day?
Donna Haverty-Stacke: The AFL termed Labor Day Labor's National Day. There was very much an emphasis on the national connection that these workers who turned out on Labor Day were patriotic or American. It becomes part of the AFL distancing itself from May Day which was becoming known as International Worker's Day.
Brooke Gladstone: There's another holiday that we roundly ignore, that is marked on May 1st. That's Loyalty Day.
Donna Haverty-Stacke: Loyalty Day emerges post World War II. May 1st is chosen specifically to counter any attempts to revive radical media demonstrations. Coming out of the war, the veterans of foreign wars took the lead in sponsoring Loyalty Day demonstrations. They were supported by different fraternal organizations, the Catholic Church, John Birch Society, and spoke in the newspaper coverage of how they were seeking to walk the communist off the streets.
They worked with city officials to have the supporters of Loyalty Day get the parade permits for a good chunk of the days. The Communist Party did hold parades, but they were later in the day and they were smaller. Loyalty Day becomes a part of the way in which the history of May Day in the United States is forgotten. It's a part of the story of this construction of a Cold War Americanism.
Brooke Gladstone: How long does it last?
Donna Haverty-Stacke: By the mid-50s, the Communist Party and the Left-Led Unions dwindled in size and in strength due to a number of assaults during the second Red Scare, the prosecution of the Communist Party leaders under the Smith Act in 1949.
Brooke Gladstone: They didn't take to the streets so there was no need to counter them?
Donna Haverty-Stacke: Right. The workers in the Left-Led Unions really struggled with this. I have really dramatic accounts of workers in District 65 here in New York, which was a union that was Left-Led and had ties to the Communist Party.
Brooke Gladstone: What did they do?
Donna Haverty-Stacke: Retail, wholesale, and warehouse workers. There's a really moving account. In 1946, District 65 workers were holding a meeting and they were debating "Can we continue to support these May Day parades?" The union was facing pressures on all sides to purge its ranks of communists, certainly, by 1947 with the Taft Hartley Act, which required union leaders to sign an affidavit swearing they were not communists, and if they didn't, the union would not have access to the National Labor Relations Board. That put tremendous pressure on these Left-Led unions.
One worker said at this meeting, "Most labor people know that May Day started in America. Therefore, I think that we should study more about these May Day parades and labor history and make sure that we know before we can accuse ourselves in our labor of following some foreign ideology or stuff like that. I think that May Day is our day. We have to point out to the wealthy people in America, that we are united, and we will stop them from exploiting us." There was real passion. These workers had that memory and that they hadn't lost it yet, in the late '40s.
Brooke Gladstone: If we go back to the 1880s, really, just after the Civil War, maybe, there was the struggle to define what it means to be American, what it means to be loyal, what it means to be patriotic.
Donna Haverty-Stacke: May Day existed in that context from the very beginning. The decision on the part of workers and radicals of what they're carrying in their parades when it came specifically to what flags they're carrying, is very revealing. Some of them were navigating a hybrid radical American identity. They didn't want to cede control over what the stars and stripes meant to employers, to opponents of organized labor. They staunchly defended their right to carry the American flag with their red flags.
You see, the Socialist Labor Party members in New York in the 1890s, passing resolutions that they were going to carry the American flag into Union Square. Some just wanted to carry the red flag. You see their desire to claim that flag in an era where an 1893 Flag Day becomes a holiday. The Pledge of Allegiance attempts in public schools to assimilate children of immigrants anxiety over immigration, with some 25 million immigrants coming to the United States between 1865 and 1920. These workers in these radicals were smack in the middle of that story because they were mostly immigrants.
Brooke Gladstone: You were talking about the Socialist Party in New York, Morris Hillquit was the leader of the Socialist Party at the time.
Donna Haverty-Stacke: He wrote an editorial that was published in The Call, the Socialist Party newspaper, responding to criticisms launched at the Socialist Party critics who said, "How dare they? How dare those socialists carry the stars and stripes alongside the red flag? The red flag is the flag of bloodshed and violence."
Hillquit retorted, "The red flag is the flag of brotherhood, and that we have a right to carry the stars and stripes. It's those who are criticizing us, who long pawns the stars to the trusts and monopolies, and that their stripes were the stripes of prison garb and the Black flag of the pirate was a more appropriate emblem for them."
Their carrying the American flag didn't mean they were subscribing to the more mainstream notion of the flag as an unquestioned loyalty to the country. They were carrying it with the goal of trying to make America be true to itself. Their understanding of what that meant that the revolution of 1776 needed to be extended into the economic sphere, they actually felt a duty in a way to carry the flag.
Brooke Gladstone: We've seen a wave of teachers strikes around the country, a push back to years of education budget cuts. I think a lot of us were surprised when we learn that teachers can only legally strike in 13 states. Does this recent round of strikes resonate somehow with the past?
Donna Haverty-Stacke: The echoes I hear are of the great disparity between the rich and the poor. We talk about being in the second Gilded Age, before the Progressive Era, before the New Deal protections. Now, we're on the other side of attempts to dismantle the New Deal. We're back in a period where I think maybe workers are finding that coming together, demonstrating their militancy and their solidarity is important, just as those workers in 1884 realized that they couldn't fight this in a case-by-case basis when you're up against large corporate powers and monopoly. Similar language that you hear, similar concerns circling back again now.
Brooke Gladstone: If that's the case, do you think that with this current resurgence, some American workers may find themselves linking up with May Day again?
Donna Haverty-Stacke: Possibly, it may come to serve their agenda more successfully since there is a growing awareness in certain sectors of the labor movement of the need to address capitalism globally. However, that might take shape, maybe it is coming together on May 1st in solidarity. You have yet to see a concerted effort among labor unions in the United States to revive May Day to where it once had been. Younger generations are learning that history through connecting up with older generations who have the memory of what May Day meant it can become a usable past again.
Brooke Gladstone: When we talk about this perpetual perennial argument over what is patriotism, think about Aaron Copland, our quintessential American composer who was wrestling with the issue of patriotism all the time, the theme for the common man. He even wrote a song called Into the Streets on May First. Could you see the tug of war over May 1st, whether it's a loyalty day or a day for labor, a tug of war over America's identity?
Donna Haverty-Stacke: I do think you're right. May Day became a bit of a lightning rod around this central issue of who has a right to consider themselves American and who has a right to define what that means. I'd say in my book that these workers who wanted to carry both the American flag and the red flag, they didn't need the Daughters of the American Revolution telling them what that flag meant. They took it up themselves, and they gave it meaning that they wanted in the streets on May Day.
Brooke Gladstone: Donna, thank you very much.
Donna Haverty-Stacke: Thank you.
Brooke Gladstone: Donna Haverty-Stacke is author of the book America’s Forgotten Holiday: May Day and Nationalism, 1867–1960. Now, you may have heard us mention Aaron Copland's Into the Streets May First, when our producer and WNYC's archivists went hunting for it to use in the segment, they came up empty. It seems it has never been professionally recorded since it was first published in the 1935 Workers' Songbook. In a moment you'll hear why.
It invokes hammers and sickles, and also it's really hard to sing. We decided to record it ourselves with the able assistance of our own producer Jon Hanrahan and WNYC engineer Irene Trudel. Thanks also to Karen Frillmann and Jim O'Grady, who lent their voices to our chorus. Without further ado, we present Into the Streets May First.
Into the streets May First!
Into the roaring Square!
Shake the midtown towers!
Crash the downtown air!
Come with a storm of banners,
Come with an earthquake tread,
Bells, ring out of your belfries,
Red flag, keep out your red!
Out of the shops and factories,
Up with the sickle and a hammer,
Comrades, these are our tools,
A song and a banner!
Brooke Gladstone: Thanks for listening to our midweek podcast. You can catch The Big Show on Friday. It's usually posted around dinner time. Check out On the Media's newsletter, and just thanks.
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