Into the Streets May First
All throughout May, in honor of Labor History Month, we will be bringing you a variety of short articles, photo galleries, and linked content on our Facebook page, Twitter account, and here at the newly reinvigorated Back Table blog. Join us as we spotlight milestones in labor history and the materials in our vast collections that document these significant events.
What better way to begin our commemorative month than with a brief post about May Day? Given the wealth of information on the subject readily available, we won’t belabor (haha) the observance’s origin, but a brief primer is certainly helpful. May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, is a celebration of the international labor movement that is an official holiday in 80 countries and unofficially recognized in many others. The date commemorates the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago, during which a general strike in support of the eight-hour workday was broken up by police, resulting in a bomb exploding and police firing on demonstrators. Seven police officers and at least four civilians were killed, with over a hundred people wounded. The resulting investigation, trial, and executions have largely been regarded as major miscarriages of justice and a source of both inspiration and solidarity for many within labor communities and radical social movements.
In 1889, the first congress of the Second International, a Parisian organization of socialist and labour parties, called for international demonstrations to take place on the 1890 anniversary of the Haymarket protests. Other groups reinforced this appeal, resulting in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin Bay View Massacre in 1886 and Cleveland, Ohio May Day Riots of 1894 and 1919. In 1904, the International Socialist Conference in Amsterdam passed a resolution calling on “all Social Democratic Party organizations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on May First for the legal establishment of the eight-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.” Throughout its history of observance, the day retains a strong association with anarchism, communism, and socialism.
May Day is not an officially recognized holiday in the United States or Canada; rather, the federal observance honoring workers is Labor Day, the first of which was celebrated in 1894. The two different days result from an effort on the part of certain factions to distance the country’s labor movement from the Haymarket incident and May Day’s more radical associations. The issue is a complex one that reveals the heterogeneous composition of the labor movement with regards to political ideology. Efforts to move Labor Day from September to May have been unsuccessful.
Despite its unofficial status in America, May Day remains a significant date for many communities, including immigrant groups and quite recently, Occupy Wall Street. Many of Tamiment’s collections provide documentary evidence of the observance’s continued importance – a simple search of our online finding aids shows 102 results! We have a wealth of visual and artistic materials in our poster and broadsides collection (many of which are available to view through ARTstor) and some of our larger photograph collections, including the Daniel Nilva Photographs and the Daily Worker and Daily World Photographs Collection. The extent to which May Day truly dots the breadth of many of our other collections underscores its widespread significance to labor and radical communities. If you’re interested in researching these materials, you might want to consider looking at the records of the Communist Party of the United States of America, the personal papers of individuals associated with these communities, or one of our printed ephemera collections.