Why May Day?
By Evan Moravansky, MHVDSA Political Education Co-Chair
Speech delivered at MHVDSA’s May Day 2022 Cookout in Kingston, NY
First celebrated as an annual event in 1890 by trade unionists, communists, socialists, and anarchists alike, May Day is part of a long-held tradition honoring the collective power of the proletariat and a recurring opportunity to demand better conditions for the working class.
It emerged out of the mid-nineteenth century movement for the 8 hour workday — the workday we know well today. But not so long ago, with the rise of industry and with it, capitalism, an acute form of economic exploitation developed. Those who worked just long enough for sustenance and taxes now had to work enough for sustenance, taxes, and their boss’s sustenance and taxes too! And so came along the 10, 12, and yes, 18 hour work day.
Such a life is unimaginable if not appalling to us today. But it was, and in many ways remains, the daily reality for the working class here and across the world. And it was not by technological progress or the will of those who run the economy that we may work less hours than we once did. No, it was the will of the people and by their determination to decide their own collective fate that we work as we do today. And yet, as we know, the struggle continues.
You may wonder why we celebrate today, and not the Labor Day we know of in September. While that holiday has its own history in the labor movement, its 1894 establishment was a conservative reaction against the radical politics associated with May Day. In truth, the origins of May Day lie in the juncture of tragedy and hope on the picket line.
May 1st was chosen to commemorate the Haymarket Affair, an event on the heels of the Great Upheaval of 1877, where rail workers went on strike to protest the third wage cut in a year. This led to 100,000 workers striking across the US, threatening to paralyze the economy until it was violently put down by state forces for fears that the workers would gain control over industry as had happened in Paris just six years prior.
In similar fashion, the Haymarket Affair began as an American Federation of Labor-sponsored strike for the 8 hour workday on May 1st, 1886. As the strike continued, on May 4th, during a peaceful labor demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, police started to disperse the crowd, and an explosion rocked the area. Not knowing who threw the bomb, police fired on the workers, killing four and injuring dozens more.
Eight anarchists were convicted of conspiracy thereafter, in what can only be described as a sham trial, with scant evidence connecting them to the bomb. Seven were sentenced to death. In the end, four met their fate at the hands of the state, despite only two of the men actually being at Haymarket Square. This would reverberate through history yet unwritten, becoming a focal point of labor and Left activism that influenced major figures for decades after.
One such figure, the undeterred Samuel Gompers, founding member and head of the AFL, penned a letter to the Second International Workingmen’s Association, a global organization of laborers and socialists. In this letter, he informed them that they would again rally for the eight hour work day on May 1st, 1890, and suggested the movement go international. And so the Second International adopted May 1st as International Workers’ Day.
Today, the memory of labor struggle and labor lost continues to fuel the fight for equality and peace. On May Day, we commemorate the contributions of our fellow members of the working class, but we also keep the fight alive. Not just DSA, but us, as workers, who fight not just for individual self, but us, together.
We fight for economic security for all, where no person should struggle to have their basic needs met, and that ‘all men created equal’ loses its mere rhetorical significance and becomes material — something we know to be true because we don’t just say it, we live it.
We fight for democracy for all, ensuring that the vote is afforded to everyone in society, and that the economy which controls nearly every aspect of our lives is democratically run by the many, not the few.
We fight for a sustainable planet for all, where we fulfill our role as stewards of this green Earth, and protect the natural world not so our descendants can admire it in a museum display, but in the clean air they breathe and clear water they drink.
We fight for these things and more, as socialists, as organizers, as workers, as family, as friends, as humans, united against every injustice among us. To quote Eugene V Debs, the socialist organizer and rail worker who ran for President in the early 1900s and later inspired Bernie Sanders, “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
The good fight is not just about when and where we clock into work. It is not calling a rose by any other name. Workers rights are not just about work, but rights for every soul on this Earth affected by labor — gay rights, democratic rights, Black rights, transgender rights, reproductive rights, immigrant rights. Labor encompasses all. This shared struggle, at its heart, is the recognition of our own humanity, extended to others, and complete only when we are all free.
I don’t have to explain to you the ways in which we remain unfree. Though we won the eight hour workday, economic uncertainty threatens it, with many of us overworked or with multiple jobs that hardly pay us enough to survive, let alone thrive. The cost of living skyrockets while our paychecks stagnate or dwindle, and all the while we are hapless to fix it, beholden to the whim of those who make decisions about the state of the world without us.
This is not the way it has to be. Much like the Great Upheaval of 1877, we see workers becoming increasingly aware of their power to affect change not by waiting, or hoping, or asking — but demanding it. The unionizations we see from Amazon, Starbucks, and even the NewsGuild here in the Hudson Valley; these are not symptoms of the social illnesses of poverty and powerlessness, but its very cure.
Although most of us are not in the union fight, we today know well the unfreedom of work that we all experience daily. The unfreedom we experience when we walk into our workplace, where for most people, they are stripped of their ability to decide how their labor and time is spent. This is not the unfreedom of work itself, but that work which determines how well we eat, where we live, how much time we spend with our children, what memories we make with loved ones, and when we’ve had enough. Enough of the things that make us human. Should not we be the ones who decide these things for ourselves, together?
This is a question asked every May Day for more than a century. Some may hear this number and think there is no path ahead, that we have exhausted our fight. And in truth, the fight has gone long, it has made progress and experienced setbacks. But that we stand where we do today, enjoying the company of each other becomes a radical act in itself, being human as we are — this here is why we continue.
And so, today, we celebrate May Day because we celebrate our shared humanity and vision for a future not utopian, but equal. Today, we stand against all forms of oppression and unfreedom, in pursuit of labor’s triumph over capital — people over profits — against that and those who hold power over us. It is here, today, that we carry the torch of workers’ rights with us! And tomorrow, we all do! Solidarity, and all power to the people!