Labor Day & May Day

Zodiac zodiac at
Sun Sep 10 16:27:05 MDT 1995

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Tom writes:

> Like Jim, Ken and many other North American leftists, I've long been
> under the impression that our unique "Labor Day" was some sort of plot
> cooked up by labor fakers to divert us from celebrating May Day.  I
> just recently found out that it's not really true.

I haven't claimed the calendar isn't chock-full of pre-May 1 1886 dates
that have been used by various locales for labor-oriented
parades/demonstrations. (April 15 served in Toronto, it seems.)

The question is not: "Who came first?"

The question is: "Why was May Day rejected as a formal holiday here,
unlike the rest of the world?"

Sure, you can find a variety of dates in North American labor history
that could have been chosen. September 1 is one. It's natural people
desiring to erase May Day from North American working class
consciousness would put forward something with at least a modicum of

(This doesn't deny earlier "labor days" didn't add momentum to the
historical movement of the working class.)

BTW -- I'm not saying this is about "capitalist conspiracies", it's about
_institutional_ analysis. I don't suggest there was the mythcal "smoky
backroom" where The Five Richest Capitalists sat and said "Screw the
bastards. No more May Day."

I _do_ suggest there was a conscious position, which served the
purposes of capital, to settle against the politically-charged May Day
in favor for something else. Any date could have been chosen. September
1 had some prior history, so why not that....

Here's what I consider the critical sentence in Tom's post:

> This doesn't of course speak to the motives of capitalist governments
> in officially adopting it, but it's clear that it wasn't originally
> invented to divert attention from memorializing Haymarket.

Those motives are the whole point. And those are what the issue speaks

A September 1882 parade couldn't have related to May Day 1890. But May
Day was also a North American creation... Why was the former chosen as

The first May Day was 1890 -- and it was ASTOUNDINGLY successful. In
England, 300,000 people showed. Strikes/demonstrations/meetings were
also held in France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Norway,
Sweden, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Rumania, Poland,
Argentina, Mexico, Cuba and the USA. It would expand to more countries
with subsequent May Days -- and, more importantly, it would become
more revolutionary.

So why not May Day?


May 1 1886 was labor's deadline for the eight hour day. Capitalists had
to put up, or face a strike. As Tom mentions, that movement took on a
life of its own and became a radicalizing force in the proletariat.

The capitalist class responded with anti-democratic, police state
violence -- which led to the Haymarket Massacre, and the illegal police
campaign against militant labour, and a show trial, and public
executions of innocent men.

After all that, the (soon-to-be) AFL passed another resolution callng
for the resurrection of the eight-hour day movement that started the
whole thing. To commemorate the first movement, and the Haymarket
martyrs, they picked May 1 1890 as a day of protest and demonstration.

American unionists sought out and won support from European unionists
to also demonstrate for the shorter work week on May 1st. And they got
it big time.

In July 1889, at the International Congress of Socialists in Paris
(soon-to-be the Second International), a joint French/American
resolution called for world-wide demonstrations supporting the 8-hour
struggle for May 1 1890:

     "A great international demonstration shall be organized on a given
     date in such a manner that, in all countries and in all towns
     simultaneously, the workers shall call upon the public authorities
     on the same day to reduce the legal working day to eight hours and
     to implement the other resolutions of the Paris International

     "In view of the fact that a similar demonstration has already been
     decided upon by the American Federation of Labour at its Congress
     held in St Louis in December 1888, which adopted May 1st 1890,
     that date shall be that of the international demonstration.

     "The workers of the various countries shall carry out this
     demonstration in accordance with the conditions imposed upon them
     by the specific situation in their own country."

In England, Eleanor Marx (Karl's youngest daughter) was seriously
involved with the English working class -- particularly the Gas Workers
union. (Engels wrote in a April 19 1890 private letter he considered
her the union leader "on the sly".) The 35-year-old typist embraced the
call for the return to the 8-hour day movement and the May Day
demonstration resolution of the International Congress.

And 300,000 showed in Hyde Park for the May 4 event. (I've attached
Engels' commentary on the event for _Arbeiter Zeitung_ below, as well
as Eleanor's short speech.)

May Day 1890 was the first ever truly international militant labor


In researching Labor Day vs. May Day...

I spoke with an officer in the Canadian Labor Congress. It was an
interesting conversation, in that it was very "schzoid," the response
was very split -- probably reflecting the CLC itself.

On the one hand, he quickly jumped right into the issue and told me his
opinions and take on history -- which were clearly in favor of May Day.
He said he sees the Labor Day versus May Day issue as a microcosm of
North American labor's development in tame trade unionism versus
militant industrial unionism.

But then he switched somewhere in our talk and started telling me about
how we should accept Labor Day -- that the CLC favors sending out Labor
Day cards, like Xmas Cards. He also presented a story suggesting the
Canadian labour movement is the of "originator of Labour Day." I
suppose that this is some sort of "national pride" argument against May
Day... (The article is attached below. It has some interesting facts,
but it's slant is obivous.)

I asked him why the CLC didn't join with the rest of the world in
celebrating May Day, a tradition born right here on the Great Lakes. He
said something like "We have enough on our plate right now." True
enough. I'd rather see the CLC focus on organization against the
collapsing social democratic system right now. But even in boom times
it didn't change (though the CLC has flirted with the idea a lot).

Anyway -- he gave me a few labor historian numbers to check. So I did.

Upon hearing the subject, the CLC labor historian didn't wait a second
to basically repeat the same perspective -- with the notable exception
that I didn't hear about Labor Day cards. He was far less diplomatic
about the issue.

His view: The symbolic difference between May Day and Labour Day
expresses the cleavage between a political, and non-politically
involved, labour movement.

Also: Conservatively-led American labour abandoned May Day because of
its radical associations. In order to divert American workers away from
radical activity on May Day, the American Government and American
employers declared the first Monday in September as Labour Day in the
US. Canada soon followed.

Nonetheless, he pointed out, May Day lingered in the Canadian working
class. Not surprisingly, before Winnipeg's Great General Strike of June
1919 -- which so frightened the government that machine-gun-toting
troops were called in -- a large May Day demonstration took place six
weeks prior.

May Day finally disappeared after WWII, as American unions became
increasingly dominant in Canada -- American unions being far more

(The most famous recent example of this latter point was the 1980s split
in the United Auto Workers, resulting in the Canadian Auto Workers.
Incidentally, it happened that an independent documentary crew was
taping the Canadian UAW's negotiations with GM that year, which led to
the split... and it caught on tape the break-up of the union. UAW
bossman Owen Beiber did not like finding out later his voice could be
heard on the phone effectively telling the Canadians they couldn't
fight for the traditional 3 per cent increase because the American UAW
had caved-in on that in its own negotiations. Solidarity, brother. You
can get the doc, called _Final Offer_, from the National Film Board.)


> The origins of May Day itself, however, may be somewhat more obscure
> than the official account.

Hey, perhaps. I've never read a definite account that can tie the pagan
holiday to the working class May Day. I'd be delighted to find such an
anti-Christian tradition. But I doubt it's there in any substantial

Anyway -- I still unreservedly support a May 1 labor holiday in North
America, as part of international solidarity with working classes in
all countries. And I have yet to hear an argument for September 1 that
holds anything deeper than... "But it was first!"

(If that's your logic, I suggest we use April 15...)

Piping Marx Into Cyberspace...



     [From _Canadian Labour_, Sept 1961]

     The Canadian labour movement justly claims the title of originator
     of Labour Day.

     Peter J McGuire, one of the founders of the American Federation of
     Labour has traditionally been known as the "Father of Labour Day."
     Historical evidence indicates that McGuire obtianed his idea for
     the establishment of an annual demonstration and public holiday
     from Canadian trade unionists.

     Earliest records show that the Toronto Trades Assembly, perhaps
     the original central labour body in Canada, organized the first
     North American "workingman's demonstration" of any significance
     for April 15, 1872. The beribboned parade marched smartly in
     martial tread accompanied by four bands. About 10,000 Torontonians
     turned out to see the parade and listen to the speeches calling
     for abolition of the law which decreed that trade unions were
     criminal conspiracies in restraint of trade.

     The freedom of 24 imprisoned leaders of the Toronto Typographical
     Union -- on strike to secure the nine-hour working day -- was the
     immediate purpose of the parade, on what was then Thanksgiving
     Day. It was still a crime to be a member of a union in Canada
     although the law of criminal conspiracy in restraint of trade had
     been repealed by the United Kingdom parliament in 1871.

     Toronto was not the only city to witness a labour parade in 1872.
     On September 3, members of seven unions in Ottawa organized a
     parade more than a mile long, headed by the Garrison Artillery
     band and flanked by city firemen carrying torches.

     The Ottawa parade would its way to the home of Prime Minister Sir
     John A. MacDonald, where the marchers hoisted him into a carriage
     and drew him to Ottawa City Hall by torchlight. "The Old
     Chieftain," [MacDonald] aware of the discontent of workers with
     the laws which made unions illegal, in a ringing declaration from
     the steps of the City Hall, promised the marchers that his party
     would "sweep away all such barbarous laws from the statute books."

     The offending conspiracy laws were repealed by the Canadian
     parliament in 1872.

     The tradition established by the Toronto Trades Assembly [the
     April labor parade] was continued through the seventies and into
     the early 1880s.

     In 1882, the Toronto Trades and Labour Council, successor to the
     TTA, decided to organize the annual demonstration and picnic for
     July 22. The Council sent an invitation to Peter J McGuire of New
     York requesting his services as a speaker for the occassion.
     McGuire was the foudner and general secretary for the United
     Brotherhood of Carpenters which had been organized the previous

     It was in the same year that McGuire proposed at a meeting of the
     New York City Central Labour Union that a festive day be set aside
     for a demonstration and picnic. Labour Day was first celebrated in
     New York on September 5 1882. It is apparent, however, that the
     custom had developed in Canada and the invitation sent to McGuire
     prompted his suggestion to the New York labour body.

     Soon, pressure for legislation to declare a national holiday for
     Labour Day was exerted in both Canada and the United States. In
     1894, the government of Sir John Thompson enacted such legislation
     on July 23, with the Prime Minister piloting the bill through
     Parliament against the opposition of some of his Conservative

     Canadian trade unionists have celebrated his day "set aside to
     honour those who labour" from the 1870s on. The first [official
     holiday] Labour Day parade in Winnipeg, in 1894, was two miles

     There can be little doubt that the annual demonstrations of
     workers' solidarity each Labour Day in North America owe their
     inspiration to a small group of "illegal" members of the Toronto
     Trades Assembly.


                             MAY 4 IN LONDON

                            Frederick Engels

                     Arbeiter Zeitung, May 23, 1890

The May Day celebration of the proletariat was epoch-making not only in
its universal character, which made it the first international action
of the militant working class. It also served to register most
gratifying advances in the various countries. Friend and foe agree that
on the whole Continent it was Austria, and in Austria it was Vienna,
that celebrated the holiday of the proletariat in the most brilliant
and dignified manner, and that the Austrian, above all the Viennese,
workers thereby won themselves an entirely different standing in the
movement. Only a few years ago the Austrian movement had declined
almost to zero, and the workers of the German and Slav crown
territories were split into hostile parties wasting their forces on
internecine strife....

But on May 4 Vienna was thrown into the shade by London. And I hold it
to be the most important and magnificent in the entire May Day
celebration that on May 4, 1890, the English proletariat, rousing
itself from forty years' winter sleep, rejoined the movement of its
class. To appreciate this, one must look into the events leading up to
May 4.

Towards the beginning of last year the world's largest and most
wretched working-class district, the East End of London, stirred
gradually to action. On April 1, 1889, the Gas Workers' and General
Labourers' Union was founded- today it has a membership of some
100,000. Largely with the cooperation of this partner union (many are
gas workers in winter and dock workers in summer), the dockers' big
strike started on its way and shook even the bottom-most section of the
East London workers out of stagnation. As a result, trade union upon
trade union began to form among these, mostly unskilled workers, while
those already in existence there, which till then had barely kept
themselves going, now blossomed forth quickly. But the difference
between these new trade unions and the old was very great. The old
ones, which admit none but "skilled" workers, are exclusive; they bar
all workers who have not been trained according to the statutes of the
guild concerned, and thereby even expose themselves to competition from
those not in the guild; they are rich, but the richer they become, the
more they degenerate into mere sick- funds and burial clubs; they are
conservative and they steer clear above all of that....... socialism,
as far and as long as they can. The new "unskilled" unions, on the
other hand, admit every fellow- worker; they are essentially, and the
Gas Workers even exclusively, strike unions and strike funds. And while
they are not yet socialists to a man, they insist nevertheless on being
led only by socialists.  But socialist propaganda had already been
going on for years in the East End, where it was above all Mrs. E.
Marx-Aveling and her husband, Edward Aveling who had four years earlier
discovered the best propaganda field in the Radical clubs consisting
almost exclusively of workers, and had worked on them steadily and, as
is evident now, with the best of success. During the dock workers'
strike Mrs. Aveling was one of the three women in charge of the
distribution of relief.... Mrs. Aveling led almost unaided last
winter's strike in Silvertown, also in the East End, and on the Gas
Workers' committee she represents a women's section she has founded

Last autumn the Gas Workers won an eight-hour working day here in
London, but lost it again, after an unhappy strike, in the southern
part of the city, acquiring sufficient proof that this gain is by no
means safe in the northern part either. Is it surprising then, that
they readily accepted Mrs. Aveling's proposal to hold the May Day
celebration, decided on by the Paris Congress, in favour of a legalised
eight-hour working day,"' in London? In common with several socialist
groups, the Radical clubs and the other trade unions in the East End,
they set up a Central Committee that was to organise a large
demonstration for the purpose in Hyde Park. As it turned out that all
attempts to hold the demonstration on Thursday, May 1, were bound to
fail this year, it was decided to put it off till Sunday, May 4.

To ensure that, as far as possible, all London workers took part, the
Central Committee invited, with uninhibited naivete, the London Trades
Council as well. This is a body made up of delegates from the London
trades unions, mostly from the older corporations of "skilled" workers,
a body in which, as might be expected, the anti-socialist elements
still command a majority. The Trades Council saw that the movement for
an eight-hour day threatened to grow over its head.  The old trades
unions stand likewise for an eight-hour working day, but not for one to
be established by law. By an eight-hour day they mean that normal daily
wages should be paid for eight hours -- so- and-so much per hour -- but
that overtime should be allowed any number of hours daily, provided
every overtime hour is paid at a higher rate -- say, at the rate of one
and a half or two ordinary hours.  The point therefore was to channel
the demonstration into the fairway of this kind of working day, to be
won by "free" agreement but certainly not to be made obligatory by
parliamentary act. To this end the Trades Council allied itself with
the Social-Democratic Federation of the above-mentioned Mr. Hyndman, an
association which poses as the only true church of British socialism,
which had very consistently concluded a life-and-death alliance with
the French Possibilists and sent a delegation to their congress and
which therefore regarded in advance the May Day celebration decided on
by the Marxist Congress as a sin against the Holy Ghost. The movement
was growing over the head of the Federation as well; but to adhere to
the Central Committee would mean placing itself under "Marxist"
leadership; on the other hand, if the Trades Council were to take the
matter into its own hands and if the celebration were held on the 4th
of May instead of on the 1st, it would no longer be anything like the
wicked "Marxist" May Day celebration and so they could join in. Despite
the fact that the Social-Democratic Federation calls in its program for
a legalised eight-hour day, it eagerly clasped the hand proffered by
the Trades Council.

Now the new allies, strange bedfellows though they were, played a trick
on the Central Committee which would, it is true, be considered not
only permissable but quite skillful in the political practice of the
British bourgeoisie, but which European and American workers will
probably find very mean. The fact is that in the case of popular
meetings in Hyde Park the organisers must first announce their
intention to the Board of Works and reach an agreement with it on
particulars, securing specifically permission to drive over the grass
the carts that are to serve as platforms. Besides, regulations say that
after a meeting has been announced, no other meeting may be held in the
Park on the same day. The Central Committee had not yet made the
announcement; but the organisations allied against it had scarcely
heard the news when they announced a meeting in the Park for May 4 and
obtained permission for seven platforms, doing it behind the backs of
the Central Committee.

The Trades Council and the Federation believed thereby to have rented
the Park for May 4 and to have a victory in their pocket. The former
called a meeting of delegates from the trades unions, to which it also
invited two delegates from the Central Committee; the latter sent
three, including Mrs. Aveling. The Trades Council treated them as if it
had been master of the situation. it informed them that only trades
unions, that is to say, no socialist unions or political clubs, could
take part in the demonstration and carry banners. just how the
Social-Democratic Federation was to participate in the demonstration
remained a mystery. The Council had already edited the resolution to be
submitted to the meeting and had deleted from it the demand for a
legalised eight-hour day; discussion on a proposal for putting that
demand back in the resolution was not allowed, nor was it voted on.
And lastly, the Council refused to accept Mrs. Aveling as a delegate
because, it said, she was no manual worker (which is not true),
although its own President, Mr. Shipton, had not moved a finger in his
own trade for fully fifteen years.

The workers on the Central Committee were outraged by the trick played
on them. It looked as if the demonstration had been finally put into
the hands of two organisations representing only negligible minorities
of London workers. There seemed to be no remedy for it but to storm the
platforms of the Trades Council as the Gas Workers had threatened. Then
Edward Aveling went to the Ministry and secured, contrary to
regulations, permission for the Central Committee as well to bring
seven platforms to the Park. The attempt to juggle with the
demonstration in the interest of the minority failed; the Trades
Council pulled in its horns and was glad to be able to negotiate with
the Central Committee on an equal footing over arrangements for the

One has to know this background to appreciate the nature and
significance of the demonstration. Prompted by the East End workers who
had recently joined in the movement, the demonstration found such a
universal response that the two organisations -- which were no less
hostile to each other than both of them together were to the
fundamental idea of the demonstration -- had to ally themselves in
order to seize the leadership and use the meeting to their own
advantage. On the one hand, a conservative Trades Council preaching
equal rights for capital and labour; on the other, a Social- Democratic
Federation playing at radicalism, and talking of social revolution
whenever it is safe to do so, and the two allied to do a mean trick
with an eye to capitalising on a demonstration thoroughly hateful to
both. Owing to these incidents, the May 4 meeting was split into two
parts. On one side were the conservative workers, whose horizon does
not go beyond the wage-labour system, flanked by a narrow-minded but
ambitious socialist sect; on the other side, the great bulk of workers
who had recently joined in the movement and who do not want to hear any
more of the Manchesterism [the orthodox bourgeois economics --ed.] of
the old trades unions and want to win their complete emancipation by
themselves, jointly with allies of their own choice, and not with those
imposed by a small socialist coterie.

On one side was stagnation represented by trades unions that have not
yet quite freed themselves from the guild spirit, and by a narrow-
minded sect backed by the meanest allies; on the other, the living free
movement of the reawakening British proletariat. And it was apparent
even to the blindest where there was fresh life in that two- faced
gathering and where stagnation.

Around the seven platforms of the Central Committee were dense, immense
crowds, marching up with music and banners, over a hundred thousand in
the procession, reinforced by almost as many who had come severally;
everywhere was harmony and enthusiasm, and yet order and organisation.
At the platforms of the combined reactionaries, on the other hand,
everything seemed dull; their procession was much weaker than the
other, poorly organised, disorderly and mostly belated, so that in some
places things got under way there only when the Central Committee was
already through.  While the Liberal leaders of some Radical clubs, and
the officials of several trades unions rallied to the Trades Council,
the members of the very same unions -- in fact, four entire branches of
the Social- Democratic Federation -- marched with the Central
Committee. For all that, the Trades Council succeeded in winning some
attention, but the decisive success was achieved by the Central

What the numerous onlooking bourgeois politicians took home with them
as the overall effect was the certainty that the English proletariat,
which for fully forty years had trailed behind the big Liberal party
and served it as voting cattle, had awakened at last to new,
independent life and action. There can be no doubt about that: on May
4, 1890, the English working class joined the great international army.
And that is an epochmaking fact. The English proletariat has its roots
in the most advanced industrial development and, moreover, possesses
the greatest freedom of political movement.  Its long slumber -- a
result, on the one hand, of the failure of the Chartist movement of
1836-50 and, on the other, of the colossal industrial upswing of
1848-80 -- is finally broken. The grandchildren of the old Chartists
are stepping into the line of battle.


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