The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 70/No. 20           May 22, 2006  
How labor misleaders buried May Day in U.S.
WASHINGTON—The massive working-class rallies and marches across the United States for immigrant rights on May 1 show that the celebration of International Workers Day is being reborn in this country. This is sparking renewed interest in how May Day originated more than a century ago as part of labor’s struggle for an eight-hour day.

Less known is the fact that May Day, celebrated in large rallies through the 1930s, was buried by the Social Democratic and Stalinist misleaders of the labor movement as they backed Washington’s moves to drag working people into World War II.

May Day was born in the United States. During the mass campaign that arose to win the eight-hour workday, the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) set May 1, 1886, as a deadline for the bosses and their government to implement the measure. On that date, hundreds of thousands of workers across the country went on strike.

Seeking to defeat this movement, the government framed up and hanged several anarchist workers, convicting them for a bomb explosion at a labor rally at Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Beginning in 1890, after the founding of the Second (Socialist) International the year before, May 1 was celebrated as a worldwide working-class holiday that also honored the Haymarket Martyrs.

The bosses and their labor lieutenants tried everything to exorcise May Day. AFL leader Samuel Gompers proposed replacing it with “May Sunday,” a day when workers would hold picnics in the park and listen to speeches by labor fakers. In 1894 President Grover Cleveland signed a bill declaring the first Monday in September as “Labor Day.” Meanwhile, around the world May Day celebrations continued.

In the United States, May Day was celebrated by the left wing of the labor movement. In 1918, during World War I, the Woodrow Wilson administration banned these demonstrations. But in 1919, thousands of workers poured into the streets of U.S. cities in the most militant May Day rallies held yet in the country.

The mass labor struggles of the mid-1930s gave new impetus and militancy to these celebrations. The Militant reported in its May 4, 1935, issue that more than 100,000 trade unionists marched in New York that year, the biggest May Day mobilization since the world war. It included contingents of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and other unions. Marching past the General Motors offices, the unionists chanted “Support Toledo Chevrolet Strikers!” in solidarity with a union-organizing battle.

In 1936 a United Front May Day Committee was formed in New York that included the Communist Party, the Workers Party (forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party), and the left wing of the Socialist Party. It was the first since 1919 to include such a broad range of currents in the workers movement.

When the U.S. rulers began a drive in the late 1930s toward a new imperialist war for markets and colonies, the Communist and Socialist parties—having abandoned any pretense of a revolutionary course—fell in line behind the Roosevelt administration’s war campaign. As the Stalin-led Soviet bureaucracy sought an alliance with U.S. imperialism, Communist parties in this country and around the world used their influence in the labor movement to try to tame opposition to the war and to the government’s assault on labor.

In 1938 the CP-led unions in New York organized a May Day parade to the accompaniment of patriotic songs. Placards and banners in the march denounced German fascism but made no mention of Washington’s war preparations. In spite of that, ILGWU locals declined to take part in the flag-waving parade and held their own May Day rally. The Socialist Workers Party held May Day meetings in several cities, opposing the imperialist war moves and commemorating the Russian Revolution. After the imperialist slaughter began, the U.S. Stalinists and Social Democrats buried May Day celebrations altogether in the name of “national unity.” For decades the bosses thought that, while May 1 continued to be celebrated around the world, they had killed it in the United States.

Today, however, with millions of foreign-born workers joining the ranks of the working class and bringing their traditions of struggle, May Day is being reborn in this country as a day of international working-class struggle.
Related articles:
Workers boosted by immigrant rights actions  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home