The Activist Celebrates May Day

The Activist Celebrates May Day

The Activist wishes all RPA members and allies a happy May Day, in celebration of the international labor struggles that continue to shape our world. We are so excited to witness the surge of organizing activity and unionization efforts across the United States. This renewed labor solidarity, not seen on such a scale since the early 1980s, comes under the urgent conditions of stagnant wages, meager healthcare, and increased economic precarity. 

Journeyman House Carpenters' Association of Philadelphia banner promoting the ten-hour day. United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America Records, 1835.

May Day was established to honor the Haymarket Affair in Chicago. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions chose May 1, 1886, as the date for a general strike in support of the eight-hour day.

One key organizer was Lucy Parsons, known as both "the anarchist queen" and described by the Chicago Police Department as "more dangerous than a thousand rioters." Born into slavery in Texas, she eventually relocated to Chicago with husband Albert Parsons, a white radical who fought in the Civil War. She went on to help found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905.

Black and white portrait of Lucy Parsons. August Brauneck, circa 1886. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs division. 

“The common supposition is that Lucy Parsons is a virago, that when she talks she shrieks, that she strides instead of walking, that her daily diet is red fire. Half of Lucy Parsons’ power is due to the fact that she is to the public, and even to her followers, a mythical terror.”

-The Inter Ocean, 1900.

After almost two years of nationwide organizing, workers met in the Chicago on May 1, 1886 to advocate for a shorter workday. Crowds marched across the city, urging fellow workers to strike. 

Police turned violent during a labor action on May 3, killing one striker and injuring several others. March organizers responded by convening a rally for the next day in Haymarket Square in protest. Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, who attended briefly, noted that the meeting was calm before departing. Nonetheless, shortly after Harrison departed, Chicago police arrived and ordered the crowd to disperse.

The Anarchist Riot in Chicago - A Dynamite Bomb exploding among the police. Thure de Thulstrup, published in Harper's Weekly on May 15, 1886. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
A bomb was then thrown by an unidentified individual, prompting police gunfire into the crowd. At the conclusion of the violence, 7 police officers and several workers were dead, and over 60 people were injured. 

Eight anarchists were convicted of murder, based on the allegation that they had helped the individual build or throw the bombMost of the “Chicago Eight,” however, had not been present at Haymarket that night. One of the subsequently hanged men was Albert Parsons, husband to Lucy Parsons. 

The Funeral of the anarchists at Chicago, Sunday, November 13th: Captain Black delivering the oration in Waldheim Cemetery. Frank Leslie, 1887.

Inspired by the U.S. labor movement's push for a shorter workday, people around the world began celebrating May Day as an international workers' holiday.

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland moved the United States recognition of Labor Day to September, hoping to weaken connections between Americans workers and other international labor struggles. Today, May Day is an official holiday in 66 countries and unofficially celebrated in many more.

Founded in 1936, the Confederation of Mexican Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores de México, or CTM) is the largest confederation of labor unions in Mexico. The poster reads, “CTM united with all Mexicans for the greatness of the nation." Alberto Beltrán and Arturo García Bustos, 1947.

A pamphlet issued by the United Labor and Peoples Committee for May Day.

May Day poster distributed by the Tudeh Party of Iran. Courtesy Ajam Media Collective.

"Formed immediately after the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941, the Tudeh party was the oldest and most established leftist oppositional organization during the Iranian Revolution. However, by the 1970’s, Tudeh was only a shadow of its former self, due to effective suppression by the Shah’s intelligence agency, SAVAK."

-Ajam Media Collective

Issued by the African National Congress (ANC), this South African May Day poster was released ten days before Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president in 1994.

"The African National Congress (ANC) was formed in South Africa on January 18, 1912, when a group of Africans, Colored, and Indians convened a meeting in Bloemfontein to create the South African Native National Congress.  The name was officially changed to the African National Congress in 1923. This was initially a moderate movement aimed at improving the status of non-whites in South Africa whose careers had been stymied by racial discrimination.

[...] Led by Mandela, the ANC won the first democratic election in 1994. Soon afterwards he, as South Africa’s first president elected by a majority of its residents, formed a government of national unity."