Another May 1st, another obligatory article about its history, eh?
Let’s skip that. Or rather, let’s press the fast forward button on it.
The first May Day (or International Workers Day) was held on May 1st, 1889, in commemoration of US workers who staged a massive strike to demand an 8-hour workday back in May of 1886. That days-long demonstration fulminated in a clash between workers and police that left several dead on both sides in what would be called the Haymarket Affair.
Since then, trade unions, labour activists, sympathetic politicians and others have marched annually on May 1st to sing, shout, and wave flags with fellow workers.
May Day rallies were first held in Japan in 1920, but they were outlawed for 10 years from 1936 due to the government’s growing crackdown on social movements. The authorities were wary of the rallies being disguised as picnics, so they were banned regardless of crowd size. The first postwar May Day was celebrated in 1946 as the “People’s Rally for Obtaining Food” took place in Tokyo, as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators protested against food shortages and against the government of Japan’s prime minister, Shigeru Yoshida.
That backdrop, dramatic as it may be, may fail to resonate with us today. After all, it is easy to feel as though we have little to nothing in common with the toiling masses a century or longer ago. What’s more? There is no flashiness to May Day. no big corporate sales campaigns, no commemorative Pepsi cans, no May Day TV sing-along specials, etc. It is almost as if May Day is a dirty secret in the public sphere at times, and you would be forgiven if you never really learned about it before.
I want to tell you that that is precisely why May Day is your day.
Eugene Debs, the once president of the American Railway Union and a multiple-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America, spoke about the importance of May Day as a celebration of the international working class. “May Day is the international day of the working class, a day when workers throughout the world join hands in a common expression of solidarity and determination to improve their lot. It is the day when the workers of the world declare their allegiance to each other, and their resolve to achieve a better future for all.”
This vision of a cohesive identity based on your work seems superficial to many of us now. Of course, we all come from various cultural backgrounds, we have unique hobbies and interests, we play different sports, eat different foods, speak different languages, and so on.
But in some ways, the most impactful part of your day is spent doing the same things as everyone else in the working class: working hard, getting told what to do, accruing repetitive stress injuries, and navigating corporate bureaucracies designed to pinch you a little bit more every year.
Despite all of that, at your workplace you are often forbidden from really talking shop. If you talk to each other about your rights, your pay, your benefits, changes you would like to see or some of the injustices you resent, you will be labeled a “troublemaker” and muzzled by mistreatment or outright harassment.
Put simply, most bosses don’t want you to express yourself in the exact way that May Day calls on us to think of ourselves and express ourselves. May Day is the one holiday that truly transcends culture and connects all people worldwide on an axis as intimate as our bank savings, our life goals, our retirement, and even what we can afford to eat each night with loved ones.
May Day speaks to us workers and reminds us that we are a community, not only despite the efforts of petty bosses, but also despite over a century of government repression and attempts at erasure.
For example, the German Nazi party tried to co-opt May Day in the 1930s at the same time that it brutally repressed, jailed, and murdered labour activists. May Day survived that.
In the 1950s the US government, in the throes of the Red Scare established Loyalty Day – a day on which American citizens are called upon to affirm their loyalty to the US government – on May 1st in a blatant attempt to replace International Workers Day with something less recusant. May Day survived that.
In Japan’s 1952 Bloody May Day, armed police fired live ammunition in the crowds killing one and injuring many others.
To this day, governments around the world are quashing trade union activists on May Day and censoring the slogans and songs of the working class.
Yet, despite historical and present repression, despite media and politicians’ agnosticism, despite having none of the flair that props up nearly every other great holiday around the world, May Day is with us here and across the globe. And it is here with us for one very simple reason: YOU.
As long as there is a class of people who do the work, there will be a yearning for expression, understanding, and community – and International Workers Day is the day where you are told to be proud of your class alongside billions of others who understand you in those aforementioned intimate ways. That is why May Day belongs to YOU.