May Day is not just maypoles and wildflowers: It is also a nearly 130-year tradition of progressive labor politics. Around the world each year, May 1is met with global demonstrations to recognize and celebrate worker’s rights. International Labor Day was born during the American fight for the eight-hour workday.
On May 4,1886, Chicago streets were crowded with workers gathered for thefourth day of demonstrations demanding fewer hours. As police violently cleared protestors, an unknown person, (anarchist or agent provocateur, no one knows) threw a stick of dynamite at the police. In response, police opened fire, killing dozens of demonstrators, and several officers, in what is known as the Haymarket Massacre. In subsequent years, demonstrations across the world were held on May 1in the name of the Haymarket martyrs, in attempts to further the efforts for an 8-hour workday. By 1904, International Labor Day was recognized by workers rights groups around the world.
Though the U.S. was May Day’s crèche, it has until recently been largely orphaned by American activist movements. But, starting in the mid 2000's, May Day saw a revival. May 1,2006, saw 1.5 million people take to the streets in nationally coordinated protests to demand immigration reform. On May 1, 2008, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union successfully closed all 29 West Coast ports to demand an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Middle East. 2010’s May Day demonstrations took place in 90 cities with hundreds of thousands of participants including high-profile politicians and celebrities, all speaking out against Arizona’s draconian immigration law.
The buzz these days is that this year may see the most impressive outpouring yet. In the months since last May Day, the U.S. has experienced a direct action renaissance. The climate movement boasted 1200 arrests, while protesting the Keystone Pipeline at the White House. Occupy Wall Street has spurred millions of Americans to take over local public spaces and reclaim wrongfully foreclosed homes. Just this last month, thousands of Americans were trained for direct action as part of the 99% Spring. The nationwide loss of homes, and jobs, as well as the crash of federal, state, and local services, has instilled the renewed sense of urgency necessary for Americans to do whatever it takes to seek change.
The focus of this year’s demonstrations is to demonstrate the power of the 99%. Actions across the country are intended to not only decry the status quo (income inequality, predatory banking, special interests) but to present visions for an alternative. Organizers of New York's events have committed to the principle of mutal aid, with a host of events offering services to community members and participants including food, medical, and legal support. The most impressive of these is the Free University, in which professors and nationally respected scholars will converge in Madison Square Park for an afternoon of free classes open to the public. Los Angeles’s actions will also provide beneficial services, as its major convergence space will be focused on feeding the people of the largely low-income neighborhood Skid Row.
Events such as these help to quiet concerns, from both the right and the left, that the intentions of May Day events are negative at best, and violent at worst. But more importantly, these events anchor their participants in the need for proactive change from the bottom up. Efforts necessary to narrow the vast income inequality gap, rein in corporate power, or address climate change in the face of frustratingly inadequate government action, will require that progressive intellectuals and everyday people alike step up to build the world they wish to see for themselves, rather than wait for leadership from above.
To find out about local May Day events, check out Occupy’s national May Day Guide.