While May Day is celebrated widely just about everywhere except North America, its roots are firmly in the United States, in Chicago to be precise. It is also a product of the struggle of workers for the eight-hour day, one of the key demands of workers during the late nienteenth century and much of the twentieth. While May Day is known as the day of international workers’ solidarity, there is no one song associated with it. “Solidarity Forever”, “Joe Hill, Hold The Fort” and “The Internationale” are all widely sung in Canada as is “Bread and Roses”.
At the founding convention of the American National Labor Union in 1866 the following resolution was passed dealing with the shorter workday: “The first and great necessity of the present, to free labor of this country from capitalist slavery, is the passing of a law by which 8 hours shall be the normal working day in all states in the American union. We are resolved to put forth all our strength until this glorious result is attained.” In September of the same year, the Geneva Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association, the First International, went on record for the same demand. Both the American National Labour Union and the First International ceased to exist in the 1870s, but the campaign for the eight-hour day was alive and well.
When the small North American union movement regrouped into the American Federation of Labour in 1884, they passed a resolution stating that “eight hours shall constitute legal day’s labor from May First, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout their jurisdiction that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.”
Mass strikes took place on May 1, 1886. In Chicago, a series of demonstrations and police terror produced what is known as the Haymarket Massacre, which occurred after a dynamite bomb was thrown at police during a general strike. In retaliation, the police fired on workers, killing dozens of demonstrators. Three years later, on July 14, 1889, the hundredth anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, the Second International of workers’ parties was founded and declared May first the day upon which the workers of the world, organized in their political parties and trade unions, were to fight for the important political demand: the eight-hour day. It has been celebrated ever since, embracing various goals of the workers’ movement. It has been celebrated in illegality and as an official ‘holiday’. Sometimes it has mobilized hundreds of thousands, sometimes only a few dozen, keeping the flame alive.
In Vancouver, in 1935, as many as 30,000 demonstrators paraded from the Cambie Street Grounds to a rally in Stanley Park. In their report to Ottawa, the RCMP said it was “one of the largest labour demonstrations in the history of that city,” and noted that it included “approximately 900 public school and high school students who had come out on strike in sympathy with the relief camp strikers.” The throng sang “The Internationale” and observed a two minute silence for revolutionary martyrs. A Jugoslav orchestra played the “Soviet Funeral March”
The relief camp strike evolved into the On-to-Ottawa Trek, which helped bring down the Conservative government of RB Bennett in the next election and set the stage for the establishment of Canada’s post-WWII social safety net.
A few years ago the British artist Billy Bragg did an updated version of the workers anthem “The Internationale” originally written in the 1880’s in France and widely sung on May Day.
While May Day in Canada is not the official holiday that it is in many countries, trade union and other social activist organizations organize a variety of events around it. In many cities there are dinners and rallies, and in some of the bigger ones there are Mayworks cultural festivals, often spread over a number of days. A Canadian Union of Public Employees video of a 2007 May Day event in Edmonton features the song, “I dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”, commemorating the great labour songwriter murdered by the State of Utah in 1915. It also features links to May Day arts festivals and celebrations in a number of Canadian cities.
Some confusion exists on the difference between May Day and Labour Day. This was explained to me many years ago by a veteran Austrian labour organizer who simply said, “On Labour Day the bosses give us a holiday. On May Day, we take one!”