by Matthew Houston
“The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today”. These were the last words spoken by August Spies, a Haymarket martyr killed in 1886. His crime was a belief in anarchism and the right of workers to the eight-hour workday, which led to his being hung with three other anarchists. Three years later the Second International called on the workers of the world to strike for a reduced workday. With the words of this Haymarket martyr still fresh in their ears hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated on May 1st, 1890 and May Day was officially born.
May Day or International Workers Day was part of a long fight for the eight-hour day that first started fomenting in the 1860s, but boiled over in the 1880s. At the time conditions within workplaces were often dangerous and hours were anywhere between 10 and 16 hours per day. While May Day started with demands for the eight-hour workday, it was by no means limited to that demand. May Days over the last hundred years have generally focused on issues of workers but have expanded to include issues of women, students, and people of color, and taken on issues of immigration and imperialism.
The fear of May Day and its populist message has elicited instances of backlash aimed at appropriating the day to obscure or change its meaning. In 1958 President Dwight D. Eisenhower sought to do this by declaring May 1st to be Law Day in the United States. The day was intended to be an occasion for nationwide reflection on the role of law in the foundation of the country and as Eisenhower stated, “In a very real sense, the world no longer has a choice between force and law. If civilization is to survive it must choose the rule of law.”
May 1st is a national holiday in over 80 countries and is unofficially celebrated in many more. Over the last hundred-plus years May Day has waxed and waned as a lightning rod for struggle. While countries in Europe and Latin American generally have large demonstrations called for by unions and other left wing groups, turnout in the United States has been smaller. While some unions in the United States have kept a tentative connection to May Day, one might say their observance of the holiday is enacted more out of a sense of pageantry than of militancy. Starting in 2006, many have seen a revival of May Day led by immigrant rights groups that have focused attention on immigrant labor across the United States. During 2006, a series of demonstrations against the racist legislation H.R. 4437 led up to a very large turnout across the country on May Day.
This year occupiers across the country are calling for a general strike on May Day 2012. Coming out of Occupy LA in December, the call has grown with occupiers across the country and the world looking to participate in one form or another. Occupy Wall Street calls for “no work, no school, no housework, no shopping, take the streets!” on May 1st. The call is indicative of the possibilities of non-action but is by no means the limit of possible action.