Yesterday, May 1, I saw a Facebook post by an academic I’ve known for… a long time. He teaches history in an east coast college and advertises himself as a “labor historian.”
He, or somebody, had filched the classic “We can do it!” WWII poster of a working woman flexing her bicep and appropriated it to promote International Workers’ Day. He urged everyone to “honor labor.”
Just because I get intensely irritated by the kind of intellectuals and academics who would do anything for the working class – except join it, I left a comment.
I said, “Good idea! How about everyone honor labor by listing all the jobs we’ve done that involved demanding physical labor. Mine are: waiter/bartender, garbageman, framing carpenter, bucking hay in season, sewage treatment plant operator, and in between journalism gigs I drove a grain truck for harvest.”
At any rate, I got curious and looked up a few things about the date. For one, nobody remembers but April 30- May 1 is the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane that used to mark the beginning of summer. Great bonfires were built and cattle driven between them to be purified by the smoke. Everyone would douse their house fires and relight them from the sacred bonfires.
In the 19th century May 1 was promoted by socialists (my academic acquaintance is a socialist), communists, syndicalists, and anarchists as a day to honor labor. The day was chosen to commemorate the date of the Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago in 1886. (Which actually happened on May 4, I don’t know why the date was changed to the first.)
During a demonstration a bomb was thrown at police by person or persons unknown, killing seven of them. The police returned fired on the crowd, killing four.
In the aftermath, eight radicals were tried, four executed and one apparently committed suicide in his cell in a particularly grisly fashion with explosives.
For well over a century this was considered the judicial murder of innocent people for the crime of having unpopular opinions, until historian Timothy Messer-Kruse dug up an awful lot of evidence that seems to show that the trial was quite fair by the standards of the time, and if any innocent people were executed, it was because their lawyers were more interested in making points than oh, say preparing a defense. You know, that thing lawyers are supposed to do?
At any rate, eight years later in the aftermath of the Pullman Strike of 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed the bill declaring the first Monday in September Labor Day, unofficially marking the end of summer. The date was chosen specifically to avoid any association with May 1.
Nonetheless May 1 remains a labor holiday in over 80 countries world-wide.