Vern Smith provides a fine history of the May Day holiday in the United States, from its beginnings to the role of the Samuel Gompers and the A.F. of L. as well as Terrence Powderly and the Knights of Labor, the Second International’s celebrations, and through the I.W.W. to the early effects of the Russian Revolution.
‘The American Background of May Day’ by Verne Smith from The Communist. Vol. 10 No. 5. May, 1931.
OF ALL the international days of demonstration, the oldest, perhaps the most significant, the one that foreshadows all the rest, is the First of May—and fittingly enough it is the one most clearly and openly against the capitalist system as such, though it invariably carries with it the struggle against whatever grievance js uppermost in workers’ minds at the same time. As a matter of fact, it began that way—in America, with a general strike for the eight-hour day. The international aspect was recognized at a world congress of workers, in Paris, three years later.
The first international celebration of the First of May as Labor Day came still another year later, 1890, and was in support of what was to have been the second general strike of American workers for the eight-hour day.
The workers who conducted that first May Day demonstration are the immediate fathers of the working class of today. The organizations, the American Federation of Labor and the Second International, which were most closely involved, are still with us. Both have now betrayed the First of May. The A.F. of L., at least, was betraying it at the time of the first demonstration.
There are many lessons in the history of the First of May. Some of the strategy which the A.F. of L. has used ever since was devised at the period of the two main eight-hour strikes.
Formally the A.F. of L. led the first eight-hour-day general strike of 1886—a fact which must be surprising enough to many workers but is easier to understand as the incidents of the time are more closely examined. Formally (and in fact he seemed at times to boast of it) Gompers started the train of events that led to the 1886 strike. Actually he was carrying out a complicated maneuver that has been imitated many times since by A.F. of L. leaders.
In his own autobiography, Seventy Years of Life and Labor, Gompers boasts that he also proposed the international celebration of May First in 1890. There is at least considerable doubt about this.
Before 1886 even the A.F. of L. was celebrating the “Labor Day” it recognizes now—the first Monday in September. That is the day given to Labor by the legislatures of the various states. It is, as Daniel De Leon pointed out years ago, a kind of grand prize-stock show, in which the A.F. of L. leaders parade the “voting cattle” they hope to sell to the highest bidder among the capitalist parties on election day, approximately two months later.
In 1885, the Chicago Anarchists were demonstrating against the A. F. of L. and other reactionary unions, on the official A. F. of L. “Labor Day” before a May 1 world demonstration was thought of.
It is to the Chicago Anarchists (actually not anarchists at all— direct action, or non-parliamentary socialists would be a better name for them) that we owe the main basic agitation for a general strike for the eight-hour day. The working class in the early ’80’s of last century was in rebellious mood, ready for revolt and waiting for the zero hour. The eight-hour-day fight was in the air. There had been a succession of great strikes: the Fall River textile workers’ strike of 1884, 5,000 out for 18 weeks, lost; the Hocking Valley Coal strike, the same year, six months long, with evictions and Pinkerton detectives and the militia finally smashing it; the Saginaw Valley lumber workers’ strike in 1885, 5,500 strong, two months, won; four great railroad strikes on the Gould lines in 1884 and 1885, the first being won and the last one lost, betrayed by the Knights of Labor. There were cigarmakers’ strikes and stove mounters’ strikes and all kinds of strikes in this period—lots of struggle. There were boycotts and “striking on the job.” It was also a period of depression, and there was a wave of wage cuts.
During this period, and in spite of occasional open treacheries, the Knights of Labor was forced into leadership, and got much credit. It was gaining members. It had 42,517 members in 1882; 51,914 in 1883; after which the membership rose too rapidly for accurate counting to about 700,000 in 1886.
The A.F. of L. claimed 100,000 in 1884, but its national convention attendance showed a steady weakening. The first convention, which formed the A. F. of L., or, to be exact, the organization which afterwards, in 1886, became the A.F. of L., the “Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada,” was held in 1881 with 104 delegates. The 1882 convention of the federation had 19 delegates; the 1883 delegation had 27, but the 1884 convention, in Chicago, at which the famous May 1 resolution was passed, had only 25.
Gompers, chief founder of the federation, a practical politician and a most treacherous one, proceeded to capitalize the strike sentiment; indeed, he had to do something to keep his organization to the front. With his blessing a resolution was introduced in the 1884 convention of the federation reading as follows:
“Resolved, by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this jurisdiction that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.”
Now, that might mean a call to strike on May 1, 1886, for the eight-hour day. If the working class so accepted it, the A.F. of L. got the credit for calling the strike and all the glory. If something went wrong, Gompers could disavow the strike call— saying it meant nothing of the sort, at least not a general strike.
The working class did accept this as a call to strike on May 1. They put their own interpretation on the resolution. The national unions in the federation were quite indifferent to the call to strike. Only the cigar makers and carpenters had even voted to support such a strike financially when the 1885 convention was held, with only 18 delegates. Still, the 1885 convention did not repeal the resolution. That was not Gompers’ way, and it was no part of the A.F. of L. tactics from that time on when faced with a militant working class sentiment.
Powderly and the other bureaucrats of the Knights of Labor did dare openly to fight against the will of the workers to struggle, and it was disastrous to the Knights of Labor. Powderly sent out one of his famous “secret orders,” a circular to affiliated bodies, which instructed them to oppose the strike for eight hours. Powderly, like some later misleaders, notably the Trotskyists, brought out at this time an argument now known as “Right opportunism concealed by left phrases,” a classic example of that sort of opportunism. He said: “To talk of reducing the hours of labor without reducing the power of the machinery to oppress instead of to benefit, is a waste of energy. What men gain through a reduction of hours will be taken from them in another way while the rule of iron continues. The advocate of the eight-hour system must go beyond the reduction of the number of hours a man must work, and must labor for the establishment of a just and humane system of land ownership, control of machinery, railroads and telegraphs as well as equitable currency system . . .” etc., in fact, nothing but the revolution will help. (Powderly, Thirty Years of Labor, requoted from Bimba.) This “secret” circular became public; this treason was used to great advantage by the A.F. of L. in its attack on the K. of L., which practically vanished a few years after 1886.
As all the world knows, the general strike took place, centering at Chicago, where the propaganda of the so-called “Anarchists” was strongest. And this strike was drenched in the blood of Haymarket, and the hanging of the leaders of the working class. Both Gompers and Powderly and their henchmen betrayed and repudiated the leaders on trial and afterwards; Gompers records that he regarded the Haymarket affair as “a catastrophe, halting our eight-hour-day program.” He tells how, three years later, when the second May First strike was being agitated, he sent circulars to the President of the United States, the cabinet, 40 senators, and 75 representatives, assuring them that there was no radicalism in this move, and “to forestall any association of the movement with the anarchistic influences.”
The May First strike of 1886 involved nearly half a million workers, and some 200,000 won a shorter work day. It made the A.F. of L. the dominant labor organization in the United States, the K. of L. discredited by opposition to the strike, and the Anarchists deserted, isolated, and crushed by the terror.
Then began inevitably the second drive for the shorter work day, especially as while the A.F. of L. was resting on its laurels, the employers began to take back the concessions that had been forced from them.
Gompers was against further struggle. In 1887 in Brooklyn, he struck a keynote that has resounded since in A.F. of L. presidential speeches:
“…with fairness on the part of the employer there is no desire to strike on the part of the men…we are opposed to sympathetic and foolish strikes.” (Seventy Years, p. 286.)
Observe in what followed, the strategy of Gompers, and of the A.F. of L. bureaucracy. It had apparently led a fight for the workers, and was recognized as a leader. It was as treacherous as the K. of L. gang, but infinitely wiser.
A new wave of separate craft strikes swept the country in 1887 and 1888. Nothing could stand against this determination to struggle, but it might be diverted into relatively harmless channels, to the advantage of treacherous leaders. At the St. Louis convention of the A.F. of L., in 1888, a motion was put through, this time for a general strike for the eight-hour day in 1890, on May First. The date was made significant by the glorious year of 1886. Gompers utilized the necessity of agitation and propaganda for this strike to put in the field the first crew of paid general organizers—forerunners of the McGrady’s of a later day.
Through this machine, as through a radio hook-up, Gompers began in 1889 to spread pessimism—“Not ready yet.” The convention of 1889 announced a wonderful new tactic. Instead of all striking at once, one union was to strike first, all the rest supporting it with finances, then another union, then others. This was the first step in open misleadership of the movement. Gompers also, as in the period of preparation for 1886, negotiated as many contracts as possible for the formal granting of the eight-hour day, in return for other concessions, such as no demands for more wages. This was to limit the force and scope of the strike. The carpenters did strike, and in general won their strike. But that was only one union. The miners were too weak to strike, the ether unions having conveniently forgotten about financing them. The miners’ strike was postponed until the next year, because “it was too late” that year. In the 1891 convention the bakers asked to take the place of the miners, but by this time the fine enthusiasm of the workers was being dissipated by these tactics. The A.F. of L. convention of 1891 felt itself strong enough to refuse to go on with the scheme, and the 1892 convention “was satisfied with issuing instructions to the executive council to carry on agitation for the eight-hour day.” (Bimba, History of the American Working Class, p. 213.)
Here is an organized system of tactics of betrayal—in fact, a whole strategy! Consider its use in the upholsterers’ strike this year in Kensington, Pa., in the Elizabethton strike in 1929, in the hosiery strikes. When the spirit of the workers rises too high to buck directly, the accomplished misleader places himself at the head of the movement, but finds a way to delay, to split the efforts, to interpose legalistic obstacles, jurisdictional difficulties, and finally, when the workers are worn down, torn with doubt and carefully cultivated pessimism, the misleader can come out openly and smash the bolder ones who remain true to the original plan. To be sure, in these later days, the A.F. of L. officialdom feels able by its alliance with the government and the employers, and in the absence of other organizations of great strength, simply to refuse the right to strike and offer to supply scabs if there is an outlaw strike. Lewis and Boylan simply denounced the strike of 25,000 Glen Alden anthracite miners this year. But the little fakers in the miners’ general grievance committee, whose position is not so good —they use the old tactics of 1890; they take the lead of the action which they cannot prevent, then they delay, maneuver, dissuade, divide, discourage and eventually completely betray.
But the strike of 1886, and the first agitation for the strike in 1890, the first and second May Days, as we know May Day, rang round the world. It was a foregone conclusion that the International Workingmen’s Congress, which met in Paris, July 14 to 20, 1889, would take up the matter. This congress re-established the socialist international, creating the Second International, the First International having come to an end in 1876. (It died in Philadelphia, by the way, another American angle.)
This Paris congress of 1889 passed a resolution which made the May First demonstrations a formal, international anniversary. The resolution was introduced by the French delegation, which numbered 291 out of a congress of some 400 delegates from 26 countries. The minutes of the congress, as brought to Germany and published in 1890 by Wilhelm Liebknecht, record under the date of July 20:
“Citizen Levine then brought in, in the name of the National Association of Councils of French Unions and Cooperative Groups, a proposition for a great demonstration which the decision of the congress would help to carry through.
“The motion read: ‘The Congress decides to organize a great international demonstration, so that in all countries and in all cities on one appointed day the toiling masses shall demand of the state authorities the legal reduction of the working day to eight hours, as well as the carrying out of other decisions of the Paris Congress. Since a similar demonstration has already been decided upon for May 1, 1890, by the American Federation of Labor at its convention in St. Louis, December, 1888, this day is accepted for the international demonstration. The workers of the various countries must organize this demonstration according to the conditions prevailing in each industry.’”
There are two stories as to how this resolution came to be introduced.
Gompers, writing his memoirs quite recently, but with the light of the world war shining from every line, gives one version:
“As plans of the eight hour movement developed, we were constantly realizing how we could widen our purpose. As the time for the meeting of the International Workingmen’s Congress in Paris (July 14, 1889) approached, it occurred to me that we could aid our movement by an expression of world-wide sympathy from that congress.
“I talked the idea over with Hugh McGregor who was idealist enough to recognize no practical difficulties. The margin of time intervening was too small to trust a letter of invitation to the mail, so McGregor agreed to act as special courier. His wants were few and accustomed to all kinds of delays in gratification. We discovered that a boat was leaving within a brief time that would just get him to Paris in time. McGregor went off to pack his bag with a few things, including a reserve celluloid collar. Meanwhile I was to write a letter of official invitation and to meet him at the dock. I wrote by hand a letter that seemed to be to be fraught with historic import, and then hurried to the dock to put it in McGregor’s custody. A number of labor men had learned of the trip. They hailed me afar, for the boat was on the point of leaving. I thrust the letter in McGregor’s hand and joined the farewell shout.
“A moment afterwards I recollected that in my hurry I had failed to make a press copy of the letter. Though I tried in many ways to get a copy of that letter, I did not succeed. It is the only important official letter of which I did not retain a copy. Later I made unsuccessful efforts to obtain a copy through French friends.
“My letter informed the Paris congress of our American efforts to celebrate the coming May Day by establishing eight hours for the carpenters and urged them to co-operate. The proposal fell upon the ears of two bitterly warring factions. The German delegation, headed by Liebknecht, Bebel and Singer, opposed the resolution on the ground that under the imperial German government it would be suicide for them to approve the movement. Herr Liebknecht emphatically opposed the proposal on the ground that labor organizations were not strong enough to succeed in the undertaking. Eventually a resolution for an eight-hour demonstration in every country was adopted, and there was pretty general observance of the day. That was the origin of European May Day, which has become a regular institution in all European countries.” (Seventy Years, pp. 296-298.)
There is no indication in the minutes of the Paris Congress of this terrible attack by Liebknecht and Bebel. Perhaps the world war colored Gompers’ memory a little?
The minutes do record that when the resolution for world demonstrations on May 1, 1890, was brought in, the Belgian delegation demanded a vote by countries, and that the Belgian delegates voted against the resolution, promising to explain the vote later. The inference was that they would support the movement, but because of laws at home, did not want to be on record. The Russian delegation, led by Plekhanov (remember how he ended!) op- posed the resolution, frankly on the ground that they were sure no such demonstration would be allowed in Russia. The others all voted for it.
As for Liebknecht’s reputed opposition, he wrote an introduction to the minutes of the 1899 International Workingmen’s Congress. The introduction is dated June 2, 1890, approximately a year after the congress was held, and of course, a month after the May First of 1890.
Liebknecht explains how he brought the minutes to Germany and translated them, and then in a kind of climax to the introduction he says:
“That it was no mere fire of straw that the congress lighted, has been proved by the First of May of this year; the first powerful, in fact, the first action of the proletariat all around the globe— the proletariat that the year before had established its federation of peace, freedom and equality.”
Hugh McGregor does not appear in the minutes at all. In the minutes it is recorded that on the second day of the congress,
“Citizen George M. Hugh,” (Is this McGregor?) “read a declaration of sympathy from the American Federation of Labor, signed by President Samuel Gompers, which contained a declaration that the federation was too deeply involved in struggles through the eight-hour-day movement to be able to send a representative to the congress, and which recommended a merging with the Possibilist congress, and the greatest care in all decisions to be adopted.”
These “Possibilists” were a group outside the Paris congress and to the right of it.
Is this the letter of which Gompers unfortunately forgot to make a copy, but which seemed to him to “be fraught with historic import”? Is that why Gompers’ account is so different from most of the dry as dust stuff he writes, is clothed instead with what begins to remind one of what Koko in The Mikado calls “an air of artistic verisimilitude”? The letter as reported in the minutes sounds more like Gompers than does the version in the autobiography.
Who spoke for the A.F. of L., who delivered that “invitation” to support by world demonstration the eight-hour-day strike of the carpenters, in 1890, that Gompers speaks about?
The minutes show that several reports on the American situation were made, one by Busche of the Socialist Labor Party, on July 18, which denounced the theory of exceptionalism even at that early date and made the point that the American workers suffer and face the same problems as all workers in countries where large industry prevails, although as far as repressive laws are concerned, the United States differed from Europe in that these laws were many and as varied as the states, instead of being centralized through the national government as in Europe.
It remained for the delegate Kirchner, of the United German Unions of New York, to make the argument for the A.F. of L. Kirchner spoke on July 19, described the living conditions in America, the tenement houses, knocked out the idea that American streets were paved with gold, and continued:
“In my opinion, the most important organization and the one which holds out the greatest hope for the future is the American Federation of Labor, which is made up of unions whose spirit and tendency reminds one of the old English trade unions. The labor movement fights still on the ground of the wages system, that is, it seeks a reduction of working time and a raising of the wages.
“This federation has taken the initiative in a movement which lately has again begun in favor of the eight-hour normal working day. To me it seems without a doubt that the very intelligent leaders of this organization have realized the insufficiency of the goal which we have just now stated. But they consider it too early to go further in the direction of socialism.”
Then the optimistic Kirchner goes on to expose the mercenary character of the leaders of the Knights of Labor, just then in deadly conflict with the A.F. of L. Kirchner damns the grand master workman of the K. of L. as a heartless robber because he took a salary of $5,000 a year from the pockets of the members of the organization. Which, without doubt, was a correct criticism. But if Kirchner could only have foreseen some of the salaries which the heads of A. F. of L. unions were to demand and get. *
There followed later a period when the Second International devitalized May First as it did the whole labor movement. Most of us can remember the socialist May Days, the anarchist and I.W.W. May Days, in which the whole struggle was burlesqued in a picnic, where, in some hired city park, the dance music was stopped long enough for an orator to rise and say: “Comrades! (or “Fellow Workers!” or “Brothers!”) May Day is a beautiful day. As the sap rises in the trees in the spring, bringing the promise of blossoms bursting out, so the courage of the workers rises on this old religious holiday, sure to flower in due time into the glorious summer of the co-operative commonwealth,” etc. With the advent of the Communist International, the militant workers changed all that.
But even in the socialist period, the day had its occasional struggles. The seething Russian masses, more than once in revolution or near revolution, held a demonstration in 1901 which brought forth from Lenin one of his most penetrating analyses of the significance of such anniversary events. He says:
“The Kharkov May Day celebrations illustrate how the celebration of a labor holiday can become a great political demonstration and they reveal what it is we lack to make these celebrations a really great all-Russian demonstration of the class-conscious proletariat. What made the May Day celebrations in Kharkov an event of outstanding importance? The mass participation of the workers in the strike, the huge mass meetings in the streets, the unfurling of red flags, the presentation of demands indicated in leaflets and the revolutionary character of these demands—eight-hour day and political liberty. The legend that the Russian workers have not sufficiently grown up for the political struggle, that their principal duty is to conduct the purely economic struggle, and only slowly and very gradually supplement it by partial agitation, for partial political reforms; that they must not take up the struggle against the whole of the political system of Russia—that legend has been totally refuted by the Kharkov May Day celebrations.”
In the same article Lenin says:
“Demands for wage increases and better treatment can be and ought to be presented by the workers to the employers in each separate trade…. The demand for an eight-hour day, however, is the demand of the whole proletariat, presented, not to individual employers, but to the government as the representative of the whole of the present-day social and political system, to the capitalist system as a whole, the owners of all the means of production. The demand for an eight-hour day has assumed special significance. It is a declaration of solidarity with the international Socialist movement. We must make the workers understand this difference, and prevent them from reducing it to the level of demands like free tickets, or the dismissal of watchmen. Throughout this year, the workers, first in one place and then in another, continuously present a variety of partial demands to their employers and fight for these demands. In assisting the workers in this fight, Communists must always explain the connection it has with the proletarian struggle for emancipation in all countries. The First of May must be the day on which the workers solemnly declare that they realize this connection and resolutely join in the struggle.”
These words were never more true than they are today, as applied to the United States. What Lenin says about the eight-hour- day demand can be said also of the demand for the right to live, of the demands against starvation, of the demand for unemployment relief.
* The whole question of Gompers’ relations with the Paris Congress and Gompers’ alleged part in bringing about the international celebration of May First needs further study for which there is not time as this article is written. Some one should go over the labor papers of the time, and investigate the French and German literature on the subject.—V. S
There are a number of journals with this name in the history of the movement. This ‘Communist’ was the main theoretical journal of the Communist Party from 1927 until 1944. Its origins lie with the folding of The Liberator, Soviet Russia Pictorial, and Labor Herald together into Workers Monthly as the new unified Communist Party’s official cultural and discussion magazine in November, 1924. Workers Monthly became The Communist in March, 1927 and was also published monthly. The Communist contains the most thorough archive of the Communist Party’s positions and thinking during its run. The New Masses became the main cultural vehicle for the CP and the Communist, though it began with with more vibrancy and discussion, became increasingly an organ of Comintern and CP program. Over its run the tagline went from “A Theoretical Magazine for the Discussion of Revolutionary Problems” to “A Magazine of the Theory and Practice of Marxism-Leninism” to “A Marxist Magazine Devoted to Advancement of Democratic Thought and Action.” The aesthetic of the journal also changed dramatically over its years. Editors included Earl Browder, Alex Bittelman, Max Bedacht, and Bertram D. Wolfe.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/communist/v10n05-may-1931-communist.pdf