Sketch of May Day riots 1886.

This Date in UCSF History: Celebrate International Workers Day

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Originally published in Synapse on May 1, 1975.

A U.S.-made calendar will show that today is Loyalty Day, a time for right-wing politicians to honor capitalism and denounce “godless Communism.” Ironically, it's also International Workers Day, a day to celebrate the events of the American Labor Movement.

Throughout the rest of the world May first is one of the most important holidays of the year. It is a day to stop work and express solidarity with working people everywhere.

On May 1st, 1886, some 350,000 U.S. workers from a whole spectrum of labor unions staged a militant general strike for the eight-hour day.

Most industrial cities were targets for the strike, with some 40,000 demonstrators marching in Chicago alone.

The eight-hour movement involved so many different workers and was opposed so uniformly by an employer-police-National Guard alliance that it took on aspects of an armed class struggle.

The May Day demonstrations succeeded in bringing the eight-hour day to many industries, but others continued working twelve hours a day, seven days a week, until 1938, when the Fair Labor Practices Act established a universal eight-hour day in industries covered by federal laws.

But this struggle is not over.

For example, farmworkers have never been covered by federal law, and to this day are expected to work sunup to sundown without overtime compensation.

In 1889 the International Workingmen’s Association, at a world socialist conference, declared May first as International Workers’ Day. Since that time May Day has been celebrated everywhere, including in the U.S.

However, after a peak of May Day celebration in the 1930’s and 19405, the Cold War era squelched anything that smacked of socialism.

Called a Communist holiday, and an import from Russia, May Day was designated Loyalty Day by an act of Congress in 1958. Nonetheless, this year offers unprecedented reason for working people in this country to celebrate May Day.

Historically, the economic, military, and political entrenchment of American capitalists in the Third World has brought hunger and suffering to countless millions: with only 5 per cent of the world’s population, the U.S. consumes 35 to 40 per cent of the world’s resources.

But the struggles in Cambodia and Vietnam have shown that it is possible for a small but determined nation to oust American presence and return the control of its resources to its own work force.

The example of Southeast Asia should give hope to others, at home and abroad, who are striving to free themselves from the grip of American big business.

Several May Day rallies and demonstrations are scheduled for the next few days in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles.

Synapse urges you to celebrate May Day in whatever way you can. and express support for working people everywhere.