Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Few Things About May Day You May Not Have Known

 NPR mentioned May Day in their afternoon news brief today. They mentioned the thousands of people who went on a one day strike in Istanbul and the thousands of people who did so in Havana, then mentioned the thousands of people who did so (wait for it) all across the (entire) United States! All Things Considered had a piece about how May Day is losing its significance (yikes!). That led me to decide to just throw a few (small) things out about May Day that you may not have known. Take them for what they're worth.

It's not a Communist or Socialist thing. I'm not a communist or a socialist and I love May Day. It is 'celebrated' (he-he) world wide as a one day worker strike, but it hasn't been  popular here in the US for some time now. The strike was intended to earn the eight hour work day for, you know, workers. It was originally the 1889 proposal of an American (Samuel Gompers who lead the AFL*), that started the whole May Day thing off. That's the year he wrote to the socialists in Paris wanting an eight-hour work day and together, they decided that the only way to get one was for the whole world to stop working. They chose May 1, 1890. There has been a one day strike (celebrating workers' rights) each year since.

 (Fun Fact: The UFT is an AFL-CIO affiliate).

Red is the chosen color for May Day. But that's not because of Communism or anything. It's because, traditionally, red symbolizes relationships among people (in this case, the perpetual relationship among workers of the, you know, whole entire world).

Now I know what you're thinking. You're thinking 'Na, they wear red because of Communism. It's all about Communists and stuff!'. Nope. Red is the symbol of relationships. That's why it's red on 2-14 and not blue or green or black and that's why I, as a filthy Capitalist, proudly wear the color of red with my union caucus, MORE , because the color (as well as the caucus) is built upon the relationships among workers to win and defend the rights of workers (speaking of which, I never got my shirt guys. I kind of need that).

Many people associate the day with the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago (that incident occurred on May 4th, during an attempt to take an eight-hour work day). Although that's not exactly an accurate association, I'll choose to mention it here because Haymarket is in Chicago and Chicago is where teachers have started to turn things around with regard to the reform movement.

That's right, the only strong, aggressive union representing teachers today is in Chicago; the CTU. (And, not for nothin', but their chosen color?  Red. #justsaying).

So if you think that May Day is some type of left-wing, commie or 'pinko' or, I don't know, Social Justice thing, you're actually wrong (oh, so wrong!). Now I understand where you would be confused. May Day features a whole mess of people from all over the world flying red flags (the one with Che at the top of this post is my favorite!). But it's not about that at all.

This is a day about workers' rights. It's a day for the little guy (millions and millions of little guys!). It's a trade unionists' kind of day. It's  a day to come together in protection for and on defense of the rights of people -in the workplace.

You know, folks like teachers.

(Update) *You know, the best moments in the labor history came when a leader somehow managed to thread the needle between the larger 'leftist' agenda and the much more pragmatic 'workers rights' agenda. Gompers started May Day to achieve an eight-hour day (clearly a workers' rights issue if ever there was one). But when he wanted it organized, it was the international socialists in Paris (folks who were clearly interested in a better world overall) who he reached out to. Just a thought.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. I'm giving him one of mine but he has to wash it.

  2. Red became the color of the radical wing of the French Revolution, signifying the blood of the martyrs for the cause. From there it was adopted by the Revolutions of 1848 and then by the Paris Commune of 1871. It became the color of the international workers movement, which was at first socialist, and then divided into Socialist who advocated peaceful change and Communists who advocated revolution after the Russian Revolution. Red is indeed the color of the Communist movement, but it is also the color of the whole workers' movement.

    The Haymarket Martyrs also played an important in establishing May Day as an American holiday before it spread to the rest of the world.

    1. When it gets to the point where I can just about identify the anonymous commenter, I think it's time to take a break from blogging and from reading Ed stuff for a while. #digression. Ok, look:

      I don't mind that socialists and communists took the color red. The fact that when I wear red people think I'm a communists is the world's fault for being stupid, not the socialists and the communists for taking the perfect color to symbolize their movement.

      Aside from the books which I'm sure you've read, ask yourself a question that's not in two dimensions; WHY was it the radicals and the socialists and eventually the Communists all chose the color red for themselves? Was the red ink cheaper in Paris at that time? It must have been cheaper in Philly during the 1770s, too! Why not purple for nobility? Because the ink was too expensive?

      Or because the people never had nobility to empower them? You see, all they really had to empower them was each other...and the relationships as workers (or 3rd Estaters, or socialists, or Communists or even American merchants) that they had. That's why there is red.

      They chose red because of what red stands for. It stands for the relationships among men and women (on this day) in the workplace. It's simple; e pluribus, unum (like literally!).

      It's not revolution or blood or passion (well maybe passion lol) or action. It's, well yes it's all of that, but at it's core; it's relationships. Without those, every one of the movements, your socialist, my unionist, someone else's communist, they all immediately end.

      Hey thanks for the comment! You're real smart

  3. I was going to do a piece on the same topic but went to Brooklyn Botanic Gardens instead. My angle was why we have another Labor Day and I thought I had heard that Labor Day was established by American Labor as part of the anti-left approach -- to get us far away from the meanings of May Day. Gompers turned very anti-left I believe and Shanker was in that tradition. Michael and I did somewhat of a pre and post UFT history last summer that attracted a good crowd - videos are up at GEMNYC1 Vimeo. This summer we hope to do more on history, including something on rethinking the 68 strike.