“What we would like to do is change the world…by crying unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world.”
– Dorothy Day (1897-1980), journalist, anarchist, and social activist
There is a deep resonance in the association of May Day with the beginning of spring–it returns every year, seemingly bolder and more vibrant than in any year before. Even as the climate shifts seasonal patterns and labor struggles adapt to new forms of oppression, the May Day holiday persists. Despite governments’ efforts to suppress, co-opt, or just ignore it, people all over the world continue to celebrate May 1 as International Workers’ Day.
Since the birth of May Day in the late 1800s, the definition of “workers” has steadily expanded, along with our understanding of the struggles they experience around the world. May Day’s consistent popularity also rips apart the lie that there’s no longer such a thing as the “working class.” Last year, workers at Amazon, Walmart, Instacart, Whole Foods and other big, anti-labor corporations walked out. That same day, amidst the brutal grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, health care workers demanded adequate access to personal protective equipment, and thousands of New York City tenants initiated a rent strike. May Day, in fact, was a focal point for a year of widespread labor resistance; despite the pandemic, workers went on strike in virtually every sector, from bus drivers and other municipal workers to manufacturing, retail and services–and prisons, where inmates launched hunger strikes.
While May Day is observed by people with a wide range of ideologies, it’s especially important for anarchists. The holiday has its origins in the Haymarket tragedy of 1886, when an anarchist-led walkout on May 1 was followed by a rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. A bomb was thrown, police arrested organizers, and four defendants were hanged after a grossly unfair trial. Outrage over the deaths of the Haymarket martyrs led to the socialist Second International’s declaration of International Workers’ Day in 1891.
Since then, May Day has become a public holiday in countries all over the world. Even where it’s not recognized as a legal holiday, working people observe it anyway–reaffirming its anarchist origins, outside and against the State. Anarchists have always been among the most passionate celebrators of May Day, because it embodies so many of our ideals and so much of our outrage. That’s also why the authorities in many countries are so afraid of it.
May Day’s profound relationship to anarchism can be seen in the fact that at its heart it involves working people taking direct action to achieve their goals–starting with the struggle for an eight-hour day that ignited the Haymarket Rally in 1886. But it’s never been just about airing workers’ specific grievances. It has always been about asserting our rights and dignity as human beings, whether the State agrees or not. May Day, for anarchists, is our holiday. It doesn’t matter whether the State recognizes it; we observe and celebrate it anyway.
May Day has always been compatible with protests against dictatorships, tyrannies, war and racism, and for immigrants’ and refugees’ rights, saving the environment, and the right to decent housing. May Day asserts a connection between all of these struggles.
The holiday’s relationship to anarchism can be further understood via the internationalism that’s fundamental to May Day celebrations. May Day has always been outwardly focused, based on international solidarity, embracing working people all over the world. For example, two years before the holiday was officially established in 1890 amidst the struggle for the 8 hour work day, Australian workers were rallying on May Day in support of a British dockworkers’ strike. It is not uncommon to see workers elevating the struggles of working communities in other countries during May Day protests and educational events.
In the interwar years, the fascist states–Italy, Germany, Spain, and Portugal–tried to suppress May Day by literally abolishing it. The Nazis proclaimed May 1 the “Day of National Work” and barred all celebrations except those organized by the government. The Italian government replaced it with an April 21 “Labor Holiday” and the Spanish government with a July 18 “Labor Festival” on the anniversary of Franco’s coup. When the Portuguese dictatorship was finally overthrown in 1974, May Day demonstrations were a focal point.
The US has had similar experiences with government suppression of May Day. The US Congress moved Labor Day to September in 1894, explicitly to keep May 1 from becoming a memorial to the Haymarket martyrs. In 1921, Congress declared May 1 “Americanization Day,” explicitly targeting it against immigrants. In 1955, in the depths of the McCarthy era, Congress declared it “Loyalty Day,” and every president since then has issued a Loyalty Day proclamation on May 1 (although it is not a public holiday).
Loyalty Day provides a perfect example of the war against May Day. It makes explicit what the State and the capitalist system implicitly think about labor solidarity and resistance: that they are forms of disloyalty. President Donald Trump’s 2017 Loyalty Day proclamation says it all: “The loyalty of our citizenry sends a clear signal to our allies and enemies that the United States will never yield from our way of life…. We humbly thank our brave service members and veterans who have worn our Nation’s uniform.”
Instead of being about working people, Trump twisted May 1 into a day in celebration of US aggression, militarism. Only it’s not, as the actions last year of Amazon workers and rent-striking tenants, in the midst of a pandemic, brought about by the criminal negligence of capital and the State, proved.
May Day has always been about resistance and recognition: resistance to the State and capitalism, and recognition of our dignity as human beings. This was true in 1912, when the National Guard was called out in Seattle to suppress a May Day march by the IWW. It was true in 1950, when Black South Africans chose May Day to protest the apartheid government’s repressive Unlawful Organisations and Suppression of Communism Acts. And it was true in 2016, when protesters against Turkey’s authoritarian government fought police to rally in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
What will May Day be this year, and who will be celebrating it? Looking back over the past two years, it’s bound to include the following:
- Taiwanese workers demanding greater social security
- Indian farmers protesting new laws that favor big ag corporations
- Italian gig workers demanding a minimum hourly pay
- Bangladeshi women garment workers demanding an end to sexual harassment
- French public-sector workers demanding no benefits cuts
- Russian labor unionists (in masks, of course) protesting Putin’s autocracy
- Migrants protesting harsh working conditions in Hong Kong
- American workers struggling to revive the labor movement in the face of relentless repression
- Temporary workers in South Korea demanding equal pay for construction jobs
- Philippine workers protesting the repressive, murderous Duterte government
- Palestinian women in Gaza protesting layoffs and withdrawal of life-saving foreign aid
None of these activists–or the social movements from which they arise–will be asking their government’s permission to make their voices heard, because their struggle is bigger than any state or any government.
That’s how it’s been since Chicago workers gathered in Haymarket Square to demand an eight-hour day–and, implicitly, a meaningful life outside of work. May Day has come a long way since then, and each spring, we celebrate the reality and great potential of working people’s united action around the world. As anarchists, we work to keep expanding May Day as a rallying point for liberation, outside and against the State.
Eric Laursen lives in Massachusetts. He is an anarchist organizer, writer, and scholar. Eric has been active in movements against war and imperialism and for global economic justice for many years and is an organizer of the annual New York City Anarchist Book Fair. He is the author of the upcoming book “The Operating System: an Anarchist Theory of the Modern State” (AK Press).
Lilias Adie is the Project Coordinator for Agency. She works professionally in the fields of communications. Over the last two decades she has been involved in direct action organizing, as well as communications and outreach work for a variety of environmental and wildlife conservation non-profits. Additionally, she has supported a range of grassroots projects, including ancient forest defense campaigns, political prisoner support projects, radical community centers, and DIY publications.