By Chris Townsend

April 18, 2023


May Day, A Short History of the International Workers’ Holiday 1886-1986, by Philip S. Foner. Available from International Publishers: May Day – International Publishers   1986, 192 pp.


As May 1st approaches once again, it is urgent for workers to consider and familiarize themselves with the origins of May Day.  One of the most astonishing, frustrating, and confounding dilemmas ever faced by a labor movement world-wide is the fact that while the modern May Day holiday was born out of the bloody struggle for the 8-hour day struggle here in the U.S. – in Chicago – for many decades its commemoration was virtually unnoticed in this country. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the fact that bosses and politicians and everything they controlled were – and still are – determined to subtract all political significance from the worker’s holiday. Or even better, wipe it away completely, ignoring it as if it never existed. A working class unaware of their own history, unfamiliar with the historic union battles that came before them, ignorant of the origins of our modern labor movement, this is a working class unlikely to defend itself in the ongoing class struggle let alone advance its interests in that same conflict.


I have a few family photos of my mother in the middle 1930’s when her elementary school class were celebrating “May Day”, dancing in their finest German country costumes around the Maypole.  This central Pennsylvania tradition, like everywhere else it was celebrated, originated long, long ago, as far back as the Romans and before. Ancient people were always cheered by the coming of springtime, its renewed life, longer daytimes, warmer temperatures, and start of another growing season.

A hopeful celebration was in order, and many cultures adopted recognition of this in early May. But recollection of my elementary school years in the 1960’s includes no trace of anything resembling a “May Day” of any kind. Every memory and fragment had been wiped clean for the young people. Adults were force-fed the barrage of media that May Day was a Russian import, a dangerous contagion of some kind, contrived “over there” someplace, and most of all that it was most certainly an awful thing. But for us kids, we didn’t notice any of that, so May 1st was just another day closer to summer vacation and freedom from school.


When prolific labor historian and researcher Phil Foner set out in the early 1980’s to once again popularize the real roots and impacts of the political May Day movement, the world overflowed with May Day holidays and celebrations that honored the working class in dozens and dozens of countries. Yet here in the United States – the birthplace of the holiday in the struggle for shorter hours, a more humane workplace, and recognition of the trade unions – even the earlier nonpolitical May Day cultural events and customs had been liquidated. The ruling class was taking no chances.

The Foner volume that was produced and published in 1986; May Day, A Short History of the International Workers’ Holiday, 1886-1986, was no college textbook, but was instead a handbook for worker education and action. It was a means for workers in the U.S. to reclaim the legacy of amazing and heroic struggle by the workers who founded and built our own labor movement.  Foner chronicles the roots of the early labor struggles that came together in the notorious Chicago events, culminating with the government frame-up and execution of the “Haymarket Martyrs”; Albert Parsons, George Engel, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and Louis Lingg. Their struggle for a shorter workday had motivated an entire generation of working people to rebellion, and such a thing was not to be tolerated by the big business-controlled state.


This modest book does an excellent job of explaining how the American Federation of Labor (AFL) emerged as the successor to the increasingly conservative Knights of Labor. All as a direct result of the 8-hour movement, the Knights increasing conservatism, and the eventual frame-up and murder of 5 of the 8 Haymarket victims. Readers will be astonished to find the early AFL and many of its unions in the thick of militant strike action and radical organizing of every kind, a far cry from the AFL of today. During this period in the later 1880’s the labor movement and the socialist movement were in many ways overlapping forces. Their early political willingness to think beyond the big business order of things, to question and denounce its excesses and crimes, and to dream of a better day yet to come, was the guiding light for millions of workers across all industries, native born and immigrant alike, including early detachments of woman workers and African American toilers.

The AFL was also shaped by the intense state repression that fell upon the new federation in the wake of the Haymarket events, testing the new labor network in its earliest phases. One can scarcely imagine the current AFL leading anything today except for an expensive march to the polls to vote for Democrats, some fit and mostly unfit. The earliest AFL and union leaders were fighters, strike leaders, and those with the courage to confront not just employers but ferocious police and national guard both. A remarkable number of those early labor leaders were also socialists, making little distinction between their labor thinking and their political beliefs. The militant May Day spirit animated the rebirth of the U.S. labor movement, with the unions as yet uncaptured by the business union straightjacket.


While springtime labor actions were already a custom in many national labor movements, the May Day movement that grew from Haymarket truly energized militant workers on every continent. Foner offers a thumbnail report on how the May Day spirit infused workers of most political persuasions and even those with none. The movement animated workers to take action both offensive and defensive, and to plunge into political struggles in search of influence or even political control as a result. The 1917 Soviet Revolution and other uprisings abroad gave May Day added expanse with many millions of workers flocking to the cause. Even today, after the destruction of many of the socialist countries, the May Day enthusiasm still guides workers who today resist the imposition of the bosses workplace dictatorship and the destruction of working conditions and living standards.


Here in the United States, May Day has been reborn, albeit on a small but noticeable scale after decades of underground survival. Increasingly trade unionists and leftists of all stripes celebrate, commemorate, march, and demonstrate on May 1st as efforts aim towards a hoped-for trade union and left-wing political revival. I encourage all readers to order a copy of this book, and while at it to order additional copies to distribute to co-workers, friends, and contacts. It is an urgent task to place this book into the hands of young workers and trade unionists of all ages. They are the future of our movement and will no doubt find themselves tested in battles akin to the Haymarket events. This book is a political compass, and guidebook as these fighters move into action on behalf of the working class in this new period.

For readers interested in further reading about the foundations of May Day, with additional information on the Haymarket events, the birth of the American Federation of Labor, and the role played by the many socialists in the early U.S. labor movement, obtain Philip Foner’s Volume 2 of the History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Also available from International Publishers at:  History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 02.


-Chris Townsend has spent more than 45 years in the labor and left-wing movements, retiring from the staffs of both UE and ATU.