May Day: A Brief History of the Holiday in NYC



Reading the history of May Day in NYC is like taking a whirlwind tour through America in the modern age. May Day NYC is a story of ebbs and flows and rapidly shifting political terrains; a story of oscillations between brutal police repression and breathtaking exhibitions of collective force by the 99%. It is a story of the battle for social and economic justice.

In 1978, a worker-journalist asked:
“An old timer on my job told me that there used to be huge May Day parades in this country. Why is May Day today such a big event in other parts of the world but not here?”
Indeed, the 1% has tried to repress this history again and again, but May Day is as American as apple pie and as “New York” as a slice of pizza. The 1% has employed various tactics and opportunities to enact this repression: the Cold War, the hysteria of McCarthyism, the passage of anti-union laws, the expulsion of progressive labor leaders from unions. Accordingly, this political repression can be seen in the pathetic attempt to “forget” May Day by renaming it: it was first renamed “Americanization Day” in 1921, then “Loyalty Day” and “Legal Day” in 1958. Another manifestation of this repression can be seen in the attempts in the 1950s to ban May Day marches in NYC, keep meetings and rallies out of Union Square, and the ridiculous labeling of the May Day Planning Committee as “subversive” by the government.

NYC has a long, colorful history of resistance on May Day. Beginning in 1886, that infamous year in May Day history, thousands of workers went on strike, strutting down Broadway, joining the fight for the eight-hour day. Throughout the 1890’s, after the establishment of May Day as International Worker’s Day, tens of thousands of workers flooded the streets, decrying the slavish nature of the wage system. They often converged at Union Square, which has come to be a welcoming home for all those voicing their discontent with an unjust system. Rallies at Union Square have been massive, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and frequent. They have been primarily peaceful assemblies, with the great exception being 1930, where over 1,000 police troops armed with tear gas and machine guns brutally attacked a crowd of over 100,000 innocent demonstrators.

A clear pattern emerges in this history: a progressive inclusivity and expansion of issues, peoples and populations. In the late 1800s May Day was dominated by male union workers. This quickly changed, with the 1910s uniting the struggles of female and child workers as well. The 1930s saw a staggering attention to unemployment and the hungry, homeless and disenfranchised. By the 1960s, students were mingling with workers at May Day rallies in Union Square which rallies condemned racism and inequality. In the 1970s, the prime motive of May Day was to show solidarity with victims of imperialism, colonialism and war (American Indians, Vietnamese, etc). Finally, in 2006, the Great American Boycott awoke the country to the struggles of immigrants in a system that ignores and oppresses them.

Throughout this hundred year history of resistance to the power of the 1%, the political and economic situations have been varied, as have been the demands, slogans and messages of the 99%. However, common threads and recurring themes cut across the years: a shorter work week, better working conditions, an end to the wage system, an end to war, imperialism and state repression, the freeing of political prisoners, solidarity among the oppressed, exploited and disenfranchised, equal rights for all, a system that works for the people. In short: peace, equality and democracy.

Learn more about May 1st throughout history.

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