Origins of May Day as a Celebration of Workers Rights

Today we honor in word and song the sacrifices of immigrants who fought for decent working conditions against long odds, and reflect upon their struggle as it impacts our own spiritual and social challenges today.


May 1 is a holiday in most of the world outside the United States.  It is a celebration of the struggle for workers rights. But the holiday that we don’t formally celebrate is founded upon events that occurred in the United States, and specifically in Chicago in May 1886. It’s no coincidence that the holiday is not formally celebrated in the United States. After severe labor unrest, Pres. Grover Cleveland declared Labor Day to be a holiday that would focus on the virtue of labor.  He placed it September to avoid focus on the events in May, in part to discourage protests.  That diversion of attention increased when President Eisenhower instead designated May 1 as Loyalty Day.

But the events of May Day are highly relevant to us today.  It involves a story of oppressed workers fighting for rights against enormous odds, while being demonized for their status as immigrants.  I like to summarize them briefly.  On May 1, 1886, an estimated 300,000 industrial workers around the US organized a one day strike.  They protested, and their cause was the demand for an 8-hour workday.  Chicago was the center of the movement, where 40,000 joined the one day strike.  Most were German and Bohemian immigrants.  Business owners strongly opposed the strikers.  They looked for a way to generate public opposition to the rather popular concept of an 8-hour workday. 130 years ago, they figured out that in the US, you could distract people from the substantive issues by claiming that  these immigrants didn’t belong here in the first place, and were ruining our country.  They knew that there was great prejudice towards new Europeans immigrants, and religious bias against Catholics.  They controlled the newspapers, and used them to spread fear.  For example, an article in the Chicago Post Mail described Bohemian immigrants, and I quote, as “depraved beasts, harpies, decayed physically and spiritually, mentally and morally thievish and licentious.”  Another Chicago paper agreed, saying that the city was becoming, and I quote, “the cesspool of Europe.  Let us whip these Slavic wolves back to the European dens from which they issue or in some way exterminate them.”

Protests in Chicago continued through the week.  On May 3 outside the McCormick Reaper plant where immigrant workers struck, police shot and killed several workers at the end of a rally.  This police action was very sensitive in Chicago, where a decade earlier police had gunned down hundreds of workers during a railroad strike.  On May 4, strikers gathered at Haymarket Square to protest the police shootings the previous night.  It was a peaceful protest. The Chicago mayor attended, but went home before it ended, finding the event unremarkable.  But near the end of the rally, the Chicago police ordered the crowd to disburse.  175 police started marching towards the protesters in a line.  At that point, someone, whose identity is unknown to this day, tossed a bomb into the crowd that killed a policemen and injured others.  Police returned fire, killing unknown numbers of civilians.

This terrible act of violence by one person became the opportunity to demand retribution against the strikers.  A typical newspaper headline read “Outcasts from Foreign Lands Bring Their Horrible Practices Across the Ocean.”  The next day, Marshall law was declared in Chicago.  Homes were searched without warrants.  Police initially jailed about 200 labor organizers.  They went on to arrest 8 labor leaders and charge them with murder and conspiracy.  Of 8 charged, only 2 of the 8 were even present at the rally at the when the bomb was thrown.  Days after the protest, another 6 police died of wounds suffered on the night of May 4.  The newspapers reported that they were killed by the bomb.  Not to diminish any death, but evidence uncovered later showed most were killed from the indiscriminate police fire into the crowd in response to the bomb.

7 of the 8 defendants were immigrants.  A law review article said they were “long-haired, wild-eyed, bad smelling, atheistic, reckless foreign wretches.” Given the pre-trial publicity, and perhaps aided by the bailiff’s selection process, all 12 jurors acknowledged prejudice against the defendants.  But the judge ruled that as long as a juror said he thought he would be fair, he could not be struck for cause, and the defense quickly ran out of challenges. Prosecutors could never identify the bomb thrower, and therefore couldn’t say how the defendants conspired.  They didn’t present evidence linking the defendants to the bomb.  Instead, they told the jury that anarchy was on trial.  The defendants, they said, needed to be hanged to save civilization. They jury promptly found all defendants guilty, and they were sentenced to death.  After appeals failed, 1 committed suicide prior to execution, and 4 were hung.

Years later, the next governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, reluctantly agreed to consider clemency petitions for the remaining defendants.  Altgeld said he would never grant clemency on grounds of mercy, because he believed that anyone who committed that crime deserved to be hanged.  But after reviewing the trial transcripts, he found no evidence to support a conviction.  He said the defendants were instead victims of hysteria, a packed jury and a biased judge.  He pardoned the remaining 3 defendants.  In return, the newspapers attacked Altgeld, and he was rewarded by being defeated in his re-election campaign.  By the way, if you ever have a chance to visit the 3rd Unitarian Church of Chicago, you will find a mural of Gov. Altgeld as a tribute to his courage.  I suspect he is one of the very few politicians of any stripe who’s portrait appears in a Unitarian church anywhere.

In 1889, in Paris, an international convention of workers declared May 1 a holiday to honor the “martyrs of Chicago”, and in various countries it is either Labor Day or International Workers Day.  The Haymarket Affair is just one incident in a long history of the US labor movement.  Throughout that history, the workers came from the bottom of the economic ladder, and were typically immigrants.  Fear of violence from immigrants was a tool to keep public opinion on the side of employers.  I’m not going to try to summarize all of labor history, but even the stories behind songs we heard this morning make these points.  Joe Hill was a Swedish immigrant born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund (Hag Lund). He was a popular songwriter for the union cause, and was organizing with mine workers in Utah.  The worst massacre in US labor history was at the Ludlow coal mine in 1914.  Joe Hill was at a Utah Copper mine when he was likely framed on a murder charge.   Woodrow Wilson was among those who sought clemency, but it was a state crime and the governor of Utah ordered that Hill face a firing squad.  Employers also used prejudices of the union workers to try to create divisions that would defeat unions.  Strikebreakers were often from another ethnic group, and African Americans were at the bottom of the economic rung. The last song we heard, Bread and Roses, was based upon a poem written in 1911.  The Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912 became known as the Bread and Roses strike.  The women who worked at multiple textile plants spoke a total of 51 languages, with union meetings taking hours because of difficulty communicating.  But it defied conventional wisdom, because the ethnically divided workers stood together.

I think there’re many reasons why these events of more than a 100 years ago are relevant to us today.  There are political themes we see today.  But I think there are also some more spiritual lessons, and I’d like to focus on a few of those.

The first is gratitude.  That gratitude comes in a couple forms.  One form is gratitude for the labor that provides to us every day. In many religious traditions, families pray before a meal to thank God for their food.  But we often forget about the people who plant, harvest, transport, prepare and serve the food.  I flick on a light switch, turn my ignition key, open a water faucet or check my computer, and rarely think about the thousands of workers who helped make everything work.  Brecht’s poem reminds us how the great events in history are attributed to a few individuals.  But at each event, thousands of unnamed and forgotten people labored to make it happen.  In our children’s story today, the character who stood out to me was the man in the office building who never thought about the janitors. He left work at night with the messy office and full garbage can. He came back the next morning and everything was clean. The worker was invisible until he saw the protest. Today, our advanced division of labor often separates us from those who labor.  When we eat a meal, it’s easy to forget about those who plant, harvest, transport and prepare our food.  It’s easy to forget about those who make things work when you flick a light switch, open a water faucet or turn the ignition.  Two hundred years ago, when Americans ate, they might have farmed the food.  They might have known the person who made their shoes, and if they bought textiles from a store, perhaps at least knew the store owner.  Today, our division of labor is so advanced, that we have little or no connection to the individuals who make our food or goods.  It’s easy not to think about them.

The story of the Haymarket leads me to a second form of gratitude, that is more applicable to May Day.  Whatever abuses we see in the workplace today, the challenges they faced were much worse.  The Obama quote summed it up.  We expect agreement there should be no child labor, And that the 8 hour day should be in enforced.  For those workers, dangerous factory conditions were an expected part of the job, and there was no workers comp.  If you were hurt, you just stopped working and received no assistance.   And the employer replaced you with the next person.  We are so fortunate to live in this time and place.  Millions before us worked hard to achieve progress in the workplace.  Thousands suffered.  And many died, leaving families behind with no support.  Those at the McCormick plant or Haymarket in Chicago  or the mines in Utah were just a few who died for the cause.  And we enjoy the fruits of that sacrifice.  We can’t pay those people back. The way to be thankful and show gratitude is to fight the next battle for those who follow us.  We have our own set of challenges.  True gratitude is more than a feeling, but prompts us to action.  That was Julie Taylor’s message.  If we are grateful to those who came before us, the best we can do to show gratitude is to fight the next battle.  Even if we are not around to see the victory, others will be.

Despair.  A second takeaway I had from the looking back to the origins or May Day was my awe for the willingness of these workers to keep fighting against incredible odds.  In this past year, I know we have all felt at times like we are going backwards or that the road ahead has so many obstacles that its just overwhelming.  We are tempted to despair.

In our culture today, when we face an issue, we are so primed for instant gratification. We love the story where an underdog encounters problems, faces obstacles, and overcomes challenges.  But the story has to fit within the confines of a two hour movie or television show.  But the struggles worth fighting for take a long time.

Then I think about the immigrant workers fighting for the 8 hour day.  Just as an exercise, I’d like to ask you to join me and I thought experiment. Let me ask you to imagine that you’re at a Las Vegas casino, even though the casinos didn’t exist back in 1890 and you have $100 in your hand.  You can place a be on which side will win the struggle over the 8 hour day. On one side, you have the wealthiest people.  They control all the large businesses in a time when there is surplus labor.  They control the newspapers, the only mass media at the time.  They exert great influence over the politicians, the police, the courts and the military.  On the other side, there is a group of immigrants with little formal education who spoke broken English.  They had little money and controlled no media.  On which side would a rational person place a bet?

But in the end, who won the struggle over the 8 hour day?

To be sure, these immigrants lost many battles lost along the way.  Some paid dearly, often with their lives.  But as a group, they just kept fighting.  They didn’t despair.  That fight took years.  Many didn’t live to see the victory.  But one after another, they just kept fighting till they won.

I’m a great believer that our weekly service shouldn’t be an isolated one hour event on Sunday that we forget about during the rest of the week. So I often try to create a little exercise to bring our service forward during the week. I’d like to invite you to join me this week.  For a minute or two each day this week, try to think of the challenges that these men and women faced before winning the fight. Think  about them in the context of the struggles you face, whether they involve personal issues, relationships or social causes. Those workers, despite setbacks, just kept fighting.  And so should we.


The third point I would like to emphasize was the ability of these workers to overcome differences and join together as one community. The women of Lawrence, Massachusetts could have fallen prey to internal divisions. In the Bread and Roses strike, women who spoke 51 languages came together. In the May Day protests of 1886, the immigrant workers across the country who chose the issue of an eight-hour day found a way to come together.

But I think there’s a broader issue of community here about how all of us need to be alert to the attempt to create divisions among workers. The struggle of the workers sometimes touched upon money. But that wasn’t the real issue. Carlitos in our children’s story didn’t care about money.  He just wanted to spend more time with his mom.  The song “Bread and Roses” tells us that the labor movement is about quality of life, not money. The issues of fair wages and reasonable working day really went to more important point. The basic principle is that each person ought to be able to devote a reasonable time to work, and have some time left over for family and friends. In a broader sense, I think that’s simply a corollary of the first principle of Unitarian Universalist that we respect the dignity and worth of each person.

I know I haven’t spoken much about the labor issues of today. But I think the issues of a living wage, of wage disparity and wage theft, of equal pay, and of taking advantage of undocumented workers ultimately go to that same issue.  These issues touch all workers in some way.  Consider the issue of the eight hour workday. I think there’s a sense in which it has become a much more important issue for the white collar worker. I know that I’ve had jobs, and many people in this church have had jobs, that sometimes become all consuming—where it just seems that to survive, let alone succeed, it captures most of your time and emotional energy.  There have been times in my career when I’ve spent less time than I should have with a sick parent, less time than I should have with a child in need. There were times when I was physically present for my family, but my mind was someplace else. All for a stupid job.   Lane Kirkland, former AFL-CIO President, had a great retort to those who praise the virtue of never ending work.  He said, “If hard work were such a wonderful thing, surely the rich would have kept it all to themselves.”

Fairness and equity in the workplace is an issue for all of us. And that’s just part of dignity and worth of each individual.

So we can’t let people divide us on this point. There’s not one group that’s entitled, and another that’s undeserving.  I want to suggest that when you stand up for the rights of another person to make a living wage, you’re not just standing up for that person and that issue. You’re implicitly making a broader point. You are standing up for the right to a meaningful life.  A point that applies to you and me too.

For the workers of May Day, the union was a community that made them stronger.  Today, unions aren’t as strong. But our success still depends upon the ability to join together in community.  Labor leader Walter Reuther said, “There is no power in the world that can stop the forward march of free men and women when they are joined in the solidarity of human brotherhood.”

A hundred years ago, music was often an important way to express unity among diverse groups.
With that in mind, we’re going to conclude our service today with a song you may know:  Solidarity Forever. It shares the same music as John Brown’s Body and the battle hymn of the republic. The lyrics were first written by Ralph Chapin in 1915.  But it is a song that has been updated over the years.  The version you are about to hear includes verses from the seventies that emphasize inclusiveness, and affirms that we will not let artificial distinctions divide us as a people or distract us from our goal.   We will stand united.

And now,
Solidarity Forever.