Happy May Day!
While today might have you thinking of flowers, sunshine, and Maypoles, May 1st is also International Workers Day, a global celebration of working-class struggle.
International Workers Day has its origins in the 1886 Haymarket Riot — a violent series of clashes between the Chicago police and strikers from the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. Exhausted by long hours and undignified conditions, the protesters were part of a nationwide labor campaign to secure an eight-hour workday.
Tensions mounted after the death of one civilian on May 3rd. On May 4th, a bomb went off during demonstrations, shattering the fragile peace. At least a dozen people — police and civilians — were killed, while dozens more were injured. The Riot had immediate ramifications, including distrust of radical labor groups and the execution of four men suspected in the May 4th bombing. (For more information on the Haymarket Riot, watch this short PBS video or check out some of the library’s resources on the event.)
In 1889, to commemorate the Riot and all it symbolized, an international federation of socialist and trade groups designated May 1st as a day of workers’ solidarity. Initially, it was intended to be a one-time day of protest, but the event proved so popular that it persisted for the next hundred years. It is particularly cherished in Europe, Asia, and Latin America; in fact, May 1st is an official public holiday in many of the countries in these regions.
International Workers Day is not widely acknowledged in the U.S. or Canada, largely because Labor Day has been celebrated in September since the late 1800s. Nevertheless, May 1st has been adopted by some North American groups, including the Occupy movement, as a day of protest, solidarity, and celebration. Either way, May is as good a time as any to reflect on how far workers’ rights have come in the last 150 years — and that, my friend, is worth celebrating.
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About the title of this post:
“Bread and roses” has been a common slogan at labor strikes since it first appeared during a 1912 strike in Massachusetts. Quoted from a poem by James Oppenheim, the phrase “bread and roses” refers to the worker’s need for material as well as spiritual fulfillment — fair wages and dignified conditions.
Bread and Roses
James Oppenheim, 1911
As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”
As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!
As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too!
As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!