Workers and Artists Unite!

Why May Day Matters for Musicians

Volume CIV, No. 5May, 2004

Kirk Kelly

Click here for calendar of Labor History Month events and exhibitions.

May is Labor History Month. And all over the world, workers celebrate May 1 as May Day — international labor day. The U.S. is one of the only industrialized countries to not officially commemorate this day. Kirk Kelly, Local 802’s music education rep, looks back at what May Day means.

On May 1, 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (the short-lived predecessor to the American Federation of Labor) declared that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886” and advised the affiliate unions to “so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.”

This accelerated drive for the eight-hour day became known as the “May Day movement.”

By 1886 the struggle had greatly intensified. In city after city a general strike was called, demanding an eight-hour day without a decrease in wages.

In Chicago, where the workers were becoming increasingly militant and the rhetoric increasingly revolutionary, the resistance stiffened. The state’s militia manpower was increased dramatically, as was that of the Chicago Police Department, with both receiving generous gifts of the latest, deadliest high-tech weaponry from local business leaders.

Some of this new weaponry was put to use on May 3, 1886 when police fired on strikers at the McCormick Reaper Factory. When the firing stopped and the smoke cleared, four men lay dead. Many more were wounded.

A mass meeting was called for the next day in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. As the day’s last speaker took the stage, a light rain had started falling and the crowd of peaceful mourners was already thinning. Suddenly and without provocation, a platoon of 180 policemen moved into the remaining crowd, ordering it to disperse immediately. As the speakers climbed down from the stage and the crowd began to disperse, a bomb exploded in the midst of the police ranks. One policeman was killed and seventy were injured.

The source of the bomb was never determined, but authorities used the incident as an excuse to round up labor activists. Eight union leaders and political activists were arrested and charged with the murders of those that died in Haymarket Square. Although no evidence connected any of them to the bombing they were all convicted and sentenced to death.

One of the eight committed suicide before the sentence could be carried out and four were hanged on Nov. 11, 1887. Appeals of the remaining three were still pending in 1893 when a newly-elected governor pardoned them. Those that died are known today as the Haymarket Martyrs.

It was the year following their deaths that May Day became truly international when workers the world over observed May Day in memory of the Haymarket Martyrs and in solidarity with the American workers still fighting for the eight-hour day.

Knowing the story of the first May Day, it is easy to understand why today those with wealth and power enough to choose presidents, dictate Supreme Court decisions and bring the world to war could fear something as simple as a walk in the park.


But what does all that mean to someone waiting by the phone for the call for the gig that will mean the one more contribution to qualify for Plan B?

Perhaps the true meaning of May Day lies in our own struggle to practice our art freely, in our daily battle to employ our skills with dignity and respect.

Last May, as part of the Workers Memorial — May Day Festival, Local 802 hosted a panel discussion entitled “Whose Voice? — Corporate America’s Stranglehold on American Pop Culture.” During this discussion Sean Sweeney, the director of labor studies at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, offered insight into the experience of those who struggle to make a living in the arts or media. Referring to the modern phenomenon of what he calls “monoculture” he explained, “Fifty people control the entertainment of a couple of billion people.”

For the creator as well as the consumer of music, monoculture equals monopoly. For the wealthy few seeking to consolidate control over — well — everything, monoculture means monopoly of public discourse.

That is not a good thing for musicians; it is not a good thing for any worker anywhere and it goes a long way in explaining the current state of our beleaguered democratic institutions. The tactics might have changed, but what we as a union fight for today is the same as that for which the Haymarket Martyrs died.

To some it might seem we have a long way to go before we even approach the level of solidarity that existed that first May Day. But unions are still built the same way and for the same reasons.

Ken Nash, co-host of WBAI’s weekly “Building Bridges — the Community and Labor Report” recently reiterated a sentiment shared by those who fought for the eight-hour day in 1886.

“Our only chance is for workers of the world to unite,” Nash said, and suggested that maybe “the worldwide race to the bottom which we are caught up in will bring us to our senses.”

Whatever the motivation, great change begins with a few simple steps and to understand the meaning of May Day is to understand those steps. In keeping with the spirit of that first May Day, Local 802 is supporting what is now called the Worker Arts and Media (WAM!) Festival (formerly the above-mentioned Workers Memorial — May Day Festival).

Sometimes an act as simple as a walk in the park can strike fear in the wealthiest and most powerful, and as Ken Nash will tell you, “What better time to begin than on May Day?”

For more information on the Worker Arts and Media Festival, see