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Dancing Around The Maypole

By James Donahue

Rituals welcoming the end of winter and the entrance of spring were common among the Celtics and Germanic people of ancient times. The celebration of May Day, another cross-quarter day marked among the pagans living in the Northern Hemisphere, has been pictured as children happily dancing around a Maypole, their hands clutching a bright colored ribbon attached to the pole.

Maypoles were popular throughout Europe. During the May Day celebration, people danced around the pole. Often a brass band was playing. The practice was abandoned and in some cases declared illegal after Christianity arrived.

The name May Day took on a new meaning during the Nineteenth Century when working class people engaged in a struggle to force employers to improve working conditions. Workers sought eight-hour work days, safer working conditions and better pay.

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, during its national convention in Chicago in 1884, marked May 1, 1886, to be the date when a legal day of labor would be no more than eight hours. The next year, in 1885, various Knights of Labor locals backed up that proclamation and threatened to support the idea of an eight-hour work day by strikes and demonstrations.

When the big day arrived, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses in the United States walked off their jobs in what became the first May Day event in history. The epicenter for the union strikers was Chicago, where 40,000 workers struck their jobs. There were demonstrations and fiery speeches in the streets. 

The protests grew. More and more workers walked off their jobs in the following days. Then on May 3, 1886, the police intervened at the McCormick Reaper Works where the Steelworkers Union workers were striking. Police used clubs, the strikers responded by throwing rocks, and finally the police began firing into the crowd. Two workers died and many others were injured in what is still remembered as the Haymarket Massacre.

The capitalists despised what became known as an anarchist movement. The media supported big business interests and anarchism became synonymous with socialism and un-American activity.

The unions in America and throughout Europe grew in power and helped create what has been called the Middle Class. May Day evolved into International Workers Day. But as we all know, big corporate powers have slowly eroded the power of the unions. With international trade agreements that have allowed large industrial corporations to move operations overseas in search of cheap non-union labor, shipments of goods into North America without paying tariffs, and with the invention of “right-to-work” states (where workers are not required to join unions to have jobs), unions are disappearing. And with them are going the Middle Class.

The significance of May Day has been all but lost.