Loyalty to Labor: Brief History of May Day in Los Angeles


In America, Labor Day and May Day (also known as International Workers Day) are essentially one and the same: both formulated around the late 1880s with intentions to improve labor laws and celebrate the economic and social contributions of workers. The latter however, is rooted in left-wing politics, and have been largely omitted from our history.

Originally a pagan holiday celebrating the beginning of summer (when May 1 was considered the first day of summer), May Day became synonymous with International Workers' Day when it began to mark the commemoration of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886, in which dozens of labor strikers were killed by the police.

While the working class in many countries have succeeded in making May Day an official labor holiday (while also serving its original purpose as a springtime celebration), in the U.S. attempts have historically come short. In fact history has essentially been re-written -- in 1958 President Eisenhower proclaimed the first day of May as Loyalty Day, in an attempt to disassociate the date from the violence and socialist connections. Eight presidents since, including Barack Obama in 2011 and 2012, have also issued official proclamations declaring the date as such.

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Socialism in the U.S. originated largely from German immigrants who came during the Second Industrial Revolution in the latter half of the 19th century -- a time when the nation experienced its highest economic growth. Capitalism was booming, industry was growing, and the Transcontinental railroad was being built, among other technological and engineering feats. But the growth was a little lopsided -- companies were growing, but at the expense of workers' health and lives. They experienced 10- to 16-hour work days in unsafe conditions for a pauper's pay, and life expectancy was as low as the early 20s in some industries. Into these conditions, the German immigrants had brought with them Marxist ideals, which critiqued capitalism and investigated causes of developments. From this begot "democratic socialism," with the goal to give control of the means of production to the working class.

Naturally, with similar goals, labor organizations and the socialists party formed strong bonds, and many early labor unions were made up largely of socialists.

Interior view of the Los Angeles office of the Socialist Party in 1911. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

During the rise of socialism, the Los Angeles Times ruled L.A., and its owner Harrison Otis Gray was famously anti-union. Otis took pride in his growing reputation as the most aggressive and unyielding foe of organized labor in America. He founded the Merchants and Manufacturers (M&M) Association -- a league of local businesses created to keep the unions out. Under Otis' leadership, the Times became the region's largest business promoter and Los Angeles was known as "Otistown."

From this sprung the bombing of the L.A. Times building during the International Typographical Union strike. Two socialist brothers -- labor unionists known as John & James McNamara -- were the culprits, and their subsequent trial, in which they were defended by then-leading mayoral candidate and socialist, Job Harriman -- essentially put socialism on trial. With 21 workers killed and a hundred more injured from the bombing, socialism not only lost in the trial, but the movement was disgraced, adding to the nation's growing anti-socialist sentiment.

Though socialism became a dirty word, Los Angeles demanded observance of May Day over the course of time, attaching it with various national issues. In 1933 for instance, after the seemingly false arrest of political activist and labor leader Thomas Mooney, protestors gathered at La Plaza and demanded his freedom, along with the formation of a "Soviet America." Decades later in the 1980s, May Day protests were held by communist and socialist sympathizers alike, demanding recognition. In 2006, May 1 was chosen by (mostly Latino) immigrant groups in the United States as the day for the Great American Boycott (also known as Day Without an Immigrant), a general strike by undocumented immigrant workers and supporters to protest H.R. 4437, immigration reform legislation that sought tougher border control perimeters and harsher consequences for aiding illegal immigrants. On May 1, 2007, a mostly peaceful demonstration in L.A.'s MacArthur Park demanding amnesty for illegal immigrant workers ended with a widely televised dispersal by police officers, who were later slapped with a $13 million lawsuit. These recent events tie into the immigrant and labor history of socialism, and the original intent of May Day.

Day Without an Immigrant protester holds signs in English & Spanish that read: "U.S.A. is MADE by immigrants... & that's it!" Photo is courtesy of the LAPL.

Top: A May Day Conference, ca 1933. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

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