Workers of the world, kick up your feet!
The first of May is Worker’s Day in Argentina (and in most other countries). Tragically, it is also a Sunday this year, so you probably wouldn’t be working anyway. Worker’s Day in Argentina is a so-called “fixed holiday,” distinct from—and manifestly inferior to—other, “movable” holidays, which we scoot to and fro like abacus beads to form our precious extended weekends.
Worker’s Day was first celebrated in Argentina in 1890, but it didn’t become an official holiday until the time of Perón: a new official holiday for workers was a no-brainer for the greatest populist panderer in Argentina’s history. (Cristina, a close runner-up for that title but the undisputed queen of feriados, definitely bookmarked this page of his playbook.)
But would you believe that once upon a time, people didn’t even take Sunday rest for granted? The story of Worker’s Day dates to an era where working conditions could be called “Dickensian” with little exaggeration, and the average worker could count his holidays on one hand—provided he hadn’t lost too many fingers on the job.
In the United States, Labor Day is a federal holiday falling on the first Monday of September, and traditionally marks the end of summer. So why doesn’t the US celebrate Worker’s Day with the rest of the world? Probably because it commemorates a deadly act of 19th-century domestic terrorism in Chicago. Yes, really.
May 1 was chosen by The Second International (an organization of socialist and labor parties convened in Paris) to commemorate the May 4, 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago (also known as the “Haymarket riot”), a peaceful labor demonstration that turned violent when somebody hurled a bomb at police. Seven officers were killed or mortally wounded by the the explosion. When police opened fire on the crowd in response, four civilians were killed and dozens more wounded.
Eight known anarchists, six of them foreign-born, were convicted, even though the actual bomber was never identified and only two of the defendants were even nearby when the bomb exploded. Four men were hanged and a fifth killed himself on death row (by putting a small explosive in his mouth, god damn!). The surviving three were pardoned in 1893 by a new Illinois governor who blamed “hysteria, packed juries, and a biased judge” for their unfair trial and unjust sentences.
You see, most of these men were Germans, and in 1886 the Trump set were pining to make America great again by getting rid of smelly, lazy, bomb-chucking krauts. (Meanwhile in 1886, Karl Benz was patenting the automobile. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.) The fact that these uppity immigrants were agitating for more equitable shares in the American Dream certainly didn’t endear them to the Gilded Age establishment, either.
And just what where their outrageous demands? The demonstrators who occupied Haymarket Square on May 4th were rallying for a little something we take for granted called the eight-hour work day.
What they got was an eight-week scourge of police harassment, targeting the entire labor community, but Germans and anarchist in particular were singled out for arrests and abuse. America’s first “red scare” had begun: for decades after the bombing and “trial,” the stereotype of the bomb-throwing immigrant anarchist was a regular boogeyman in our national nightmares. No doubt there were calls to build a wall of some sort.
Let’s have a fun fact! What else happened in 1886?
Four days after the riot, on May 8, the first Coca-Cola was sold and the world would never be the same.