May Day gets a Gainesville boost

Published: Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 30, 2007 at 10:30 p.m.

When Robert Zieger looks at the calendar and sees that today is May 1, he knows it holds more significance than just the start of a new month.

Around the world - but not in the United States - it's a "worker'' holiday known as International Workers' Day.

"The irony is we sort of invented it back in the 1880s," says Zieger, a distinguished professor of history at the University of Florida whose specialty is labor.

And in Gainesville today there's a rally and celebration on the downtown plaza that James Schmidt, one of the organizers, says he hopes will reclaim those historical May Day labor roots.

"We'd like to put Gainesville back on the map as part of the nationwide effort to revive that," Schmidt says.

Jenny Brown, co-chair of the Alachua County Labor Party, which is one of the event sponsors, says May Day's history is tied with the efforts by unions to attain an eight-hour workday.

"As many people know the eight-hour day has been eaten away, and I hope this will reinvigorate people to think about how we can win more time for our lives and not just be consumed by work," Brown says.

"The labor movement are the folks who brought you the weekend," Brown adds.

In ancient Roman times, May 1 was a celebration of spring and the renewal of nature, which in later times carried over to celebrations and dancing around maypoles. Zieger says in the 1880s, unions in the United States saw the spring celebration as a time for stepped up activism, including efforts to gain an eight-hour workday. He says there would be parades with union members carrying elaborate banners.

But in 1886, May Day in the United States became associated with controversy in what Zieger calls the Haymarket Affair in Chicago. There a labor protest turned violent, a bomb was thrown, police and protestors were killed, and a group of men accused of instigating unrest were later executed.

"We still don't know who threw the bomb," Zieger says.

Later, May Day was widely celebrated in Communist countries, and in the old Soviet Union it was a day marked by parades where missiles and marching troops filled Red Square.

"(Communist governments) saw themselves as representatives of the workers, but they don't own May Day," Zieger says.

But still May Day in the U.S. was attacked in the Red Scare of the 1920s and in the era of McCarthyism in the 1950s.

Labor Day in the United States was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland in 1894, making the first Monday of September a holiday. Zieger says for Cleveland, who had a reputation as a strike breaker, it was a chance to polish his image. And for labor unions it was an opportunity to celebrate workers without the controversy associated with May Day.

"There's been a movement recently in college towns like Gainesville to rekindle May Day," says Zieger, who will be one of the speakers tonight on the plaza.

The Rev. LoraKim Joyner, at Gainesville's Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, used the topic for her Sunday sermon, "Whistle While You Work: Worker Inequities and the Real Labor Day," and she'll also be speaking tonight.

She says growing up, she didn't know of the ties of organized labor to May Day, nor did she ever remember hearing the topic of labor and the problems of workers addressed on Labor Day in September. Seeing today as International Workers' Day got her thinking.

"Why aren't we joining in solidarity with workers around the world, which is all of us, these issues aren't going away," Joiner says.

For Joiner those issues include the widening gap between people in poverty and the elite, and the growing difference between a minimum wage and a living wage.

Zieger says he expects tonight's rally to draw an interesting mix of people. He says environmentalists, feminists, union members, students and supporters of fair trade will join "in a spirit of joyful celebration rather than grim confrontation."

May Day celebration

* What: May Day Picnic, Celebration and Rally, with speeches and music from Cara Del Gato, Lars Din Song Riot, Gainesville Liberation Orchestra and Scum of the Earth.

* When: 6-10 p.m. tonight

* Where: Downtown Community Plaza, corner of SE 1st Street and E. University Avenue.

Gary Kirkland can be reached at 352-338-3104 or

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