May Day: Made in America

Joseph North

Published: New Masses, May 4, 1943;
HTML: for in March, 2002;
Proofed and Corrected: by Dawn Gaitis, 2007.

A QUARTER century has sped by and old Al has undoubtedly limped on to his reward, but I shall always recall him about this time of the year: the crotchety, silent loom-fixer in overalls with the wrench hanging at his side. I had just been introduced to the twentieth century mysteries of our industrial civilization in the somewhat humble post of bobbin boy in one of Pennsylvania's ancient textile mills. Old Al was a wizard with the looms and the weavers liked him although they scarcely understood his strange quips which, I suspected, they regarded as the foibles of approaching senility. Wheeling my cart about collecting empty bobbins, and still considerably bewildered by the fury of motion and clatter in the vast room which spanned a whole city block, I came upon old Al behind a loom. He stood, bemused, unaware of my presence. Upon the window panes which never let in any light, covered as they were with a thick accumulation of dust and lint, he traced with a bony forefinger the mysterious letters which spelled out “May l.” He looked up to find me staring. Hastily, he wiped his handiwork from the pane and with a quick glance around told me that he could be fired for writing that. That evening, after the bedlam of the looms died down, in that sudden silence that comes after ten hours of unmitigated roar, he told me of his youth and of his old Knights of Labor days and of 1886, and of the world of meaning buried in the scrawl “May 1.”

“It's the workingman's New Year Day,” he said. “Man who works for a living starts his year on May Day.”

Twenty-five May Days have passed since old Al told me that and I have come to believe he wasn't far from right. He had said, with a sweep of his arm, that nobody here understood what May Day meant, but that the time would come when they, like him, would regard the day as the year's beginning. They're a fresh crop of working people, he said, and they have a lot to learn. But learn they would, as he had learned. He was too old, now, and feeble, he indicated, to teach much, but there were younger men doing the job. May Day, he said, means freedom; it comes rightly in the springtime and all over the world it comes in the springtime and workingmen think of a better life.

I PAY homage to old Al, one of the obscure, unsung millions of America's proletarians; he crops up in my mind every time May Day rolls around. I thought of him those many May Days before the war when I saw New York's laboring men and women, many with their children perched on their shoulders parading through the streets; I thought of him when the cables would come in from London, Moscow, Paris and in the pre-Hitler days, Berlin, telling cryptically of the march of working men and women.

I thought of him that May Day in Barcelona when the gaily clad Spanish unionists of the UGT and CNT marched down the Calle Cortes, their banners flaming in the brilliant Mediterranean sun, a squadron of planes roaring by overhead in case the Junkers and Capronis would come on their holiday. They marched, contingent after contingent, Socialist, Republican, Communist youth – together on May Day, together against fascism. It was not hard to imagine him, standing there, watching them too, with quiet satisfaction.

I think of him today, and of the double-quick march of history that his lifetime represented. Think of it: there was no May Day before 1886, and he was already at work. In the lifetime of one man and his son, the aspirations of labor have taken form, have quickened into life, have become a reality which no man dare ignore.

And he was an American.

The first May Day American men and their families marched for an eight-hour day. (Do you know what it is to work ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day in the heat of a foundry, which the tropics cannot match?) They dreamed of ordering their life into eight hours of work, eight hours of education and play, eight hours of rest. A modest dream, but oh how revolutionary! “The first fruit of the Civil War,” Karl Marx wrote in Capital, “was an agitation for the eight-hour day – a movement which ran with express speed from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California.” And more.

The dream leaped the oceans, took root in the mind of Europe. Three years later it became an international workers' holiday at the creation of the Second International in Paris. It acquired the connotation of international brotherhood; that all men, whatever their language, their nation, their color, their religion, were brothers.

TODAY, this May Day, it has infinitely more meaning than ever. The spirit of May Day belongs in the Atlantic Charter; it is implicit in the concept of United Nations; it is part of the great meaning of anti-fascist coalition; it abhors everything Hitler stands for. And it was born in America – within the lifetime of your father and mine.

Today, the sons of old Al, and all true patriots whatever their class, are engaged in the greatest endeavor of all time. And the old loom-fixer, I am certain, would be the first to say so. It is the endeavor to keep history on the track – to save it from tumbling down half a thousand years into the moldy slavery of medievalism. And within the front of national unity, the front of patriots, the sons of old Al must, as ever, shoulder the greatest burden. Old Al would have said that workingmen constitute the greatest part of our army; that workingmen create the means for their brothers and sons and all Americans in uniform to wage war. That's why they're observing May Day this year in the mills, pushing the stuff out for the fronts. We would have said, too, that their obligation is to fight with all who will stand against the barbarian; that today victory is the greater working class demand, one that takes precedence over every other need. And that that truth must, this May Day, bring the workingmen of Britain, America, and Russia into unshatterable alliance.

I RATHER suspect old Al again this year, as I felt him in Barcelona and on so many other May Days. He’ll be standing there at the Yankee Stadium, dressed in his best Sunday clothes, most likely wearing his shiny celluloid collar, thinking, “Yes, May Day is the workingman's New Year....”