May Day: Four Interrelated Meanings

May First, or May Day, is, as leftists know, the real Labor Day.  It marks the struggle of the international working class against the selfish capitalist rulers, who enjoy unimaginable opulence on a planet where nearly 3 billion struggle to survive on less two dollars a day.

But let me suggest here four separate but intimately interrelated meanings of “May Day.” The first is the more traditionally understood radical and proletarian meaning of the term, dating by most accounts from the Marxist- and left-anarchist-led struggle for an Eight Hour Day in Chicago in the spring of 1886 – the conflict that led to the infamous Haymarket bomb, the hanging of the Haymarket Martyrs, and a terrible wave of anti-union and anti-Left repression across the United States.

A second meaning has pre-industrial and pre-capitalist origins. It is to celebrate the beauty and bounty of Nature as it blooms each spring across the northern hemisphere. Think dancing around the Maypole, not marching in the streets.

A third and 20th century meaning comes from the airplane pilot whose plane is going down: “Mayday! Mayday!” he or she says into his or her radio. The term applied this way comes from French: “m’aidez, m’aidez,” that is “help me, help me.”

A fourth meaning is the embrace of leisure, free time, time for doing what one wants beyond the demands of necessity, bosses, and other authorities. The modern laborite May 1st is a day for “what we will.”  Recall that it was born as part of a struggle for shorter working hours.

Pieces of a Poison Pie

These four meanings are inextricably interwoven with each other. Take the first and second meanings.  The first connotation – the struggle between the working class majority on one hand and the capitalist elite on other – still holds relevance. It is true that the class struggle has been most aggressively fought and fairly consistently won by the wealthy few over the last “four decades of greed and deceit” (Noam Chomsky), so that, in the US for example, the top 1% now owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent and has garnered 99 percent of all income gains since the economic “recovery” in 2009. “There’s class warfare, all right,” the multi-billionaire U.S. financier Warren Buffett noted nearly a decade ago, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Still, things like the 2011 Wisconsin and Occupy rebellions, the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, the election of an openly Marxist activist (Kshama Sawant) to the Seattle City Council, and the ongoing Fight for Fifteen (the struggle for a decent minimum living wage) show that there is popular and even class struggle being waged from the bottom up as well as the top down in the United States as in other countries.

At the same time, it has become sharply apparent over the same four decades that the full pathology of the capitalists and their profit system is hardly limited to the struggle over how the pie of wealth and income is distributed. It’s about the relentless expansion and poisoning of the pie by economic and technological practices that undermine the capacity of human beings and other species to live in sustainable harmony with Nature. We must of course support the demand that McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Target, Kmart, Wal-Mart, and other workers be paid a reasonable livable wage (even $15 an hour falls short by that measure in most major U.S. metropolitan areas).  At the same time, we must also now call for the massive redirection of labor and other resource from environmentally toxic sectors like fast “food” and other mass-consumer industries (which tend to be very dangerously invested in waste, pollution, and disease) to socially useful and ecologically necessary activities like the building and maintenance of a clean and renewable energy system.

Rising Tide and Common Ruin

Homo sapiens can’t kill the Earth. The planet will outlive us.  What’s at stake is our ability – and that of other sentient beings and livings things – to live on it decently for much longer unless we simultaneously transform our relations with each other and with the natural environment. Livable ecology has been pushed to the edge of catastrophe (yes, catastrophe) by capitalism’s relentless drive for expansion and accumulation, by capitalism’s inherently chaotic  pattern of destructive “development,” by capitalism’s unyielding pressure to turn everything (including basic elements and requirements of life) into a commodity, by capitalism’s unremitting war on democratic governance and planning for the common good, and by capitalism’s ideological commitment to the notion that growth is the answer to those who criticize and fight against the poverty and joblessness it generates. As Le Monde’s ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled book The Rich Are Destroying the Earth(2007), “the oligarchy” sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them. . . . Growth,” Kempf explained, “would allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without – and this part is never spelled out [by the economic elite] – any need to modify the distribution of wealth.” Growth, the liberal economist Henry Wallich explained (approvingly) in 1972, “is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.”

In reality, growth on the capitalist model mocks and betrays hope by undermining the material conditions of a decent existence. The great capitalist metaphorical promise of “the rising tide” that “lifts all boats” is literally raising sea levels, melting ice caps, leveling forests, shrinking glaciers, setting off the planet’s ticking permafrost methane bombs, killing off a record number of species, and poisoning the air, water, and soil to a degree that makes past dystopian visions of a dark future look tepid. I will not overwhelm readers with the latest terrifying data on the ever-deepening “ecological rift” (John Bellamy Foster) created by the profit system’s war on the environment. The rift is led by but hardly limited to the anthropogenic (capital-o-genic) climate change that results from the over-saturation of the atmosphere with Greenhouse Gasses produced by the massive extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Other critical and related ecological boundaries being blown through by rapacious global capitalism include the oceans’ capacity to absorb carbon dioxide, the soil’s capacity to absorb inorganic phosphorous and host agriculture, the planet’s supply of freshwater, the number and diversity of living species, and the planet’s ability to process various chemical pollutants. Problems in these and other environmental areas raise the very real specter of human extinction in the not so distant future.  A failure to address them through eco-socialist and anti-extractivist transformation will bring us face to face with the unpleasant alternative to proletarian revolution that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels posed in The Communist Manifesto (1848): “the common ruin of the contending classes.”

Hence the relevance of the third meaning: “Help! we’re going down!”  (The airplane metaphor is appropriate in another sense: the carbon footprint of humanity’s manic, globetrotting air travel is shockingly high.)

If we want to avoid this third May Day meaning we are going to have to combine the first two –class struggle and love of nature – in a great popular movement informed by a deeply Ecology-informed version of what Marx and Engels in 1848 considered the only alternative to “common ruin”: the “revolutionary reconstitution of society at large.”

The Ecocidally Overworked American

Which brings me to the fourth related May Day meaning: free time. Full-time U.S. workers, it is all too rarely noted, have the longest working hours in the advanced capitalist world.  According to the International Labor Organization, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.” Eighty-six percent of employed U.S. males and 66 percent of employed U.S. females work more than 40 hours per week. In many professional sectors, work weeks of 60 to 70 hours and more are not uncommon in the U.S. Add in brutal (and high carbon-footprint) commutes and extensive car travel related to the nation’s sprawled-out residential and shopping patterns and it’s no surprise that hundreds of millions of U.S. citizens face a critical shortage of free time.

What’s it all about? As the economist Juliet Schor noted nearly fifteen years ago, the long hours experienced by “the overworked American” (the title of her widely read first book) reflect U.S. employers’ preference for compensating workers (however imperfectly and unfairly) for productivity gains with money instead of with free time.  Public opinion polls have long showed that most Americans would choose more leisure time over more consumer goods.  They would, that is, if the choice was given to any significant degree.  It isn’t. There’s a remarkable difference in the respective “markets” for goods and services on the one hand and for free time on the other.  An environmentally cancerous super-abundance of consumer goods, far beyond real human and social “use-value” needs, is widely available in the U.S. But free time is a relatively scarce “commodity” in “the land of the free.”

Schor attributed this “market disparity” largely to the capitalist dictates of the employer class.  preference for slack in the labor market – that is, to capitalist bosses’ longstanding reluctance to face the enhanced collective marketplace bargaining power that the working class enjoys when employment is more widely shared out (as it would be if hours for individual workers were reduced to a more reasonable level). U.S. capitalist employers’ ongoing class war on unions – so fierce that U.S. union density (the percentage of U.S. workers enrolled in unions) has fallen from 35 percent in the mid-1950s to 20 percent in 1983 to less than 12 percent today – is a strong related contributing factor.  Organized labor has always been the leading and most effective historical force pushing for reduced working hours, as in Chicago during the 1880s, when workers demanded “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Sleep, and Eight Hours for What We Will.”

Their actual preferences for leisure aside, U.S. workers who receive any extra rewards from their employers generally receive more money, not more free time.  This encourages them to buy more stuff to more “efficiently” enjoy the comparably slight leisure time they do get, something that feeds “a vicious circle of work and spend” (and borrowing) whereby people constantly work (and borrow) to “keep up with the Jones” – that is, to maintain social status as defined by the purchase of ever bigger and higher quality suburban homes, SUVs, refrigerators, televisions, VCRs, vacuum cleaners, and the like.

Time as a Democracy and Survival Issue

In her books The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1991) and The Overspent American (1998), Schor rightly noted the devastating impacts of this rat-wheel of work and spend on personal, family, and social health and livable ecology (impacts that have survived the collapse of the long “Clinton boom” at the end of the last century, along with the problem of over-work for many and joblessness for others).  But she left out something critical for the problem of how to solve (or at least now ameliorate) the environmental crisis created by capitalism: the devastating impact of overwork and the waning of leisure on peoples’ capacity for self-rule.  Free time is among other things but perhaps above all a democracy issue.  In my experience, social movements in the US founder again and again on the shoals of time-shortage and exhaustion: people simply lack the leisure and vigor required for meaningful grass roots activism and resistance. Without a reasonable abundance of free time off the capitalist treadmill and “for what we will,” popular movements of the kind required to rollback capitalist and extractivist ecocide cannot hope to emerge, much less to thrive and succeed. For what it’s worth, the 19th century pioneers of the US labor movement talked and wrote about the demand for shorter hours – early American unions’ top issue by far – largely in terms of how overwork stole from citizen workers the time and energy essential for meaningful participation in the great experiment in popular governance that had supposedly been launched by the American Revolution. Two centuries later, the struggle for free time remains very much a democracy issue and has also become a matter of ecological survival.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm-Routledge, 2014).


  1. Chris Reed April 30, 2015 4:52 pm 

    Paul: I clock in around sixty hours a week during the school year as a substitute teacher and youth worker. I find the time to keep up with the literature and spend time with my family. As my son goes off to college in the fall, I will have even more time for community organizing. In transit I listen to Pacific or local stations.’I frequent book clubs and lectures at the library or Clay Center. I stay involved with popular future through Netflix and movie nights at the local independent book store. I even play hearts on my phone occasionally. I walk a lot while listening to Pacifica on my phone.’There is still plenty of time if you’re willing to kill two birds with one stone.’I also keep up with Counterpunch, Truthout, Electronic Intifada, and Telesur,’and Mad in America.

    • avatar
      Joey Borda April 30, 2015 7:43 pm 

      Chris: You must be blessed with superman genes. It’s fantastic that you can at least two birds with one stone.

      My question is when do you sleep, and how many hours, and what do you do that’s useful to other people with the rest of your abundant free time? Your post reads like an advertisement for working even more hours than you already do, your success at it reading as so doable and admirable. How about 168 hours a week?!

      After my year-long full time substitute teaching (grades 1 through 12 in a large metro city) I needed my daily “free time” to just recover from that invigorating and empowering day of being with the kids who’d rather have been out of school just as was their teacher. Please share your secrete?

    • avatar
      Paul Street May 1, 2015 4:33 pm 

      You are a lucky many Chris Reed. Good for you. I am aging out of this kind of Stakhanovism, personally…and thank God. I suspect your comment sends a message you really don’t want to communicate: “we can be absurdly over-worked and nonetheless still buckle down to live full and engaged lives.” Well, you can, or at least so you report, but very few others can in all honesty, as you must know. Try going 60 hours a week full year round and keep it up through your fifties and sixties and maybe we’ll name an energy drink after you. (Oops broke my rule of not responding to comments…but this one I could not resist:)

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