The History of May Day Explained

Includes: Article, archival photos

The Haymarket affair, as depicted in a a Harper’s Magazine engraving (Wikimedia Commons)

For some, May Day means prancing awkwardly around a feather-wreathed pole.

But that ancient Druid rite of Spring is likely not what today’s protestors have in mind.

In about 80 countries throughout the world, May Day is actually an official labor holiday, often commemorated with large strikes, rallies, and demonstrations in support of workers rights. And its roots date back to a heated struggle for something that most of us now take for granted: the eight-hour work day.

May Day – also known as International Workers Day – is now largely overlooked in the U.S.; we celebrate our own federal labor holiday four months later, which is pretty ironic, considering that it was born right here on the streets of America.

A long tradition of income inequality and labor struggle

Income inequality in America (and most other places in the world, for that matter) is certainly nothing new. Dating back to colonial times, there has consistently been a fairly large chasm separating society’s small number of rich and powerful – those who control the means of production (who Karl Marx famously referred to as “capitalists”) – and the laboring masses who keep the machines humming along (Marx called them the “proletariat”).

The actual size of the gulf between the two groups, however, has vacillated significantly over the course of America’s history. Today, that gap is pretty huge, a disparity that spurred the Occupy Movement protests and heightened public demand for a more level playing field. Compare that to 50 years ago, when America’s middle class was rapidly expanding and the gulf between classes was less overt.

But back in the late 19th Century, the income divide was similar in scope to what it is now, and the effort to mobilize working classes often resulted in clashes with authority that would make most of today’s protests look like more like, well, dances around the may pole. .

A 1911 Industrial Worker publication illustraiton critiquing the capitalist system. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the period known as The Gilded Age, which stretched from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the century, America went through a period of dramatic economic growth and industrialization, resulting in huge concentrations of wealth among the few in control of production. The growth also demanded a larger workforce, fueling a population boom in major cities around the country that became inundated with millions of poor immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe.

Chicago: A hub of industry and worker discontent

Chicago’s population grew exponentially: in 1870, a mere 300,000 people lived in the city, but by 1900, it was home to roughly 1.7 million. It became a major industrial hub and a center for labor organizing efforts. In the near complete absence of strong labor laws, newly arrived workers often toiled in wretched and dangerous conditions, working incredibly long hours for paupers wages. The eight-hour work day was still a distant goal, and challenges to the existing order were often met with repressive and violent retaliation from employers and public authorities.

A brief period of economic slowdown in the early 1880s gave rise to successful organizing campaigns by militant socialist and anarchist labor leaders. At a convention in the city in 1884, labor groups decided on May 1, 1886 as the end date by which they intended to establish the eight-hour day.

The convention resolved that:

“Eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labour organizations throughout this jurisdiction that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.”

As the day approached, labor unions in cities across the country prepared for a general strike in support of the demand, and on May 1, large rallies were held throughout the nation.

A flier promoting the the Chicago labor rally (Wikimedia Commons)

Two days later, strikers gathered outside Chicago’s McCormick Harvesting Machine Company Plant (known as “The Reaper Works”), which for months had locked out workers. A clash erupted between police and protesters, and two workers were killed.

The Haymarket Affair

In response, anarchist labor leaders quickly cried foul, accusing the police of abuse. Fliers were printed calling for a rally the following evening in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. That night, a large crowd amassed to hear speeches from several prominent labor leaders. The event proceeded peacefully until large numbers of police arrived and ordered the remaining workers to disburse. As the police advanced on the crowd, a homemade bomb was thrown, ultimately killing seven officers. A melee ensued, with police firing on the crowd and leaving scores of demonstrators and officers wounded. At least four of the workers were killed.

The seven anarchists initially sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer during the Haymarket incident (Wikimedia Commons)

While the event brought widespread attention to the labor struggle in America, it also became a temporary setback to the movement. Labor activists, particularly anarchist

agitators, were viewed by authorities with heightened suspicion, as were many immigrant workers, and a number of subsequent organiz

ing efforts were violently suppressed by police. In a desperate effort to identify the perpetrators of the Haymarket incident, eight labor leaders were convicted of inciting the violence, despite any concrete evidence of their involvement. Four were hanged, one committed suicide, and three were pardoned six years later by the governor of Illinois. Whoever built and set off the bomb was never identified.

Despite initial setbacks, the incident – that became known as the Haymarket Affair – spurred labor movement activism around the world. It particularly galvanized younger workers demanding equitable treatment and pay. Membership in labor organizations worldwide spiked in the aftermath.

The first May Day

With continued pressure to institute an eight-hour day, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) resumed the fight and set May 1, 1890 as the date for a general strike. AFL president Samuel Gompers enlisted the support of European socialist labor leaders, proposing an international day of action to demand a universal eight-hour day.

And it worked incredibly well.

Workers in countries throughout Europe and America rallied in the streets. The following day, the New York World’s front page was devoted entirely to the event, according to Philip Sheldon Foner’s account in May Day: A Short History of the International Workers’ Holiday.

The headlines proclaimed:

“Parade of Jubilant Workingmen in All the Trade Centers of the Civilized World”


“Everywhere the Workmen Join in Demands for a Normal Day” 

The Times of London listed 24 European cities where demonstrations had occurred. It also noted events in Cuba, Peru and Chile.

Commemoration of May Day became an annual event, as workers in a growing number of nations each year participated. Today it still retains strong international political significance in many countries throughout the world. Oddly, though, May Day became increasingly obsolete in America in the second half of the twentieth century – particularly after 1955, when President Eisenhower set September 5 as America’s official Labor Day.

So what ever happened with the eight-hour day?

The American labor effort for the eight-hour day persisted through the turn of the century, with ongoing, and sometimes violent, labor disputes. Incrementally, a number of key industries agreed to institute it. And in 1916, Congress enacted the Adamson Act, establishing the eight-hour work day — the first federal law to regulate the hours of workers in private companies.

Two decades labor, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set the maximum workweek at 40 hours. Applied to a wide range of industries, it also required that employers pay overtime bonuses.