Correction note: The original version of this post stated incorrect information about the history of Labor Day. It was established in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland (not 1955). The information has been updated to reflect this change.
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 immigrant rights 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. The day’s roots date back to a heated struggle for something that most of us now take for granted: the eight-hour work day.
Also known as International Workers Day, May Day has become largely overlooked in the U.S.; we celebrate our own federal labor holiday four months later, which is pretty ironic, considering that it commemorates an event that happened on American streets.
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 (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 two years ago, and heightened public demand for a more level playing field.
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 explosive clashes with authorities, many of which make most of today’s protests look more like, well, dances around the may pole.
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. This resulted in huge concentrations of wealth. The growth also demanded a larger workforce, which in turn fueled a sudden population boom in cities around the country, where millions of poor European immigrants flocked in search of opportunity.
Chicago: A hub of industry and worker discontent
Chicago’s population, in particular, grew exponentially: in 1870, a mere 300,000 people lived in the city, but by 1900, it was home to roughly 1.7 million. German immigrants composed the largest ethnic group. The city became a major industrial hub and focus of labor organizing efforts. In the near complete absence of binding labor laws, newly arrived workers often toiled in wretched and dangerous conditions, working 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 authorities.
A brief period of economic slowdown in the early 1880s gave rise to successful organizing campaigns by militant socialist and anarchist labor leaders, who picked May 1, 1886 as the target date by which the eight-hour day would be established.
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.”
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.
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 organized another 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. In the melee that ensued, seven policeman were killed, mostly by friendly fire. Police then proceeded to fire on the crowd, killing at least four demonstrators and injuring scores of others.
In the event’s aftermath, labor activists, particularly anarchist agitators, were viewed by authorities with heightened suspicion, as were many immigrant workers, and a number of subsequent organizing efforts were violently suppressed by police. In a desperate effort to identify the perpetrators of the Haymarket incident, Chicago authorities captured and convicted eight local labor leaders, despite any concrete evidence of their involvement in the incidents. Four were hanged, one committed suicide, and three were pardoned six years later by the governor of Illinois. The bomber was never found.
The Haymarket Affair, as the incident became known, spurred a fresh wave of labor activism around the world, particularly among younger generations of workers. Membership in labor organizations spiked.
The first May Day
Responding to ongoing pressure for 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.
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, author of 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 a number of countries throughout the world – especially those with socialist or former-socialist governments.
Interestingly, though, America’s observance of May Day became increasingly obsolete in the 20th Century. In 1894, riots erupted during the longstanding Pullman Strike near Chicago. The incident, in which several workers were killed by federal authorities, drew national attention. Under pressure to appease labor, Congress unanimously voted to approve rush legislation to make Labor Day a national holiday. President Grover Cleveland signed it into law six days after the end of the strike. Eager to distinguish Labor Day from the more radical activities associated with May Day, Cleveland agreed on a September date for the holiday — one that trade unions had identified a decade earlier as a worker celebration day (separate from May Day).
So what ever became of 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, strikes and demonstrations. Incrementally, though, a number of key industries agreed to adhere to shortened. And in 1916, Congress enacted the Adamson Act, officially 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 for a wide range of industries, it also required employers to pay overtime bonuses.
Check out the following PBS video (in three parts) on the history of the incidents that you can partially thank for your 9 to 5 work schedule:
Haymarket Martyrs–Origin of International Workers Day