For some, May Day is a time to prance like a wood nymph around a flower-wreathed pole. But that’s probably not what thousands of workers around the world have in mind when they take to the streets today.
In about 80 countries, May Day — also known as International Workers Day — is an official labor holiday, commonly marked by demonstrations and rallies. On American streets, the focus has more recently shifted to immigrant rights activism. But in the United States, where labor union membership has fallen to its lowest point in nearly 70 years, the significance of May Day, commemorating a major milestone in America’s turbulent labor history, has been all but forgotten.
Gilded Age tensions
In the late 19th Century, the wealth divide in America between the few haves and the many have-nots was as extreme — if not more so — than it is today.
During The Gilded Age, stretching 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.
The era saw a growing divide between capital — broadly defined as stockholders, executives and managers who controlled the means of production – and the wage-earning labor force who worked the production lines.
Industrial capitalism yielded larger workplaces, greater use of technology, and a division of the manufacturing process that demanded less skill and training. It was a direct threat to the individual laborer, who risked becoming an increasingly cheap and replaceable cog in the machine.
A growing labor movement
The labor movement was gaining steam, fueled in part by widespread unemployment and worker unrest during a series of economic slowdowns. The movement also grew exponentially, as a new wave of European immigrants poured into cities in search of work.
In the absence of strong federal labor laws, immigrant laborers often worked excessively long hours in wretched, dangerous conditions for meager wages.
In response, a convention of the the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions called for a national strike on May 1, 1886 to demand an eight-hour workday. The convention resolved:
“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.”
Hundreds of thousands of workers in cities across the country participated in the strike, including roughly 80,000 workers in Chicago. The city’s population was booming (between 1870 and 1900, it grew from about 300,000 to 1.7 million), fueled by an influx of German immigrants, and it became a hotbed of radical labor activism.
The Haymarket Affair
Two days after the event, clash erupted between police and strikers outside Chicago’s McCormick Reaper Works, and two workers were killed. In response, a group of anarchist labor leaders organized a rally the following evening in Chicago’s Haymarket Square.
The event attracted a large crowd, and it proceeded peacefully until police arrived and ordered the remaining workers to disburse. As the police advanced on the crowd, a homemade bomb was thrown, and in the melee that ensued, seven policeman were killed (mostly a result of friendly-fire). Police then proceeded to fire on the crowd, killing at least four demonstrators and injuring scores more. In the event’s aftermath, labor activists, particularly anarchist agitators, were viewed with heightened suspicion, as were many immigrant workers.
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. Four were hanged, one committed suicide, and three were pardoned six years later by the Illinois governor. The identity of the real bomber was never revealed.
Although the Haymarket Affair, as the incident became known, marked a temporary setback for the labor movement, it also spurred a fresh wave of activism around the world, particularly among younger generations of workers, and 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 campaign, planning a general strike May 1, 1890. AFL president Samuel Gompers enlisted the support of European socialist labor leaders, proposing an international day of action to demand the universal eight-hour day. Workers in countries throughout Europe and America rallied in the streets.
The New York World’s front page the next day was devoted entirely to the event. Its 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 participated each year. In may countries — especially those with socialist or former-socialist governments — it retains strong political significance.
May Day’s decline in America
In 1894, riots erupted during the longstanding Pullman Strike near Chicago and several workers were killed by federal authorities. The incident drew national attention, and under pressure to appease the increasingly power labor movement, Congress unanimously voted to approve rush legislation making Labor Day a national holiday. And eager to distinguish Labor Day from May Day’s more radical roots, President Grover Cleveland pushed for a September date. As a result, America’s observance of May Day became increasingly obsolete in the 20th Century.
And finally, the 8-hour day
The fight for the eight-hour day in America persisted through the turn of the century, with ongoing, and sometimes violent strikes and demonstrations. Incrementally, though, a number of key industries agreed to shortened hours for their workers. In 1916, Congress passed the Adamson Act, which finally established the eight-hour work day. It was the first federal law regulating the hours of workers in private companies.
Two decades later, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, setting the maximum workweek, for a wide range of industries, at 40 hours. It also required employers to pay overtime bonuses in certain professions.
The following clips from a PBS documentary on the Haymarket Affair, chronicle the early history of America’s labor struggle.