May Day, for some, is a time to prance around flower-wreathed poles like wood nymphs.
But that’s probably not what thousands of workers around the world have in mind when they take to the streets today.
In nearly 80 countries around the world, May 1 — also known as International Workers Day — is considered an official labor holiday, marked by demonstrations and rallies.
But in the U.S., where labor union membership has fallen to its lowest point in nearly 70 years, the significance of May Day is nearly all but forgotten. Which is odd, considering it commemorates a major milestone in our nation’s turbulent labor history.
Gilded Age tensions
In the late 19th Century, the wealth divide 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 20th Century, America went through a period of dramatic economic growth and industrialization. It resulted in a huge concentration of wealth and a widening wealth divide.
The era saw a growing gap 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 required less skill and training (sound familiar?). It also posed a direct threat to the individual laborer, who risked becoming an increasingly cheap and replaceable cog in a vastly growing machine.
The labor movement
It was a period of boom and bust, with intermittent economic slowdowns followed by waves of widespread unemployment that fed growing discontent among workers.
The labor movement also gained strength as a new wave of European immigrants poured into cities in search of work.
In the absence of strong federal work laws, immigrant laborers often worked excessively long hours in wretched, often dangerous conditions, typically for meager wages.
In response, a convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions called for a national strike on May 1, 1886. The primary demand: an eight-hour workday.
The convention declared:
“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. That 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, which helped it become a hotbed of radical labor activism.
The Haymarket Affair
Two days after the event, police and strikers clashed outside Chicago’s McCormick Reaper Works. 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 officers advanced on the crowd, someone threw a homemade bomb, and in the melee that ensued, seven policeman were killed (mostly a result of friendly-fire). Police fired on the crowd, killing at least four demonstrators and injuring scores more.
A number of subsequent organizing efforts were violently suppressed by authorities. 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 governor of Illinois. 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. Membership in labor organizations quickly spiked.
The first May Day
Responding to ongoing pressure for an eight-hour day, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) resumed its campaign, planning a general strike May 1, 1890. AFL president Samuel Gompers enlisted the support of European socialist labor leaders, planning 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. 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 participated each year. In many nations — especially those with socialist or former-socialist governments — it still 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 powerful labor movement, Congress unanimously approved rush legislation making Labor Day a national holiday.
However, eager to distinguish Labor Day from May Day’s more radical roots, President Grover Cleveland pushed for a September date for the holiday (Labor Day). As a result, America’s observance of May Day became increasingly obsolete in the 20th Century, as the official Labor Day celebration in September was intentionally divorced from its radical roots.
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 labor 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.
So, when you clock out of work at 5 p.m. today, you might consider tipping your hat to those May Day labor activists from back when.
The following playlist from a PBS documentary on the Haymarket Affair, chronicles the violent roots of America’s labor struggle.