In about 80 countries around the world, May 1, or May Day, is an official labor holiday, marked by worker demonstrations and rallies.
But you wouldn’t know it in much of the United States, where union membership has fallen to its lowest point in nearly 70 years and May Day’s significance is all but forgotten.
And that’s a bit odd, given that International Workers Day, as it’s alternately known, is a major milestone in our nation’s turbulent labor history.
Gilded Age tensions
During The Gilded Age, which stretched 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 rapidly 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 expanding machine.
The labor movement
This was a period of boom and bust. Intermittent economic slowdowns led to waves of widespread unemployment and growing discontent, particularly among new wave of European immigrants who poured into cities in desperate search of work.
When work was available, it was often less than desirable. In the absence of strong federal work laws, immigrant laborer commonly worked excessively long hours in wretched, 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.
With a booming population fueled by an influx of German immigrants (the city grew from about 300,000 in 1870 to 1.7 million in 1900), Chicago became a hotbed of radical labor activism.
The Haymarket Affair
Two days after the demonstrations, police and strikers clashed outside Chicago’s McCormick Reaper Works, leaving two workers dead. 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 proceeded peacefully until police arrived and ordered the remaining workers to disperse. As the officers 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 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 attempt to identify the perpetrators of the Haymarket incident, Chicago authorities captured and convicted eight local labor leaders, despite having any concrete evidence of their involvement. Four were hanged, one committed suicide, and three were pardoned six years later by the Illinois’ governor.
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 workers, and membership in labor organizations grew rapildy.
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 in planning an international day of action to demand a 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, in which federal authorities killed several workers. The incident drew national attention, and under pressure to appease the increasingly powerful labor movement, Congress unanimously approved rush legislation to make Labor Day a national holiday.
But 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). With the official Labor Day celebration in September intentionally divorced from its radical roots, America’s observance of May Day became increasingly obsolete.
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 shorten hours for their workers. In 1916, Congress passed the Adamson Act, the first federal law to regulate 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. this week, consider tipping your hat to those May Day labor activists from way back when.