May 1st, May Day or International Worker’s Day is an international labor holiday whose origins are traced to the eight-hour workday movement. Curiously, many Americans are unaware of the holiday despite its widespread celebration. What then is its history and why does the United States not celebrate a holiday founded to honor the American labor movement?
During the Industrial Revolution it was quite common to work 10 to 16 hour days in unsafe conditions. But gradually, trade unions and labor supporters made inroads in restricting the length of the work day. By the 1870s, several states and cities had passed eight-hour workday legislation. Unfortunately for workers, these laws were largely ignored by employers. Workers continued under the same working conditions as they had before, and labor leaders called for increasingly radical activism.
After years of little effectual progress in achieving what was already law in many cities and states, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU)† passed a dramatic resolution in 1884. It stated that from and after May 1st, 1886, eight hours would constitute a legal day’s work. If national legislation adopting an eight-hour day was not forthcoming by that deadline, the federation would call a general strike. This seemingly simple demand was met with great concern.
Mixed with the reformist, socialist and anarchist agendas, businesses and the government were apparently terrified by the perceived revolutionary character of the emerging labor movement. They eschewed it as communist and prepared for extreme violence. Workers were enjoined to show up in great numbers. Police and state militia were expanded and received deadly new weapons, including a $2000‡ machine gun financed by Chicago’s Commercial Club. The stage was set for major conflict.
A May Day parade was held on May 1st, 1886 in Chicago, a major hub of labor activism. And workers accompanied it by leaving their jobs across the nation. The names of Albert Parsons, Johann Most, August Spies and Louis Ling became household for inciting the massive walk-off. However, the violence predicted by government and media did not come to pass. It was not until two days later that the peace ended. On May 3rd, the Chicago police lashed out.
Police beat strikers with clubs. Strikers threw rocks at the police in turn. The police then responded with gunfire. At least two strikers were killed and an unaccounted number were wounded. Despite an appeal by Chicago mayor Carter Harrison, the violence escalated. Heavy-handed intervention by the police continued. On the evening of the 4th, a bomb was thrown at the police and gunfire ensued. Seven policemen were killed and many were injured. The peaceful protest had ended.
What was originally a cause of great concern to authorities and business interests was now a matter of exigency. Those same men who were once considered rabble-rousing leaders were now denounced as anarchists and murderers. Public sympathy for organized labor waned in the wake of the violence. In Europe, socialists later adopted May Day to honor the “Haymarket Martyrs” and celebrate international workers’ solidarity. Here, May Day was viewed as revolutionary and communist, and was subsequently disregarded.
Americans celebrate the less controversial Labor Day instead. May Day would became Law Day as the Cold War heated up and the U.S. government sought to distance itself from what was considered a communist workers’ holiday. Today, only the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand do not celebrate May Day.
† They changed their name on December 8th, 1886 to the American Federation of Labor, and later merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955 to form today’s AFL-CIO.
‡ Approximately $48,000 USD in 2010 using historical price deflators.
Michael Hammill is a graduate of Trinity College of Hartford, Connecticut with a B.A. in Political Science, Music and Minor in Performing Arts. He served on the Bush I campaign and continues to take an active role in politics as an independent thinker. He serves as an analyst and consultant in fields of information technology and security.