MAY DAY: The Forgotten Labor Day

April 30, 2007

Most Americans who came of age during the Cold War grew up believing that May Day was some sort of communist holiday, invented by the Russians. Every year on May 1, television news would show us official parades through Red Square in Moscow, the leaders of the USSR standing in review atop Lenin’s Tomb as soldiers marched in formation and tanks and missiles rolled past. Few Americans were aware that May 1 each year was the occasion for general strikes and mass parades by labor union members in other foreign capitals such as Paris, Rome, and Mexico City.

Since 1890, May 1 has been recognized around the world as International Labor Day. The origins of this holiday are not to be found in Russia, France or Mexico, but rather here in the United States – specifically in the struggle to shorten the workday to a tolerable length, and more specifically in events that occurred in Chicago in May 1886.

Throughout the 19th century, the struggle to shorten the workday was a central issue in workers’ efforts to form unions and gain some control over their own lives. The battle over hours was at least as important as the fight for higher wages. Early industrial capitalists imposed working days of 12, 14, or 16 hours, and workweeks of seven days. But from the beginning of industrialism, workers pushed back and tried to establish a more humane schedule of work.

In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which two years later renamed itself the American Federation of Labor – AFL) voted to call for direct action – strikes – on May 1, 1886 to enforce on employers, from that day forward, the principle “that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor.” When May 1, 1886 arrived, there was indeed a mass strike wave across the U.S., involving some 400,000-500,000 workers in large and medium cities as well as small towns.


Chicago was a major center of this movement, with as many as 90,000 demonstrators in the streets that day. A major portion of the Chicago strikers were immigrant workers – German, Irish, British, Polish, Czech and others. Industrialists, bankers, newspaper editors, and government officials were in a panic. On the third day of the strike wave, police opened fire on 500 workers protesting against scabs at the McCormick Harvester plant, killing four and injuring many others.

Outraged at the murders of their fellow workers, Chicago workers gathered in a mass rally the following evening, May 4, at Haymarket Square. A crowd of 3,000 listened to speeches by movement organizers. Near the end of the final speech, 180 police advanced in military formation on the crowd that had now dwindled to around 200. As the cops moved on the speaker’s stand, a bomb flew though the air and exploded in from of the police, killing one instantly and wounding dozens. The police regrouped and opened fire on the crowd, killing one and injuring many. Several officers were fatally wounded in the melee of “friendly fire” from their own force.

The next day the mayor declared martial law. The authorities and “respectable” citizens, were gripped by anti-labor hysteria, and viewed the eight-hour movement as a terrorist threat to civilization. (But John Swinton, the most influential labor journalist of the day, believed the bomb was thrown by a police provocateur to discredit and destroy the labor movement.) Hundreds of militant workers were arrested, homes and union offices raided. Eventually eight men were picked to face trial the murder of a police officer at Haymarket, most of whom had not even been present at Haymarket Square on the evening of May 4. But all of whom were effective labor organizers, and therefore viewed as enemies by the ruling class of Chicago. Six of the defendants were immigrants (five German, one British), which aided the effort to demonize them.

The trial was a travesty, with no workers on the jury and the outcome obvious in advance. Seven years later, Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld pardoned all of the accused, declaring that they “were not proven guilty of the crime,” and were instead victims of a biased judge and a packed jury. But the pardon came too late for five on them: on November 11, 1887, the State of Illinois had hung Albert Parsons, Adolph Fisher, August Spies, and George Engel. Louis Lingg had committed suicide, or was murdered, in his jail cell.

The Haymarket affair, and the execution of the Haymarket martyrs, was a gigantic if temporary setback to labor and the eight-hour movement in the United States. But by 1890 the AFL was again calling for May Day strikes for the eight-hour day, and labor movements in European and other countries, following the American lead, were making May Day the workers’ day of celebration, protest, and rebellion. The 1905 Russian Revolution began on May Day. In 1913 May Day arrived in Mexico, where it was (and is still) called the Day of the Chicago Martyrs. May Day continues to be celebrated by working people around the world, from Buenos Aires to Berlin, Nairobi to New Delhi.

But in the U.S., the land of its origin, businessmen and politicians worked hard over the years to steal May 1 from the labor movement, and to erase its memory. In 1939 the state of Pennsylvania declared May 1 “Americanism Day.” In 1947 Congress declared it “Loyalty Day.” Congress in 1958 proclaimed May 1 as “Law Day.” Billionaire Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York said that observing the traditional labor May Day “bordered on treason.” The Chaplain of the U.S. Senate used the occasion of May 1, 1960 to preach “Obedience to Authority.”


On May 1, 2006, immigrant workers to the United States revived May Day as an American working class holiday, a day to demonstrate for justice. Several million immigrant workers in the U.S. participated in “the Great American Boycott,” refusing to go to work and joining in mass demonstrations. May Day 2006, and other mass demonstrations earlier last spring, arose out of protest against HR 4437, a bill that was passed by the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives in December 2005 and would have made all undocumented immigrant workers felons, and imposed stiff penalties on those who knowingly employ or assist undocumented immigrants. This bill never passed the Senate, but the battle over immigration continues.

Those who are hostile to immigrants complain that they don’t know the language, customs and history of the U.S. But school children in Mexico learn about Haymarket and the history of the eight-hour movement in the United States, while school kids in Chicago don’t. Mexican immigrants arrive here knowing May 1 as “the Day of the Chicago Martyrs,” and immigrants from other countries know that history too, while most Americans – probably even the majority of union members – know nothing of it. If immigrant workers are able to teach us something about our own labor history, and our own lost working class traditions, they will have brought us a great gift.

Historian Peter Linebaugh, who wrote the movie review of Amazing Grace in the March UE NEWS, wrote an article some years ago on the deeper history of May Day, going back to ancient times and dealing with both the green (environmental) and red (workers´ struggles) sides of May Day. To read his "The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of MAY DAY", click on the following link:


If you like what you read, please consider subscribing to the UE NEWS — for as little as $5/year you can support great labor journalism and receive the print edition of the UE NEWS four times per year.

You can also sign up to receive monthly UE NEWS Bulletins via email, or follow UE on FacebookTwitterInstagram and YouTube.