For most Americans, closing their laptop or clocking out at the end of an eight-hour shift at a restaurant or construction site is the norm, give or take a half-hour or so for lunch. And as tiring as a day of work can be, it’s easy to forget that over a century ago, people died to afford us the right to an eight-hour workday.
Much of this country’s radical labor tradition has been erased by our political leaders’ allegiance to big business and a reverence for markets and capitalism. But the modicum of rights still afforded to workers in 2021 stem from the 19th century unionists, anarchists, and socialists who first defied the capitalists who created the abhorrent working conditions of the Industrial Revolution.
One of the key moments in the story of organized labor came on May 1, 1886, when 300,000 workers walked off the job throughout the country in an organized strike, leading to several days of protest and tragic violence that would enshrine in history the recognition of May Day—a day of international worker solidarity.
What is May Day?
We tend to think of Labor Day as this country’s day of tribute to workers, as it provides a day of rest in the form of a holiday. While Labor Day did arrive on the heels of labor agitation—specifically, following the deaths of 13 workers during the Pullman Strike of 1894—it presents a more sanitized celebration of workers now more closely associated with sales at big box retailers than unions or radical reformers. Labor Day was formally recognized as a national holiday by President Grover Cleveland in 1984, and since then, the perception has followed that September is the only time that the United States formally recognizes the working classes’ contributions to the country’s history and social fabric.
This simply isn’t the case. May Day is the original Labor Day, and even if it’s not recognized in any official capacity by the U.S. government, it’s a distinctly American phenomenon, though one now recognized across the world annually by dozens of countries.
How did May Day come to be?
So how did this international day of worker solidarity come to be? To answer that, we have to trace the black clouds of U.S. industry back to their origins in the billowing smokestacks of the 19th century, when the Second Industrial Revolution had children crawling through coal mines and scores of workers dying every year due to calamitous working conditions. Galvanized by a growing sense of collectivism and an emergent faction of vocal labor organizations such as the National Labor Union, formed in 1866, workers across the industrial centers of the United States began to clamor for their rights.
A key moment in this pursuit came in 1884 with the rise of the “Eight-Hour Movement,”when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions held its national convention in Chicago, declaring that, “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” It was a sentiment that would later prove prophetic, but not without years of struggle and bloodshed.
The Haymarket Riot
Chicago had long been a hotbed of agitation and organizing, with a railroad strike in 1877 erupting in violence. Nearly ten years later, the air of unrest endured. As the May 1 deadline set by the FOTLU approached, “an estimated quarter million workers in the Chicago area became directly involved in the crusade to implement the eight hour work day, including the Trades and Labor Assembly, the Socialistic Labor Party and local Knights of Labor,” according to an archived synopsis published by the Industrial Workers of the World in 1993.
At first, the demonstration was relatively quiet, but that all changed on May 3rd, when a demonstration at McCormick Reaper Works ended in a violent skirmish between demonstrators and police that ended with the deaths of a few workers. The next day, a gathering at Chicago’s Haymarket Square was organized to protest the previous day’s killings. At first, the proceedings were calm, with even Chicago mayor Carter Harrison in attendance.
The tranquility again gave way to violence when someone threw an explosive at police; the person responsible has never been identified, but the action caused the police to fire their weapons indiscriminately at the rally’s attendees during a speech by activist and newspaper editor August Spies.
As History explains, what followed became known as the Haymarket Riot, and sparked a bloody legacy:
The police and possibly some members of the crowd opened fire and chaos ensued. Seven police officers and at least one civilian died as a result of the violence that day, and an untold number of other people were injured.
The friction between U.S. authorities and the labor movement continued from there, with several prominent organizers convicted and executed for alleged ties to the Haymarket incident.
As the IWW explains in further detail:
Eight anarchists – Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer and Louis Lingg – were arrested and convicted of murder, though only three were even present at Haymarket and those three were in full view of all when the bombing occurred.
As the memory of Haymarket loomed large in mind of the labor movement’s and beyond, more and more unions latched onto the idea of an eight-hour day as a necessity.
In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt included the policy in his presidential platform, paving the way for the idea to reach a mainstream societal acceptance. It wasn’t until 1916 that a law supporting an eight-hour work day was passed by Congress, in the form of the Adamson Act, which allowed railroad workers that right. It was the first law of its kind to apply specifically to workers employed by private companies.
Still, it took until the Great Depression and the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (which was later replaced by the Wagner Act), for the right to maximum hours and minimum wages to apply to workers on a federal level.
Without the legacy of Haymarket and the pivotal actions taken on May 1, 1886, it’s hard to see how any of that would have been possible. Though there is no concrete link between May Day and the eventual adoption of an eight-hour workday, at least as it is codified in law, it’s inarguable that the efforts of those 19th century activists were instrumental in achieving the now-standard concession.
May Day today
Today, May Day is an important day of solidarity for anyone with class consciousness in the U.S., but oddly, it isn’t really celebrated much stateside. The spirit of Haymarket, however, has been recognized in various other countries, most notably in Europe, where it is enshrined in the form of public holidays.
Though we can thank Grover Cleveland for Labor Day, May Day has been all but erased from the American calendar, partly due to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pledge to make May 1 “Law Day”—an ironic pledge of allegiance to the so-called “rule of law,” and the forces that proved to be the chief opponents of the Labor Movement.
That doesn’t mean you can’t keep the spirit of May Day alive, and observe it with the full breadth of its history in mind. This May 1, think of the workers who sacrificed their lives to give you the right to organize your workplace and to end your workday after eight hours.