One of the most important working-class holidays, May Day (International Workers Day), originated in the United States in the 1880s with the struggle for the eight-hour day.
The expansion of capitalism in 19th century America brought new layers of the working class into existence. Many were imbued with a strong class hatred for their oppressors. The workers’ movement spread from large urban centers to small towns, building new organizations and engaging in militant struggles.
The major labor organization at the time was the Knights of Labor. It was born as a secret society in 1869 and by May 1886 it had a membership of over one million. The Knights combined the idea of the need for a class approach to organizing with a moral exhortation for good works and education.
Their view was an “injury to one is the concern of all.” They also believed that wage slavery needed to be done away with and replaced by cooperatives of some kind.
This made them quite different from the American Federation of Labor (founded in 1884 as the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions). The new AFL was based on the skilled labor of white, American-born males and was quite narrow in both its approach and its tactics of winning a better life.
The AFL’s philosophy was to use strikes by its skilled membership as barter to win from the capitalists “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.” It believed in “pure and simple” trade unionism and turned away from any radical politics.
A third grouping, socialist and anarchist militants opposed to the capitalist system, believed that the overthrow of the system could be accomplished by militant labor action.
The issues of a reduced workweek or shorter daily hours had been a rallying cry for workers both in the United States and around the industrialized world. It was a struggle against the constant attempt by the bosses to extend the working day up to as much as 16 hours, side by side with periodic unemployment.
Strikes and pressure for legislation to reduce working hours became widespread in the 1880s. An economic depression with resulting unemployment and wage cuts spurred the movement forward so that in 1885 the workers began to discuss the idea of a general strike to win the eight-hour day.
While the national Knights leaders quaked in their boots, the local leaders prepared for the battle. May I, 1886 was chosen as the date for the fight to be launched. On the job, in the neighborhoods, at the union halls and at home the eight-hour-a-day movement was the hot topic of working-class conversation.
The workers sang the “Eight-Hour Song”:
We meant to make things over;
we’re tired of toil for naught
But bare enough to live on:
never an hour for thought.
We want to feel the sunshine;
we want to smell the flowers;
We’re sure that God has willed it,
and we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces
from shipyard, shop and mill:
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest,
eight hours for what we will!
But the bosses were also preparing. The media began a huge propaganda campaign. Paramilitary groups started to form while the police and National Guard increased its numbers, both with the obvious threat of major violence.
In early spring 1886, strikes demanding the eight-hour day began to break out, involving almost a quarter of a million workers. The movement was strongest in the big working-class centers, but it extended all over the Midwest and East Coast. In Chicago, a mix of trade unionists, socialists, and anarchists united, holding huge demonstrations in the weeks leading up to May 1.
Mass rallies, parades and demonstrations involving thousands of workers took place around the country. Brewers, bakers, furniture workers, clothing cutters, tobacco, shoe, lard, packing and other workers won some victories and saw their hours reduced.
On May Day, tens of thousands of workers struck and tens of thousands more took to the streets to support the fight. It was a festival of the oppressed, with bands and flags and joy. Over the next days, 340,000 workers stopped work in 12,000 work places around the country. Many of the struggles were victorious.
On May 3, police in Chicago fired into a mass meeting of workers in front of the huge McCormick works, killing four people and wounding 200. The workers battled the police. Anarchists called on the workers to take up arms. All over the city the workers held meetings and rallies to protest the killings and police brutality.
At a meeting in Haymarket Square on May 4, some 3000 people rallied to protest the McCormick killings. As the last speaker was finishing up, hundreds of police marched in and declared that the rally must disperse.
Suddenly, dynamite exploded from within the gathering of the police, wounding dozens and eventually killing seven. The police fired into the crowd, wounding 200 and killing several.
The newspapers all over the country screamed about the bombing. accusing the anarchists of murdering the police. The mayor declared a virtual martial law and the police began raiding all radical organizations, arresting hundreds of socialists, anarchists, and others.
Law and order became the watchword of the day, cheered on by the bosses and their mouthpieces in government, the press, and the police. Even the Chicago Knights of Labor applauded the witch hunt, stating: “We hope the whole gang of [anarchist] outlaws will be blotted from the face of the earth.”
Eight anarchists were arrested for the Haymarket bombing. Seven were sentenced to hang and one to a long prison term, though there was not a shred of real evidence to connect them to the bombing. The governor of Illinois commuted the sentences of two of the accused, one man killed himself in jail, and four were hanged by the state.
Twenty-five thousand workers participated in a funeral march for them in Chicago. Thousands of workers made a pilgrimage yearly to the graves of the Haymarket martyrs at Waldheim cemetery in Chicago.
Mother Jones, a leader of the miners, said of Haymarket: “The workers asked only for bread and a shortening of long hours of toil. The agitators gave them visions. The police gave them clubs.”
The repression following the strike wave of 1886 led to the demise of the Knights Of Labor. However, the more narrowly focused AFL, whose leaders took credit for the eight-hour-a-day strike victories, gained ground, with over 100,000 members.
In the meantime, the principles of class struggle and labor solidarity were passed along to new generations of labor radicals and led to the creation of the Socialist Party and the International Workers of the World, many of whose militants honored and respected the Haymarket martyrs and the fighters of 1886.
There were over 1400 strikes, involving over half a million workers, in 1886, leading it to be called at the time “the year of the great uprising of labor.” The strike wave showed the potential power of the newly emerging industrial working class. It showed a high level of class solidarity, even across racial lines.
In 1888 the AFL continued the eight-hour-a-day movement. In 1889, the Second Socialist International and workers’ organizations around the world voted to designate May I, 1890, as an international day of solidarity to continue the In the United States, however, while left-wing groups tried to keep May Day alive, the conservative and later anti-communist trade union leadership, with the support of U.S. politicians, tried to shift attention to the first Monday in September as “Labor Day.”
Although the September date had been celebrated by trade unionists in New York as early as 1882, in subsequent years it became associated with flag-waving patriotism, parades, and picnics as opposed to the more militant May Day celebrations. Congress recognized Labor Day as a national holiday in 1894, while ignoring May Day.
As the workers’ movement in the United States unfolds in the future, it will be up to us to reclaim May Day as our holiday and bring its celebration back to the U.S. working-class centers where the holiday was born.