May Day is a workers’ holiday celebrated around the world but its roots are found here in the U.S. It began in the late 1800’s during the struggle for the eight-hour day. This fight led to some of the largest strikes and demonstrations this country has ever seen. In the process this holiday was exported to the world, creating an international workers’ holiday.
All Work & Bad Pay
Millions of immigrants came to the U.S. in the late 19th century. Their wages were so low, entire families, including children, had to work just to survive. The average worker toiled for twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Working conditions were horrible, from cramped sweatshop factories to dangerous coal mines. Workers also faced constant attempts by the bosses to speed up work, cut their pay, and lay them off during the off-seasons. All of these things made workers fed up and ready to fight to change their conditions.
Never Wait – The Fight For Eight
In the 1880s, workers in the U.S. began to push for a shorter workday. The eight-hour movement spread throughout the working class. May 1, 1886 was chosen for a nationwide strike, to force those in power to recognize the eight-hour day. The leaders of the main union, the Knights of Labor, were afraid to launch a real fight, but at the local level, workers led by revolutionary socialists prepared for a major clash with their employers and the police. On May 1st, over 350,000 workers stopped work in 12,000 work places across the nation. Many of these struggles won shorter work hours, though the government did not recognize the eight hour day.
The Haymarket Tragedy
On May third in Chicago, police opened fire on striking workers killing six. Then on May fourth, the local revolutionaries organized a rally at Haymarket Square to protest the police. As the last speaker finished, a bomb exploded, killing seven cops. No one knows who threw the bomb, but immediately police opened fire on the unarmed workers.
Afterward eight revolutionaries were tried and convicted on charges of inciting a riot, even though there was no evidence. Two were executed and one committed suicide in prison. The government used this incident to attack workers everywhere, and try and crush the workers’ movement. But the example of the Haymarket revolutionaries inspired thousands more to take up the cause. In 1889, workers’ organizations around the world chose May first, as a day to honor their memory and continue the fight.
May Day – Forgotten in America, Celebrated Around the World
To destroy the memory of May Day the government emphasized Labor Day as a patriotic holiday to take its place. Unfortunately most Americans aren’t given the chance to know what May Day really is. But in most of the world May Day is still celebrated. Isn’t it about time we began to reclaim our history? American workers’ struggles could inspire the world once again.