May Day, also known as the “International Working Class Holiday” or “International Workers’ Day,” carries a significant history which encompasses the struggles of the international labor movement. In numerous countries, it is recognized as a national holiday. Massive demonstrations are held around the world on May 1 to recognize the solidarity of labor struggles internationally and to mark the current struggle for causes such as better wages, job security, health care, and a safer work environment.
The celebration of May Day as a labor holiday traces its roots back to the United States. On May 1, 1886, workers across the United States called for a general strike – a strike that calls on all workers regardless of their union affiliation, and even if they are non-union workers – to achieve the guarantee of an eight-hour work day for those involved in industrial trades. Up until that point, there were no limits to how many hours that owners and management could force an employee to work in a day. Workers walked off the job and refused to work until a universal eight-hour work day was achieved.
According to labor historian Phillip Foner, 30,000 to 40,000 workers in Chicago alone participated in the strike action and up to 80,000 workers marched in solidarity in the city.
The call for a strike was so successful in drawing people into the streets that the police used violence to try to suppress it. On May 3, police opened fire on a crowd of protesters and killed two strikers. On May 4, a bombing in Haymarket Square during a large rally on the city’s west side killed several workers and police officers. The police again fired on the rally, killing four protesters and wounding dozens in the ensuing chaos.
The celebration of May Day began as a commemoration of this tragedy, which quickly became known as the “Haymarket Massacre.” It was first celebrated in 1890 after a call by the International Workingmen’s Association at their meeting in Paris.in the following decades as the labor movement’s strength began to grow.
The call for international working class solidarity and recognition of the struggles of the working class was received and embraced around the world
The Haymarket Memorial (Photo by Seth Anderson, Chicago)
During World War I, soldiers stopped fighting to commemorate May Day. In the 1930′s, workers all over the world marched against the rise of fascism in Europe on that day. In the United States, a May Day march was held to free the Scottsboro Boys, a group of black men falsely accused of rape in 1931. On May Day in 1945, soldiers from the Red Army raised a red flag over the Reichstag in Berlin to symbolize the defeat of Nazism and the end of World War II. In 1975, thousands marched in Boston on May Day to stop the segregation practices inflicted on black workers in the city by supporters of the white-supremacist group Restore Our Alienated Rights. In the late 1980′s, millions marched in South Africa to bring down the apartheid government there.
Despite the fact that the U.S. set Labor Day in September to separate its working class from the world movement May Day remains the day on which the working class rallies its forces to continue the battle against war, racism, sexism, and, for many, capitalism.