The history of May 1, International Workers' Day

The epic battles for the eight-hour day

Every year, May 1 is celebrated around the world as a day of international working class solidarity. Demonstrations take place from Africa to Asia, across South and North America and in Europe. These events, organized by trade unions in some countries and by revolutionary parties or governments in others, all celebrate the struggle of the international working class.

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Millions of Cubans march on May Day each year.
Photo: Ahmed Velázquez

May Day was officially adopted as International Workers’ Day at a meeting of the Marxist International Socialist Congress—the founding meeting of the Second International—held in Paris in July 1889. Its focus was the campaign to win an eight-hour workday for all workers.

The events inspiring May Day—a wave of strikes and demonstrations for a shorter workday, followed by the Haymarket Square killings in Chicago—occurred in the United States in 1886. The immediate outcome of that first wave of demonstrations was a tremendous setback for the labor movement in the short term. But the working class eventually turned the defeat into a victory for generations of workers all over the world.

Fighting for the ten-hour day

The 19th century witnessed enormous industrial development in the United States. The capitalist class amassed huge fortunes as the economy expanded. The transcontinental railway was completed, and steel, mining and chemical industries grew.

The conditions for the working class during this period were brutal. The workday was 12 to 14 hours and the workweek was six or seven days long.

There were significant struggles by labor organizations to reduce the workday. In 1835, workers in Boston issued a call to fight for a ten-hour day. In the same year, a three-week general strike in Philadelphia won a ten-hour workday in private and public jobs. However, the depression of 1837 to 1841 reversed these gains.

As the depression came to an end, the struggle to reduce the workday revived and continued for the next thirty years. By 1860, the average workday was reduced to 11 hours.

Civil war and the eight-hour day

The struggle for an eight-hour day picked up steam during the U.S. Civil War. "Out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was eight-hour agitation," said Karl Marx about the period. Hundreds of local organizations around the country actively agitated for the passage of legislation for an eight-hour day.

The National Labor Union—the first national labor association formed after the Civil War—outlined labor’s priorities for the period: "The first and great necessity of the present to free the labor of this country from capitalist slavery is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working day in all states of the American Union."

By 1868, six states and a number of cities in the United States passed eight-hour day legislation. In the same year, after a national campaign that collected 10,000 signatures, Congress passed an eight-hour day law for all federal workers. But a depression from 1873 to 1879 again rolled back the gains of the campaign.

The union movement relied more on petitioning the legislatures than direct action. But some national unions resorted to strikes to win a shorter workday.

Labor organizations influenced by Marxists with a more revolutionary approach to winning the eight-hour day were formed in the 1880s. The movement for the eight-hour day was wedded to the date of May 1 at an 1884 convention of the three-year-old Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada—the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor. A resolution designed to crystallize labor’s support for the eight-hour day was introduced:

"Resolved ... that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this district that they so direct their laws so as to conform to this resolution by the time named."

May 1, 1886

On May 1, 1886, around 500,000 workers took action. Demonstrations and strikes occurred in major cities across the country as well as smaller cities and rural towns.

Nearly 90,000 workers marched in Chicago, with almost 40,000 being strikers. Thirty-five thousand Chicago meatpackers won the eight-hour day with no loss of pay after that strike.

Ten thousand marched to Union Square in New York City. Eleven thousand marched in Detroit. Around 20,000 protested in Baltimore, along with thousands in Milwaukee. In Louisville, 6,000 Black and white workers marched together into city parks that were officially closed to Blacks. The Black press reported that the union movement had broken down the walls of prejudice.

The Haymarket incident

May 1, 1886, is perhaps best known for the events three days later, on May 4 at Haymarket Square in Chicago.

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Cops indiscriminately shot workers on May 4, 1886 in Haymarket Square, Chicago.

The enormous success of the May Day strike in Chicago was due in large part to the leadership and organization of the Central Labor Council of Chicago. Anarcho-syndicalists of the International Working People’s Association led it.

By May 3, the number of workers on strike in Chicago grew to 65,000. Alarmed, representatives of industry decided that action against the workers was necessary.

As scabs tried to leave the McCormick Reaper Works plant that day, striking workers drove them back into the plant. The police opened fire on the strikers, killing four and wounding many others.

In response to the attacks, a mass rally at Haymarket Square was called for the next day to denounce the police murders. Three thousand people came out. As the rally was coming to a close, the police ordered the protestors to disperse.

While leaders of the rally were arguing with the cops, a bomb was thrown from the crowd into the ranks of the police, killing one instantly. Six other cops died later; sixty-six were wounded. The cops turned their guns on the workers, wounding 200 and killing several.

The mayor declared martial law in Chicago. An indiscriminate dragnet was carried out targeting the city’s working class. Hundreds of workers were arrested.

In the end, eight workers were put on trial: Albert R. Parsons, August Spies, Samuel J. Fielde, Michael Schwab, Adolph Fisher, George Engel, Louis Lingg and Oscar Neebe. All were convicted. Four were hanged on Nov. 11, 1887. Lingg committed suicide the day before the hanging—he was 21 years old. Two received life sentences and one got 15 years.

All eight addressed the trial at its conclusion. Their speeches indicted the capitalist system and the right of the working class to defend itself against capitalist slavery.

The fact that four of the convicted men were not present at the rally was deemed irrelevant during the judicial proceedings. These workers were not tried for their actions on that day. They were put on trial for their militancy and labor organizing skills.

The entire labor movement came under attack after the bombing. State militias were called out, new cops were deputized, and a reign of terror struck the eight-hour day movement.

A peaceful strike in Milwaukee was fired upon, killing eight strikers. Other strikes were suppressed with violence. About one-third of the workers who had won the eight-hour day lost it in the month after the Haymarket incident.

An international movement in support of the Haymarket defendants quickly formed. Organized labor in the United States built a mass movement against the executions. Many well-known people such as John Brown Jr., Leonard Sweet—a legal associate of Abraham Lincoln—and a number of judges and state governors protested the executions.

Outside the United States, workers held rallies and meetings in France, Holland, Russia, Germany, Italy, England, and Spain. In Germany all public meetings were banned because the solidarity actions became so large and threatening.

The Haymarket incident placed the U.S. working class, especially the eight-hour day movement, at center stage of the world workers’ movement. So when the newly founded American Federation of Labor convention in 1888 announced that May 1, 1890, would be a day when labor would enforce the eight-hour day with strikes and demonstrations, the world was listening.

International Workers' Day

In 1890, the year after the Second International declared May Day as International Workers Day, a wave of demonstrations swept across the globe.

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May Day parade. Moscow, 1969.
Photo: Hutton Getty Photo Archive

More strikes were initiated on May 1, 1890, than on any single date in the history of the United States up to that time. In Europe, virtually every industrial center was the place of demonstrations for the eight-hour day. Demonstrations were also held in Peru and Chile. In Havana, Cuba, the workers’ demands included the eight-hour day, equal rights for Blacks and whites, and working-class unity.

Chinese workers celebrated their first May Day in 1920, following the triumph of the Russian Revolution. Workers in India first observed May Day in 1927, with demonstrations in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. By that time, May Day was truly a world workers’ day.

It wasn’t until June 25, 1938, that the U.S. Congress finally passed federal legislation making the eight-hour day the law of the land. This came about after years of hard-fought, anti-capitalist struggles by the working class in response to the devastating Great Depression.

All over the world, May Day continues to symbolize the international struggle of the working class against the capitalist system. It is a day when workers can raise their class demands for unity and against racism, imperialist war, national chauvinism and the entire ruling class. The legacy of May Day provides optimism for future struggles to come.

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