The History behind International Workers’ Day
By Debbie Augustine (May 1, 2023)
When you think of May Day, you might envision spring flowers, dancing around a maypole — or even a desperate call for help. But in some 80 countries worldwide, it’s also recognized as International Workers’ Day, a holiday that honors the labor movement and the contributions of workers. Ironically, people in those countries recognize that the fight for an eight-hour work day began here in the U.S. So why doesn’t America celebrate labor on May 1st too?
In a crazy-brief nutshell
Though the Gilded Age (1870s to about 1900) was known for enormous wealth, it was also a time of labor unrest nationwide. Workdays could be 12-14 hours long, six days a week — even for young children. Workplace conditions were often difficult and dangerous, and thousands of workers suffered death or injuries. Pay was low with no benefits. Workers saw little hope for reform as greedy corporations blatantly bribed politicians at every level to favor their interests — corruption ran amok. Gradually, labor unions, primarily the Knights of Labor (KoL), formed to challenge the long hours, starvation wages and unsafe working conditions.
By the 1880’s, Chicago had become the nation’s epicenter in the movement for an eight-hour workday. The KoL helped organize workers there, showing them that part of their power is in their willingness to strike. Together, the workers organized and protested throughout the city. On May 1, 1886, 35,000 workers walked off their jobs. Over the next few days, many more thousands joined them as they moved from workplace to workplace, urging their peers to strike.
Things literally blew up at Haymarket Square on the evening of May 4th. About 1,500 workers had gathered there to protest police brutality the previous day. Just as the peaceful event wrapped up, police moved in to disperse the by-then dwindling crowd. As scuffles broke out, a powerful bomb exploded and the police fired into the panicked crowd. Four protestors and seven police officers were killed, though some of the officers may have died from “friendly fire.” Over 100 were injured. Eight men were ultimately tried and convicted of inciting the riot, some of which weren’t even there that day. That summer, four of them were executed, another committed suicide in jail. The remaining three were pardoned in 1893 by the subsequent governor, due to the widespread belief that they were unfairly convicted. It was never determined who threw the bomb. The trial is widely seen as one of America’s worst miscarriages of justice.
A serious setback for America’s labor movement
Sadly, the KoL was blamed for the Haymarket riot. A strong anti-union movement then grew in the U.S., possibly leading to its first “Red Scare.” Over time, May Day became more associated with the political far left, a sentiment no doubt perpetuated by the greedy corporations to keep the conditions and pay status quo — and their profits high. But eventually, Americans warmed up to the idea of a national holiday for workers. In 1894, Congress designated the first Monday in September as Labor Day. President Cleveland was behind this decision, as he wanted to avoid any association with the Haymarket incident.
The incident made international headlines and May 1st later became an annual occasion to hear worker protests around the world. America’s labor movement was seriously set back for many years, but the May 4th bombing sparked a labor movement that lives on to this day.
Gilded Age 2.0 — the fight continues
In recent years, struggles to unionize have been on the rise. According to the National Labor Relations Board, elections to form unions succeeded more often in 2022 than at any time in the last 20 years. We’ve seen it at Amazon, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, and Apple. We’ve also seen actual or threatened strikes by freight train and coal mine workers. Across the political spectrum, people support workers in their fight for better pay and working conditions. Public approval of unions is the highest it’s been since 1965.
Although we may be living through what feels like our own Gilded Age today, it’s good to know that a workers’ movement is alive and well. It’s no accident that Wolf-PAC employs union organizing tactics to train its members in the fight against big money and corruption in politics. There’s a proven track record to guide us… After all, There is Power in a Union — just ask singer-songwriter Billy Bragg.
Please consider joining or donating to Wolf-PAC today. It’s doing the hard work against corruption — and you can too! Take action! https://wolf-pac.com/
Editing by Brian Martel; bibliography by Sophie Klitgaard.
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