THE ORIGINS OF LABOUR DAY (MAY DAY)
In the late 19th century, the working class was in constant struggle to gain the 8-hour work day. It was quite common to work 10 to 16 hour days in severe and unsafe conditions. Death and injury were commonplace at many work places. As early as the 1860s, working people agitated to shorten the workday without a cut in pay but it wasn’t until the late 1880s that organized labour was able to garner enough strength to declare the 8-hour workday. This proclamation was without consent of employers.
At this time, socialism was a new and attractive idea to working people, many of whom were drawn to its ideology of working class control over the production and distribution of all goods and services. Workers had seen first-hand that capitalism benefited only their bosses, trading workers’ lives for profit. Men, women and children were dying needlessly every year in the workplace, with life expectancy as low as the early twenties in some industries.
A variety of socialist organizations sprung up throughout the latter half of the 19th century, ranging from political parties to choir groups. Many socialists were elected into governmental office but were ham-strung by the political process which was so evidently controlled by big business and the bi-partisan political machine. Tens of thousands of socialists broke ranks from their parties and created anarchist groups throughout the country. Literally thousands of working people embraced the ideals of anarchism, which sought to put an end to all hierarchical structures (including government), emphasized worker-controlled industry, and valued direct action over the bureaucratic political process. It is inaccurate to say that labour unions were “taken over” by anarchists and socialists, but rather anarchists and socialist made up the labour unions.
At its national convention in Chicago, held in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions proclaimed that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.”
On May 1, 1886 more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history. In Chicago 40,000 went out on strike with the anarchists in the forefront of the public’s eye. With their fiery speeches and revolutionary ideology of direct action, anarchists and anarchism became respected and embraced by the working people and despised by the capitalists.
More and more workers continued to walk off their jobs until the numbers swelled to nearly 100,000, yet peace prevailed. It was not until two days later, May 3, 1886, that violence broke out at the McCormick Reaper Works between police and strikers. Armed Pinkerton agents and the police harassed and beat locked-out steelworkers as they picketed. Beatings with police clubs escalated into rock throwing by the strikers which the police responded to with gunfire. At least two strikers were killed and an unknown number were wounded.
Full of rage, a public meeting was called by some of the anarchists to discuss the police brutality. Due to bad weather and short notice, only about 3,000 of the expected tens of thousands showed up. The Mayor of Chicago would later testify that the crowd remained calm and orderly. As the police began to disperse the thinning crowd, a bomb was thrown into the police ranks. No one knows who threw the bomb, but speculations varied from blaming any one of the anarchists, to an agent provocateur working for the police.
Enraged, the police fired into the crowd. An estimated seven civilians died, and up to forty were wounded. One officer died immediately and another seven died in the following weeks. Later evidence indicated that only one of the police deaths could be attributed to the bomb and that all the other police fatalities had or could have had been due to their own indiscriminate gun fire. Aside from the bomb thrower, who was never identified, it was the police, not the anarchists, who perpetrated the violence.
Eight anarchists were arrested and convicted of murder. Four were hung to death and one took his own life the night before with an explosive device in his mouth. The remaining three were pardoned six years later.
May Day was subsequently established as an International Workers’ Day. It is an official holiday in 66 countries and unofficially celebrated in many more but rarely is it recognized in the US where it began.
Protesters in the Bastille Square in Paris in 2002 for the
traditional May Day march.