May Day: The Workers’ Day!

A reprise of our columnist Jerry Friedman’s 2006 article on the history of May Day, courtesy of the Center for Popular Economics.

Gerald Friedman

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at

issue 341 cover

This article is a web-only article.

Subscribe Now

at a 30% discount.

For over a century May Day has been celebrated throughout Europe, Asia, and Latin America, as a day of labor celebration marked with strikes and with parades flying red flags and waving revolutionary banners. In Europe, May Day has been celebrated in this way since 1890. Answering a call by the newly-formed Socialist International, labor rallies were held throughout Europe on May 1, 1890 to demand the 8-hour day. A quarter million people marched in London’s Hyde Park, joining workers throughout France, Germany, and other countries who joined together in the world’s first international day of labor protest. Two French militants, Raymond Lavigne and Jean Dormoy, suggested May 1, 1890 as the date for this campaign because that was the date chosen by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) for its campaign for the 8-hour day. It might seem odd, but this international celebration of labor’s power was inspired by the American labor movement; May Day, the revolutionary holiday, began in the United States.

The AFL’s call for demonstrations on May Day 1890 was the second time the organization had launched a May Day campaign. The first, the world’s first May Day, was in 1886, and it led to disasters from which the American labor movement has never fully recovered. At the 1884 convention of the AFL’s ancestor, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU), the 18 delegates in attendance voted a resolution declaring simply that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” The FOTLU was a poor candidate to inaugurate this movement. Formed in 1881 as a counterweight to the more militant Knights of Labor (KOL), the FOTLU had few resources to commit to the campaign; and the KOL jealously refused to join. But the idea of a united national campaign to win a shorter work day was so attractive that it inspired local activists throughout the country. Rallying to the banner of labor unity, workers throughout the country rushed into unions and joined strikes. Union membership almost tripled in 1886, including new unions among African-American sugar workers in Louisiana, migrant timber workers of the Pacific Northwest, and female office clerks in the urban Northeast. The number of strikers in 1886, over 500,000, almost equaled the total for the preceding four years. Half of these strikers were in the first week of May alone. On May 1st, 11,000 Detroiters marched, 5,000 paraded in Troy, New York, 10,000 in Milwaukee, 6,000 white and black in Louisville, Kentucky. The epicenter of the Mayday events and the radical labor movement, Chicago, was nearly closed by the Mayday strikes.

So powerful was the May Day movement that some commentators warned that the Labor Movement would soon transform America. But such forecasts had not counted on American business. In Chicago, employers and the police adopted an aggressive stance against the strikers. On May 3, police killed several strikers while clearing a path for strike-breakers to enter the McCormick Reaper Works. Labor leaders called a protest meeting for the following evening (May 4) was to be held in at the Haymarket Square. Just as the meeting was dispersing, someone threw a bomb at the police, killing seven officers; surviving officers charged the crowd with guns blazing, killing at least seven workers, maybe more.

Hysteria about anarchist bombings went national, provoking the nation’s first red scare. Police and employers took license from the events to arrest and beat up labor activists. The Chicago labor movement was devastated. Public meetings, the life blood of an active labor movement, were banned and police raided union offices, seizing documents and rounding-up activists. Eight Chicago movement leaders were arrested and tried for murder for involvement in the bombing. The trial was a farce—the state never produced evidence directly linking the defendants to the bombing but it still secured convictions of all eight and sentences of death for seven. A travesty of justice, a judicial murder, the convictions were appealed to no avail to the Illinois Supreme Court and then the United States Supreme Court. Four defendants, Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer, were hung on November 11, 1887.

The hanging of the Haymarket martyrs provoked a wave of international indignation. But among practical minded labor activists in the United States, it provoked a reconsideration of the martyrs’ radical political agenda and union program. Instead of labor radicalism and solidarity, American unions learned that to survive in a hostile environment they needed to adopt a more conservative politics and narrow craft-union orientation. European observers noted that the AFL called for another May Day demonstration for 1890; what they missed was that the 1890 demonstrations were to be confined to a single craft, the carpenters, in hopes of avoiding a general strike like 1886 and the subsequent repression.

Today, Haymarket and the events in Chicago 1886 still resonate. The Haymarket rebels left an enduring memory of martyrdom embedded in labor lore around the world. This was predicted by one of the martyrs, August Spies, whose last words are remembered long after his accusers are forgotten: “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”

is a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst.

Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy (Princeton, 1984); Henry David, The History of the Haymarket Affair: A Study in the American Social-Revolutionary and Labor Movements (New York, 1958); Philip Foner, May Day: A Short History of the International Workers’ Holiday, 1886–1986 (New York, 1986); Gerald Friedman, State-Making and Labor Movements: France and the United States, 1886–1914 (Ithaca, New York, 1998); James Green, Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America (New York, 2006).

Did you find this article useful? Please consider supporting our work by donating or subscribing.

end of article