The History of May Day - International Workers' Day and the Ongoing Fight for the 8 Hour Day

Since 1890, May 1 has been recognized around the world as International Labor Day. The origins of this holiday are to be found here in the United States - in the struggle to shorten the workday to a tolerable length, and more specifically, in events that occurred in the Haymarket area of Chicago in May 1886.


Throughout the 19th century, the struggle to shorten the workday was a central issue in workers’ effort to form unions and gain some control over their own lives.  The battle over hours was at least as important as the fight for higher wages.  Early industrial capitalists imposed working days of 12, 14, or 16 hours, and work weeks of seven days.  But from the beginning of industrialism, workers pushed back and tried to establish a more humane schedule of work.

Before the Civil War there were efforts by workers to form unions in the U.S. and struggles for shorter hours. These efforts were scattered and intermittent, and usually aimed at getting the workday down to 10 hours. A mass movement demanding an eight-hour workday appeared after the war, and to a great extent because of the war. The Civil War had become a war of labor liberation through the actions of the enslaved African American workers, who conducted what W.E.B. Du Bois called "the general strike" -- stopping work and leaving the plantations en masse when the Union Army approached. Their actions changed the nature of the war and forced Lincoln to proclaim the emancipation of the slaves.

Workers in the North -- white workers, many of whom fought in the war -- were deeply affected by seeing that the impossible had happened... slaves managing to emancipate themselves. And it called into being the modern labor movement


In 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which two years later renamed itself the American Federation of Labor (AFL), voted to call for strikes on May 1, 1886 to force employers across the country to agree "that eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor." May Day 1886 indeed brought a national wave of strikes, involving some 500,000 workers in cities and small towns. Nowhere was the movement stronger than in Chicago. Some 90,000 workers took to Chicago's streets that day, and a major portion of them were immigrants -- German, Irish, Czech, Polish, British and other nationalities. The strike shut down most factories, but one major employer -- the McCormick Harvester plant -- had locked out its union employees since February and was operating with strikebreakers. One the third day of the citywide strike, police opened fire on 500 workers protesting outside the McCormick plant against the presence of scabs. The police killed four workers and injured many more.

Outraged by the murders, workers gathered in a mass rally the following evening, May 4, at Haymarket Square. The crowd of some 3,000 listened to speeches by movement organizers. Near the end of the final speech, by labor activist Samuel Fielden, 180 police advanced in military formation on the crowd that had now dwindled to around 200. As the cops moved on the speaker's stand, a bomb flew though the air and exploded in front of the police, killing one instantly and wounding dozens. The police regrouped and opened fire on the crowd, killing one and injuring many. Several officers were fatally wounded in the melee of "friendly fire" from their own force.

The next day the mayor declared martial law. Hundreds of militant workers were arrested, homes and union offices were raided. Eventually eight men were chosen to stand trial, most of whom had not even been present at Haymarket on the evening of May 4. But all of them were effective labor organizers, and therefore hated by the ruling class of Chicago. Six of the defendants were immigrants (five German, one British) - which aided the effort to demonize them.

None of the accused were directly charged with murder, since there was no evidence connecting them to the bomb. They were charged with conspiracy to commit murder, and were put on trial for their ideas and their radical labor activism. The trial was a travesty, with fabricated evidence, several jurors who declared the defendants guilty before the trial began, and no workers in the jury. Newspaper headlines in Chicago and across the country screamed for blood, and the trial's outcome was obvious in advance. All the accused were convicted, all but one sentenced to death, the other -- Oscar Neebe -- to 15 years in prison. The sentences of two of the accused -- Michael Schwab and Samuel Fielden -- were later commuted to life in prison. Seven years later a new Illinois governor, John Peter Altgeld, pardoned them all, declaring that they "were not proven guilty of the crime," but were instead victims of a biased judge and a packed jury. Neebe, Schwab and Fielden were finally released as a result of Altgeld's pardon. But it was too late for the other five: on November 11, 1887, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fisher, August Spies, and George Engel were hung. Louis Lingg had robbed the hangman by committing suicide in his jail cell.

The Haymarket affair, and the execution of the Haymarket martyrs, was a huge setback to the labor movement and to the campaign for the eight-hour workday in the United States. Labor activists across the country were arrested as "conspirators," and militant workers were now called "bomb throwers" as well as "communists." In 1890 the AFL again called May Day strikes for the eight-hour day, and AFL President Samuel Gompers put out the call for labor movements around the world to do the same. As a result, May Day became the international workers' day of celebration, protest and rebellion. It most countries May Day has retained this significance.

But in the U.S., businessmen and politicians over the years stole May Day from the working class and largely erased its memory. Pennsylvania in 1939 declared May 1 "Americanism Day." Congress in 1947 declared it "Loyalty Day," then, changing its mind in 1958, renamed it "Law Day." During the Cold War, when the Soviet government celebrated May Day with an annual military parade through Red Square, AFL-CIO leaders -- many of whom probably knew better -- pretended that May Day was a dangerous foreign tradition that had nothing to do with workers in this country.


On May 1, 2006, immigrant workers brought back May Day as an American workers' holiday and a day to fight for justice. Following mass protests in across the country in March 2006, against a Republican bill in Congress to make it a felony to be an immigrant without documents, organizers decided on May Day as the date to continue the struggle. Over 1.5 million people took part in May Day demonstrations that year -- one of the single largest days of protest in U.S. history. The biggest events were in Chicago, Milwaukee and Los Angeles. Many also participated in a general strike by refusing to conduct business, go to work, or attend school. May Day marches continued in 2007 and the years that followed.


Following the Haymarket Affair, progress toward an eight-hour day was minimal until June 1933 when Congress enacted the National Industrial Recovery Act in response to the Great Depression. The Act provided for the establishment of maximum hours, minimum wages, and the right to collective bargaining.

The struggle for the eight-hour day is just as relevant in 2014 as it was in 1886. Many of us work multiple jobs to make ends meet, working well over 8 hours a day. At the U of MN, many people willingly or begrudgingly work through lunches and breaks in order to get our work done – the result of years of staffing cuts.

Federal and state wage and hour laws, as well as our collective bargaining agreement or contract with the U of M give all clerical workers the right to a 15-minute paid break in each four hours of work, and a 30 minute unpaid lunch break in the middle of an 8-hour day. Most departments also give us the option of combining our paid and unpaid time to create a one-hour lunch break. 


Choosing to work through your lunch or breaks is basically giving yourself a pay cut. A clerical worker making the average wage who opts to work through her two daily breaks loses $43.75 a week by giving up paid time off (Two 15-min breaks per day x $17.50 an hour). If you never take your paid breaks, over the course of a year, you would lose more than $2,275. That’s the equivalent of giving yourself more than a dollar an hour pay cut.  In addition, research shows that taking regular breaks from mental tasks improves productivity and creativity — and that skipping breaks can lead to stress and exhaustion

It is time to reclaim our lives and reclaim the right to an 8-hour work day. Take your breaks, and honor the labor activists who gave their lives in Chicago so that we would have an 8-hour work day.

For more information on the history of Haymarket, go to: