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A Very Brief History of May Day, International Workers’ Day.

Updated: May 2

Millions of workers who enjoy an 8-hour day owe a tremendous debt to the courage of workers in the 19th century who struggled, faced jail, and gave their lives to fight for better working conditions. The rise of a militant working class against exploitation by capitalist business owners and bankers is a history not well known today. Working conditions were abysmal, wages low, and hours long. Many worked 12- to 16-hour days 7 days/week, for less than $2.00/day. The fledgling union, Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (later the American Federation of Labor) helped mobilize support for better working conditions by introducing legislation to establish the first Monday in September as a national holiday. Labor Day would be a day of rest for all workers, featuring parades, rallies, and picnics! The first national Labor Day was celebrated September 7, 1885. At the first holiday celebrations, a popular slogan featured nationwide was “8 Hours to Constitute a Day of Work!” The massive outpouring of support by the rank and file for reduced work hours brought together labor organizations from both left and right in a united front. These groups called for a nationwide strike to demand an 8-hour workday, to take place on May 1, 1886. The walkout was hugely successful. Nationwide, some 350,000 workers, from more than 11,500 worksites, walked off their jobs. The ruling class was alarmed and decided that this movement must be crushed. The ideological center of this movement was Chicago, where workers at the McCormick Harvester Company were locked out. They were seeking an 8-hour day and a $2.00/day wage. On May 3d, Scab workers entered the facility, guarded by upwards of 500 police. Then, without warning, police fired on the unarmed strikers. Four were killed and others wounded. A massive peaceful protest was planned for the next day at Haymarket Square. A peaceful assembly of men women and children were surrounded by police, Pinkerton agents, and anti-labor thugs. As the event was winding down, a bomb was thrown by a provocateur into police ranks that killed 6. This was the excuse for police to fire indiscriminately into the crowd. An untold number were killed and hundreds wounded. Since anarchist and socialist labor leaders were speakers that day, the capitalist press linked bomb throwing and anarchism with the struggle for an 8- hour day and called for leaders to be arrested and tried for murder. Eventually 8 men, many of whom were not even present when the bomb was thrown, were arrested and tried. The trial was a total travesty of justice. Seven defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging, and one given 15 years. The appeals process was also a sham, and convictions were affirmed. The outrageous nature of the charges, the improper conduct of the trial, and the resulting convictions and sentences caused an angry outpouring of support for the condemned throughout the US and across the world. Nevertheless, business owners mobilized vast resources to promote the slogan “They Must Be Hanged!” Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Albert Fisher were hanged on November 11, 1887. Louis Lingg “committed suicide” in prison, but many suspect he was murdered by guards. Eventually Samuel Fielden and Oscar Neebe (sentenced to 15 years) received full pardons in 1893. The struggle continued for many years, and it wasn’t until 1940 that the US Congress finally legislated the 40-hour workweek. The US continues to celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday of September. However, the rest of the world celebrates May 1 as the day to recognize the labor of the working class. It is celebrated as a national holiday in more than 160 countries worldwide, referred to as May Day, International Workers’ Day, or Labor Day. May 1 st was picked in 1889 to honor the Haymarket martyrs. As written by labor historian Philip S. Foner, “The Haymarket martyrs have become a symbol of May Day.” We now turn to AQ, who recounts a brief history of the labor movement in Hawai‘i.


The ideological center of this movement was Chicago, where The struggle never ends!

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