The History of May Day: Remembering the Ones Who Fought for Workers’ Rights

May Day Parade: Wikicommons

Jesus Hernandez, age 10

May 1 is known as May Day. May Day has two very different meanings: In some places, May Day is a holiday for welcoming the spring; on the other hand, it is recognized as a day for celebrating workers, highlighting the problems that low-waged laborers face as they fight for better working conditions. The focus on workers’ rights on May Day came after the Haymarket riot of 1886, which became a symbol of the international struggle for workers’ rights.

On May 1, 1886, hundreds of thousands of workers across the United States went on strike for the right to an eight-hour workday. At the time, an average workday could vary from 10 to 16 hours, and around 70 hours a week over six days. The workers also protested for more freedom as laborers, for higher wages and to be treated with more respect from bosses, businesses and the government. The labor protests lasted several days, and on May 3 another strike took place at a factory in Chicago’s South Side. Things turned violent when Chicago police opened fire on the protesters, killing four people.

A protest demonstration was called the next day in Chicago’s Haymarket Square to denounce the police brutality from the previous day, in addition to airing protesters’ demands for an eight-hour working day.  It was initially a peaceful demonstration; however, when the police arrived, there was tension between them and the protesters. A bomb was thrown by an unknown protester and exploded in police ranks. One police officer was killed immediately, and seven more died of their wounds later. Police then opened fire, killing several protesters and wounding around 200 people. This came to be known as the Haymarket tragedy.

The police arrested hundreds of people and tried eight people for murder, some of whom were famous speakers and writers. Albert Parsons, August Spies, Oscar Neebe, Louis Lingg, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Michael Schwab and Samuel Fielden were charged as accessories to murder and were sentenced to death. This trial, however, is known for being one of the most unfair in American history. The men were convicted with little evidence of throwing the bomb, so instead the prosecutors focused on their writings and speeches.

Many in the labor movement were immigrants, and the Haymarket tragedy also spurred xenophobic attacks against the workers, often by the police. There were also xenophobic struggles between factory owners and their workers. Carl Smith, a history professor from Northwestern University, drew parallels with what happened then to immigration and labor struggles today. “There was definitely a helping of xenophobia,” Smith told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s remarkable how history repeats itself.”

In 1889, the International Socialist Conference named May 1 “International Workers’ Day” in commemoration of the Haymarket affair. International Workers’ Day is still celebrated all around the world. Every year, workers still protest for labor rights, including the rights of immigrant workers. It is important to remember the workers before us who fought for our rights in the workplace.

As Turkish playwright Mehmet Murat ildan has said, “If suddenly the whole workers of the whole world disappear then the whole world will stop! Let us all realize this and let us celebrate the workers – these great people who make our world move!”  

Labor rights: A group of legal rights including pay, benefits and safe working conditions.

Tried: To examine a person accused of committing a crime in a court of law to decide if the person is guilty.

Convicted: Having been declared guilty of a criminal offense by the verdict of a jury or the decision of a judge.

Prosecutors: The legal representative responsible for presenting the case in a criminal trial against an individual accused of breaking the law.

Socialist: Someone who supports a political or economic philosophy that says society as a whole, rather than private companies, should own or control various goods and services.

Xenophobia: Dislike of or judgment against people from other countries.

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