W. Franklin Hatheway Labour Exhibit Centre

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The Origins of May Day

We want to feel the sunshine; we want to smell the flowers;
We’re sure that God has willed it, and we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces from shipyard, shop and mill
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.

(Words from the “Eight-Hour Day Song”)

By George Vair

“May Day,” a name used interchangeably with “International Workers Day,” originated as a result of events that took place in the United States near the end of the 19th century when workers were struggling to achieve the eight-hour day. Following the Civil War, the labour movement in the United States initiated the “Eight Hour Day Movement” and attempted to secure the eight-hour day through legislation. This approach appeared to be working when a number of States passed legislation reducing the hours of work. In 1868, the administration of President Andrew Johnson passed a law reducing the hours of work for federal employees to eight hours per day.

The corporations, however, refused to implement the laws and the governments neglected to enforce them. In practice, the working days became longer. The unions turned to more militant tactics and began to enforce the eight-hour day through strikes, many of which were successful. “The way to get the eight-hour day,” wrote Peter McGuire, founder of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, “is by organization… we want an enactment by the workingmen themselves that on a given day, eight hours should constitute a day’s work, and they ought to enforce it themselves.”

The trade unions decided the eight-hour day would only be achieved through broad based coordinated action. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labour Unions (the forerunner of the American Federation of Labour) and the Knights of Labour decided to organize a nation-wide campaign of strikes and demonstrations on May 1, 1886. The Federation requested their affiliates to form broad based committees, including sympathizers outside the trade union movement. They appealed to individual members to save two dollars per week for food and other necessities in order to be able to hold firm against the power of capital. With unity and a reserve of thirty-five dollars per member, the unions felt confident they would be successful.

The campaign started gathering momentum, especially after a successful strike in 1885 against Jay Gould’s railroad empire. Throughout the country workers joined in. Labour historian, Phillip Foner, describes workers smoking “Eight-Hour Tobacco” and wearing “Eight-Hour Shoes”—as products produced in shops that already had the shorter working day became known. In April 1886, the campaign began in earnest, as many unions called strikes for shorter hours. By months end over two hundred thousand workers had already won the eight-hour day, many winning the shorter hours just by threatening to strike. When May 1st arrived, over five thousand strikes were in progress for the eight-hour day.

The ruling class, however, were not about to concede the shorter hours without a fight. In an effort to break the campaign the corporations resorted to provocation, intimidation and terrorism. In most cases the employers were supported by local authorities. Heavily armed National Guardsmen were called out. In Milwaukee, police opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators, killing nine.

But it was in Chicago that the most historic act of state terrorism would take place. The eight-hour day movement was seen as a major threat by the Chicago business establishment. They had started a campaign to discredit and marginalize the strike leaders. In an editorial naming two anarchist leaders of the struggle, Albert Parsons and August Spies, the Chicago Mail declared: “There are two dangerous ruffians at large in this city, two skulking cowards who are trying to create trouble. One of them is named Parsons; the other is named Spies…Make an example of them if trouble does occur.”

On May 1st, the wheels of production in Chicago came to a standstill. As over 1,300 National Guardsmen stood in the side streets ready to move against the demonstrators, a procession of fifty thousand workers marched peacefully through Chicago’s business district. The demonstration passed without incident. However, two days later violence erupted and the blood flowed on the streets of Chicago’s South side.

On May 3rd, several strikers gathered at McCormick agricultural machinery plant—later known as International Harvester. McCormick’s workers had been on strike for some time for reasons unrelated to the eight-hour day campaign. A number of the eight-hour day strikers joined the McCormick strikers’ picket line and were waiting for the scabs to come out of the plant. The police, already notorious for their brutality in the service of Chicago’s elite, arrived to protect the scabs as they were leaving the plant. When a number of the strikers moved forward to confront the scabs the police opened fire, killing six of the strikers and injuring many more. As a result of this unprovoked act of violence, demonstrations against the police exploded across the city.

One of these demonstrations was a rally called for the following evening in Haymarket Square. The first speaker at the rally was August Spies, who began his speech by saying the meeting should be peaceable, that it was called not to raise a disturbance, but to protest the killing of strikers at the McCormick’s machinery plant. Speaker after speaker condemned the actions of the police. As the meeting was winding down a column of armed policemen marched into the Square. After demanding that the meeting disperse, the police began advancing on the speakers’ stand.

It was at this point that someone threw a bomb into the column of policemen. As the bomb exploded, panic ensued. Police began firing their pistols indiscriminately into the crowd and as some witnesses later stated, inadvertently into each other. Ultimately, seven policemen and three civilians were killed and several others were seriously injured. The bomb thrower was never identified. Some have suggested it could have been a provocateur, to provide an excuse for a crackdown, which it did.

The Illinois State Attorney, Julius Grinnell, set the tone for what was to follow when he issued the order: “Make the raids first, and look up the law afterwards.” An orchestrated wave of anti-union hysteria followed. Hundreds of trade unionists, socialists and anarchists were arrested in a nation-wide witch-hunt. The wave of repression closed down the struggle for the eight-hour day and put the labour movement on the defensive.

The authorities finally settled on eight leaders of the eight-hour day movement, six of whom had not even attended the Haymarket rally and none of them would have been in a position to throw the bomb. The eight—August Spies, Albert Parsons, Samuel Fielden, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe and Michael Schwab—were charged with murder and all were found guilty. Years later, their trial would be described by Illinois Governor, John P. Altgeld, as unfair and illegal because: “A packed jury had been selected to convict, much of the evidence given at the trial was pure fabrication, the defendants were not proven guilty of the crime charged in the indictment,” and because “the trial Judge was either so prejudiced against the defendants or else so determined to win the applause of a certain class in the community, that he could not and did not grant a fair trial”—The Judge had presented a peculiar theory to the Jury, advising them that: “If the past language of the accused has been such as to incite violence, they are guilty of this crime, even if they knew nothing about it and were not present when it was committed.”

In the end, seven of the defendants were sentenced to hang. The other defendant, Oscar Neebe, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The hangings were scheduled to take place on November 11, 1887. On November 10th, Louis Lingg exploded a dynamite cap in his mouth. Many believed Lingg wanted to take his own life before the state could do it. Others have speculated that the police assassinated him. On the eve of the executions, Illinois Governor, Richard Oglesby, commuted the sentences of Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab to life imprisonment. Both would later be pardoned by Illinois Governor, John Altgeld.

At 10:55 a.m., on November 11, 1887, the remaining four were led to the gallows. As the noose tighten around August Spies’s neck his final words would become his epitaph; “The time will come,” he said, “when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” Albert Parsons tried to speak, but his voice was silenced when the hangman tripped the trapdoor. During their trial Spies had stated:

If you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labour movement …the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in want and misery expect salvation—if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand.

He was right. Haymarket would become the heart for many of labour’s future struggles.

In 1888, the American Federation of Labour again resumed the fight for the eight-hour day. They decided that the Carpenters Union would lead the struggle, in which all unions would participate. They decided to demand the introduction of the eight-hour day on May 1, 1890. In Europe, the American labour movement’s struggle for the eight-hour day had not gone unnoticed. The trial and execution of the Chicago martyrs had been followed closely by European socialists and trade unions. The Labour International, meeting in Paris in 1889, passed the following resolution:

A great international demonstration shall be organized at a fixed date in order that, in all countries and cities at the same time, on the same agreed day, workers should challenge the public authorities to legally reduce the working day to eight hours, and to implement the other resolutions of the Paris International Congress.

Considering that a similar demonstration has already been decided upon by the American Federation of Labour for May 1, 1890, at its Congress held in St. Louis in December 1888, this date shall be adopted for the international demonstration.

Employer organizations and governments vehemently opposed the demonstration. Coal miners in Czechoslovakia went on strike when the authorities seized funds workers had collected for the May 1st demonstration. The army was called out and opened fire on the striking miners. In France, industrial centers were put under military occupation. In Germany, the employers’ association decided to dismiss and blacklist any worker not reporting for work. The workers, however, took no notice of the threats and intimidation. When May 1st, 1890 came around—the first International May Day in history—it turned out to be so successful that all labour organizations in Europe decided to renew the demonstration the following year. The Labour International meeting in Brussels, in August of 1891, declared that the two May Day demonstrations had given a tremendous momentum to the labour movement world-wide.

The United States labour leaders, however, decided not to participate in future May Day demonstrations. The anti-communist American Federation of Labour President, Samuel Grompers, would do nothing that could create closer links between the radical trade unions and the socialists, either in the United States or internationally. After 1890, May Day was celebrated in the United States only by the more radical elements of the trade union movement. As a result of the close ties between the trade unions in Canada and the United States, the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada followed the American lead and never fully endorsed the May Day manifestations.

But as August Spies had predicted the memory of the Haymarket martyrs would be recalled whenever workers were involved in a struggle for justice. Speakers at May Day demonstrations usually followed a common script that began with recalling the lives of the heroic Haymarket martyrs, the innocent victims of the so-called American justice system. The names of the martyrs have appeared in various manifestations that took place in the United States, Canada, Europe and Latin America. When Samuel Grompers visited Europe, early in the 20th century, he noted portraits of Spies, Parsons and the other martyrs hanging in union halls.

May Day continued to symbolize the fight for the eight-hour day. For instance, as late as 1913, all branches of the building trades in Saint John, Fredericton and Halifax choose May 1st to strike for the eight-hour day. On the same date over one thousand unionist went out on strike in Toronto and many May Day strikes were reported throughout Canada and the United States.

Regardless of the efforts of the enemies of the labour movement to repress May Day, in many countries it has become a public holiday, including Mexico, where it is known as the “Day of the Martyrs of Chicago.” In Europe, Latin America and other countries millions of workers march in the streets, usually protesting the issues of the day. Even in the United States and Canada—particularly in Quebec—May Day has been getting more attention. Many cities now hold May Day parades. In 2008 the International Longshoreman’s Union announced that dockworkers would not move cargo at any US West Coast port on May 1st, as a protest against the continuation of the Iraq War and the diversion of resources from domestic needs. In 2006 and 2007 Latino immigrant groups used May 1st to protest legislation they felt was draconian toward immigrant workers.

In spite of the lack of interest in May Day by American and Canadian labour leaders and the resistance of the state and business associations toward it, the tradition of May Day, as the real workers holiday, has never been entirely suppressed. 

George Vair is a former representative with the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union, Local 1065 and a former President of the Saint John District labour Council and a former Vice-president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour. He has written a number of articles on the history of the labour movement in Saint John and is the author of one book entitled “The Struggle Against Wage Controls.” He is now retired and living in Saint John.