How May Day began in 1886 with workers, immigrants, anarchists

May 6, 2013

Last week’s tumultuous May Day protests got many of us wondering: What is May 1 all about, anyway?

It’s been a workers’ holiday in Europe for years, but when did it become a big deal in the U.S.?

SUNY Empire State College history professor Jacob Remes says last week’s hubbub—from the union involvement to the spotlight on immigration, to the anarchist presence and police response—all fit right in to May Day’s radical history.

American roots

Remes says International Workers Day actually has its origins right here in the U.S., dating back to the post-Civil War period and the fight for an eight-hour workday. 

“The first national labor movement demands a law—and wins a law—that says that 8-hour work day’s going to be the law of the land. And the day that’s going to start happens to be May 1,” says Remes.

But that day never came, says Remes: “That law never comes into effect; employers just ignore it wholesale.”

A group of workers decided to protests in hopes of finally getting an 8-hour workday. The came trouble, says Remes.

“There’s a lot of violence. And at one factory, three workers are shot and killed.

“On May 4, there was a big protest to demand justice for these three killed workers. And as the police marched in to bust up that protest, somebody threw a bomb.

“And nobody knows who threw that bomb. Some people say it was an agent provocateur. Some people say it was an anarchist. Police open fire, and some number of people die,” said Remes.

Haymarket Martyrs: International cause celebre

Eight anarchists were arrested for the incident. And here’s where immigration became a part of the May Day movement: some of those arrested were immigrants.

“The left-wing labor movement in Chicago is a very immigrant-heavy, largely-German movement,” said Remes. “So even from the beginning, this was simultaneously about anti-capitalism, about power for unions and about right for immigrants from the very start, in 1886.”

The eight arrested anarchists, called the “Haymarket Martyrs,” became a cause celebre worldwide, says Remes.

“So this idea spreads all over the world—this idea that May 1 should become a holiday for workers, and the holiday for demanding an 8-hour day,” he said. “It’s the Second Socialist International that at declares May 1 as International Workers’ Day.”

Why May Day and not Labor Day?

Why do workers rally for rights on May Day instead of on Labor Day? Remes says it’s former Pres. Grover Cleveland’s doing.

Once May Day became a day that often saw violence, “Cleveland co-opts that second holiday (Labor Day) and says, ‘This is our American holiday,”' he said. “And gradually, May 1 became associated with particularly the Socialist Party and the Communist Party.”

A historic resurgence

“In 2006, May Day sees the largest protest by workers in American history, and it was an immigrant protest," said Remes. “It really shifts a lot of the tone of talking about immigration. You can trace a lot of that day in 2006 to what we are talking about now, with a path to citizenship and with immigration reform that Congress is talking about now."

Around the same time, the mainstream labor movement also realized it must reach out to immigrants, a large—and growing—sector of the work force.

“What I find interesting is … that the mainstream labor movement, for the very first time since the 1890s, is adopting International Workers’ Day as a holiday for protest themselves,” said Remes. “This holiday that had started with immigrant workers in the 1880s and had been exiled abroad, came back with more immigrants back to the United States and is now becoming in its rightful place as an American day again.”