Day. A day
to herald the coming of Spring with song and dance, a day for children with
flowers in their hair to skip around beribboned maypoles, a time to crown May
it also is
a day for demonstrations heralding the causes of working people and their
unions such as are being held on Sunday that were crucial in winning important
rights for working people. The first May Day demonstrations, in 1886,won themost important of the rights ever won by working people –
the right demanded above all others by the labor activists of a century ago:
hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!"
eight-hour workday took years of hard struggle, beginning in the mid-1800s. By
1867, the federal government, six states and several cities had passed laws
limiting their employees' hours to eight per day. The laws were not effectively
enforced and in some cases were overturned by courts, but they set an important
precedent that finally led to a powerful popular movement.
was launched in 1886 by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions,
then one of the country's major labor organizations. The federation called for
workers to negotiate with their employers for an eight-hour workday and, if
that failed, to strike on May 1 in support of the demand.
negotiated, some marched and otherwise demonstrated.More than 300,000 struck. And all won strong support, in
dozens of cities – Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Boston, Milwaukee, St. Louis,
San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Denver, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Detroit,
Washington, Newark, Brooklyn, St. Paul and others.
30,000 workers had won the eight-hour day by April. On May Day, another 350,000
workers walked off their jobs at nearly 12,000 establishments, more than
185,000 of them eventually winning their demand. Most of the others won at
least some reduction in working hours that had ranged up to 16 a day.
many employers cut Saturday operations to a half-day, and the practice of
working on Sundays, also relatively common, was all but abandoned by major
for Shorter Time," declared a headline in the New York Sun over a story
describing a torchlight procession of 25,000 workers that highlighted the
eight-hour-day activities in New York. Never before had the city experienced so
large a demonstration.
newspapers were as supportive, however. The strikes and demonstrations, one
paper complained, amounted to "communism, lurid and rampant." The
eight-hour day, another said, would encourage "loafing and gambling,
rioting, debauchery, and drunkenness."
opposition came in response to the demonstrations led by anarchist and
socialist groups in Chicago, the heart of the eight-hour day movement. Four
demonstrators were killed and more than 200 wounded by police who waded into
their ranks, but what the demonstrators’ opponents seized on were the events
two days later at a protest rally in Haymarket Square. A bomb was thrown into
the ranks of the police who had surrounded the square, killing seven and
thrower was never discovered, but eight labor, socialist and anarchist leaders
– branded as violent, dangerous radicals by press and police alike – were
arrested on the clearly trumped up charge that they had conspired to commit
murder.Four of them were hanged,
one committed suicide while in jail, and three were pardoned six years later by
Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld.
to the so-called Haymarket Riot by mounting a counter-offensive that seriously
eroded the eight-hour day movement's gains.
But the movement was an extremely effective organizing tool for the country's
unions, and in 1890 President Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of
Labor was able to call for "an International Labor Day" in favor of
the eight-hour workday. Similar proclamations were made by socialist and union
leaders in other nations where, to this day, May Day is celebrated as Labor
United States and 13 other countries demonstrated on that May Day of 1890 –
including 30,000 of them in Chicago. The New York World hailed it as
"Labor's Emancipation Day." It was. For it marked the start of an
irreversible drive that finally established the eight-hour day as the standard
for millions of working people.