May Day—Celebrating Workers


David Huxtable

May 1 is International Workers’ Day, a holiday celebrated around the world—but not in the US, where it was initiated as a day of protest in support of an eight-hour work day. In 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada made a resolution in favour of an eight-hour work day:

“…that eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from May First, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout their jurisdiction that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.”

The 1880s were violent. Protests and strikes demanding the eight-hour work day were brutally suppressed by employers and governments. Particularly significant and brutal was the government response to the 1886 general strike in Chicago. That year, Chicago workers joined others across North America in demanding an eight-hour day. On the third day of the strike, a bomb was thrown into a crowd, killing four workers. Four labour leaders were hanged for this in 1887, despite a lack of evidence.

In Paris in 1889, the Congress of the Second International—an international organization of unions and socialist parties – called for workers around the world to protest on May 1 in support of the eight-hour work day.

Over the 20th century, as the workers’ movement gained strength, May 1 transitioned from a day of illegal protest to a legal holiday in celebration of workers and their struggle. May 1 is seen by many activists in North America as a commemoration of the four workers hanged unjustly for the 1886 bombing. But May 1 is much more than that. It is an international celebration of the contributions of workers and their fight for justice.