Why is May 1st Workers’ Day?
May Day was historically associated with pagan festivals linked to spring until the Second International established May Day as a labour holiday. It did so in 1889 to commemorate the bloody struggle of American workers for the eight-hour working day.
The fact that International Workers’ Day is celebrated on 1 May has its origins in the American workers’ struggle for a shorter working day, which in the second half of the 19th century often stretched to 16 hours.
As the capitalist system took hold in the large industrial cities of the United States against a backdrop of high unemployment, workers’ working conditions had become increasingly harsh. Faced with this situation, the American Federation of Labor called for a general strike to begin on 1 May 1886 to demand the eight-hour workday.
On 3 May, the protests in Chicago turned violent when the police acted extremely harshly against the workers as they demonstrated. The next day, a rally held in the city’s Haymarket Square turned bloody during police intervention. A bomb exploded among the ranks of the uniformed officers, although historians are unclear whether they or the workers were the target, killing seven policemen. The officers then opened fire on the demonstrators, killing several and injuring hundreds.
As a result, a trial was held and eight men were convicted for the action. Four of them ended up on the gallows, although no evidence was presented linking them to the bombing. Nor was the international campaign to save their lives of any use. The words of August Spies, one of the condemned men, just before his execution were prescient: “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today”.
Recognition of the workers’ struggle
The Second International established 1 May as a labour holiday in 1889, giving rise to today’s International Workers’ Day. Paradoxically, the United States, the country where the events took place, wanted to dissociate this date from the workers’ movements. That is why President Grover Cleveland had Labour Day celebrated in September.
Prior to the Chicago events, May Day in the United States and parts of Europe was a date marked to celebrate the exuberance of spring in rural areas. The origin of this holiday can be traced to ancient Roman practices of celebrating spring flowering.
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