San Jose Peace & Justice Center



Ever since 2006, the May First marches for immigration reform have become a revived tradition in this country.  Although May 1 was chosen because immigrant communities remember the celebrations of International Workers' Day on this date in their countries of origin, May First is not new to the United States.  International Workers' Day on May 1 was, in fact, not only born in the United States, but born out of fear of police raids on immigrant workers.

      In 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, predecessor of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), called for an eight-hour workday.  When implementation appeared unlikely, a general strike was called in Chicago on May 1, 1886.  On that day, some 80,000 workers marched down Chicago's Michigan Avenue in what is generally recognized as the first May Day parade.  In the succeeding days, supporting strikes broke out in other cities, such as Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and New York City.

      On May 3, four striking workers were killed by police at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago.  At an evening rally on May 4 in Haymarket Square, called to protest the killings, police moved in to disperse the crowd when a bomb went off, killing seven policemen. Police retaliated by firing into the crowd of workers, killing and wounding an unknown number of civilians.

      Determined to crush the labor agitations, police interrogations and arrests went on through the night and the ensuing days.  Homes of workers, most of whom were immigrants from Europe, were raided in the middle of the night.  Many innocent people were arrested without charges.  A police rein of terror descended on the organized workers of Chicago.

      Eight people were eventually charged and convicted for the deaths of the policemen, even though no evidence was ever presented directly linking them to the bombing in Haymarket Square.  Four of the defendants were publicly hanged in 1887.

      In Paris in 1889, the International Workingmen's Association (Second International) called for worldwide demonstrations on May 1, 1890, commemorating the struggle of Chicago workers.  The international tradition of May Day was born.

      It took another three decades for workers to incrementally win the eight-hour working day through struggles with individual companies. Finally, the Adamson Act was passed by Congress in 1916, establishing a statutory eight-hour working day for railway workers with additional pay for overtime work.

      In contrast, May First, because of its deep roots in U.S. working class struggle, is richly symbolic of labor activism.  Contrary to popular myth in the U.S., May First did not originate abroad, but rather from the very U.S. trade union movement that brought about the basic eight-hour working day that is today taken for granted.

By Sharat Lin 


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