The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

May Day:
A Workers' International Holiday

May 6, 2024

May 1st, or May Day, is an international holiday commemorating the historic struggles and achievements made by workers all around the world. It started in the United States in 1889. That year, socialist groups and labor unions voted to designate May 1st as a day to commemorate the Haymarket Riot that took place in Chicago in 1886.

On May 4, 1886, hundreds of Knights of Labor members, socialists, anarchists, and union members gathered in Haymarket Square to protest police brutality the day before against workers who were trying to stop strikebreakers from entering the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company where workers—many of whom were German immigrants—were on strike. One of the main demands of the strikers was for an 8-hour workday.

The protest rally was a success, and most of the workers had left. But then a contingent of police arrived and demanded that the remaining workers disperse immediately.

At that point, a bomb was thrown at the police, who opened fire at everyone around them. The explosion and the police bullets killed seven cops and between four and eight workers. Sixty cops and 30 to 40 workers were injured. The bomb-thrower was never identified.

The incident was used by the cops, the bosses, and government officials to whip up fear against immigrants and labor leaders. Eight anarchists were soon tried and convicted of murder on the grounds that they had conspired with or aided the unknown bomb thrower. The entire trial was a set-up. Some of those convicted were not even present at the event; their alleged involvement was never proven.

Nevertheless, four of those charged and convicted were hanged on November 11, 1887. Another defendant committed suicide.

Two years later, labor organizations all over the world decided to make May 1st a holiday to honor workers struggles and achievements. Yet three years after this, U.S. President Grover Cleveland and Congress, who were uneasy about the socialist origins of what was called May Day, signed into law a bill making the first Monday in September Labor Day—something already observed in some states. The Canadian government soon followed suit.

So today, U.S. and Canadian workers observe Labor Day in September even though May Day started here in the U.S.