By Dick Meister
May 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 Day queens.
But 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 the most important of the rights ever won by
working people the right demanded above all others by the labor activists
of a century ago:
“Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!”
Winning the 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
The 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
Some 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
More than 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.
Additionally, 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 industries.
“Hurray 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.
Not all 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.”
The greatest 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 demonstrators¹ 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 wounding 59.
The bomb 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
Employers responded 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 Day.
Workers in the 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.
Bay Guardian columnist Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the SF
Chronicle and KQED-TV, has covered labor and politics for a half-century as
a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website,
dickmeister.com, which includes several hundred of his columns.
(The Bruce blog is written and edited by Bruoe B. Brugmann, editor at large of the Guardian. He is the former editor of the Guardian and with his wife Jean Dibble the co-founder and co-publisher of the Guardian,1966-2012.)