Each spring, on the first of May, children across the world decorate flagpoles with colorful ribbons. Flowers are blooming and the first promise of summer returns. But May Day is more than a day to celebrate the arrival of spring. For workers across the world, May 1 is a day to celebrate workers and their fight for employment rights.
It all dates back to Chicago, in 1886. On May 1, more than 90,000 workingmen organized a peaceful protest in the streets. Marching together, the crowd rallied for most of the day. While armed policeman stood by, waiting to intervene, the protests remained peaceful.
But as the week progressed, the rallies took a violent turn. On May 3, a group of workingmen gathered at Chicago’s Haymarket Square to continue the peaceful protest. This time, their rally was met by unwarranted attacks by police, who charged the crowd and opened fire at the fleeing protesters. Seven men were killed, dozen wounded. From there, tension only escalated.
The following day, organizers met in Haymarket Square to protest the recent attacks. While the intention of the rally was to remain peaceful, once again, armed police pressed the crowd to disperse the organizer. this time, an unidentified man threw a bomb at the police formation. Eight officers died in the attack; hundreds were wounded.
Following the protests, more than 31 men were indicted and eight of the men were charged and sentenced to death by hanging. Many feared that these men were anarchists and socialists. This sentiment left the labor movement in dire shape.
Chicago was not the only city in the nation to host strikes in early May, 1886. Cities like New York and Detroit hosted tens of thousands of workers, all lobbying for better working conditions.
At this time, nearly a century had passed while workers in the United States lobbied for improved working conditions. Carpenters in Philadelphia had rallied for a 10-hour day in the late 1700’s. Over the next few decades, this demand had become standard across many industries, eventually leading to the national strikes in 1886.
It would take FDR’s New Deal regulation in 1937 for the 8-hour day to be effectively regulated. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employees working over 8-hours a day were entitled to overtime wages.
Exploring the history behind the labor movement in the United States offers a unique perspective to many of the challenges we face today. Current legislation continues to push forward the rights of workers, disrupting companies both large and small across America. While these growing pains may feel unique; we can trace similar changes to previous centuries. Shifting how we work and operate our businesses is no easy task. Yet it remains essential to keep the historic movements of the past in mind. Progress continues to make this country a great place to live and work.