The Increasing Global Import of May Day

The Increasing Global Import of May Day: The History of May Day and Why it Matters Today

By Rebecca Alt

May Day first began in the United States in 1886. Over 300,000 workers walked out of their various factories to strike for an 8-hour workday, and 13,000 businesses across the nation finally witnessed the pent-up wrath of their workers. Today, over 80 countries officially celebrate May Day, with several more unofficially celebrating the holiday each year.

The history of May Day is not a particularly peaceful, non-violent story. Indeed, the Haymarket Massacre that occurred in Chicago on May 3, 1886 demonstrates how the workers’ demonstration quickly turned into a struggle for survival. The protests in Chicago began peacefully with no clashes reported in the initial days, but strikers clashed with police officers in on May 3. Over the next six months, the violence between police officers and strikers in Chicago escalated as more workers (particularly steelworkers) continued to walk out of their factories in Chicago. Police brutality increased as officers beat, clubbed, and fired on demonstrators, which ended up killing two and wounding many more.

Haymarket Massacre, May 3, 1888 in Chicago, IL Photo courtesy of:

Haymarket Massacre, May 3, 1886 in Chicago, IL
Photo courtesy of:

During a non-violent public meeting at which the strikers and their families discussed the recent killing and police brutality and what steps to take next, an anonymous attendee at the meeting threw a bomb into a crowd of police. From then on, police and government officials associated May Day and strikers with anarchists and socialism and thus perceived any and all strikers and unions as enemies of the United States. This association would continue well into the twentieth century and contributed to the failed attempt to create a “Law and Order Day” on May 1 to replace International Workers’ Day. (Taken from


Red Scare Propaganda  Photo Courtesy of:

Red Scare Propaganda
Photo Courtesy of:

While labor conditions in certain areas of the world and under particular business leaders have improved since May Day’s inception, the degrading, inhumane conditions that first kindled the labor reform movement still exist, although typically in a less visible form. “Free Trade Zones” hosted by multinational corporations are one glaring example of how the gains these nineteenth century activists have not achieved labor equality for all. Women and children in particular are exploited across the globe in order to procure cheap goods and compete in a capitalistic world.  Low wages, dangerous factory conditions, 16-hour workdays, no overtime pay, lack of workers’ insurance, and withholding wages characterize countless factories, particularly in the Global South. Even in the United States, where May Day first began, women still receive only 77 cents for every $1 paid to men, low-wage service sector jobs have been increasing over the past couple of decades, the living wage movement continues to challenge the minimum wage and poverty level set by the federal government, and the occupy movement is trying to bring awareness to the enormous income gap and distribution of resources that has only increased over the twenty and twenty-first centuries.

Sign for debate over Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act Photo Courtesy of:

Sign for debate over Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act
Photo Courtesy of:

For all these reasons and more, it is imperative that we continue to honor those who have sacrificed their time, effort, jobs, and, most importantly, their lives to fight for workers’ rights both within the U.S. and at the international level. Certainly we have seen improvements over the past few centuries, and countries such as Sweden that have gender equity in pay, paid paternity and maternity leave, affordable and accessible childcare, healthcare benefits, and several other workers’ protections serve as examples of success that other countries can model. Yet, we have also seen laws and other legal barriers erected to prevent all laborers from enjoying the fundamental rights they deserve as both humans and laborers. These barriers have been especially problematic for immigrant laborers in recent years, whose lack of equal civil and political rights as citizens of the U.S. makes achieving equality within the workplace much more difficult. For these reasons and more, advocates of immigration reform and labor equality have made immigration reform and its link to workers’ rights the focus of their May Day events this year.

Voces de la Frontera and YES! Poster for May Day Rally 2013

Voces de la Frontera and YES! Poster for May Day Rally 2013

There is much we have yet to accomplish, and politicians, economists, and business leaders must view workers as human beings deserving of human rights just as any other citizen. Honoring May Day means recognizing what we have accomplished and the work we have before us and thus is a step in the right direction. It means we acknowledge and appreciate the dignity, potential, and value in each human being, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, or occupation. Let us continue the activists’ fight for justice and equality within the workplace, so that their efforts and sacrifice do not die in vain. This May Day, I encourage all to do their part, however big or small. Commemorate those activists who made possible the rights we do enjoy today and also become more aware of the pervasive inequity that still exists in our globalized economy. It only through our collective consciousness about where we have come from and where we would like to go in the future that we can truly actualize our collective fight for social and economic justice.