Image created by Walter Crane to celebrate May Day.
On that day, more than 300,000 workers (40,000 in Chicago alone) walked out of their jobs across the country. In the following days, more workers joined, and the number of strikers in Chicago grew to almost 100,000. Unfortunately, their celebration was quickly overshadowed by violence. On May 3, Chicago police fired at strikers, killing at least two. On May 4, a protester hurled a bomb at the police during a meeting in Haymarket Square. For many Americans at the time, the “Haymarket incident” forever tied May Day to anarchists, socialists, and other “radical” groups.
Despite this, the observance of May Day went international. When the International Socialist Congress met in France after the Haymarket Incident, its members resolved to hold a “great international demonstration” on May 1, 1890. Workers across Europe observed this May Day with protests and marches. In the years that followed, European workers embraced May Day—so much so that most Americans then associated it with international socialism rather than unionism. Wary of its “radical” roots, the United States officially dropped it in favor of Labor Day in early September. However, unions and other groups still observe May Day here. In fact, workers at Amazon, Whole Foods, and Target are calling for a May Day General Strike this year, to demand better working conditions during the Covid 19 pandemic.
For more on the fascinating history of May Day, give a listen to this podcast with CUNY Professor Haverty-Stacke about the U.S. origin of May Day and why the holiday has been forgotten or overlooked here. Peter Linebaugh’s The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day tells the holiday’s story from a radical left perspective.