May Day marks bloody history for workers rights in United States

May Day marks bloody history for workers rights in United States

The first day of May is globally known as May Day or International Worker’s Day. While cities around the world, such as Jakarta, Istanbul, Bangkok, Berlin and Moscow, hold protests and demonstrations to celebrate, the holiday sees little recognition in the United States.

Some cities, including Washington, D.C., plan rallies for May Day, but generally the day passes with minimal attention about the rich history that led to its creation.

History that begins in the United States.

During the late nineteenth century, the working class experienced deplorable conditions. With few labor laws in place, adults and children worked more then 10 hours a day in unsafe environments.

In some situations, life expectancy hit as low as the early 20s with men, women and children unnecessarily dying every day. Socialism and anarchy grew in popularity because it provided solutions for the working class, including options for more power and opportunity.

With no hope of escape except death, something needed to change.

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (predecessor to American Federation of Labor) held a convention in Chicago during 1884 to discuss the growing unrest and develop a solution. From those meetings, it was proclaimed that as of May 1, 1886, all workdays would last eight hours.

Planning to enforce the change with demonstrations and strikes, anarchists believed the solution was too “reformist,” but thousands upon thousands joined the cause and pledged to make the proclamation a reality.

In 1885, a railroad strike turned bloody, causing Chicago to be on edge about the approaching strikes. More than 300,000 workers walked away from their jobs May 1, 1886. For two days, more employees peacefully left work to take a stand against their employers and the unsafe conditions.

After months of striking, violence eventually broke out at the McCormick Reaper Works , causing at least two strikers to lose their lives.

Outraged, the anarchists held a public meeting the following day in Haymarket Square in Chicago to discuss the incident. While bystanders claimed the speech was peaceful and not intended to incite action, the police began to break up the crowd before a bomb of unknown origin was thrown at their ranks.

Approximately 16 people, civilians and officers, were killed due to the bomb and indiscriminate gunfire after its detonation. Five anarchists were tried and sentenced to death, not for their crimes but for their beliefs.

Eventually, more labor laws were enforced to create better work environments, including laws about safety and the ages of employees. In 1971, OSHA was established t0 further this mission. Its celebration, Workers Memorial Day, is held just days before May Day on April 28.

International Worker’s Day isn’t just a reminder of the day when the workers fought for the right to an eight-hour day; it’s a way to remember all the sacrifices made by workers in the fight for something many take for granted today.

Almost 130 years have passed since the original May Day, and workers are still fighting for safety in all conditions. Many are still exposed to asbestos, a known carcinogen and killer that can lie dormant in the body for decades before claiming the life of its host.

At Goldberg, Persky & White, we’re here to make sure your fight doesn’t go unnoticed and you receive the justice you deserve. We’re the asbestos and mesothelioma experts, and we’re dedicated to defending your rights.


Chase, E. (1993). The brief origins of May Day. Industrial Workers of the World. [Link]

Hjelmgaard, K. (2014). Thousands of workers mark May Day. USA Today. [Link]


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