Recognizing the importance of workers’ rights International Workers Day history led to labour laws

For centuries throughout the Northern Hemisphere, May Day has been a traditional day of festivities celebrating the arrival of spring. Towns and villages throughout Europe would hold gatherings. With seeding mostly completed, farmers would often give their labourers a day off. To this day, May Day is a national public holiday in several countries, many of which refer to it as Labour Day or International Workers Day.

In the late 19th century, the Socialists and Communists of the Second International May Day chose International Workers Day to commemorate the Haymarket Affair that took place in Chicago in 1886. What began as a peaceful labour protest ended with bloodshed and became an international symbol for workers’ rights.

Two years before that, at the 1884 convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor  Unions, delegates set May 1, 1886 to demand an eight-hour work day. As the day approached, unions prepared for a general strike to force employers to bow to this demand. Hundreds of thousands of workers struck on May 1 across the United States. In Chicago, a hotbed of trade unionism, tens of thousands of workers hit the streets, joining others already on strike or locked out. Among the latter were workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company plant. By the time of the general strike, there were already several hundred police officers stationed outside the plant to keep the peace between pickets and replacement workers. Until May 3, despite all of the labour unrest, there was no violence.

On May 3, after a rally, a group of striking workers surged toward the plant gates to harass the replacement workers coming off their shift. The police fired into the crowd and two workers were killed. The next evening, people gathered at Haymarket Square to protest police violence and reiterate demands for an eight-hour work day. After several speeches and after most people had gone home, police descended on the rally around 10:30 pm. As police marched towards the workers, someone threw a homemade bomb in their path. It exploded, killing at least one officer immediately. Police opened fire and, while it is unclear if anyone fired back, seven policemen and at least four workers died.

While what happened that day proved to be a significant setback for the labour movement’s fight for the eight-hour day, they didn’t give up. In 1888, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) convention decided they would call for a general strike on May 1, 1890. The AFL’s president wrote to the congress of the Second International, which was meeting in Paris. In response, the congress adopted a resolution calling for an international demonstration of workers on May 1, 1890 in solidarity with American workers.

The first International Workers’ Day was a resounding success, with workers demonstrating around the globe for an eight-hour work day. On many of their minds were those workers gunned down at Haymarket for doing the same. Now most countries celebrate May 1 as Labour Day or International Workers’ Day.

In Canada and the United States, Labour Day is celebrated on the first Monday of September. Both federal governments adopted the day in an attempt to prevent the more radically-focused May Day celebrations from taking hold.

And so, in addition to Labour Day, workers in both countries continue to celebrate May Day as an important day to commemorate the fight for workers’ rights. We remember people actually died fighting for rights that we tend to take for granted today.

In Edmonton, we haven’t forgotten International Workers’ Day. An event is taking place on May 1 at the Legislature beginning at 6:00 pm. After speeches, there will be a march to Grant Notley Park, followed by a social at the Ukrainian Centre on 97 Street.

Feature Image: International Workers Day recognizes the fight for workers’ rights. | Paula Kirman

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