May Day. A day to herald the coming of Spring with song and dance, a day for children with flowers in their hair to skip around beribboned maypoles, a time to crown May Day queens.
But once it also was a day for demonstrations that were crucial in winning the most important right ever won by working people — the right demanded above all others by the labor activists of a century ago:
“Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!”
The changing economy has forced many workers in recent years to regularly exceed the eight-hour workday that their predecessors won. But eight hours for work nevertheless remains the standard in the United States and every other industrial nation and at least an aspiration in others.
Winning the eight-hour workday took years of hard struggle, beginning in the mid-1800s. By 1867, the federal government, six states and several cities had passed laws limiting their employees’ hours to eight per day. The laws were not effectively enforced and in some cases were overturned by courts, but they set an important precedent that finally led to a powerful popular movement.
The movement was launched in 1886 by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, then one of the country’s major labor organizations. The federation called for workers to negotiate with their employers for an eight-hour workday and, if that failed, to strike on May 1 in support of the demand.
Some negotiated, some marched and otherwise demonstrated. More than 300,000 struck. And all won strong support, in dozens of cities — Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Boston, Milwaukee, St. Louis, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Denver , Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Detroit, Washington, Newark, Brooklyn, St. Paul and others.
More than 30,000 workers had won the eight-hour day by April. On May Day, another 350,000 workers walked off their jobs at nearly 12,000 establishments, more than 185,000 of them eventually winning their demand.
Most of the others won at least some reduction in working hours that had ranged up to 16 a day.
Additionally, many employers cut Saturday operations to a half-day, and the practice of working on Sundays, also relatively common, was all but abandoned by major industries.
“Hurray for Shorter Time,” declared a headline in the New York Sun over a story describing a torchlight procession of 25,000 workers that highlighted the eight-hour-day activities in New York. Never before had the city experienced so large a demonstration.
Not all newspapers were as supportive, however. The strikes and demonstrations, one paper complained, amounted to “communism, lurid and rampant.” The eight-hour day, another said, would encourage “loafing and gambling, rioting, debauchery, and drunkenness.”
The greatest opposition came in response to the demonstrations led by anarchist and socialist groups in Chicago, the heart of the eight-hour day movement. Four demonstrators were killed and more than 200 wounded by police who waded into their ranks, but what the demonstrators’ opponents seized on were the events two days later at a protest rally in Haymarket Square. A bomb was thrown into the ranks of the police who had surrounded the square, killing seven and wounding 59.
The bomb thrower was never discovered, but eight labor, socialist and anarchist leaders – branded as violent, dangerous radicals by press and police alike – were arrested on the clearly trumped up charge that they had conspired to commit murder. Four of them were hanged, one committed suicide while in jail, and three were pardoned six years later by Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld.
Employers responded to the so-called Haymarket Riot by mounting a counter-offensive that seriously eroded the eight-hour day movement’s gains.
But the movement was an extremely effective organizing tool for the country’s unions, and in 1890 President Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor was able to call for “an International Labor Day” in favor of the eight-hour workday. Similar proclamations were made by socialist and union leaders in other nations where, to this day, May Day is celebrated as Labor Day.
Workers in the United States and 13 other countries demonstrated on that May Day of 1890 — including 30,000 of them in Chicago. The New York World hailed it as “Labor’s Emancipation Day.” It was. For it marked the start of an irreversible drive that finally established the eight-hour day as the standard for millions of working people.
Copyright (c) 2006 Dick Meister, a San Francisco writer who has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.