I wouldn’t be surprised if most readers think of May Day as either a day to leave a basket full of flowers and treats on the doorstep of someone special or as a day of military parades down the wide streets of Moscow. It is both of those things. But those military parades in countries that celebrate their proletariat origins of power stem from observing May 1 as International Workers Day, also known as Labor Day.
The holiday goes back to workers’ struggle for acceptance of the eight-hour workday. On April 21, 1856, stonemasons in Australia went on strike to show their support for the eight-hour workday movement. For years afterwards, workers in Australia marked the stoppage annually, and it eventually caught the attention of workers in the United States.
In this country, on May 1, 1886, workers went on a general strike for better working conditions. Three days later in Chicago, police attempted to disperse a public demonstration when someone threw a bomb into Haymarket Square. The police responded with guns. In the end, seven police officers and at least thirty-eight civilians died. Many more were injured. In reaction, labor leaders were rounded up with four being executed after a trial many considered a miscarriage of justice. More demonstrations and more deaths followed the next day in Milwaukee. These events became known as the Haymarket Affair.
By 1891, a group of international trade union and socialist organizations from twenty countries, known as the Second International, had met twice in Paris and decided to establish May 1 as International Labor Day.
While the Haymarket Affair, which prompted the selection of May 1 as international labor day, took place in the United States, this country did not follow the tradition set in Paris. By 1887, four years before the Second International acted, the first Monday in September had already been established throughout North America as Labor Day.
And that left May Day in this country as a day to celebrate spring with dances, singing, and exchanging baskets of goodies.