May Day in America: The History and Evolution

An overview about May Day in the U.S.

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May Day has a storied history spanning centuries, continents, and even religious and political movements.

For generations, May Day was a time to celebrate the onset of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Then, in the fateful second half of the 1800s, it took on new meaning for labor rights activists worldwide.

Everywhere, that is, except the country where the holiday was revamped from dancing around flower poles to celebrating the working-class masses: the United States.

Here’s an overview about May Day in the U.S.

Traditional May Day: European-Style

The “original” May Day stems from a combination of pre-Christian Pagan celebrations held throughout Europe.

For centuries, the Celts of the British Isles celebrated Beltaine, a spring festival dividing the year between “light” and “dark.” Rituals involving fire, flowers, and food ushered fruitful summer harvests of crops and livestock.

When Rome's influence swept Britain, they introduced Floralia, a five-day spring celebration dedicated to the goddess of flowers. This festival was celebrated with feasts and fertility symbols of beans, lentils, and live animals like hares and goats.

Over time, the rituals of Beltaine and Floralia merged. Villages celebrated the onset of summer with games, pageants, and dances. Eventually, May Day became synonymous with dancing around the maypole – a tall beam decorated with flowers and ribbons – to usher in warm breezes and fertile fields.

Bringing May Day to the U.S.A.

When Europeans settled in the Americas, some brought May Day festivals with them. But many early settlers – particularly Puritans – frowned upon May Day celebrations as ill-disguised idol worship. While some communities did (and still do) dance around the maypole, other spring festivals replaced May Day traditions over time.

And then, the Industrial Revolution happened.

May Day and the Labor Movement

The American understanding of May Day arose from organized labor’s push to normalize the eight-hour workday.

As capitalism expanded during the Industrial Revolution, working-class conditions worsened. 16-hour shifts, child labor, and horrific injuries and deaths weren’t uncommon among non-elites. New technological advances continually concentrated wealth and power among Big Business and the upper class.

In response, workers piled into pro-labor organizations to regain bargaining power and support more populist politicians. Socialist ideals – notably, working-class control over the economy – spread like wildfire among abused, angry workers.

Then, on May 1, 1867, nearly 50 unions took to Chicago’s streets to celebrate Illinois’ new (and ultimately unenforced) eight-hour workday law. Unfortunately, the law - which was already limited to just one state - was ultimately unenforced.

Two decades later, the nation caught up to Illinois’ pro-worker policy. In 1885, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor (later the American Federation of Labor) declared that as of May “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor.”

The Haymarket Affair: When May Day Turns Bloody

True to their word, the AFL came through.

On May 1, 1886, 13,000 businesses bled hundreds of thousands of workers into America’s streets to strike in favor of an eight-hour workday nationwide.

Some were members of pro-socialism and radical movements that had grown common amid horrific working conditions. Others were members of the famous Knights of Labor, a pro-labor organization that boasted over 700,000 members.

These protests only grew. In just days, Chicago alone saw numbers swell from 30,000 to over 100,000 disgruntled workers.

But on May 3, these protests turned violent.

According to labor historian Peter Linebaugh, police – whom he dubbed the “armed force of the capitalist masters” – advanced on steelworkers demonstrating near the McCormick Reaper Plant in Chicago. A peaceful protest escalated into a riot as police clubbed protestors, who fought back by throwing rocks. Eventually, the police opened fire, leaving several dead and dozens wounded.

In response, protestors – including Chicago’s mayor – rallied the next day in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Following purportedly peaceful remarks by speaker August Spies, police again converged on the protestors. Within minutes, an unknown perpetrator threw a bomb, killing at least 7 officers and 8 civilians.  

Eight Convictions, Four Deaths

The Haymarket Riot, as it became known, set off a national shockwave.

In August 1886, eight men were convicted following a controversial trial that failed to link their actions to the Haymarket bomb. Each of the eight was found guilty of conspiring to murder by a jury with notable ties to Big Business. Seven men were sentenced to death, while the eighth received 15 years in prison.

Despite international protests, four of the eight men were ultimately hanged – August Spies among them. Before his execution, Spies famously cried out, “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

International Aftermath

In 1889, the International Socialist Conference met in France to honor who they called the “Haymarket Martyrs.”

The Conference voted to make May Day a global labor celebration known as International Workers’ Day. Members also adopted a resolution to hold a “great international demonstration” on May 1, 1890, in solidarity with planned AFL protests.

Sure enough, on May 1, 1890, over 300,000 protestors took to London’s streets alone.

The Changing Face of May Day

Today, May Day is officially celebrated in 66 countries and unofficially celebrated in dozens more. But if you’re in the United States, you probably still associate May 1 with flowers and maypole dances.

That’s no accident.

Following the 1894 Pullman Strike, U.S. President Glover Cleveland officially moved the U.S. Labor Day to September. The decision served two purposes:

  • To sever ties with international workers’ celebrations, and
  • To separate the issue of U.S. workers’ rights from radical ideals like socialism and communism

During the early days of the Cold War, President Dwight Eisenhower went a step further. He declared May 1 to be “Law Day,” a day “for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States of America and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.”

Historians contend that Law Day’s creation stemmed from a desire to suppress U.S. recognition of International Workers’ Day.

As Peter Linebaugh wrote, “The ruling class did not want to have a very active labor force connected internationally. The principle of national patriotism was used against the principle of working-class unity or trade union unity.”

Workers’ rights have long competed against the desire of businesses to maximize corporate profits.  

May Day! In Modern Day  

Today, American celebrations of May Day mostly involve dancing around the maypole – where it’s celebrated at all. The holiday inspired by the original May Day now occurs on the first Monday of September, when workers celebrate their hard-won rights.

But now that you know the true origins of this holiday, it’s worth taking a moment to remember the workers who lived, protested, and died for fair labor practices and the eight-hour workday.

Over the last 40 years, that push has seen union membership plunge to record lows, hitting just 10% in 2022.

Most researchers blame modern labor laws’ bias toward Big Business for declining union memberships. Some states are evening loosening labor regulations to, for instance, allow children under 16 to work dangerous jobs at expanded hours.

But despite their edge, it appears that Big Business isn’t too eager for unions to make a comeback.  

Take Amazon, a massively-profitable international firm that refuses to engage in contract negotiations with unionized workers a year in.

Or Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who was brought on to squash rising union activity and recently testified before Congress about the company’s alleged union-busting activities.

Even Wells Fargo is getting nervous about the “resurgence” of union activity and a “new generation of employees with activist experience.”

As some of the largest corporate giants in the world, Amazon, Starbucks, and Wells Fargo should be able to afford union demands with ease. And yet, their reluctance to engage with (or even sabotage) union efforts suggests that the bloody, profit-taking history of May Day – and celebrations like it – remains prominent in Big Business’ rearview mirror.

References for May Day history (non-cited)

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