Most people know little about May Day, or International Labour Day. Or we know is that there's an extra day of holiday in a year, and this year we're doubly lucky that it's a long weekend. 

It'a not all maypoles and dancing

Celebrations in May have long had two meanings. Both of them very different from each other. On one hand, May Day is known for celebrating the coming of spring. With roots in pagan Anglo-Saxo customs, people dance around maypoles, braid flowers in their hair and welcome the beginning of springtime fertility in some parts of the world (mostly in the UK).

Villages will hold festivals and other fun activities and the dancing symbolizes saying farewell to the harsh winter and ushering in a time of things coming back to life. 

On the other hand, it's a day of commemorating worker solidarity and protesting unfair working conditions. So, how did that happen?

Like so many incidents in history, it happened by complete accident. We go back to May in 1886, when some 200,000 workers in the U.S. engaged in a nationwide strike which changed history for the working people.

The History of May Day

Screen Shot 2017-04-30 at 6.22.40 PM.png

In the 18th century, working conditions in the US were extremely tough and it was the norm to work 10-16 hours a day. This was made worse as labour was done in unsafe conditions where injury and death were also commonplace. It wasn't until the early 19th century that the working class fought to shorten the workday without a cut in their pay, and by organising together, they were able to garner enough strength (and noise) to demand for an 8 hour workday.

This was spurred on as workers during that time were inspired by the idea of socialism. Workers had seen first-hand that capitalism benefited only their bosses, who lined their pockets while the workers slaved away tirelessly. In some areas in America, thousands of men, women and children were dying needlessly every year in the workplace, with life expectancy as low as their early twenties. They wanted change.

A worker's rights

On May 1, 1886, some 200,000 workers went on a three days strike in downtown Chicago. They were demonstrating to rebuff their bosses, and to demand for an 8 hour day and a worker-controlled industry. Armed police harassed and beat up striking workers as they demonstrated outside their workplaces (mostly steel factories at that time). Beatings with police clubs soon escalated into rock throwing by the strikers which the police responded to with gunfire. At least two strikers were killed and an unknown number were wounded.

Full of rage, a public meeting was called by some of the working the following day in Haymarket Square to discuss the police brutality. Due to bad weather and short notice, only about 3,000 of the tens of thousands of people showed up. This public meeting included families with young children.

As the speech wound down, the police suddenly rushed in, citing reports that the speaker was using inflammatory language and they were responding to the unrest. (The mayor of the city later on testified that throughout the entire time, the crowd was calm and orderly.) As the police began to disperse the already thinning crowd, a bomb was thrown into the crowd. No one knows who threw the bomb, but speculations varied from blaming any one of the demonstrating workers, to a spy working for the police.

Enraged, the police fired into the crowd. The exact number of civilians killed or wounded was never determined, but an estimated seven or eight civilians died, and up to forty were wounded. One officer died immediately and another seven died in the following weeks.   

This violence resulted in the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labor), proclaiming that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886.

Today, we see May 1 being commemorated as a holiday for labor all across the world.