The first time I ever heard of May Day was when I was a freshman at New York University in 2012 and the Occupy Wall Street movement took over Washington Square Park and other areas of the city on May 1. Protestors were challenging the socioeconomic structure that seemed to favor big corporations and millionaires (a.k.a. the 1 percent) and hurt the middle and lower classes. America sees protests, sure, but Americans—like my then-18-year-old self—were largely unaware that May Day is an international holiday that the rest of the world takes pretty seriously, especially the French. This is ironic considering May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, originated here in the United States.
The first day of May is a remembrance of a massive workers’ strike in Chicago in 1886. On that day, workers, mostly German immigrants, organized a walkout as part of an effort to fight for an eight-hour workday (which they legally were supposed to have, but the law was rarely enforced as employers frequently forced the ultimatum to either work longer or not work at all), better pay, and improved working conditions—and the situation escalated quickly. A few days after the first strike, the conflict became violent at Haymarket Square when a bomb exploded in the middle of a demonstration and at least eight people were killed.
According to the Illinois Labor History Society, the rest of the world’s governments would soon use this event as a reason to squash labor unions in their own countries. It didn’t work. Today, countries across the globe celebrate and honor (and get a holiday from work, too) May Day in the name of workers’ rights everywhere. The United States, however, does things differently. Here’s more about how and why May Day is celebrated around the world.
Instead, at the beginning of September, Americans celebrate Labor Day in honor of the working man. Really, though, most people don’t even think about that aspect of the holiday and simply use it as an excuse to party at the beach or throw barbecues before the unofficial end of summer. That, however, is by design—presidential design. The first Monday in September was already being celebrated by more moderate trade unions, so, in an effort to move away from the radicalism of May Day, President Grover Cleveland proclaimed Labor Day a holiday in September in 1894.
Half a century later, at the start of the Cold War, Congress passed a law that proclaimed May 1 as “Loyalty Day” in an effort to further distance the country from the original origins of May Day and, importantly, any associated Communism. Three years later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed it to “Law Day,” the antithesis to May Day. So while the world remembers and retains the fighting spirit of Chicago’s workers over 100 years ago, Americans, for the most part, go about their day as usual on May 1.
The Haymarket riots aren’t the only ones the shook the status quo—find out about 11 more protests that changed the world for workers everywhere.