Opinion: Happy May Day: Remember the folks who brought you the eight-hour work day (05/01/2023)

MAY 1, 2023 8 AM PT
Miller is a local author, professor at San Diego City College, and vice president for the American Federation of Teachers, Local 1931. He lives in Golden Hill.

In the United States, we celebrate the labor movement in September on Labor Day, an occasion now known more for backyard barbecues than unions marching in the street. Thus, most Americans don’t know much about May Day and, if they do, they associate it with the state-sponsored holiday in the former Soviet Union. The truth of the matter, however, is that May Day has deep American roots.

It started in 1866 as part of the movement pushing for the eight-hour workday. Back then, as historian Jacob Remes reminds us:

“The demand for an eight-hour day was about leisure, self-improvement and freedom, but it was also about power. When Eight Hour Leagues agitated for legislation requiring short hours, they were demanding what had never before happened: that the government regulate industry for the advantage of workers. And when workers sought to enforce the eight-hour day without the government — through declaring for themselves, through their unions, under what conditions they would work — they sought something still more radical: control over their own workplaces. It is telling that employers would often counter a demand for shorter hours with an offer of a wage increase. Wage increases could be given (and taken away) by employers without giving up their power; agreeing to shorter hours was, employers knew, the beginning of losing their arbitrary power over their workers.”

In the course of this effort, the nationwide American labor movement was born. Workers joined together in the service of the principle that, in the emerging industrial age, they should have a say in their economic lives and a voice in our politics — neither of which would come without a struggle.

This campaign led to the passage of the first eight-hour workday law in Illinois that was set to take effect on May 1, 1867. Chicago workers celebrated its enactment with a huge parade and other festivities. Unfortunately, the next day, employers refused to recognize or implement the law, making their workers stay for the customary 10 or 11 hours. The workers responded with a massive general strike that was eventually crushed by the state militia.

A year later, the railroad strike of 1877 also showed great worker militancy and power, but that too was put down, this time by federal troops, which deeply damaged the labor movement for the time being.

By the 1880s, a revitalized labor movement took up the issue of the eight-hour workday once again. In 1886, workers in Chicago, led by anarchists, called for a general strike on May 1, and they vowed not to return to their jobs unless employers agreed to an eight-hour workday.

As Remes notes, “The demands of the militant Chicago anarchists coincided with a massive upswing in other militant movements. Workers and Texas farmers were rebelling against a monopolistic railroad system. The Knights of Labor were rapidly organizing and spreading their vision of a cooperative, rather than capitalistic, society.”

It was more than a general strike; it was a struggle against plutocracy and a call for a cooperative commonwealth where democracy was not controlled by the big money of the robber barons of that earlier Gilded Age.

This was, of course, met with fierce resistance from police and the powers that be, and it led to the famous events at Haymarket Square. There, an unidentified man threw a bomb into a crowd of protesting workers, killing a police officer, which led the police to fire on the crowd.

This resulted in the arrest and conviction of eight anarchists with no hard evidence of their guilt. Four of them were eventually hanged and became martyrs for the cause of workers’ rights internationally. As August Spies shouted out before meeting his end, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

Eventually, American workers would win their struggle for the eight-hour workday, but May Day itself has been largely forgotten in the United States despite its continued recognition internationally. In the early 20th century, an attempt was made to bury May Day under “Law and Order Day,” which never quite stuck either. More recently, the immigrants’ rights movement, Occupy Wall Street and others in labor circles have revived May Day to inspire new struggles for workers’ rights.

What is important for us to keep in mind during this new Gilded Age is how hard the struggle was to get many of the rights (such as child labor laws) we too often take for granted in the American workplace.