Mourn for the Dead, Fight for the Living: May Day Becomes International Workers’ Day

Happy International Workers’ Day! To celebrate, the Labor History Collections has put together a small exhibit in the Maryland Reading Room inside Hornbake Library to tell the story of how May Day became International Workers’ Day and its link to Labor Day.

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AFL-CIO poster promoting International Workers’ Day also known as May Day 2017. You can also check out this poster in Spanish on the “What’s Next?” panel in the Labor History Collection exhibit!

On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers all over America walked out of their jobs to strike for the eight-hour workday and better working conditions. On May 4th in Chicago, anarchist and socialist labor activists Samuel Fielden, August Spies, and Albert Parsons, organized a gathering at Haymarket Square to protest the killing of several workers by police at McCormick Reaper Works the day before. After several speeches by the organizers of the gathering, a bomb went off in the crowd that was being dispersed by police, killing seven officers and at least four civilians. No one knew who detonated the bomb, but the police arrested eight men who were known anarchists and labor activists for conspiracy even though several of the men were not present at the rally: Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, August Spies, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, and Albert Parsons. All eight were found guilty and were given the death penalty, except for Oscar Neebe who was sentenced to 15 years in prison. This event is known as the “Haymarket Square Affair” and the four men that were hanged (Engel, Fischer, Parsons, and Spies) became martyrs within the labor movement.

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This case showcases material about the aftermath of the Haymarket Square Affair, which led to anti-labor sentiments in the press and the movement for the eight-hour day to be put on pause. 

In the aftermath of the Haymarket Square Affair, May Day became International Workers’ Day and was mainly celebrated by working class radicals. In 1894, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) favored a competing labor holiday called “Labor Day” to promote a more conservative version of International Workers’ Day. President Grover Cleveland created the federal holiday of Labor Day due to pressure from the conservative side of the labor movement. There was a mass amount of pressure to make Labor Day a national holiday because socialist groups within the labor movement were trying to make International Workers’ Day a national holiday in 1894 as well. International Workers’ Day was not recognized legally by the United States until 1904. By the 1930s, International Workers’ Day became a celebration of Soviet Power and was mainly celebrated within communist and socialist countries. This made the association of International Workers’ Day as a communist holiday even stronger and pushed democratic countries’ labor movements even further away from celebrating the holiday.

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One of the more colorful cases with photographs and poster of parades on May Day from all over the world! 

Today, International Workers’ Day has recaptured its original roots through the Immigrants’ Rights movement, Occupy Wall Street, and the Anti-War movement. International Workers’ Day is now celebrated around the world, including the United States, to unite all laborers fighting for human rights!

Let us know what you will be doing to celebrate International Workers’ Day!

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A page in the Recorder newspaper with many photographs of May Day parades around the world in various periods in the 1900s.

If you would like to know more about the labor movement, check out the Labor Collection’s exhibit, “For Library, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America,” or email us at askhornbake@umd.edu!


Erin Berry is a Graduate Assistant for the Labor History Collection at University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives. She is pursuing a Masters of Library and Information Science with a concentration in Archives and Digital Curation.

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One thought on “Mourn for the Dead, Fight for the Living: May Day Becomes International Workers’ Day

  1. Pingback: The Labor Movement and Posters: Promoting Human Rights, Part 2 | UMD Special Collections & University Archives

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