A wave of labor organizing and unionization efforts nationwide has seen an uptick in the past couple of years. In 2022, union representation petitions have increased by 57%, along with unfair labor practice charges against employers, which increased by 14% (National Labor Relations Board). This surge aligns with recent efforts by teachers, factory workers, and current and former employees from major companies like Starbucks, Apple, and Amazon, who are fighting against hazardous working conditions, low wages, and employers’ mistreatment.
Earlier this month, Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York, became the first Amazon warehouse to unionize in a historic win for grassroots labor organizing (NPR). Since then, more warehouses have followed suit, using the momentum from this labor movement resurgence.
However, the current labor movement and demands are far from new. They mimic the struggles that ailed workers throughout history, including the fight for workers’ rights that came to a head in the late 1880s.
May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, acts as a reminder of the strifes made by workers who challenged the exploitative labor practices of businesses that left many destitute, injured, or dead.
For centuries, Europeans celebrated the return of spring each May 1st, but today the date is most commonly known as International Workers’ Day (Britannica). In most countries around the world, May 1st is a day for recognizing and continuing the struggle of working-class people against exploitation by predatory business owners and the governments that support them. In 66 countries, International Workers’ Day is a paid holiday. Countries like Ghana, Cuba, and Mexico honor the day with either protests and celebrations or use it as a day of rest (Institute for Research on Labor & Employment).
However, International Workers’ Day is not a holiday in the United States. Instead, Labor Day is celebrated in September to avoid association with the international workers’ movement and prevent the spread of pro-union radicalism. In fact, May 1st is officially “Law Day” in the United States, which commemorates the role of law in American society (History).
Why Isn’t May Day Celebrated in the U.S.?
May Day celebrations around the world began as a protest against political repression on the part of the United States government. In 1886, immigrant workers across the United States were organizing for the eight-hour day. Chicago police attacked striking workers, killing one and injuring many more. Several police officers died from an explosion at the end of an otherwise-peaceful protest rally the following day in Haymarket Square. Though the perpetrator was never identified, the U.S. government convicted eight union leaders of murder. Three were executed, and one died by suicide in jail (Britannica).
Just three of the eight were present when the bomb went off. The “Haymarket Martyrs” were convicted because they were working-class immigrant union leaders as well as anarchists, proponents of “a society without coercive institutions” (Anarchist Library), one “based on cooperation, as opposed to competition and coercion” (Britannica).
Two years later, May Day was declared International Workers’ Day to commemorate the union leaders falsely accused and murdered by the U.S. government.
How Can We Honor International Workers’ Day Today?
These issues are as important now as they were in the 19th century. Workers did win the eight-hour day, but farmworkers, gig workers, and those stringing together part-time jobs don’t see the benefits. And though the Chicago strikers were primarily immigrants from Eastern Europe, it’s still immigrants, Black and Brown people, and people from other oppressed communities forced to work the most odious jobs. This is doubly true for workers in other countries who produce the majority of U.S. commodities.
There are International Workers’ Day protests, actions, marches, and celebrations held throughout the United States. May 1st is an opportunity to honor the history of workers’ struggles and support those fighting for justice today. It’s a reminder that though the forces of repression and injustice are strong and deadly, people coming together to demand what’s right are even stronger. As Chicago union leader August Spies said right before he was executed by the state of Illinois, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today” (History is a Weapon).