Today marks one of the most widely celebrated holidays in the world. May 1 is International Workers’ Day, a global commemoration of working-class resistance against exploitation and oppression. After years of anti-worker policies and attacks on organized labor, there’s been a wave of interest in union organizing in recent years, with high-profile campaigns at Starbucks stores and Amazon warehouses. On April 25, President Biden promised union workers that if re-elected, he would “finish the job” of “turning things around” and creating a “very different plan for the economy” (NBC News). This comes just months after Biden sided with corporate owners to block a railroad workers’ strike (Reuters) and weeks after it emerged that his administration is pushing migrant children across the country into illegal forced labor (NYTimes). Working people—the overwhelming majority of the global population—clearly need more than empty promises from multimillionaire presidents (Forbes). The inspiring history of May Day reminds us that workers themselves are responsible for the victories they have won.
What is May Day?
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).