May Day is a holiday celebrating workers and the role that the labor movement has had in countries around the world. It is also referred to as International Workers' Day, as the first of May is also a traditional, non-labor holiday that is celebrated in a number of countries.
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How It All Began
The rise of industrialization in the 19th century brought about a rapid change in the way that people earned a living. Agriculture was quickly ceding its place as the largest sector of the economy, and a greater demand for factory labor in cities prompted the growth of the urban areas. People came from far flung reaches of the country, as well as abroad, looking for new opportunities.
Industrialization was rapidly changing the rules of the labor market, and the labor movement was created to help protect the rights of the worker in the face of such massive upheaval. Workers demanded better working conditions, shorter hours and higher wages from their employers, and often took to the streets to boycott or demonstrate against business practices that they deemed harsh or unfair. They began to unionize to voice their demands, and employers fought the unions to keep their stores and factories running. In fact, many governments considered unions to be illegal and dealt with them harshly. (For more, check out Unions: Do They Help Or Hurt Workers?)
The First May Day
May Day was first observed in the late 19th century as a tribute to the Haymarket affair of 1886, in which workers striking for a shorter work day were attacked in Chicago. Demonstrations against employers were often non-violent, but sometimes violent acts did occur. During the Haymarket demonstrations a bomb was detonated, and police officers reacted with gunfire. The gunfire injured and killed a number of police officers and demonstrators. Some participants were said to be anarchists and were arrested, with 4 "anarchists" sentenced to death.
The Haymarket affair proved to be a sort of rallying point for the international labor movement. At a meeting of the Second International, an international organization of labor unions, in Paris in 1889, representatives of 20 countries called for a common demonstration to be held on May 1st, 1890. Demonstrations were held in cities around the world, and turned out so successful that they were set as annual events. (For more, see The Minimum Wage: Does It Matter?)
How people celebrate May Day varies from country to country. In countries where the holiday is commonly observed workers typically have the day off, and take to the streets in large parades and demonstrations. Some countries commemorate the day with bonfires and concerts that are attended by thousands.
The holiday is not celebrated to the same extent in the United States as it is in other countries. The recognized holiday for workers is Labor Day, which was first celebrated on September 5, 1882. The Knights of Labor, an important labor organization in the 1800s, pushed president Grover Cleveland to create the holiday, but because the Haymarket affair occurred in the United States politicians feared that creating a holiday to commemorate the riots could potentially encourage more violence. Even though the official labor holiday is in September, some U.S. unions still participate in the holiday by not working and demonstrations are still held in a number of major cities.
The Bottom Line
Even though unions have declined in prominence and power in a number of developed countries, May Day reminds us that the modern workday and working conditions have changed drastically since the early days of industrialization in the 19th century. These changes were the result of workers around the world fighting for their rights and for better wages and opportunities. (To learn more about topics discussed here, see The Globalization Debate.)
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