While May Day has some roots in pagan history as a spring festival celebrating various gods and goddesses of pagan origins it is also a celebration of Labor Rights in America and other countries throughout the world.
After the Civil War and the Depression of 1873-1879, America was finally poised to reap the benefits of improved production techniques already being practiced in Great Britain. With this America, and Chicago specifically, experienced a significant expansion in industrial production.
A worker’s typical work week was 6 days, Monday through Saturday, and consisted of 60+ hours per week. An average day’s wage in Chicago during this time was about $1.50.
Chicago was the American epicenter for labor forces unionizing. Their demands were for better working conditions and fewer hours per week.
Employers and mainstream newspapers worked together to incite ethnic tensions to divide the workers. Employers also fired and blacklisted union members. They would lockout workers and hire strikebreakers, spies, thugs, and private security forces to work against the unions.
This led to the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago, Illinois which was a pivotal event that set the stage for the labor unions we
know today. "No single event has influenced the history of labor in Illinois, the United States, and even the world, more than the Chicago Haymarket Affair. It began with a rally on May 4, 1886, but the consequences are still being felt today. Although the rally is included in American history textbooks, very few present the event accurately or point out its significance," according to labor studies professor William J. Adelman.1
What began as a peaceful rally of industrial workers “striking” for an eight hour work day and to stand in solidarity against police who had killed several workers the previous day ended when an unknown person threw a bomb at police killing seven officers and four civilians and wounding many others.
The rallying cry of the workers attempting to “unionize” in Chicago eventually led to the United States labor laws that provide employee and employer guidance and protection in the labor market.
Whether you are a “right-to-work” supporter or union supporter you can find your roots all the way back to 1886 and the Haymarket Affair.
Happy May Day, y’all!
1. "The Haymarket Affair". illinoislaborhistory.org. RetrievedMarch 19, 2014.