May 1st, also known as May Day or International Workers’ Day, has long stood as the date on which workers gather to celebrate the past victories of the labour movement and to advance ongoing concerns facing workers around the world. While May Day has its roots in the historical labour struggles in Canada and the United States, it has become a touchstone for worker’s rights and labour activism that remains relevant to this day.

History of May Day

In the late 19th century, when participating in union activity was a criminal act, workers in Canada and the United States joined in collective action to protest working conditions. This struggle centred on the fight for shorter working hours without a cut in pay. At the time, working conditions were dangerous and workers often had no choice but to work 10 hours a day or longer. Workers organized and agitated to fight for improvements in their working lives.

The Struggles of Canadian Workers

In Canada, the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike in 1872 as part of the “Nine-Hour Day” movement. Although this initial job action yielded little result, a parade held a few weeks later in support of the striking workers drew over 10,000 people. Meanwhile, George Brown, the editor of the Toronto Globe and a politician, sent the police after the striking workers, resulting in 24 arrests. This only further galvanized support for the striking workers, leading to further protest. In response, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald promised to repeal the anti-trade union laws which made participating in union activity criminal, and later the same year, the Trade Unions Act was passed.

In the years following this victory for Canadian workers, parades were organized to mark the catalyst Toronto job action. Eventually, in 1894, the federal government declared Labour Day an official holiday.

The American Origins of May Day

In the United States, the struggle for an 8-hour working day came to a head on May 1, 1886 when more than 300,000 workers across the country walked off the job in peaceful protest. In Chicago, 40,000 workers went on strike. The protest continued and the number of workers swelled each day.

On May 3, police in Chicago began to use violent measures against the striking workers. This led the Chicago workers to organize in protest of the police tactics on May 4. The events of May 4 are now referred to as the “Haymarket Affair”. Towards the end of the day of peaceful protest, when only a few hundred people remained at the protest at Haymarket Square, a delegation of approximately 160 weapons-bearing police officers marched on the Square to disperse the protest. As the police approached, a bomb was thrown, although to this day it is not known who threw it. In the panic that followed, the police began firing their rifles. In the end, seven police officers and four workers died.

The response to the Haymarket Affair was swift and severe. Martial law was declared across the country. Eight men from the labour movement were tried and convicted, with seven sentenced to hang.

In 1889, an American delegate to a labour convention in Paris asked that May 1 be declared International Labour Day to mark the deaths of the men who died in the Haymarket Affair. However, when President Grover Cleveland decided to declare an official holiday in “honour of the working man” in 1894, he chose to follow the Canadian example, recognizing the first Monday in September, instead of May 1, out of concern that celebrating May Day would encourage “rabble-rousing”.

May Day Today

Today, May Day remains an important date for commemorating the gains achieved by trade unionists in the late 19th century.

Even more importantly, however, May Day has become an international day of labour activism and protest to recognize that struggles that remain for workers today. Workers in countries across the world use this date to hold annual demonstrations advocating for advances to workers’ rights, such as increases to minimum wage, improvements to working conditions, and greater protections for the rights of vulnerable workers.

While May Day marches are sometimes contentious issues, with some governments seeking to ban them outright, May Day’s larger legacy is one of peaceful labour activism. It is a reminder of the progress that can be made when workers join together to pursue their goals collectively.