That first May Day in 1886 proved a rousing success at least as far as labor demonstrations were concerned: Some eighty thousand workers marched in Chicago, including 40,000 laborers who walked off their jobs when employers refused their demand for shorter hours. In New York City almost thirty thousand workers gathered in Union Square to listen to publicize their cause. Similar rallies and meeting were held in St. Louis, Boston, Baltimore and other industrial centers.

Unfortunately, a violent episode in Chicago a few days later stopped the 8-hour movement in its tracks: When a bomb exploded at protest meeting in Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886, killing seven policement, anarchists leaders were blamed, leaders who had played a leading role in Chicago's May Day demonstrations. Although mainstream trade unionists would revive the eight-hour movement in the 1890s and continue to strike on May 1st, by that time May Day had assumed a more radical identity: In Europe and among American socialists and anarchists, May Day, not Labor Day, became the workers' holiday.

Take a look at these documents to learn more about how May Day was celebrated, how the meaning of holiday changed over time and why trade unionists chose to celebrate Labor Day instead.




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Created by The Samuel Gompers Papers Project