You are currently viewing The Origins And Aftermath Of May Day: The Workers’ Holiday

The Origins And Aftermath Of May Day: The Workers’ Holiday

On May 1, 1906, Canada celebrated its first May Day. This workers’ festival originated in 1886 in the United States but did not seem to have an impact on the Canadian labour movement until the early 19th century. Admittedly, the government had endorsed a worker’s holiday in 1894. This was Labour Day. However, the roots and nature of the two holidays were different. While Labour Day evolved into a celebration of work, employers and life, May Day was a protest against the status quo, government, corporations and other institutions that refused to give working people their deserved share of the economic pie.

Leading Up to May Day

The beginning of this International Workers’ Festival began in the United States, although some scholars argue it owes a nod to the 1872 Nine Hours Movement in Canada. In the United States by the 1880s, workers were fighting for three major goals:

  1. Better working conditions
  2. Fair wages
  3. Shorter workday

While the supporters and organizations agreed on these goals, how to achieve them was a contentious issue. One group, the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor (FOTL) made their stance perfectly clear.  In 1884, they stated that, unless all workers across America were granted an eight-hour day by May 1, 1886, they would call for a National Strike.

The Knights of Labor (KoL) condemned this position but did not feel threatened by the smaller fringe group who only organized those unions not members of the KoL.  However, the working class embraced the concept. In fact, it became a rallying cry for unions all across the United States gaining in popularity among the various working organizations – both traditional and radical, until, as May 1, 1886, approached, various groups got on board. Even local KoLs ignored the directives of their national organization. They joined the FOTL in calling for a national strike on May 1.

The May Day National Strike

On May 1, 1886 – and even a few days before – workers left their jobs. They paraded on the streets and listened to speeches advocating workers’ rights. They walked out of plants in New York, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Boston, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Washington D.C., and Chicago. In Chicago, 20,000 people paraded through the city and to various locations to listen to various speakers – most categorized as radical or Anarchists. The day went off without a hitch. For once, the media and public were supportive of the working class and their cause.

However, this Honeymoon was short-lived as the peaceful May Day protests evolved into the melee of May 3. On this day, the lumber pushers were standing listening to a speech given by August Spies. They stood at a short distance from the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. Here a bitter strike had been going on since February. As the scabs exited the factory, a nearby crowd of strikers turned on them, harassing and driving them back into the shop. At this point, their police escorts began to beat and fire at the protesters. At least one was killed and several wounded. Spies heard the shots and called for calm. He was ignored. Disgusted, he went back to his office and prepared a poster calling for people to attend a Protest Rally at 7:30 pm the next day – May 3.

Haymarket Square, May 4, 1886

It was a smaller crowd that turned out for the rally in Haymarket Square that May evening. Originally, the crowd numbered a few thousand. As the rain poured down and night fell, it dwindled to around 300. Three speakers took the stage: Albert Parsons, August Spies and Samuel Fielden. The final orator was just concluding when approximately 250 armed-police officers appeared in the Square shouting at everyone to disperse.

It was then that someone – who has never been identified, threw a single dynamite bomb at the police officers. The police immediately opened fire on the unarmed crowd. The number of police officers killed was seven, with approximately seven injured. The number of workers injured or killed is not as exact.

In the following days, the media and the officials led the charge against the unions. All became tarred with the same brush. They were radicals or anarchists. The officials trashed offices and destroyed various Anarchist and radical hangouts as they searched for non-existent evidence.

In Chicago, the fervour became hysteria – America’s first Red Scare. At one point, they took into custody everyone who worked at Arbeiten-Zeitung, the newspaper Spies worked for – from the editor down to the devil’s apprentice. The police also arrested the so-called “ring leaders.” This action was mirrored across the country.

In Chicago, things truly became ugly. The police focused on the following eight men:

  1. Albert Parsons: Parsons turned himself in at the trial
  2.  August Spies
  3. Samuel Fielden
  4. Oscar Neebe
  5. Michael Schwab
  6. George Engel
  7. Adolph Fischer
  8. Louis Lingg

At their trial, despite the lack of evidence – only three had been present at Haymarket Square during the incident – all in plain view, the judge harried the jury into convicting all of them of murder. Seven received the death penalty. The eighth, Oscar Neebe, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Lobbying Illinois Governor, Richard Oglesby, obtained the commuting of the death penalty to life for two men – Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab. Then, there was Lingg. Somehow or other he got hold of and exploded a dynamite cap in his mouth, therefore cheating the hangman.

There was, however, no clemency for the remaining five. On the date of their hanging November 11, 1887, the Haymarket Martyrs faced the gallows – all singing “The Marseilles.” August Spies managed to utter a few words before they tightened the noose and dropped his body. These words are worth repeating. His final epitaph was simple

The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

Although prophetic, it was several years before the seeds he sowed would come to fruition. 

The Aftermath of the May Day Affair

Over 100,000 workers attended the funerals of the Haymarket Martyrs. The numbers were heartening but the reaction of the public was not. The sympathizers were battling a lack of public support and the strengthened resolve of employers.  

Employers had temporarily squashed what they perceived as a serious threat and were determined to maintain the status quo.

This did not sit well with Lucy Parsons. A black woman, she had been married to Alan Parsons.  She was a determined woman, an active Socialist and a co-founder of the International Working People Association (IWPA).

The IWPA was an organization that promoted equal rights regardless of gender or race. Lucy Parsons lobbied. She strove to keep alive the sacrifices of her husband and the other victims of the Haymarket Affair.

It was not until 1889, after what some believe was the result of the indefatigable determination of Lucy Parsons to keep the Haymarket Martyrs and their work alive,  that the Second International Workers’ Congress acted.

After listening to the American contingent, the IWPA declared May Day to be a Global Day of Protest. In countries across the world, workers walked off their jobs, paraded through the streets, and listened to speeches and protests.

On May 2, 1890, the New York World, devoted its front page to coverage of the inaugural event. The headlines read: “Parade of Jubilant Workingmen in All the Trade Centers of the Civilized World” and “Everywhere the Workmen Join in Demands for a Normal Day.” May Day soon became established in Europe as the Workers’ Festival. It remained so even after workers gained the 8-hour day.

Back in America

In the United States, four years after the execution of the Haymarket Martyrs, the then-governor of Illinois, John Altgeld, pardoned the remaining radicals. He firmly declared the whole matter had been one of injustice upon injustice. He made it completely clear that this was a pardon resulting from the railroading of innocent men through: “hysteria, packed juries and a biased judge.”

American workers once again chose this day as a means of protesting their situation and stating their demands. The words Spies had spoken upon hearing his sentence, now resonated. He said:

If you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labour movement – the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in want and misery — the wage slaves – expect salvation – if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand.

Today, if you visit Forest Park, Illinois, you can see a monument to the Haymarket Martyrs. Erected in 1893, it pays tribute to the workers unjustly convicted and buried there. A statue to the police officers who died during the riot was dedicated four years earlier. A more recent statue by Mary Brodder has also been erected in Chicago.

May Day in Canada

In Montreal, Quebec, the Socialists set the standards for the first May Day in Canada. Waving red flags and chanting slogans, they paraded down streets before heading off to rented halls to listen to speeches. This became the established pattern. In cities such as Glace Bay, Montreal, Timmins, Toronto, Hamilton, St. Catharine’s, Edmonton, Sudbury and Fort William/Port Arthur, workers marched in May Day processions. Some lower-key events in smaller communities occurred in town halls, but Canadian workers continued to embrace this day over the government-legislated Labour Day.

The parades and protests continued through the 1920s, through World War I and into the 1930s. The RCMP kept an eye on certain dissidents during this time.  In Guelph, Loren Cunningham was on their list. They noted his name and the holding of a May Day event in Guelph in 1935.

By 1935, the event had become more inclusive and increasingly accepted. Even veterans, children and women joined in to swell the ranks of Communist and Socialist groups. In Guelph – home to the founding of the Communist Party of Canada, the local newspaper, The Guelph Mercury, wrote about this event stating:

Radicals of Guelph celebrated May Day about as quietly as possible, and while a “demonstration” was held in the afternoon, and a public meeting in the evening, both were conducted with decorum and a complete absence of any disorder.

After the advent of WW II, and the banning of the Communist Party in 1940, this more tolerant viewpoint changed.  It was only after the Red Scare and heightened fears of the Red Menace died down that the practice reappeared. Since then, many labour unions and organizations take time off to reflect on International Workers’ Day. 


AK Press (April 24, 2009). “May Day and the Haymarket Martyrs.”

Anarchy Archives (1995- ):  

Avrich, Paul (1984). The Haymarket Tragedy.  Princeton University Press, 1984

Brecher, Jeremy (1997). Strike!: Revised and Updated Edition. Boston. South End Press

Chase, Eric (1993). “The Brief Origins of May Day.”

David, Henry (1936). The History of the Haymarket Affair.  Farrar & Rinehart

Haymarket Parade 1886 image

Heron, Craig and Steve Penfold (2005). The Workers’ Festival: A History Of Labour Day In Canada. University of Toronto Press.

Linder, Professor Douglas O. (1997 – ). “The Haymarket Riot and Trial: An Account.”

Micheelsen, Karin (May 01, 2015). “International Workers’ Day – May Day.”

 Whitney, W.T. Jr. (?). “May Day and the Haymarket Martyrs.”

Leave a Reply