← Back

May Day Past and Present

Activists in Union Square, May 1, 2012.
Activists in Union Square, May 1, 2012.

Those following May Day protests today might be interested in learning about the day’s long roots in labor history, going back to 1886.

May 1, 1886 was selected by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions at a conference in 1884 as a target deadline for labor unions to achieve a standard 8-hour work day.  A labor demonstration that turned bloody for both the strikers and the police in Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 4, 1886 solidified May Day’s place in history. Although May Day is not an official holiday in the United States, it is recognized around the world as International Worker’s Day, and many groups have assembled on May 1 since.

May 1, 1913, Union Square.
May 1, 1913, Union Square.

Union Square has long been a place of assembly for gatherings, strikes, and protests, particularly by the labor movement. As the labor movement gained momentum during the early 20th Century and through the Great Depression, Union Square was the scene of May Day rallies demanding better pay and working conditions.

May Day was formalized as an international holiday in 1891 in Paris. The United States does officially celebrate workers on Labor Day every September, a day picked in some part because of its distance from May 1 and the Haymarket Square strike. Particularly during the 1910s-1930s, communists and socialists in the United States took part in strikes and rallies on May 1, lending it a more radical outlook than some in the labor unions and the government cared for. In fact, the Veterans of Foreign War and other groups opposed to communism began to celebrate May 1 as Americanization Day following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In 1958, perhaps as a by-product of the Red Scare, Congress officially declared May 1 a holiday named Loyalty Day.  But as last year’s May Day events showed, the day has not been forgotten by worker’s rights advocates.

1934 Strike in Union Square
1934 Strike in Union Square. Photo via the New York Public Library.

Today, there are a number of gatherings planned for Union Square, including a rally for immigrant and worker rights. Want to celebrate the day by learning more about the labor activists in Village history? Check out these former Off the Grid posts about Justus Schwab, Emma Goldman, and sites associated with labor history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *