May Day, the 8-Hour Work Day and Immigrant Rights

8 HoursLet’s talk about May Day.  And I don’t mean May Day and its Beltane-related history, while interesting isn’t what I’m thinking of today.  Or May Day and its relationship to a request for help or assistance.  The May Day I’m more interested in is the more recent history relating to working conditions and the 8-hour workday is where my thoughts are today. In the United States, we celebrate the contributions of worker on the first Monday in September – Labor Day.  However for the rest of the world, International Workers’ Day or May Day is May 1.  So…where did it come from?

Towards the latter half of the 19th century, there began to be a significant push, in the form of marches and rallies, from worker groups and organizations for an 8-hour work day.  At the time, working conditions were quite severe with significant injuries and deaths.  Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” gives a good picture of how terrible it was in the large factories and mills, and the unsafe conditions.  It was also common at the time to work anywhere from 10 to 16 hours a day, 6 days a week. 

Most of the May Day marches were reatively peaceful but as time passed there grew increased opposition from the police, government and employers.  This was particularly prevalent in the cities. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, declared “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886” setting up an iminent clash between workers and employers. On May 1, 1886 more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs.

Chicago had one of the largest marches with more than 40,000 people striking (initially, some reports say that the numbers swelled to almost double that over the next few days). That day (May 1) there was trouble at McCormick’s Reaper Plant where workers had been locked out for their demands and then were attacked by the police.  Three days later in a follow-up rally in support of those workers, there was a clash in Haymarket Square with police firing on the crowd, bringing the world’s attention (and support) to the struggle for the 8-hour work day.

This story should have a happy ending, and it does.  But it didn’t come until 1938 and the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA ensured our now familiar 8-hour work day, outlawed child labor and established both minimum pay and overtime pay. 700,000 workers were affected by the FLSA, and it was one of the factors that contributed to the end of the Great Depression. 

In the years between, there were marches and rallys  but following the turn of the century and the decades that followed, May Day fell victim to anti-Communist hysteria and the Cold War.  As stated by Beatrice Lumpkin, “only a few people in the USA renained aware of the May Day tradition. That changed on May 1, 2007. On that day, millions of immigrants brought May Day back to the United States. The immigrants marched for their rights on May 1st in 2007 and 2008. In a way, that is a poetic restoration of our history. In 1886, most of the fighters for the 8-Hour Day were immigrants, too.

Beatrice also quotes an old Labor song called, “Eight Hours”, which was a rallying cry and clearly the inspiration for the image at the top of this post, with lyrics like:

We mean to make things over, we are tired of toil for naught,
With but bare enough to live upon, and never an hour for thought,
We want to feel the sunshine, and we want to smell the flowers,
We are sure that God has will’d it, and we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces from shipyard, shop and mill,
Eight hours for work, eight hour for rest, eight hours for what we will!
Eight hours for work, eight hour for rest, eight hours for what we will!

I actually managed to find the song itself and you can listen to it here:


More information can be found at: 

May Day and the 8-Hour Day –

The Fair Labor Standards Act –

The Brief Origins of May Day –

Labor Notes (Songs of the Labor Movement) –

  2 comments for “May Day, the 8-Hour Work Day and Immigrant Rights

  1. May 2, 2012 at 7:29 am

    where did you find the picture?

  2. Day
    May 19, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    My apologies, it looks like the link didn’t go through. You can get it from here:

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