Back in the old days, May Day was celebrated with flowers, blue skies, and children in white frocks twirling around a Maypole. These days, though, you’re more likely to find a protest than a picnic, because the date has become synonymous with the labor rights movement.
Here’s why: As Time explained in 1929, it all started on May Day 1886, “when some 200,000 U.S. workmen engineered a nationwide strike for an eight-hour day.” At the time, it was common for workers to spend 10 to 16 hours a day toiling in unsafe conditions, where death and injury were commonplace, according to Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW. (If you want to know more about how and why the labor movement got started, check out Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Jack London’s The Iron Heel.)
Labor leaders decided that the best way to force change was to go on strike, and they chose May 1, 1886, as the date of the start of the action that would eventually be known as the Haymarket affair. The protests were nationwide, with more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the country walking out on their jobs, according to IWW. In Chicago alone, nearly 100,000 workers took to the streets for several days of peaceful action. On May 3, a strike at the McCormick Reaper plant in the city turned violent.
Later, what was meant to be a a peaceful meeting at Haymarket Square became even more violent when police came to break up a crowd of protestors and a bomb went off in the police ranks. The bomb killed seven policemen and wounded 60 more. Police then opened fire on the crowd, killing several men and wounding 200, Time reported.
In 1889, the International Socialist Conference declared that, in commemoration of the Haymarket affair, May 1 would be an international holiday for labor. Now known in many places as International Workers’ Day, it is commemorated with protests and calls to actions in cities around the world. But picnics are allowed, too.