The story of May Day dates back hundreds of years, with two very different holidays celebrated on the same day.

The first was derived by the British to honor the halfway point of the year between the darkness of winter and light of summer. This included a dance called the Maypole in which people would parade around a pole adorned with ribbons. Often viewed as a fertility ceremony concurrent with the advent of spring, it’s a tradition that never quite took root in the US due to the puritanical nature of the colonizers (as some considered it a pagan ritual).  

The second May Day, however, did come to the US, debuting in 1886. Organized by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (better known today as the American Federation of Labor), it has since been renamed International Workers’ Day (better known as Labor Day) and serves as a symbolic day for workers around the world. Some of its first protests demanded an 8 hour work day in a time when scores of men, women, and children were dying from long hours and hazardous working conditions after the Industrial Revolution. Protests expanded from Chicago and New York and, on May 4th, 1886, an explosion at Chicago’s Haymarket Square took the lives of four civilians and seven police officers after police killed eight workers the day before. This explosion literally changed the course of the world for the proletariat.

A few years later, in 1889, an international group of socialists and labor unionists who called themselves the Second International met in Paris and marked May 1st as the official May Day to honor those who had lost their lives fighting for workers’ rights at Haymarket.

Today, various countries around the world also recognize May Day as Labor Day — particularly strong in western Europe and Asia, although the US has continued to distance themselves from its origins.

Grover Cleveland, the US President at the time of the Haymarket Riots, was concerned that commemorating Labor Day on the anniversary of the Riots would strengthen the anarchist and socialist movements taking hold in the country, so the US officially proclaimed Labor Day to be a September holiday, instead.

100 years later, workers are still protesting around the globe. This year saw scores of workers protest from New York City to Indonesia to France. Google employees in New York City walked out demanding the company properly manage the slew of sexual assault claims by workers. (Google offices around the globe were closed for May Day, but not in the US.)

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, garment workers took to the streets to demand fairer wages, paid maternity leave, and safer working conditions. (Paid maternity leave is written into the laws there, but no one asks for it fearing retaliation.)

Protesters in Seoul Korea demanded better working conditions for migrant workers with slogans on paper plates adorned to their bodies stating in English “We are Workers” and “Not Slave.” Wearing all black with white gauze eerily wrapping their eyes they evoked images of death.

In Manilla, things turned violent as protestors burned an effigy of President Rodrigo Duterte while demanding a raise to the minimum wage and other fair practice commitments from employers.

Recent protests in Paris saw over 7,000 officers on hand (more than triple last year’s force), mainly due to the rise in demonstrations across the country beginning last November. Called the Yellow Vests Movement, it represents a grassroots populist sector that demands lower gasoline taxes, a minimum wage increase, wealth tax, and the resignation of the president Emmanuel Macron.

The French are known worldwide for their powerful and effective protesting (hello, French Revolution!), and the Yellow Vests Movement is an excellent modern example of that spirit. The protests held every weekend since December 2018 have seen their share of violence. In fact, over 1,800 protestors have been injured with police using rubber bullets, dispersion grenades, and excessive force that has left hundreds of people without vision or limbs.

The May Day protest numbers in Paris were in the tens of thousands with another 130,000 nationwide. Clashes with police included tear gas and 38 injured civilians with the arrests of 380 people in Paris alone. Protests also turned violent in Italy, Turkey, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark.

While the International Workers’ Day brings millions of mostly peaceful workers out to demand better working conditions, it may just emulate the original May Day in releasing the darkness of oppression and demanding the light of equity and fair labor practices.

Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues.  

In Your Inbox