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What is May Day?

Workers and Employers and May Day



How should people balance their lives between work, tending to their responsibilities (for themselves, for their families, and for their communities), and sleep?  The answer that workers all over the world agreed on in the late 1800s gave each equal weight: eight hours of work, eight hours for our familial and civic responsibilities, and eight hours for sleep.

But this is not how it was.   The working day extended from sunrise to sunset.  In 1884, the convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (it would change its name to the AFL in 1886) resolved that unless Congress passed an eight-hour day law by May 1, 1886, the Federation would call for a general strike.[1] Congress did not pass the eight-hour law, and strikes and rallies occurred in many towns, including in Chicago, where some 80,000 workers marched in protest.[2]

The eight-hour workday was only one of the workers’ struggles at the time. In February 1886 the molders of the McCormick tractor factory were out on strike for higher pay,[3] and on May 3rd, just two days after the general rally and strike for the eight-hour day, two McCormick strikers who were challenging strike-breakers were killed by the police.[4]  A protest against this police brutality took place in Chicago’s Haymarket on May 4; when the police attacked this rally as well, a bomb went off among the policemen, one of whom was killed.[5]

To this day who planted the bomb remains unknown.  But seven labor leaders — Albert Parsons, August Spies, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, Louis Lingg, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer — were sentenced to death, not because they were involved in the bombing but because they supposedly  “aided abetted and encouraged” the unknown bomber. Four of the seven were hung; the sentences of two were commuted to life in prison; and one committed suicide.  Workers the world over were enraged by the defeat of the struggle for the eight-hour day and the hangings of the Chicago labor leaders and ever since they commemorate the struggle on May 1st. In honor of the spilled blood of the workers they carry red flags.


The workers’ resistance was put down by the police and after May Day 1886 what employers sought was a way to eliminate resistance before it even started.  One obvious solution would have been to improve working conditions; but this solution did not interest them.  What they wanted instead was to convince workers that they had no reason to protest — not because their working conditions were good, but because they were fair. In 1899, John Bates Clark, a professor of economics at Columbia University, explained the challenge that employers faced:

The indictment that hangs over society is that of “exploiting labor.” “Workmen” it is said, “are regularly robbed of what they produce. This is done within the forms of law, and by the natural working of competition.” If this charge were proved, every right-minded man should become a socialist; and his zeal in transforming the industrial system would then measure and express his sense of justice.

Workers who worked from sunrise to sunset and made only a meager living knew that they were exploited; they experienced it first-hand. But Clark had another agenda.

If we are to test the charge, however, we must enter the realm of production. We must resolve the product of social industry into its component elements, in order to see whether the natural effect of competition is or is not to give to each producer the amount of wealth that he specifically brings into existence.[6]

The resolution that Clark himself invented was this:  in a market system, Clark claimed, every worker gets paid exactly the value of what she or he is worth.

The reception to his theory could not have been better.  Unlike the workers of the 1800s, many of today’s workers who are working hard and yet are unable to care for their families believe that the fault is theirs. They believe that the work they do is unworthy, either because it does not require higher education or because it does not require special

Truck driving does not require a high level education or a lengthy development of skills, yet no society can exist without truck-drivers.  But the median wage of tractor-trailer drivers who experience great stress on the job and are away from their families for extended periods of time is  $38,700. No society can exist without ambulance personnel and paramedics either, but their median wage is only $31,270.[7]  No society can exist without the work that fast food workers or supermarket workers do, yet those workers make $18,470.

Society as a whole is a team, as is every part of it. The contribution a person makes either to society as a whole or to a particular project cannot be measured by the education or skill an individual person has, nor by the job title he or she holds. No building can be built without electricians, but neither can it be built without a financier.  It cannot be built without carpenters and plumbers, but it also cannot be built without the real estate agents who will eventually rent or sell it to clients, or without the architects or the engineers.

When it comes to work, we are all members of the same global team. But when it comes to the distribution of the fruits of our common labor, we are being cheated out of our fair share.

On May Day 2014 we demand laws that govern the distribution of power and the distribution of pay in the workplace.  We demand worker participation in management and a maximum top to bottom pay ratio of eight to one, so that the highest paid manager earns no more than eight times the lowest paid employee.

Moshe Adler teaches economics at Columbia University and at the Harry Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies at Empire State College. He is the author of Economics for the Rest of Us: Debunking the Science That Makes Life Dismal (The New Press, 2010),  which is available in paperback and as  an e-book.


[1] Accessed April 27, 2014:


[2] Accessed April 27, 2014: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haymarket_affair#cite_ref-How_May_Day_Became_a_Workers_Holiday-resolution_18-0

[3] Timothy Messer-Kruse, “Strike or anarchist plot? The McCormick riot of 1886 reconsidered,” Labor History, Vol. 52, No. 4, November 2011, 483–510 (accessed April 27, 2014)


[4] Accessed April 27, 2014:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haymarket_affair#cite_ref-How_May_Day_Became_a_Workers_Holiday-resolution_18-0

[5] Accessed April 27, 2014:  http://flag.blackened.net/lpp/haymarket/haymarket_trajedy_cpl.html

[6]  John Bates Clark, “The Distribution of Wealth: A Theory of Wages, Interest and Profits,” New York: The Macmillan Company, 1899, chapter 1, (accessed May 26, 2009),


[7] Accessed April 27, 2014:  http://www.bls.gov/OES/current/oes_nat.htm