The Stand

May Day: A time to celebrate labor’s achievements

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By Conor Casey
Labor Archives of Washington State


May 1 is International Labor Day, which celebrates the achievements of the labor movement around the world. International Labor Day may span the globe, but it has American roots. Since 1898, this day has commemorated the struggle of workers to gain the eight-hour day.

The day was picked to commemorate events that followed the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, Illinois, in 1886.  May 1 of that year marked the start of a three-day nationwide general strike in support of the eight-hour day.  Two days later in Chicago, police killed three striking employees of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company.  The tense situation escalated after a bomb exploded at a peaceful rally in Haymarket Square on May 4, prompting police to attack the crowd of protestors. By the end of the day, at least 12 people, including seven police officers, lay dead.

In the ensuing “trial” was one of the most notorious in American history. The jury was made up of business leaders and the Chicago Tribune offered to pay the jury money if it found the eight defendants guilty — five of whom were not present when the explosion took place. Ultimately, seven labor leaders were sentenced to hang for the bombing with no real evidence, while another committed suicide before his execution.

It is appropriate, then, that on May Day we recall the long list of achievements gained by struggle and sacrifice by the Labor Movement to improve working and living conditions for all workers.  Basic rights that many workers take for granted today such as the 8-hour workday, overtime pay, and weekends were gained through workers organizing and demanding rights, sometimes at the cost of their own lives.

Washington state’s history is intertwined with labor history. Washington has long been one of the most unionized states in the nation, and today Washington continues to rank as the fourth most unionized state in the country.  The labor movement in Washington state has a history of significant achievements as well.

For example:

  • In 1911, Washington became the first state to pass compulsory Workmen’s Compensation legislation that was upheld in the courts. (Some states preceded it, but had their laws declared unconstitutional.)
  • In 1919, Seattle was the site of the nation’s first city-wide General Strike.
  • In 1937, Washington set a national precedent by creating the first-ever minimum wage for teachers and state employees. A year later, Congress approved the Fair Labor Standards Act, creating the national minimum wage and the 40-hour week.
  • In 1998, labor led the charge yet again to make Washington the first state to automatically adjust its minimum wage for inflation. Since that time, several states have followed our lead.

The Labor Archives of Washington State (LAWS) was founded to ensure that Washington state’s regional labor heritage is preserved and that current and future generations understand the struggles and accomplishments of organized labor and working people. Funded by the labor movement, the archives serves as a center for historical research, ensuring that new generations understand the importance and history of the labor movement and working people in the past and their importance to the future of our state and nation.

So as we celebrate May Day 2011, let’s remember and honor the important achievements of workers who fought collectively — and, in some cases, paid the ultimate price — so that we can enjoy many things we take for granted. Like the weekend.


Labor Archivist Conor Casey wants to hear from you! In addition to organizing, preserving and promoting existing labor collections, it is his mission  to work with local unions to gather more material and to teach them about how to keep and preserve their own union records. Reach Conor via email: cmcasey@uw.edu — phone: 206.685.3976 — or visit the LAWS website for more information.

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