May Day Strike of 1886
On May 1, 1886, 350,000 workers staged a nationwide work stoppage to demand the adoption of a standard eight-hour workday. Forty thousand workers struck in Chicago, Illinois; ten thousand struck in New York; eleven thousand struck in Detroit, Michigan. As many as thirty-two thousand workers struck in Cincinnati, Ohio, although some of these workers had been out on strike for several months before May 1.
The purpose of the May Day Strike was to bring pressure on employers and state governments to create an eight-hour workday. During this period, workers commonly spent twelve or more hours of each day at work. Unions, especially the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada -- the predecessor of the American Federation of Labor, encouraged workers to strike on May 1, 1886, to demonstrate the need for an eight-hour day. The strike was to last a single day, although numerous workers remained away from their jobs for several weeks.
Not all unions condoned the May Day Strike. The Knights of Labor preferred peaceful negotiations and boycotts to secure better working conditions for employees. Terence Powderly, the leader of the Knights of Labor at this time, prohibited Knights of Labor members from participating. Despite Powderly's proclamation, thousands of his union's members struck on May 1. Numerous members of the Knights of Labor opposed the more peaceful tactics of Powderly.
The May Day Strike had some success. In Cincinnati, some employers, hoping to avoid the strike, granted their workers an eight-hour day. Other employers increased workers' pay. Throughout the late 1800s, May Day Strikes became commonplace. Very quickly similar strikes occurred around the world. The May Day Strikes helped convince United States President Grover Cleveland to implement Labor Day, a holiday that celebrates the American worker. Numerous countries still celebrate May Day today.
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