Why May Day is an international workers' holiday — and how it began in Chicago

Today is May 1, May Day, a workers' holiday in most nations, although not the U.S.

The holiday has its origins in Chicago, as a commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Affair.

On May 4, 1886, a bomb was thrown during a Chicago labor rally in which eight police officers and at least four civilians were killed.

Authorities quickly rounded up eight radicals, four of whom were hanged. One committed suicide before he could be executed. Death sentences for two others were commuted and one was sentenced to prison. The three surviving Haymarket defendants subsequently were pardoned by Illinois Gov. John Altgeld, who concluded they were all innocent.

Three days before the bombing, on May 1, 1886, tens of thousands had marched on Michigan Avenue in a campaign to reduce the customary 10- or 12-hour workday to eight hours. In the wake of the Haymarket executions, the anniversary of that march became known as May Day.

Though the U.S. honors workers in September — with Labor Day, which also has Chicago roots — the May 1886 events are commemorated in Chicago by a memorial on Desplaines Street, north of Randolph Street: A bronze statue of a wagon that served as a speakers' platform during the labor meeting.

tbriscoe@chicagotribune.com

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