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May 1: General Strike, 1886

May 1, 2013

griffiths1Samuel Gompers, a Dutch Jewish cigarmaker newly elected as head of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (soon to become the American Federation of Labor), led a one-day general strike of more than 200,000 workers across the country to demand the eight-hour working day. The one-day strike sparked more and more strike actions until some 340,000 workers in 11,000 businesses were involved. Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Detroit, and other cities all saw labor rallies on May 1st. Three days later, during a rally against police brutality in Haymarket Square, Chicago, a bomb was thrown at police, leading to rioting and the conviction and hanging of four anarchists. In 1890, again on May 1st, the AFL selected one of its constituent unions, the Carpenters and Joiners, to conduct a nationwide strike. More than 23,000 carpenters in 36 cities won the eight-hour day. Under Gompers’ leadership, May Day became a strike day well into the 20th century.

“The man who has his millions will want everything he can lay his hands on and then raise his voice against the poor devil who wants ten cents more a day.”—Samuel Gompers