May Day past and present: Why the world marches on May 1

rom the Haymarket Square bombing to the Occupy Wall Street movement, May Day is the most celebrated holiday you've never heard of.

On May 1, in cities in towns around the world, demonstrators will take to the streets in some cases, by the tens of thousands to voice their opinions on everything from factory working conditions and minimum-wage laws to financial regulations and immigration reform. May Day, or International Workers Day, has become an event rivaled only by Christmas in terms of its international participation. It also has become controversial thanks to scattered incidents of violence and vandalism that have marred some demonstrations.

Despite its roots in the United States, many Americans don't know what the day means. Here we take a look at the roots of May Day and what it has come to represent in the 21st century.

Bloodshed in Haymarket Square

It should be said that before May Day was associated with organized labor, it was an ancient springtime holiday that involved ribboned "may poles," flower blossoms and a lot of dancing. The modern May Day has nothing to do with that. In fact, the day's origins involve bombs, guns and executions not flowers and dance moves.

James Green is a professor of history and labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of "Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America," which chronicles the deadly events in Chicago that led to May Day as it's now known. Speaking to MSN News, Green said the day remembers a tragedy but also celebrates the future of working-class people.

"These were the pioneers who created the largest mass movement the world has ever seen to create the eight-hour day," Green says. "They didn't succeed right away, but throughout the 20th century the work kept on until it was achieved in many places."

As Green's book lays out, May Day as a worldwide labor rally happened in the years after the so-called Haymarket Affair. In Chicago in 1886, a group of largely immigrant factory workers staged a rally to demand an eight-hour work day. As the group squared off with police, an unknown person is said to have thrown a bomb at police officers. The explosion and return of fire by police claimed the lives of seven officers and at least four civilians, and eventually, to the trials and convictions of eight men four of whom were later hanged.

The Haymarket Affair weighed heavily on the minds of a group of socialist and labor parties that met in Paris in 1889 to kick off a global campaign for an eight-hour workday. The group called the Second International declared May 1 International Workers Day and called for worldwide protests to demand a standard workday and an increase in pay. Since then, May Day has become a national holiday in more than 80 countries and inspires marches and celebrations in many more.

May Day protest in Seattle: A police officer uses mace on a protester in front of an American Apparel Inc. store during an Occupy Seattle May Day rally and anti-capitalist march in Seattle on May 1, 2012.Bloomberg via Getty Images: Stuart Isett

Vandalism brings police presence

While the overwhelming majority of May Day marchers are peaceful, many events have attracted those more interested in vandalizing property and fighting police than expressing constitutionally protected views. Most recently, in 2012, so-called Black Bloc anarchists caused thousands of dollars in damage to local stores in downtown Seattle, as well as a U.S. District courthouse, all while local news cameras rolled and police tried to intervene. In that case, the FBI arrested several people who also had been targeted in an ongoing undercover operation.

According to criminal justice professor and retired U.S. Secret Service agent Mike Roche, May Day, like other large protests, is something officers train for, though it presents particular law-enforcement challenges.

"Police departments are cognizant of civil liberties and the freedom our country enjoys. At the same time, our open society provides opportunity for nefarious activities of those that want to cause damage or hurt people," Roche said. "So it is a huge challenge to try and tip-toe that line between protecting people's rights and protecting the community."

Roche said the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon likely will be a "game changer" for such large public events as protests and marches, and that May Day this year could come under a new level of scrutiny as police look to screen potential terrorists.

Occupy protests on May Day: A protester shows his displeasure with the bailouts given banks during the May Day protest in Miami on May 1, 2012.AP Photo: J Pat Carter

Occupy and labor march together

The Occupy Wall Street movement has brought some of the newest, youngest and most passionate supporters to the May Day crowds in the United States. Meanwhile, labor unions such as the AFL-CIO have supported the Occupy movement with money, and union President Richard Trumka has spoken out publicly for the group in the past. This year, the two camps will be teaming up once again to swell the ranks of May Day demonstrators in several major cities.

Occupy activist Cecily McMillan tells MSN News that fusing her movement with organized labor is a "natural fit."

"Labor has stuck with us during critical parts of the Occupy movement," McMillan said. "It's a natural relationship, and I think a lot of what we're talking about, like corporate personhood, equal rights for all, merging society with changing demographics, is the same. We have to have organized labor to have jobs."

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May Day throughout history



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