I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.
Eugene V. Debs, to the court after his conviction
The happy idea of using a proletarian holiday celebration as a means to attain the eight-hour day was first born in Australia. The workers there decided in 1856 to organize a day of complete stoppage together with meetings and entertainment as a demonstration in favor of the eight-hour day. The day of this celebration was to be April 21. At first, the Australian workers intended this only for the year 1856. But this first celebration had such a strong effect on the proletarian masses of Australia, enlivening them and leading to new agitation, that it was decided to repeat the celebration every year.
The first to follow the example of the Australian workers were the Americans. In 1886 they decided that May 1 should be the day of universal work stoppage. On this day 200,000 of them left their work and demanded the eight-hour day. Later, police and legal harassment prevented the workers for many years from repeating this [size] demonstration. However in 1888 they renewed their decision and decided that the next celebration would be May 1, 1890.
The celebration grew from the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago. William Adelman wrote:
To understand what happened at Haymarket, it is necessary to go back to the summer of 1884 when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, the predecessor of the American Federation of Labor, called for May 1, 1886 to be the beginning of a nationwide movement for the eight-hour day. This wasn’t a particularly radical idea since both Illinois workers and federal employees were supposed to have been covered by an eight-hour day law since 1867.
Saturday, 1 May 1886 saw a reported 80,000 workers march up Michigan Avenue in Chicago, arm-in-arm, carrying union banners. On Sunday, another peaceful march of 35,000 workers took place. On Monday Chicago police attacked and killed picketing workers at the McCormick Reaper Plant and this provoked a protest meeting planned for Haymarket Square on the evening 4 May. Carter Harrison, a pro-labor mayor of Chicago, gave permission for the meeting.
Far fewer than the anticipated crowd showed to demonstrate. The meeting was almost over when about 175 police attempted to disperse a peaceful public assembly of about 200 people. An unidentified person threw a bomb at the police, who reacted by firing on the workers, killing four demonstrators. According to Adelman,
The police panicked, and in the darkness many shot at their own men. Eventually, seven policemen died, only one directly accountable to the bomb.
The federal holiday in the United States was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland six days after the end of the 1894 Pullman Strike (30 states already celebrated the day). The September date was selected rather than the more widespread International Workers’ Day because President Cleveland was concerned that 1 May would be associated with the nascent Communist, Syndicalist and Anarchist movements that memorialized the Haymarket Affair.