The Jewish History of May Day and Labor Activism


May Day might conjure images of flower garlands and maypoles as a traditional European spring festival, but the May 1 holiday is also a celebration of workers’ rights. 

Jewish women shirtwaist strikers hold copies of the socialist ‘The Call’ in 1910.                                          Photo courtesy of the Kheel Center, Cornell University Library is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Kate Rosenblatt, a fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a professor of religion and Jewish Studies at Emory University, said the workers’ holiday of May Day was created during the 1880s when American trade unionists took up the cause of the eight-hour workday.

“They were responding to the realities of a brutal labor situation in which people — by which I mean men, women and also children because this is a period before regulations on child labor — were working crazy hours, 12, 14, 16 hours a day or more,” Rosenblatt said.

On May 1, 1886, unions in Chicago called for a general strike to demand an eight-hour workday, and workers across the country walked out of their jobs. In Chicago, the protest and accompanying parade were largely peaceful, but another strike on May 4 led to a violent crackdown on protesters by police and culminated in a bomb being thrown into a crowd. The incident became known as the Haymarket Affair. 

In 1889, labor organizers decided to observe a worker’s holiday on May 1 in honor of the national strike and the workers who were injured or killed during the Haymarket Affair. May Day gained a second moniker, International Workers’ Day, and became a rallying point for labor activists for years to come. 

Many Jews, especially poor immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe, became involved in unions and labor organizing in the late 19th and early 20th century. They were overrepresented in the garment industry and worked in factories with dangerous, exploitative working conditions and starvation wages. 

Rosenblatt said Jews participated in famous strikes in 1909, when thousands of Jewish women garment workers in New York and Philadelphia walked out of their jobs to protest dangerous working conditions and low pay, and in 1911, when workers responded to the deadly fire that killed 146 young women — many of them Jewish — at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York because they were locked in the building with no fire escapes. 

Jews across the country joined unions like the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union to advocate for greater protections. 

Rosenblatt added that in the 1920s, members of the ACWU, including many Jews, established a bank to provide credit and loans to workers and built thousands of cooperative housing units in New York City to provide them with decent living conditions. By World War II, union members began looking at labor rights as a holistic vision of quality of life for the working class, including natural light, green space, plumbing and sanitation. 

Although May Day as a workers’ holiday originated in the United States, the celebration and the workers’ movement it represented were also widely popular in the Soviet Union, which consequently led to popularity among Soviet Jews and Israelis during the 20th century. 

Armin Rosen, a staff writer for Tablet, wrote in his 2017 article “When May Day Was a Major Event in Israel” that while the USSR eventually became one of Israel’s enemies, there was initially no tension between left-wing politics and Jewish nationalism. Many members of Israel’s communist kibbutzim were raised to admire the USSR and the tenets of communism.

“The ties went deeper than any political alliance: For many, Zionism was an avowedly secular pro-labor movement with the same utopian aims as Communism itself,” Rosen wrote.

The holiday was also popular among mainstream Israeli labor unions that were not aligned with communism, but it began to fall out of favor as tensions rose between Israel and the USSR and Israeli politics shifted to the right. 

In the present day, popular Jewish observance of May Day has waned, but Jewish labor leaders view the holiday as an opportunity to focus on the labor fights of the modern era, particularly in response to the dangers workers have faced during the pandemic. 

Michael Hersch, director of the Philadelphia Jewish Labor Committee, cited the fights for paid sick leave, raising the minimum wage and a return to collective bargaining as contemporary versions of the eight-hour workday campaign. 

“You’ve heard workers lauded as heroes in this country,” Hersch said of the response to essential workers like grocery store employees and nurses during the last year. “Calling someone a hero is great, but how about paying them? The hope is that you’ll see workers rewarded with a different level of compensation and appreciation, not just being called a hero.”

The national JLC did not host a May Day celebration this year, opting instead to commemorate Workers Memorial Day, which is observed on April 28 to honor the victims of workplace injury and illness, in light of the pandemic. The organization held a virtual event on April 29 to mark the occasion as well as the 50th anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. 


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