As far as Sam Gompers was concerned, strikes and demonstrations on May 1st were designed to push labor's demand for eight hours. However by the 1890s more radical workers had a different goal in mind. From their point of view, the class solidarity celebrated in May Day parades demonstrated the labor movement's revolutionary potential. When workers carried red and black banners alongside American flags in May Day parades, and cheered socialist and anarchist speakers who called for economic and political self-rule, they seemed to represent a move towards a new economic and political order.

The American Federation of Labor had spread the idea of May 1st strikes among North American and European workers, but mainstream unionists in the United States never celebrated May Day as a holiday. However more radical unionists thought that they should. Although the debate that ensued did not change many minds, it did capture the diverse voices that shaped the labor movement.