Police wearing gas masks first broke up a crowd that had gathered in front of a labour union office with the intention of walking to Taksim square, where at least 34 demonstrators were killed on May 1, 1977.
The workers then ran into the building and police blockaded it, preventing them from leaving.
The trade unions later abandoned plans to hold the march, the first time in 30 years they have agreed not to go into the square.
Metehan Demir, from the Ankara-based Hurriyet newspaper, told Al Jazeera that the May Day demonstrations this year had turned into a “showdown” between the government and the labour unions over the last week.
The unions ultimately decided not to go into Taksim Square on Thursday morning because of “tough measures” by the police, he said.
“Earlier this month the unions were fully determined to walk to Taskim Square but later on, through the judiciary and police warnings they saw that the situation was very serious.”
Demir said the authorities had allowed the unions to demonstrate at other public squares.
He said that they had also offered trade union leaders the chance to “lay a wreath at the monuments in Taksin Square – but unions rejected this offer, saying they wanted to bring the workers along too”.
The demonstrations were relatively peaceful this year because of the decision not to march into the square, Demir told Al Jazeera.
“If the unions had gone in there would have been a big catastrophe. Police would have responded in a very harsh way and easily turned it into a tragedy,” he said.
Turkish officials have said that they had intelligence that groups of extremists would also seek to provoke unrest during the march.
Turkey’s Anatolia news agency reported that a man in possession of 17 molotov cocktails was arrested near Taksim.
|The May Day protests have turned into a “showdown between labour unions and the government”
Metehan Demir, Hurriyet newspaper
The first of May is marked annually in many countries as a day of labour recognition.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based rights group, used the day to call on Lebanese authorities and employers to improve treatment of domestic workers.
HRW’s Nadim Houry said: “On the eve of Lebanese Labour Day, we would like to highlight a huge segment of labourers who are not recognised as such.
“They are domestic workers, almost a 100 per cent of whom are foreigners.”
Workers and activists in the Philippines on Thursday called for a wage increase amid soaring food prices.
While in Greece, disruptions to public transport services and domestic flights were expected due to trade union strikes.
Thousands of people were expected to turn out in Havana to hear Raul Castro, Cuba’s president, give his first May Day address.
Overnight, police in the German city of Hamburg arrested several rioters after pre-May Day street protests turned violent.