May 1st is a day of special significance for the labour movement.
It is a day of solidarity between workers of all nationalities.
A time to remember past struggles and demonstrate our hope for a better future.
A day to remember that an injury to one is an injury to all.
MAYDAY - A working class holiday.
It commemorates the historic struggle of working people throughout the world and is recognized in most countries. For those of us schooled here in the U.S. the holiday known as May Day has little or no significance in our lives. Despite the fact that the holiday began in 1886 in the USA in a battle for the eight-hour day.
Many Americans think it has something to do with the change of seasons and the ancient festivals, flower baskets and maypole dancing. There is another important meaning of May Day that is being quickly forgotten. May Day is International Workers Day. A time for working class people around the world to reflect on the struggles and accomplishments of workers, and to remember our martyrs.
May Day is an opportunity to plan for the time when we will no longer be forced to sell our lives to wage slavery, a time to renew solidarity and celebrate the working class.
May 1, 1886 saw national strikes in the United States and Canada. Several hundred thousand American workers marched into international labor history when they demonstrated for the 8 hour day. The roots of the holiday go back to 1884 when the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions passed a resolution declaring that as of May 1, 1886 eight hours would constitute a full and legal work day. With workers being forced to spend 12, 14 and sometimes 16 hrs a day on the job. By April 1886 the cause had the support of a quarter of a million workers and the second week of May saw 350,000 workers involved in a general strike for shorter hours. All across America, workers in their thousands were starting to struggle for a shorter week. Skilled and unskilled, men and women, black and white, immigrant and native were all fighting together. These workers, standing together were able to win the 8 hr work day, a right that many of us take for granted without realizing the very real and personal sacrifices which were made to secure it. The American ruling class saw its profits and power being undermined by united working class and met this threat with violence. On May 1st, in Chicago, half of the McCormick Harvester Co. came out on strike. On May 3rd, the workers listened to a speech by the anarchist August Spies, who had been asked to address the meeting by the Central Labour Union. While Spies was speaking, urging the workers to stand together and not retreat, police fired into the crowd, killing four and wounding many.
In response, workers held a peaceful mass meeting in Chicago's Haymarket Square the following night to protest the brutal murders. The meeting was peaceful and rain soon sent away most of the large crowd. When only 200 people remained, a police column of 180 men moved in and ordered the meeting to disperse immediately, even though, according to the Mayor of Chicago, "nothing looked likely to require police interference." At that moment a bomb was thrown into the ranks of the police killing one (Mathias Degan) and wounding several others. To this day, the subject is still one of controversy. The question remains whether the bomb was thrown by the workers at the police or whether one of the police's own agent provocateurs dropped it in their haste to retreat from charging workers. The police opened fired on the spectators killing and wounding many. A reign of terror swept over Chicago. Meeting halls, union offices, and private homes were invaded (usually without warrants) and many suspects were beaten. "Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards" was the public statement by J. Grinnell, the States Attorney. As the identity of the bomb thrower would never be known, the speakers at the meeting and its organizers were arrested instead. Grinnell made it clear, "Anarchy is on trial….these men have been selected." Whether the anarchist workers were guilty or innocent was irrelevant. They were agitators, formenting revolution and stirring up the working class, and they had to be taught a lesson. The "Chicago Eight " as they were called, all anarchists and active union organizers, stood trial for murder. The jury was made up of businessmen, their clerks and a relative of the dead policeman. No proof was offered by the state that any of the eight had anything to do with the bomb. Three had not even been at the meeting and another was there with his wife and children. A biased judge and jury, and a hysterical press ensured that all eight were found guilty. Their only crimes were their anarchist ideas, union activity and the threat these held for the ruling class. News of the trial electrified labor groups everywhere; protests were held around the world. George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parsons, and August Spies were hanged on Nov. 11, 1887. Known the world over as Black Friday by anarchists. From beneath his hood Spies spoke, "The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today." Half a million people lined up at the funeral and 20,000 crowded into the cemetery. Louis Lingg committed suicide using a dynamite cartridge which he placed in his mouth and lit the fuse while in prison. The other three: Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab and Samuel Fielden were finally pardoned by the governor in 1893. Evidence later came to light that the bomb had been thrown by a police agent working for Captain Bonfield, as part of a conspiracy involving certain steel bosses to discredit the labour movement.
The Haymarket Martyrs' Monument was erected in 1893 by the Pioneer Aid and Support Association, an organization begun by Lucy Parsons, Albert's widow. Every year on the Sunday closest to May 4th and the anniversary of Black Friday, Nov. 11th, labour organizations come to this monument to pay tribute to their heroes.
While the rest of the world celebrates May Day, in the United States we are expected to remember our accomplishments in September on Labor Day. Just as we believe in labour's future, so should we believe in May Day. May Day must again be a day to remember the past struggles of working class people and a day to show solidarity with present struggles. The future of the labour movement lies in reclaiming its hidden past.
Researched by Fran Poe
Aired on KKFI's Heartland Labor Forum, May 6, 1999