May 1st is International Workers’ Day, a celebration of worker’s rights and the struggle for equality and labor justice. Known also as May Day, the celebration also includes a recognition of immigrant rights and worker solidarity across borders.
Now we’re going to take a moment to explore the history of International Worker’s Day, starting in the late eighteen hundreds. At this time in the US, working conditions were severe and dangerous. It was common to work ten to sixteen-hour days in unsafe conditions. Death and injury were commonplace. Books such books as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Jack London’s The Iron Heel were born. In the 1860’s, working people agitated to shorten the workday without a cut in pay. Finally in the late 1880’s, organized labor was strong enough to declare the 8-hour workday without consent of employers.
Workers had seen first-hand that Capitalism benefited only their bosses, trading workers’ lives for profit. Thousands each year were dying needlessly. In some industries, life expectancy was as low as early twenties. A variety of socialist organizations sprung up. In fact, many socialists were elected into governmental office. But many of these socialists were ham-strung by the political process which was so evidently controlled by big business and the bi-partisan political machine. Tens of thousands of socialists broke ranks from their parties, realizing the entire political process was seen as nothing more than protection for the wealthy. They created anarchist groups throughout the country. Literally thousands of working people embraced the ideals of anarchism, which sought to put an end to all hierarchical structures (including government), emphasized worker controlled industry, and valued direct action over the bureaucratic political process.
At its national convention in Chicago, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) proclaimed that QUOTE: ‘eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” UNQUOTE. The following year, they announced that this proclamation would be supported by strikes and demonstrations. At first, most radicals and anarchists regarded this demand as too reformist, failing to strike “at the root of the evil.” Samuel Fielden pointed out in the anarchist newspaper, The Alarm, that QUOTE: “whether a man works eight hours a day or ten hours a day, he is still a slave.” UNQUOTE.
A quarter million workers in the Chicago area became directly involved in the crusade to implement the eight hour work day. Businesses and the state were terrified by the increasingly revolutionary character of the movement and prepared accordingly. The police and militia were increased in size and received new and powerful weapons financed by local business leaders. Chicago’s Commercial Club purchased a powerful machine gun for the Illinois National Guard to be used against strikers. By May 1st, the movement had already won gains for many Chicago workers. But on May 3, 1886, police fired into a crowd of strikers at the McCormick Reaper Works Factory, killing four and wounding many. Anarchists called for a mass meeting the next day in Haymarket Square to protest the brutality.
The meeting proceeded without incident, and by the time the last speaker was on the platform, only a few hundred people remained. It was then that 180 cops marched into the square and ordered the meeting to disperse. As the speakers climbed down from the platform, a bomb was thrown at the police, killing one and injuring seventy. Police responded by firing into the crowd, killing one worker and injuring many others.
Although it was never determined who threw the bomb, the incident was used as an excuse to attack the entire Left and labor movement. Police ransacked the homes and offices of suspected radicals. Hundreds were arrested without charge. Anarchists in particular were harassed, and eight of Chicago’s most active were charged with conspiracy to murder in connection with the Haymarket bombing. A kangaroo court found all eight guilty, despite a lack of evidence.
It is not surprising that the state, business leaders, mainstream union officials, and the media would want to hide the true history of May Day. In its attempt to erase the history and significance of May Day, the United States government declared May 1st to be “Law Day”, and gave us instead Labor Day – a holiday devoid of any historical significance.
Rather than suppressing labor and radical movements, the events of 1886 and the execution of the Chicago anarchists actually mobilized many generations of radicals. Emma Goldman, a young immigrant at the time, later pointed to the Haymarket affair as her political birth. Lucy Parsons, widow of Albert Parsons, called upon the poor to direct their anger toward those responsible – the rich. Instead of disappearing, the anarchist movement only grew, spawning other radical movements and organizations, including the Industrial Workers of the World.
MUSIC BREAK Woody Guthrie – Union Burying Ground- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuzbX6pfY-c