Yet again May Day quickly approaches. Since 2006 the immigrant rights marches- made up of millions of undocumented migrant workers along with their supporters, families and children- has brought back May 1st to its original roots in the US. But many are still unaware of its origins in US labor history and the impact this commemorative day still has internationally- such as you can still walk into neighborhoods in Mexico and find streets such as “Calle Los Mártires de Chicago” (Martyrs of Chicago Street).
Below is a short, pamphlet length piece I edited on the origins and radical history of May Day. For an in depth look you might try Paul Avrich’s classic “The Haymarket Tragedy” and AK Press offers a listing of books they carry on the subject here. -AW
What is May Day and why is it called International Workers Day?
May 1st, International Worker’s Day, commemorates the historic struggle of working people throughout the world, and is recognized in every country except the United States and Canada. This is despite the fact that the holiday began in the 1880’s in the United States, with the fight for an eight-hour work day led by immigrant workers. The recent historic marches and protests for immigrant rights, which began with “El Gran Paro Americano 2006,” have brought back into our memories May 1 as an important day of struggle. Although the history of the day has largely been forgotten in the United States, it is still actively remembered and celebrated today by workers, unionists and oppressed peoples all over the world. In fact you can still walk through neighborhoods in Mexico and find streets such as Calle Los Martires de Chicago in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, commemorating the leaders of the eight-hour day movement who were imprisoned and executed.
It is not surprising that the government, business leaders, mainstream union leaders, and the media would want to hide the true history of May Day, portraying it as a “communist” holiday celebrated only in the Soviet Union. 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 other than a three weekend holiday at the end of the summer.
The Story of the Eight-Hour Day Movement
In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions passed a resolution stating that eight hours would constitute a legal day’s work from and after May 1, 1886. The resolution called for a general strike (meaning a strike of all workers at all workplaces) to achieve the goal, since years of lobbying and legislative methods had already failed. With workers being forced to work ten, twelve, and fourteen hours a day, rank-and-file support for the eight-hour movement grew rapidly, despite the indifference and hostility of many union leaders. By April 1886, 250,000 workers across the US were involved in the May Day movement.
The heart of the movement was in Chicago, organized primarily by the anarchist International Working People’s Association which believed in using education and direct action to create a free and revolutionary society based on the end of capitalism, the end of inequality based on class, race and sex, and where working and oppressed peoples and communities were able participate and have a meaningful voice in society. Their movement was based in the working class immigrant communities of the city, mainly among Germans, and was centered around a vibrant radical community that included daily and weekly newspapers in several languages, cultural clubs, youth groups, choirs, sports teams and especially within labor unions.
Businesses and the government 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 $2000 machine gun for the Illinois National Guard to be used against strikers. Nevertheless, by May 1st, the movement had already won gains for many Chicago clothing cutters, shoemakers, and packing-house workers. Many participated in strikes and hundreds of thousands- estimated between 300,000 and 1 million- participated in marches and parades on that day. 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 of the police.
The meeting proceeded without incident, and by the time the last speaker was on the platform, the rainy gathering was already breaking up, with only a few hundred people remaining. 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.
The Story of the Haymarket Martyrs
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 anarchists and socialists and hundreds were arrested without charge. Anarchists in particular were harassed, and eight of Chicago’s most active leaders in the movement—Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden and Oscar Neebe—were charged with conspiracy to murder in connection with the Haymarket bombing. A kangaroo court found all eight guilty, despite a lack of evidence connecting any of them to the bomb-thrower (only one was even present at the meeting, and he was on the speakers’ platform). On August 19th seven of the defendants were sentenced to death and Neebe to 15 years in prison.
After a massive international campaign for their release, the government “compromised” and commuted the sentences of Schwab and Fielden to life imprisonment. Lingg cheated the hangman by committing suicide in his cell the day before the executions. On November 11th 1887 Albert Parsons, George Engel, August Spies and Adolf Fischer were hanged. Six hundred thousand working people turned out for their funeral. The campaign to free Neebe, Schwab and Fielden continued.
On June 26 1893, Governor Altgeld set them free because they were innocent of the crime for which they had been tried. They and the hanged men had been the victims of “hysteria, packed juries and a biased judge.” Evidence later came to light that the bomb may have been thrown by a police agent working for Captain Bonfield, as part of a conspiracy involving certain steel bosses to discredit the labor movement.
The Legacy of the Haymarket Incident
When Spies addressed the court after he had been sentenced to die, he was confident the repression of the government would not succeed. “If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement . . . the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in misery and want, expect salvation—if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread on a spark, but there and there, behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.”
Nevertheless, rather than suppressing labor and radical movements, the events of 1886 and the execution of the Chicago anarchists actually mobilized many generations of radicals. Two lesser known but inspirational revolutionary women emerged out of this legacy. Emma Goldman- who would become a famous anarchist speaker, feminist and labor activist from the 1910’s through the 1930’s- was a young immigrant from Russia at the time, later pointed to the Haymarket affair as her moment of political birth. Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, widow to Chicago Martyr Albert Parsons, was born in Texas as a slave and was of Black, Native American and Mexican ancestry, played a leading role in campaigning for the release of the imprisoned activists. Active in anarchist and labor movements long before the Haymarket incident, she continued to play a role in labor organizing (participating in the founding of the radical Industrial Workers of the World), advocated for women workers, published an anarchist newspaper The Liberator and fought for racial justice up until her death in 1942 at 89 years old.
By covering up the history of May Day, the government, business, mainstream unions, and the media have attempted to hide an entire legacy of dissent in this country. They are terrified of what a similarly militant and organized movement could accomplish today, and they suppress the seeds of such organization whenever and wherever they can. As workers, students and community members committed to building a new and free society, we must recognize and commemorate May Day not only for its historical significance, but also as a time to organize around issues of vital importance to working-class people today.