April 29th, 2012
May Day as Workers’ Day erased from U.S. history
Think Maypole? Yes, but, there is so much more. May Day started in the U.S. in the late 1880′s to commemorate the struggle by workers to shorten 10-16 hour workdays to 8-hours. At its 1884 national convention in Chicago, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (the future AFL), proclaimed that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” The federation called for workers to negotiate with their employers for an eight-hour workday and, if that failed, to call a general strike on May 1 in support of the demand. The terrible aftermath of that first May Day 1886 in Chicago, the Haymarket massacre, would convince politicians and businesses to move labor events to Labor Day in September so the memory of what happened in 1886 would be erased from public memory.
According to accounts from Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and labor historian Dick Meister, here’s what happened.
On May 1, 1886, the first May Day celebration in history. some workers negotiated, some marched, more than 300,000 struck affecting 13,000 businesses. And all won strong support, in dozens of cities – Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Boston, Milwaukee, St. Louis, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Denver, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Detroit, Washington, Newark, Brooklyn, St. Paul and others.
Not all newspapers were as supportive, however. The strikes and demonstrations, one paper complained, amounted to “communism, lurid and rampant.” The eight-hour day, another said, would encourage “loafing and gambling, rioting, debauchery, and drunkenness.”
Says the IWW, workers in the 19th century had seen first-hand that Capitalism benefited only their bosses, trading workers’ lives for profit. Thousands of men, women and children were dying needlessly every year in the workplace, with life expectancy as low as their early twenties in some industries, and little hope but death of rising out of their destitution. Socialism offered another option. A variety of socialist organizations sprung up throughout the later half of the 19th century, ranging from political parties to choir groups. In fact, many socialists were elected into governmental office by their constituency. 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. It is inaccurate to say that labor unions were “taken over” by anarchists and socialists, but rather anarchists and socialist made up the labor unions.
In Chicago on May 1 1886, the epicenter for the 8-hour day agitators, 40,000 went out on strike with the anarchists in the forefront with their speeches and revolutionary ideology of direct action, and anarchism became respected and embraced by the working people and despised by the capitalists. Yet peace prevailed.
Two days later, May 3, 1886, violence broke out at the McCormick Reaper Works between police and strikers. For six months, armed Pinkerton agents and the police harassed and beat locked-out steelworkers as they picketed. During a speech near the McCormick plant, some two hundred demonstrators joined the steelworkers on the picket line. Beatings with police clubs escalated into rock throwing by the strikers which the police responded to with gunfire. At least two strikers were killed and an unknown number were wounded.
Full of rage, a public meeting was called by some of the anarchists for the following day in Haymarket Square to discuss the police brutality. Due to bad weather and short notice, only about 3000 of the tens of thousands of people showed up from the day before. This affair included families with children and the mayor of Chicago himself. Later, the mayor would testify that the crowd remained calm and orderly and that speaker August Spies made “no suggestion… for immediate use of force or violence toward any person…”
As the speech wound down, two detectives rushed to the main body of police, reporting that a speaker was using inflammatory language, inciting the police to march on the speakers’ wagon. As the police began to disperse the already thinning crowd, a bomb was thrown into the police ranks. No one knows who threw the bomb, but speculations varied from blaming any one of the anarchists, to an agent provocateur working for the police.
Enraged, the police fired into the crowd. The exact number of civilians killed or wounded was never determined, but an estimated seven or eight civilians died, and up to forty were wounded. One officer died immediately and another seven died in the following weeks. Later evidence indicated that only one of the police deaths could be attributed to the bomb and that all the other police fatalities had or could have had been due to their own indiscriminate gun fire.
Aside from the bomb thrower, who was never identified, it was the police, not the anarchists, who perpetrated the violence. The bomb thrower was never discovered, but eight labor, socialist and anarchist leaders – branded as violent, dangerous radicals by press and police alike – were arrested on the clearly trumped up charge that they had conspired to commit murder. Four of them were hanged, one committed suicide while in jail, and three were pardoned six years later by Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld, who publicly lambasted the judge on a travesty of justice.
The words on the Haymarket Monument: THE DAY WILL COME WHEN OUR SILENCE WILL BE MORE POWERFUL THAN THE VOICES YOU ARE THROTTLING TODAY.
Immediately after the Haymarket Massacre, big business and government conducted what some say was the very first “Red Scare” in this country. Spun by mainstream media, anarchism became synonymous with bomb throwing and socialism became un-American. The common image of an anarchist became a bearded, eastern European immigrant with a bomb in one hand and a dagger in the other.
Employers responded to the so-called Haymarket Riot by mounting a counter-offensive that seriously eroded the eight-hour day movement’s gains. But the movement was an extremely effective organizing tool for the country’s unions, and in 1890 President Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor was able to call for “an International Labor Day” in favor of the eight-hour workday. Similar proclamations were made by socialist and union leaders in other nations where, to this day, May Day is celebrated as Labor Day.
US President Grover Cleveland feared that commemorating Labor Day on May 1 could become an opportunity to commemorate Haymarket. He moved in 1887 to support Labor Day in September, as the Knights of Labor (an early worker organization that rejected socialism) had wanted.
Workers in the United States and 13 other countries demonstrated on that May Day of 1890 – including 30,000 of them in Chicago. The New York World hailed it as “Labor’s Emancipation Day.” It was. For it marked the start of an irreversible drive that finally established the eight-hour day as the standard for millions of working people.
From the IWW,
When we remember that people were shot so we could have the 8-hour day; if we acknowledge that homes with families in them were burned to the ground so we could have Saturday as part of the weekend; when we recall 8-year old victims of industrial accidents who marched in the streets protesting working conditions and child labor only to be beat down by the police and company thugs, we understand that our current condition cannot be taken for granted – people fought for the rights and dignities we enjoy today, and there is still a lot more to fight for. The sacrifices of so many people can not be forgotten or we’ll end up fighting for those same gains all over again. This is why we celebrate May Day.
And thanks to the 2010 U.S. election, anti-labor forces are more emboldened than ever. The hard-won gains can be stripped away with the simple stroke of a pen in the hands of a malicious governor (Walker in Wisconsin, Kasich in Ohio, Christie in New Jersey, Snyder of Michigan, etc.)
The fight against abusive misconduct in the workplace is a small part of the fight to retain and restore dignity for all workers.
Occupy has called for a “general strike,” harkening back to Chicago 1880′s.
Update: On April 30, the Chicago Tribune ran a good historical review of the city’s role in the May Day tradition.
This entry was posted on Sunday, April 29th, 2012 at 2:09 pm and is filed under Commentary by G. Namie, Employers Gone Wild: Doing Bad Things, Unions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.