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An international workers' holiday
The story of May Day

April 27, 2001 | Page 13

"THERE WILL be a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today." Those were the last words of August Spies, one of four innocent men executed for an explosion at Chicago's Haymarket Square in May 1886.

The "crime" that Spies and his comrades were really condemned for was being labor militants fighting for workers' rights and an eight-hour day. May 1 is May Day, a socialist holiday founded to honor the Haymarket Martyrs' struggle and to celebrate international workers' solidarity. ELIZABETH SCHULTE looks at its history.

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THE HISTORY of U.S. labor struggles shows that the bosses are willing to use any weapon in their arsenal--from the courts to police billy clubs to the gallows. And the killing of the Haymarket Martyrs shows the depths that they'll stoop to. But the fight for the eight-hour day in the 1880s also shows workers' determination to stand up against the bosses--and the leading role that left-wing ideas played in that struggle.

The movement began in 1884 when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (the predecessor to the American Federation of Labor) passed a resolution at its Chicago convention that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886." Past attempts to win limits on the workday had achieved few results. For that reason, the federation called on workers to strike to win their demand.

The eight-hour demand spoke to workers frustrated with 14- to 18-hour workdays amid high unemployment. On May 1, 1886, some 190,000 workers struck, and 150,000 more won their demand simply by threatening to strike.

Chicago was a key center of the battle--and the heart of the left wing of the movement. Leading members of the anarchist International Working People's Association (IWPA) like August Spies and Albert Parsons organized there. They had convinced the IWPA to organize inside the union movement--and had built a following among Chicago workers.

They faced well-organized opposition from the employers--who were backed up by the media and the brutal Chicago cops. Newspaper articles decried the eight-hour day as "Communism, lurid and rampant" that would bring on "loafing and gambling...debauchery and drunkenness."

On May 3, 200 cops attacked strikers at the McCormick Reaper Works as they picketed scabs leaving the factory. Four workers were killed and many others injured. The attacks continued into the following day, as police broke up gatherings of workers.

Strike leaders called for a protest the following evening against the police violence. Some 3,000 workers gathered in Haymarket Square, the center of the meatpacking business. The rally had dwindled to a few hundred because of rain--when about 200 armed police marched into the peaceful crowd.

Someone--whose identity is still unknown--threw a bomb into the ranks of the police, killing seven and injuring dozens. The government used the incident as an excuse to crack down on the entire labor movement in a reign of terror that lasted for days.

Workers' homes, meeting halls and ofŪces were raided, and anyone affiliated with the anarchists, labor or socialist movement was hauled to jail. When the police were done, they had blamed the bombing on eight men--all leaders of the eight-hour movement.

They eight were Parsons, Spies, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Oscar Neebe and Louis Lingg. Parsons and Spies weren't even in the square when the bomb was thrown, but that mattered little at their trial. In Judge Joseph Gary's courtroom, they were already guilty because of their political beliefs.

"Anarchy is on trial," declared prosecutor Julius Grinnel. "These men have been selected, picked out...and indicted because they are the leaders. "They are no more guilty than the thousands who follow them. Convict these men, make examples of them, hang them, and you save our institutions, our society."

All the defendants except Neebe were sentenced to death. Under pressure, the governor later commuted Fielden's and Schwab's sentences to life in prison, and Lingg committed suicide the day before he was scheduled to hang. Some 500,000 workers lined Chicago's Milwaukee Avenue on November 13, 1887, as the funeral procession for the Martyrs wound its way to the railway station for the trip to Waldheim Cemetery. Outrageously, the city commemorated the Haymarket Square bombing with a statue of a cop--which finally had to be removed after countless acts of vandalism.

Although May Day was founded to honor this U.S. labor struggle, few workers today know its origin. May Day is a celebration of our struggle for justice and socialism.

Celebrating workers' solidarity

MANY OF the Haymarket Martyrs--and thousands of the workers who protested that day in Chicago--were immigrants. The bosses used anti-immigrant racism to rationalize their poor treatment of workers--and to condemn the anarchists and socialists who led the fight. "The rabble whom Spies and Fielden stimulated to murder are not Americans," proclaimed the Chicago Herald. "They are offscourings of Europe who have sought these shores to abuse the hospitality and defy the order of the country."

One of the strengths of the eight-hour movement was that it, by necessity, reached out to organize immigrants. A similar struggle continues today for immigrant workers, many of whom endure long hours in the factories and fields all over the U.S., usually without union representation.

The AFL-CIO recently recognized this fight and endorsed a resolution calling for amnesty for undocumented workers. This May Day, several immigrants rights and labor groups are coming together in Los Angeles and other cities to take up the call for amnesty. We have to start now to build international workers' solidarity wherever we are.

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