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May Day: Born of U.S. workers' struggles

April 30, 2004 | Page 8

ALAN MAASS explains the origins of May Day.

IN 1955, a letter to the editor appeared in the Daily Worker--the newspaper of the U.S. Communist Party--from a magazine writer.

"I am at present trying to collect details of the history about May Day," the letter read. "I was told somewhere that May Day, as a workers' celebration and demonstration, originated in the United States. However, I can't seem to find out the origin in any encyclopedia."

The celebration of International Workers' Day on May 1 did originate in the U.S. But this fact is probably less well known to most people in the U.S. today than it was in 1955.

If anything, those who are old enough to remember when so-called "socialist" governments reigned in Russia and Eastern Europe may associate May Day with the annual parades of soldiers and weapons in Moscow's Red Square. Nothing better shows how the ideals of socialism were falsified under the dictatorial system in the ex-USSR than the way that the regime transformed May Day into a celebration of missiles and tanks.

In reality, May Day was born as a workers' holiday not to celebrate military power, but to honor the struggle of the U.S. labor movement for the eight-hour day.

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THE EFFORT to win "eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will" became a crusade for U.S. labor in the years after the Civil War of 1861-65.

Many people hoped to win shorter hours through reform laws, and by the 1870s, several states and a number of cities had passed eight-hour legislation. But these proved to be empty promises--filled with loopholes and routinely ignored by employers, leaving workers with nowhere to turn to get them enforced.

Under the influence of the growing socialist movement in the U.S., labor turned to more militant tactics. "The way to get [the eight-hour day]," Peter McGuire of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners wrote in 1882, "is by organization...We want an enactment by the workingmen themselves that on a given day, eight hours should constitute a day's work, and they ought to enforce it themselves."

In 1884, McGuire's proposal was adopted by the newly formed Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions--the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor--which set May 1, 1886, as the date that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor."

The idea of pinpointing a specific date to require shorter hours caught on like wildfire. Unions and labor assemblies across the country committed to "a massive work stoppage" to begin on May 1.

Everywhere, workers joined the campaign. Historian Philip Foner describes workers smoking "Eight-Hour Tobacco," wearing "Eight-Hour Shoes--products produced in shops that already had the shorter working day--and singing the "Eight-Hour Song":

We want to feel the sunshine; we want to smell the flowers;
We're sure that God has willed it, and we mean to have eight hours.
We're summoning our forces from shipyard, shop and mill:
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.

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MAY 1 was a huge success. About 200,000 workers went on strike across the country, and nearly that number won shorter hours just by threatening to strike.

The heart of the eight-hour day movement--and the political center of the left in the U.S.--was Chicago. On the first day of the strike, some 80,000 strikers and supporters--almost one in every six people living in the city at the time--paraded down Michigan Avenue. So when the employers wanted to strike back, they naturally chose Chicago as their target.

On May 3, thousands of lumber workers gathered for an eight-hour-day rally on Chicago's South Side. Nearby stood the McCormick reaper plant--owned by one of the ruling families of the city, and the site of a bitter lockout and strike that had dragged on for months. When scabs from the reaper plant started leaving work while the rally was in progress, several hundred lumber workers broke off to demonstrate against them. Without warning, police opened fire at the workers, killing four and injuring many more.

Bitterness at the cops--already notorious for their brutality in the service of Chicago's wealthy--exploded in demonstrations across the city.

One rally was called for the next evening at Haymarket Square. With rain threatening and other meetings underway elsewhere, the turnout was smaller than expected, and the rally began without incident.

August Spies, a representative of the city's Central Labor Council and leading member of the anarchist International Working People's Association, was a speaker. He was joined Chicago's other best-known radical leader, Albert Parsons, who had to be called away from another meeting to address the crowd at Haymarket.

When a thunderstorm broke out, most people left the demonstration. Only a few hundred were left when a column of armed police marched to the square. After demanding that the meeting disperse, the cops began advancing on the speakers' stand.

At that point, someone threw a bomb that exploded in front of the police. One officer was killed, and six more later died of wounds--though historian Paul Avrich concluded that most of these fatal injuries were caused by fellow officers opening fire indiscriminately after the blast.

No one knows who threw the bomb. It might have been a worker angry at police violence, or it could have been the act of a provocateur. Regardless, the city's rulers responded instantly with a witch-hunt aimed at the leaders of the Chicago radical movement.

After rounding up dozens, the authorities finally settled on eight defendants, each of them a leader of the city's working-class movement--Spies, Parsons, Samuel Fielden, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe and Michael Schwab. Most weren't even present at Haymarket on May 4, and those who did attend had either left before the explosion or weren't in a position to have thrown the bomb.

But they were charged with murder, anyway. With the Chicago media whipping up a lynch mob atmosphere, Judge Joseph Gary dispensed with normal procedures to make sure the jury would be prejudiced against the defendants--one juror was even a relative of a victim of the Haymarket bomb.

As the prosecutor said in his closing argument: "These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they are the leaders. They are no more guilty than those thousands who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury: convict these men, make examples of them, hang them, and you save our institutions, our society."

In short, the Haymarket trial was a deliberate attempt to single out and murder the leaders of the Chicago radical movement.

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THE HAYMARKET Eight were found guilty, and all but one was sentenced to die. Around the country and the world, masses of people protested against the injustice of the verdict.

Eventually, the governor of Illinois commuted two of the death sentences. But the employers wanted blood. On November 11, 1887, five of Haymarket Eight were killed--one committing suicide in his prison cell, the others hung.

As he was led to his death, August Spies called out: "There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!"

He was right. At first, the wave of repression halted the struggle for the eight-hour day and pushed unions back on the defensive. But Haymarket became a cornerstone of labor's future struggles. Future revolutionaries like Eugene Debs cited the murder of the Haymarket Martyrs as a turning point in their political development.

This legacy survives to this day--as Spies predicted in his speech to the court after the eight were found guilty.

"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 want and misery expect salvation--if this is your opinion, then hang us!" Spies said. "Here you will tread upon 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."

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