The story of May Day

May 1, 2009

Elizabeth Schulte tells the history of May Day, a socialist holiday founded to honor the Haymarket Martyrs and celebrate international workers' solidarity.

"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 real "crime" for which Spies and his comrades were condemned was being labor militants fighting for workers' rights and the eight-hour day. The national strike for the eight-hour day that they organized was called for May 1, 1886--it was the first May Day.

Their struggle, and the struggle of thousands alongside them, convinced a generation of labor militants and radicals to devote their lives for the fight for workers' rights and for socialism.

Still, although May Day was founded to honor a U.S. labor struggle, few workers in this country typically know its origin, because the history is largely untold. This has changed, however--since the mass immigrant workers' May Day marches that began in 2006.

A couple years ago, I was on a city bus and saw this notice: "Riders of the Pulaski bus may experience delays due to International Workers' Parade on May 1." I thought at the time, May Day has finally come home.

Engraving of the scene at Haymarket Square in 1886
Engraving of the scene at Haymarket Square in 1886

U.S. LABOR history is filled with examples of the employers' willingness to use any weapon in their arsenal--from the courts to police billy clubs to the gallows--to put down working-class rebellion. But the fight for the eight-hour day in the 1880s also shows workers' determination to resist--and the leading role that left-wing ideas can play in the struggle.

The eight-hour 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 concrete results. By the 1870s, several states and a number of cities had passed eight-hour legislation, but these laws were largely ignored by employers. Under the influence of a growing socialist movement, labor leaders called for more militant action--that workers should strike to win their demands. Unions and labor assemblies across the country committed themselves to "a massive work stoppage" to begin on May 1.

The eight-hour demand spoke to workers frustrated with 14- to 18-hour workdays amid high unemployment. Workers supported the demand by wearing "eight-hour shoes," smoking "eight-hour tobacco" and singing the "eight-hour song," which ended with the lines:

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, and eight hours for what we will.

On May 1, 1886, some 190,000 workers struck around the country, and 150,000 more won their demand for an eight-hour day simply by threatening to strike.

Chicago was a key center of the battle. According to Sidney Lens' The Labor Wars, by May 1, 1886, 45,000 workers--35,000 of them in the packinghouses--had won a shorter workday, compared to a national figure of 12,000.

It was no coincidence that Chicago was also the heart of the left wing of the movement. Several socialist publications were based in Chicago, include foreign-language newspapers like the German Daily Arbeiter-Zeitung, edited by August Spies. Socialist club meetings were held around the city to discuss politics, and there were even alternative Sunday schools for children.

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Leading members of the anarchist International Working People's Association (IWPA) like Spies and Albert Parsons organized in Chicago, where the IWPA was the strongest nationally. They planned events that captured the angry mood of workers, organizing parades that would march on the Board of Trade or down Prairie Avenue where the wealthy lived, singing the "Marseillaise" and carrying red flags.

Spies and Parsons 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."

An editorial in the Chicago Mail singled out Parsons and Spies: "There are two dangerous ruffians at large in this city; two skulking cowards who are trying to create trouble. One of them is named Parsons; the other is named Spies...Make an example of them if trouble does occur."

ON MAY 3, lumber workers who were on strike for the eight-hour day were attending a meeting near the McCormick Reaper Works on the south side of the city, where 1,400 workers had been locked out since February and replaced by 300 scabs. When they went to confront the scabs at McCormick, the workers were attacked by some 200 police. Four workers were killed and many others injured. The attacks continued into the following day, with police breaking up gatherings of workers.

Strike leaders called for a protest against police violence the following evening. Some 3,000 workers gathered in Haymarket Square, the center of the meatpacking business.

By the end of the evening, 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 newspaper offices were raided, and anyone affiliated with the anarchist, 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.

The 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.

"Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial," declared prosecutor Julius Grinnel in his summation to the jury. "These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury, 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, who was given 15 years in prison, were sentenced to death. As national attention focused on the trial, sympathy and solidarity for the Haymarket Eight grew, with protests taking place around the country and the world against the injustice of the verdict. Labor activist Lucy Parsons, who was also married to Albert Parsons, led the fight in the U.S., and well-known socialists and radicals like Eleanor Marx, William Morris, Oscar Wilde and Frederick Engels lent their names to the campaign overseas.

The governor of Illinois was forced to later commute Fielden's and Schwab's sentences to life in prison, and Lingg committed suicide the day before he was scheduled to hang. Some half a million 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 police officer--which finally had to be removed after countless acts of vandalism.

The fight for the eight-hour day and the case of the Haymarket Martyrs transformed revolutionaries and labor militants who would help shape the labor struggles to come--people like Eugene Debs, Big Bill Haywood and, of course, Lucy Parsons.

As Spies said before he was executed:

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! 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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