May Day-The Real Labor Day

by L. Gaylord

 
May 1st, International Workers' Day, commemorates the historic
struggle of working people throughout the world, and is recognized in
every country except the United States, Canada, and South Africa. This
despite the fact that the holiday began in the 1880s in the United
States, with the fight for an eight-hour work day.
	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 to achieve the goal, since 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 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. Businesses and the state 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. 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.
	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.
	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
radicals, and hundreds were arrested without charge. Anarchists in
particular were harassed, and eight of Chicago's most active 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), and
they were sentenced to die. Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolf
Fischer, and George Engel were hanged on November 11, 1887. Louis
Lingg committed suicide in prison. The remaining three were finally
pardoned in 1893.
	It is not surprising that the state, business leaders,
mainstream union officials, and the media would want to hide the true
history of May Day, portraying it as a holiday celebrated only in
Moscow's Red Square. 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 its importance as a day to swill
beer and sit in traffic jams.
	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. Emma
Goldman, a young immigrant at the time, later pointed to the Haymarket
affair as her political birth. Lucy Parsons, widow of Albert Parsons,
called upon the poor to direct their anger toward those
responsible-the rich. Instead of disappearing, the anarchist movement
only grew in the wake of Haymarket, spawning other radical movements
and organizations, including the Industrial Workers of the World.
	By covering up the history of May Day, the state, business,
mainstream unions and the media have covered up 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, we must recognize and commemorate May Day not only
for it's historical significance, but also as a time to organize
around issues of vital importance to working-class people today.

This article was written and distributed by: l.gaylord@m.cc.utah.edu

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