MAY DAY 1886 AND THE EIGHT-HOURDAY MARTYRS

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During the summer of 1884, the Federation
of Organized Trades called for May
1st 1886 to be the beginning of a nationwide
movement for the eight-hour work
day. Both state of Illinois and federal
employees were already covered by an
eight-hour work day law since 1867. The problem was
that the federal government failed to enforce its own law,
and in Illinois state employers forced workers to sign
waivers of the law before being hired.
The eight-hour work day movement caught the imagination
of workers all over the country. After almost two
years of organizing, nation-wide demonstrations were
held on Saturday May 1st, 1886. Chicago had the largest
turn-out with 80,000 workers marching up Michigan
Avenue, chanting “eight hours for work, eight hours for
sleep, eight hours for what we will!”
The unions most strongly represented were the Building
Trades. This show of worker solidarity shocked many
employers, who feared a workers’ revolt. Although thousands
of police and National Guard troops were mobilized
along the parade route, no incidents of violence occurred
and all ended peacefully. Protests continued the next day,
Sunday May 2nd, without any problems. However the following
day the Chicago police, led by Captain Becker
(whose hatred of unions was well known), attacked and
killed four picketing striking workers at the McCormick
Reaper plant.
This attack by the police provoked a protest rally
scheduled for the following evening, Tuesday May 4th, at
Haymarket Square (corner of Des Plaines between Randolph
and Lake St.) About twenty-five hundred people
attended the Haymarket protest, which lasted about two
hours. Many people had left early due to the rain, and just
when the meeting was ending, with only about 200 people
remaining, several hundred Chicago police on horseback
attacked the crowd. A few minutes into the attack a
bomb exploded, killing a police officer. The police at that
point panicked and began shooting into the crowd, killing
four workers and six fellow police officers by mistake.
The next day martial law was declared nation-wide. In
Chicago, labor leaders were arrested, and union newspapers
were closed down by the police. Eventually eight
union organizers were selected from a cross-section of the
labor movement in Chicago and held for trial. Six of the
eight defendants were not even at Haymarket when the
police attack occurred. The two-month trial that followed
ranks as one of the worst miscarriages of “justice” in U.S.
history. Eventually, three of the eight men were sent to
Joliet Penitentiary and the other five men were condemned
to be murdered (hanged) by the state of Illinois,
despite many witnesses for the defendants and no credible
evidence presented by the prosecution.
One of the imprisoned defendants, Louis Lingg, supposedly
committed “suicide” by placing a dynamite blasting
cap in his mouth while he was in solitary confinement.
In June of 1893, Illinois Governor John P. Altgeld (namesake
for Altgeld Hall on the U of I Urbana campus) pardoned
the surviving Haymarket defendants.
The Haymarket affair took on international significance
in July of 1889, when a delegate from the U.S. AFL (American
Federation of Labor) recommended at a labor conference
in Paris, France, that May 1st be set aside as International
Labor Day, in memory of the Haymarket martyrs.
The recommendation was approved unanimously.
Today, over one hundred years after the fact, almost
every industrialized country in the world celebrates May
Day as Labor Day. The irony is that the country where May
Day originated is the country that does not celebrate it
officially or in large numbers by U.S. citizens.
For nearly thirty years May Day and the first Monday in
September were celebrated as Labor Days in the U.S., until
the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Because of the
Russian Communist party’s “borrowing” of the celebration
of May Day and the pre-cold war propaganda of the U.S.
corporate media, many workers in the U.S. felt uncomfortable
celebrating May Day.
However, many U.S. workers and union activists have
slowly but surely begun to bring back the May Day celebration
over the last ten years or so. The significance of
May Day is now being recognized. That is the fight for the
eight hour day, decent pay, benefits, and working conditions,
as well as a worker’s right to join a union of her or
his choice. Probably no single event has influenced the
history of labor in Illinois, the United States, and the
world, more than the Chicago Haymarket affair.
Now more than ever, with the eight hour work day and
general economic standards of working people being
attacked bycorporate greed and control, with millions of
native-born Americans losing decent paying jobs, with
millions of undocumented workers being exploited and
blamed for taking the jobs of U.S. workers, May Day is
needed as an annual solidarity day of celebration and
action by ALL working people.
Despite our differences, May Day should be the day
where we ALL join in solidarity and annually renew our
commitment to continue the fight against our common
enemy, the corporate state, and struggle for a new society
that is TRULY of the people, by the people, and for the
people, here and throughout the entire world!

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