May Day, Then and Now

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THIS MAY 1ST WILL MARK THE FOURTH large scale celebration
of May Day (International Workers’ Day) in the United
States. This holiday, which was born of events in Chicago
in 1886, was suppressed and became almost completely
lost to American workers until immigrant workers recovered
it for all of us with massive national demonstrations
on May 1st 2006. The irony of an American holiday being
rediscovered on American soil by immigrant workers is
just one of a long chain of ironies that have marked the
workers’ movement in the United States. So, in the interest
of a little remedial education, let me share a brief version
of the history of May Day.
The year was 1886. For over a year, many workers’
organizations, including the new American Federation of
Labor, had been calling for a national 8-hour day to be
granted by employers with no loss in pay, and to be
enforced by a federal law. The epicenter of this movement
was Chicago.
The slogan was:
Eight hours for work
Eight hours for sleep
Eight hours for what we will.
Chicago was the radical center of the labor movement
nationally and world-wide at that time, and the movement
there was led largely by political radicals, anarchists,
small-c communists, and socialists of a hundred different
stripes. This was, remember, long before the Russian Revolution.
The majority of the leaders of this movement were
immigrants, but that was not surprising since the majority
of the working class in Chicago was immigrants and their
children – largely from Germany, but also from a dozen
other countries, including Norway, Bohemia, Hungary, Ireland
and Finland. The most prominent native-born leaders
were Albert Parsons and his wife Lucy, who had come
to Chicago a few years before. They had left Texas to
escape the post-Reconstruction anti-miscegenation laws
which made the marriage of a white ex-Confederate printer
turned Radical Reconstructionist and a
black/Latina/Indian ex-slave, outside the pale of law.
The national movement had called for demonstrations
across the country, calling for 8 hours of work, and for
workers to walk off the job and demonstrate. In Chicago,
this demonstration drew 80,000—Chicago‘s largest up to
then—and was led down Michigan Avenue by Albert and
Lucy Parsons. As radicals and anarchists/socialists, they
saw the 8-hour movement and the freeing up of workers’
time that would result, as an important step toward building
a revolutionary movement. The movement was largely
successful and many workers in Chicago and nationally
did gain the 8-hour day.
However, at McCormick Reaper, the massive farm
machinery plant in Chicago, the striking workers were not
so lucky. They were attacked by police and two were killed
on May 3rd. Many workers were outraged and, to protest
these killings, a demonstration was planned for May 4th at
Haymarket Square in Chicago (at Randolph and Desplaines).
Like many emergency demonstrations since then, it was
not very well organized and most of
the expected speakers weren‘t even
there when the rally began with a
few thousand people. Eventually,
speakers arrived and spoke from a
wagon, sitting at the head of an alley
just at the edge of the square itself.
The only violence was the words of
the speakers who took pains to use
this occasion to demonstrate to their
audience the control that the capitalists
had over the law and the police
and the need to resist.
To the south, across Randolph
Street, police were massed, but so
was the popular pro-labor mayor,
Carter Harrison, who found no
fault with the rally. Harrison left
when it started to rain, just before
the rally ended, telling the police
commander John Bonfield that he
was going home, that there was
nothing happening, and that the
police should to the same. By this
time rain had begun and the rally was down to about 200.
Unfortunately, Bonfield, who had also been in charge of
the police who killed the workers at McCormick, only sent
part of his men home. With his remaining men, , he
formed up in dense formation and marched to the edge of
the demonstration. At that point, he called out to the
remaining demonstrators that this was an illegal assembly
and that they should disperse immediately. The final
speaker, Samuel Fielden, called out that they were peaceable,
but before he could finish his sentence, a bomb went
off in the middle of the massed police, killing some immediately.
The police opened fire, killing from their own and
many demonstrators, the number never to be known for
certain, since many of the dead and injured workers were
not taken to hospitals for fear of arrest.
These events caused the city government to start a
manhunt for all radical labor leaders, labeling them as
dangerous, terrorist cop-killers. Within a few days many
were arrested, except for Parsons who fled to Wisconsin,
but came back to join his comrades on the dock for the
trial. Most of those arrested were not
physically present at Haymarket,
so they were charged with conspiracy;
their real crime, as was freely
admitted at the time, was being
radicals and building a movement
among working people. No one
ever established who threw the
After a trial, now universally recognized
by historians as being a
travesty of justice, all seven of the
defendants were convicted and
sentenced to hang. Two had their
sentences commuted to prison
terms and one, Louis Lingg, died
in his cell, the night before execution,
with a blasting cap. By the
time of the executions, a worldwide
movement had arisen
demanding, at least, clemency for
the accused. But that was not to be
in Chicago. As his final words,
August Spies shouted,“The time will
come when our silence will be more powerful than the
voices you strangle today!“And Albert Parsons’ final words
being,“Let the voice of the people be heard.“
The executions and political scare had
two important effects. One was to paint the
entire American labor movement with the
brush of dangerous, terroristic radicalism,
and to set back union organizing and activity
for a number of years. It ironically
played an important role in the decline of
the then dominant Knights of Labor,
whose national leadership had not
endorsed the May 1st demonstrations,
even though Parsons and some others were
proud members of a Chicago Knights
The other was to create martyrs of these
men, whose words and deeds came to be
felt all over the world, wherever workers
organized as workers, especially to
demand shorter hours. In 1889 the Second
(Socialist) International declared May 1st
to be an international workers’ holiday in
commemoration of the Martyrs of Chicago.
It is now an official legal holiday in most
nations of the world, but in the United
States, governments and conservative labor
leaders have gone out of their way to discourage
the observing of May 1, with
Richard Nixon declaring it“Law Day“in
Despite being labeled as a foreign, subversive,
and Communist holiday, May Day
had a resurgence in the 1930‘s and 1940‘s,
when the political left helped to revive the
labor movement. During post-WWII Cold
War, May Day celebrations receded under
the pressure of anti-Communist repression
and fear. It was only with the demonstrations
of 2006, led especially by immigrant
workers, which May Day returned to the
consciousness of the people who had given
it birth, the workers of Chicago. It has been
reborn fittingly on the shoulders of this
generation of immigrants, just as it was
born initially out of the struggles of immigrant
workers for a decent life in their new
country. On May 1, 2007, the largest
demonstration in Chicago history (estimated
as 300,000-500,000), along with
dozens more throughout the nation,
reminded us of the heritage of May Day
and its special role in the history of immigrant
workers in the US and Chicago. (see
for a film of the Chicago demonstration
produced by Labor Beat in Chicago; for
more on Illinois labor history, see
In Urbana-Champaign, May Day will be
commemorated on May 2nd with the holding
of the Central Illinois Social Forum to
bring together all of those groups and individuals
who are trying to assist the working
people to survive the challenges of the
economic collapse and who are trying to
organize to chart a way forward under the
slogan,“Another world is possible.“There is
no doubt that the Haymarket Martyrs
would approve.

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