May Day, Born in the USA

BY:Bruce Bostick| May 1, 2016
May Day, Born in the USA

May 1st is May Day, the International Workers Holiday. In every nation on earth, working people demonstrate their unity and celebrate those who labor and produce all wealth. But it’s also a day to protest bad conditions for working people and fight for a better and more just world.

However, most people in the United States don’t know May Day was born here as a day of remembrance of those leaders of the great eight-hour-day movement begun in Chicago in 1886.

They were arrested, imprisoned and later judicially murdered. May 1st is deeply rooted in our own history. It is our gift to the world’s working class.

Ever since May Day was declared an International Worker’s Holiday, in 1889, the capitalist class has desperately tried to suppress all memory of May Day. It was re-named Flag Day and Law Day, and on Haymarket Square in Chicago, the site of murders of demonstrating workers in 1886 by Chicago police, a statue commemorating police officers was erected.

But 130 years later, working people all across the Earth are continuing the fight and celebrating global labor solidarity. Flag Day and Law Day are all but forgotten and the police statue, which was vandalized repeatedly, was unceremoniously moved off the street to the Police Museum in Chicago.

And May Day marches on, being reclaimed by workers in the country of its birth!

In 2004, the Chicago Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO and Illinois Labor History Society erected a beautiful monument at the former Haymarket site commemorating the heroic, embattled workers that demonstrated on that May afternoon in 1886, in the hope that the eight-hour day, and better conditions for workers, would come to be. A visitor will find the memorial surrounded with flowers and a growing number of plaques placed by the AFL-CIO and labor federations around the world.

Against great odds, unionists and working folks across the U.S.A. are rediscovering and reclaiming the history of May Day and those who fought to win whatever rights we have today.

Appropriately, today May 1st highlights the unity of the fight for workers rights and immigrant rights. In one of the largest demonstrations ever in the US, over 1.5 million people marched for immigrant rights on May 1st 2006, giving the fight to reclaim May Day a huge boost.

The legacy of May Day is inspiring new generations to fight for unity, the right to organize, health care for all, rights for foreign and native born workers, peace and justice and a sustainable world for all peoples!

MAY DAY—1886

The movement for an eight-hour day began, in earnest, in 1884 when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, the predecessor of the American Federation of Labor called for the beginning of a nationwide movement on May 1, 1886.

Workers across the USA were inspired, as this movement spread. Workers ate ‘8-hour lunch,’ wore ‘8-hour shoes’ and smoked ‘8-hour tobacco.’ The “8-hour song’ swept across the nation:

‘We mean to make things over; we’re tired of work for naught

But bare enough to live on; n’ere an hour for thought

We want to feel the sunshine; we want to smell the flowers

We’re sure that God has willed it; we mean to have 8 hours

We’re summoning our forces, from shipyard, shop & mill

Eight hours for work, 8 hours for rest, Eight hours for want we will!’

When May 1, 1886 arrived, the movement had become huge. Over 350,000 workers, from 12,000 shops struck for the eight-hour day. In Chicago, home to one of the largest labor movements, over 40,000 workers walked out and 80,000 marched down Michigan Avenue on a beautiful sunny day.

Demonstrations also occurred in New York, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Columbus, Milwaukee, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St Louis, Washington, Philadelphia and many other cities.

The wealthy were terrified and attacks on the workers were organized. In Chicago, another peaceful demonstration was held on May 2.

But on Monday, May 3, the peaceful scene turned violent when Chicago police attacked and killed picketing workers at the McCormick Reaper Plant. Workers and their allies responded by calling a solidarity rally on the evening of May 4 at Haymarket Square.

Some of what happened then remains a mystery. The peaceful demonstration was almost over when Chicago police brutally attacked it. Then someone, unknown to this day, threw the first dynamite bomb ever used in peacetime history of the United States. The police panicked and, in the darkness many shot at their own men. Eventually, seven police and at least four workers died, although the true number is not known since many families took their wounded and dead home to avoid persecution.

The next day martial law was declared, not just in Chicago but much of the nation. Authorities rounded up labor leaders and smashed trade union offices. The capitalist press called for blood and eight labor leaders were arrested and charged with murder, even though none were present at the time of the violence.

Those radical union leaders: Albert Parsons, Oscar Neebe, Samuel Fielden, August Spies, August Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg & Micheal Schawb never had any chance. The capitalist press called for their death, and was sure to get it. Seven of the eight were foreign born, but most were U.S. citizens, from Germany, England & Ireland. Parsons was a former Confederate officer, who hated slavery and deserted. He later married the former slave, Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, who became a labor leader in her own right. After they were convicted, August Spies, a great orator stood and told the court in these immortal words:

‘If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement, that movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in want and misery, expect salvation, if this is your opinion, then by all means hang us! But you cannot stamp this movement of humanity out! Here you will tread upon a spark, there and there, behind you and in front of you, everywhere flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire! You can never put it out!’

On Nov. 11, 1887, the hangings of Fischer, Engel, Parson and Spies were carried out, in spite of a massive worldwide movement for their freedom. The day before the hangings, Lingg was found in his cell, his head half blown away by a dynamite cap.

Soon thereafter, the International Workingmen’s Association, an early labor movement that had representatives from many nations, issued a call to “observe May 1 as a day of remembrance of the martyrs of May Day, and in solidarity with workers in struggles throughout the world!” The American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor, the union organizations in our nation, also adopted this call.

On June 26, 1893, Illinois Governor Peter Altgeld issued a full pardon for all the May Day defendants. He stated, “The defendants, leaders of labor, were not guilty of any crime!” They were, he said, “completely innocent, victims of a packed jury, public hysteria and a biased judge!”

From that time until the present, working people throughout the world have celebrated May 1st as the holiday for workers. In our own nation, labor history, like that of communities of color, women, LGTBQ, immigrants and others marginalized by our society, is being rediscovered. Try as they might, the 1% cannot erase the history of the 99%!

Shortly after the great American folk singer, Pete Seeger finally broke the McCarthy era blacklist and appeared on the Smothers Brothers Show, an interviewer asked Pete, “Isn’t folk music dead now Pete? Haven’t people just moved on from that kind of old fashioned music?” When Pete stopped laughing, he exclaimed, “Folk music dead? Hardly! No! Never! Folk music is just what it says it is, music of the folks, people’s music. Sometimes, like the people who make it, it is driven underground, covered up, forgotten for a time. But, like the people, it comes back! When the people stand up and speak out for justice, folks will make folk music! Like the people, folk music will never die!”

Like the history our people have made. We will always look back, then forward again, discovering the truth!

“Ten thousand times the labor movement has stumbled and fallen, bruised itself, then risen again, been seized by the throat and choked into insensibility, enjoined by the courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, shot down by regulars, frowned upon by public opinion, deceived by politicians, threatened by priests, repudiated renegades, preyed upon by grafters, infested with spies, deserted by cowards, betrayed by traitors, bled by leeches and sold out by leaders. But, notwithstanding all these, it is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known!”

— Eugene V. Debs, 1912 (Leader of the Railway Union, Socialist Party leader—candidate for President, received over 1 million votes while imprisoned, for the crime of opposing the World War I, as a “capitalist war against the workers of all nations.”)

Adapted from a letter by Bruce Bostick (proud Steelworker) and The Story of the Haymarket Affair by the late, great labor historian William J. Adelman.



    Bruce Bostick is a retired steelworker and labor activist in Ohio.

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