May Day Is Our Workers’ Day in America

by on April 30, 2008 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, Labor, Organizing

Haymarket MassacreMay Day was officially founded in 1886, during a Chicago strike for the eight-hour workday. In 1889, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) delegate to the International Labor Congress in Paris proposed May 1 as international Labor Day. Workers were to march for an eight-hour day, democracy and the right of workers to organize. Delegates approved the request and chose May 1, 1890, as a day of demonstrations in favor of the eight-hour day.

On a separate track, U.S. labor leaders had agitated for creation of a labor holiday years before the Chicago rally. Among them, Peter J. McGuire, a carpenter and labor union leader, had proposed his idea for a holiday honoring America’s workers at a New York labor meeting in early 1882. (Others say the “founder” of Labor Day was Matthew Maguire, a machinist who served as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York.)”

History of May Day Bound Up In the 8-Hour Work Day Movement and the Martyrs of the “Haymarket Massacre”

The story of the Haymarket Martyrs, and their monument in Forest Home Cemetery, begins at a convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1884. The Federation (the predecessor to the American Federation of Labor) called for a great movement to win the 8-hour workday, which would climax on May 1, 1886.

The plan was to spend two years urging all American employers to adopt a standard 8-hour day, instead of the 10 to 12, even up to 16-hour days that were prevalent. After May 1 of 1886, all workers not yet on an 8-hour schedule, were to cease work in a nation-wide strike until their employer would meet the demand.

80,000 Marched

Although some employers did meet the deadline, many did not. Accordingly, great demonstrations took place on May 1 all across the country. Chicago’s was the biggest with an estimated 80,000 marching on Michigan Avenue, much to the alarm of Chicago’s business leaders and newspapers who saw it as foreshadowing “revolution,” and demanded a police crackdown.

In fact, the Anarchists and other political radicals in Chicago were reluctant to have anything to do with the 8-hour day strike, which they saw as “reformist;” but they were prevailed upon by the unionists to participate because Albert Parsons and others were such powerful orators and had a substantial following.

A mass meeting was called for the night of May 4, 1886 in the city haymarket at Randolph St. and DesPlaines Ave. Its purpose was to protest a police action from the previous day in which strikers and their supporters at the McCormick Reaper plant on Blue Island Ave. had been killed and injured by police.

The mass meeting in the haymarket was so poorly planned that the organizers had to round up speakers, including Parsons, at the spur of the moment. A rain began to fall, and as the last speaker was concluding, a large force of 200 police arrived with a demand that the meeting disperse.

Bomb Thrown

Someone, unknown to this day, then threw a bomb at the massed police. In their confusion, the police began firing their weapons in the dark, killing at least four in the crowd and wounding many more. Several police were killed (only one by the bomb), the rest probably by police fire. The myth of the Haymarket Riot was born.

In the aftermath of the event, unions were raided all across the country. The Eight-Hour Movement was derailed and it was not until passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1935, that the 8-hour workday became the national standard, a part of the Fair Labor Standards Act passed during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”

Albert Parsons and seven others associated with radical organizations were prosecuted in a show trial. None were linked to the unknown bomb thrower, and some were not even present at the time. They were held to be responsible for the bomb thrower’s act, because their public criticism of corporate America, the political structure, and the use of police power against the working people, was alleged to have inspired the bomber.

Governor’s Pardon

They were found guilty in a trial which Governor John Peter Altgeld subsequently held to be grossly unfair. On June 26, 1894, Altgeld pardoned those defendants still alive and in prison; but Parsons, Spies, Fischer, and Engel had been hanged, and Lingg was an apparent suicide.

The Haymarket case became a world-wide scandal. Governor Oglesby was petitioned by hundreds of thousands, including AFL President Samuel Gompers, to grant clemency, and thus prevent a miscarriage of justice by stopping the executions. It was to no avail. They were hanged on November 11, 1887.

In July of 1889, a delegate from the AFL attending an international labor conference in Paris, urged that May 1 of each year be celebrated as a day of labor solidarity. It was adopted. Accordingly, with the exception of the United States, workers throughout the world consider May First to be their “Labor Day.” [Much of this account was taken from the Illlinois Labor History Society; for their website, go here.]

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