the heroic origins of may day

by Mark Harrison

On 1st May we celebrate the achievements of organised labour, but how did this tradition start? These origins take us back to America’s revolutionary socialist history and the struggle for the eight hour day.

At the October 1884 convention of the federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions, a resolution was passed unanimously which stated, “that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1, 1886” and called for a general strike to meet these ends. There was great support for the cause and the American working class duly answered the call of the OTLU: more than 300,000 workers downed tools across the country. Chicago was the centre of the movement, 40,000 were out on strike and the city stood still.

The first May Day parade in history took place when Albert Parsons of the radical International Working People’s Association, along with his wife and kids, led 80,000 men and women down Michigan Avenue. Apart from banners calling for the eight hours day, there were some which called for more radical demands: “Private Capital Represents Stolen Labour”, “Workingmen Arm”, “Down with Throne, Altar and Money-Bags”.

On Monday May 3rd, as additional workers joined the strike, August Spies, editor of the German language Anarchist newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung addressed several hundred members of the Lumber Shovers’ Union. This was down the road from McCormick Reaper Works on Blue Island Avenue. In April 1885, Cyrus H. McCormick Jr. had been forced to withdraw a 15% wage cut after “the bitterest labor-management struggle in the company’s history” and had been determined to break the union ever since.

He sacked those who had lead the dispute and then in February 1886 declared a general lock out and replaced the rest of his workers with non-union scabs. For the next three months armed guards and the city police fought with the picketers who attempted to harass the scabs.

As an exhausted Spies began to finish his speech which did not mention the McCormick lock out, the bell rang at the Reaper Works which signaled the end of the day. Although Spies pleaded for his audience to stand firm, 200 of the crowd broke off to confront the scabs. The strikers had managed to drive the scabs back into the factory, which now had its windows broken by those who threw stones. After the police and picketers fought with truncheons and stones, the police drew their guns and fired into the crowd, killing two and injuring many more.

The next day some anarchists distributed a leaflet calling calling for people to gather at the Haymarket Square at 7:30 in the evening to protest the police violence: it was a rainy day and only 200-300 people turned out. The meeting was peaceful, so peaceful in fact that Mayor Carter Harrison Sr. walked amongst the crowd then returned home to bed, convinced that there would be no trouble. As Samuel Fielden, the last speaker was finishing his speech at about 10:30, a police contingent began to march towards the crowd and gave orders to disperse. It was at this point that someone(1) threw a bomb, killing one policeman and injuring several more. The police opened fire, killing at least four workers and injuring many more, in addition many police were killed or injured due to friendly fire.

In the aftermath known socialists were rounded up, union offices and print works were raided and a press propaganda campaign launched against reds, alongside one of the most serious miscarriages of justice in US history. August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel and Louis Lingg were sentenced to death by hanging. Lingg committed suicide by setting off a small bomb in his mouth, it blew off his jaw and destroyed a large section of his face, it took six hours of pain for him to die. Michael Schwab and Samuel Fielden had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment by governor Richard Oglesby before being pardoned by governor John Altgeld, Oscar Neebe received 15 years in prison.

Two years later the American Federation of Labour decided to campaign for the eight hours day once again and set 1st May 1890 as the next day for a general strike for the cause. In response Raymond Lavigne, at the first congress of the Second International, meeting in Paris on the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution tabled a motion calling for, “a great international demonstration” on the 1st May to demand the eight hours day. The protest were such a success that it became an international tradition.

“The day will come when our silence will be more powerful that the voices you strangle today.” – August Spies, just before his demise.