MAY DAY is the traditional celebration of international working-class solidarity. Its origins lie in great struggles in the late 19th century and the martyrdom of workers’ leaders executed in Chicago in 1887. DAVE NELLIST, a member of the NSSN anti-cuts committee explains the origins of May Day.
WORKERS HAD long struggled for shorter hours. In England women and children were granted the ten-hour day in 1847. French workers won the 12-hour day after the February 1848 revolution.
In 1886 in America, 350,000 workers in more than 11,000 establishments downed tools demanding an eight-hour day. The centre of that movement was in Chicago, the fastest growing city of its day. It had a huge, developing factory system where workers worked between ten and 18 hours a day.
In1868, after the Civil War, the US Congress passed an eight-hour law but it was enforced only twice. A Minnesota railway was fined just $25 in 1886 for making its workers work more than 18 hours a day.
Workers took matters into their own hands. In 1872 100,000 workers in New York struck and won the eight-hour day, mostly for building trades workers.
The Eight-Hour Movement launched by workers’ organisations was given vigorous new life in 1884 when the new Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions of the United States and Canada resolved: “Eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after 1 May 1886.
“Unless employers institute eight-hour days, the union will stop work at those plants. Across the nation, if necessary.”
In 1885, the Federation’s convention reaffirmed its position: the eight-hour day was coming on 1 May 1886. In Chicago, the International Working People’s Association (IWPA), led by Albert Parsons and August Spies, claimed thousands of members and published five newspapers in three languages.
In 1885, one of the workers’ leading union organisations, the Knights of Labour, planned rallies and demonstrations for the following May to enforce a law that the employers, especially the railway barons, treated with contempt. The slogan was, in the words of one of the songs of that movement: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.”
THE UNIONS grew fast. In 1885 The Knights of Labour increased its membership seven-fold to 700,000. The capitalists were increasingly frightened at the prospect of widespread strikes.
The New York Herald wrote about Wall Street’s worries: “Two hours, taken from the hours of labour, throughout the United States by the proposed eight-hour movement, would make a difference annually of hundreds of millions in values, both to the capital invested in industries and existing stocks.”
On 1 May 1886, in the first national general strike in US history, 500,000 took part in demonstrations across the country.
As a direct consequence, tens of thousands saw their hours of work substantially reduced – often down to an eight-hour day with no loss in pay.
The employers lost no time preparing their revenge. On 1 May the Chicago Mail named two union leaders and wrote: “Mark them for today. Keep them in mind. Hold them personally responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if that trouble occurs”.
The New York Times demanded: “Indict for conspiracy every man who strikes, and summarily lock him up. This method would undoubtedly strike a wholesome terror into the hearts of the working classes… pick out the labour leaders, and make such examples of them as to scare the others into submission.”
The New York Sun, advocated “a diet of lead for hungry strikers.” That time was not long in coming.
Bosses started ‘donating’ money for weapons – gifts from the socially conscientious local business community. The Commercial Club spent $2,000 for a fancy new Gatling gun for the Illinois National Guard – to better ‘control’ workers.
Between 1880 and 1883, the Chicago police department expanded from 473 to 637 men. By 1886, it was over 1,000.
On 3 May, 500 police herded 300 scabs through a picket line at International Harvesters. When the pickets resisted, the police opened fire and several workers died.
A protest meeting the following evening in Haymarket Square protested at the police killings. Towards its end, with only a few hundred workers left, the police arrived to break it up.
The meeting was orderly. The Chicago mayor, present in the Square, later testified: “Nothing had occurred yet, or looked likely to occur to require interference.” He thought the speeches “tame” and advised the police chief to send home the 180 police assembled on stand-by.
Suddenly a bomb was thrown into the police ranks. It was never established whether by an ‘anarchist’ or a police ‘agent provocateur’.
AT THE subsequent trial of the union leaders, the prosecution said it was irrelevant and the judge agreed. Seven police officers were killed and 66 injured. The police turned their guns on the workers wounding 200 and killing several.
Police raids rounded up all known anarchists and socialists, arresting hundreds of union activists throughout the country. Meeting halls, printing offices, even private houses were broken into and searched. State Attorney Julius Grinnell said: “Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards”.
Eight union leaders were put on trial. Seven of them weren’t at the demonstration. The eighth was the speaker on the platform, so he couldn’t have thrown the bomb.
Legality was never the aim, revenge was. The Chicago Tribune gave the game away with the headline: “Hang an organiser from every lamp-post.”
The trial was absurd: the jury even included relatives of the dead policemen. Witnesses and jurors were bribed. A local businessman summed up the employers’ view with the words: “I don’t consider these people to have been guilty of any offence, but they must be hanged… the labour movement must be crushed.
“The Knights of Labour will never dare to create discontent again if these men are hanged.”
International protests followed the inevitable verdict of this scandalous frame-up and judicial murder. Huge meetings were addressed in Britain by Eleanor Marx, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and William Morris.
The city council of Paris protested at the “political crime”. And when four of the union leaders were executed, 200,000 people in Chicago lined the streets for their funeral.
FROM 1886 on, 1 May has grown to an international day of solidarity among working people. In 1889, over 400 delegates met in Paris on the French revolution’s centenary at the Marxist International Socialist Congress – the founding meeting of what became known as the Second International.
The Congress passed a resolution calling for a “great international demonstration” for the eight-hour day on 1 May 1890, “in view of the fact that such a demonstration has already been resolved upon by the American Federation of Labour.”
On 1 May, 1890, May Day demonstrations took place in the US and most European countries. Work stopped in 138 towns in France, 100,000 workers demonstrated in Barcelona, 120,000 in Stockholm.
Demonstrations were also held in Chile and Peru. In Havana, Cuba, workers marched in the world’s first May Day demanding the eight-hour day, equal rights for blacks and whites, and working-class unity.
Frederick Engels, who joined the half-million workers in Hyde Park in London on 3 May reported: “As I write these lines, the proletariat of Europe and America is holding a review of its forces; it is mobilised for the first time as one army, under one flag, and fighting for one immediate aim: an eight-hour working day.”
As workers emerged from tyranny and repression in whatever country, they adopted that day as theirs. The true history of May Day will undoubtedly inspire a new generation, as it has done so often in the past.