by Ed Felien
The first day in May is celebrated in every country in the world (except America and Canada) as a Workers Holiday. It is meant to recognize the value of labor and give workers one day to articulate their joys and struggles in whatever form they choose. Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, union organizers, radicals and anarchists used this holiday as a platform to agitate for social change on behalf of working people.
As early as the 1860s there was a struggle for the eight hour day. Ten-, 12- and 14-hour days were common for workers. Anarchists were deeply committed to this struggle, and the police and National Guard acting on behalf of business owners were determined to suppress the movement.
had been a militant but peaceful celebration in Chicago on May 1, 1886, but
on May 3 police fired into a crowd of striking workers at McCormick Harvester
Machine Company killing at least one and wounding others. Anarchists called
for a meeting the following day in Haymarket Square to protest the murder of
The large meeting was peaceful and by the time the last speaker was on the platform,
it was starting to rain and the crowd was beginning to leave. There were only
about 200 people left when 180 police marched in to clear the Square. A bomb
was thrown at the police, killing one officer. Six others were killed in a gunfight
that followed between the police and armed anarchists.
No one ever found out who threw the bomb, but eight anarchist and socialist
leaders were arrested. They were charged with murdering the one policeman who
was killed by the bomb. Most of them were not anywhere near Haymarket when the
bomb went off. There was never any direct evidence linking them to the bomb.
They were indicted, tried and convicted because of their ideas. Yes, they advocated
seizing the means of production by force if necessary, but they never advocated
homicide. Yes, they advocated that workers should defend themselves, but they
understood that the murder of a policeman would only hurt their cause.
It was the common judgment of the time and certainly the verdict of history
that the men did not receive a fair trial. The judge was prejudiced against
them. Jury selection was tainted. They were convicted and sentenced to be hung.
Four of them were hung. One committed suicide in his cell. The three remaining
prisoners had their sentences commuted to life in prison. Eventually, Governor
Altgeld freed the men because he and popular opinion believed the men to be
generations, up to the outset of World War II, the Haymarket Martyrs were remembered
with fierce tears and determined resolution at every annual May Day celebration.
What they had hope of achieving became the manifesto of millions. Their sacrifice
made Chicago a union town and advanced the cause of workers across the country.
The captains of industry in Chicago thought that by stringing up some of the
ringleaders of the movement they would set an example to the rest of them. They
thought it would put out the fire. Instead, it fanned the flames of discontent,
and by the 1930s, talk of revolution became a raging fire.
Conservative elements struck back. The Veterans of Foreign Wars started Loyalty
Day on May 1 in the 1930s. Uniontown, Pennsylvania, staged an Americanism parade
on May Day in 1932. The Catholic Church dedicated the month of May and particularly
May Day to the Virgin Mother. Then, in 1958, President Eisenhower proclaimed
May 1 to be celebrated as Law Day. He also created a Labor Day on the first
Monday in September. On the last day of summer, there is some time set aside
to praise working people. But radicals, socialists, anarchists, communists and
any other dreamer with a sense of history remembers May 1 as the day to commemorate
those who have fallen in the struggle for social justice.
The principal organizers of the struggle for the eight-hour day in Chicago in
1886 were German and East European immigrants. They took the jobs that native
born Americans didn’t want, and it was their labor that built this country
into the wealthiest nation in the world. It hardly seems an accident that our
newest immigrants declared May 1, 2006, to be A Day Without Immigrants to show
Americans the significance of immigrant labor and buying power.
This was a tremendous event. Probably close to 2 million participated nationwide.
The rally in Powderhorn Park attracted between 1,500 and 2,000. It is not possible
to overstate the importance of this event. Immigrants face racism, discrimination,
unsafe conditions and exploitation every day. They said, “This is enough!
We demand dignity for our work.” They called for a General Strike of immigrant
workers and students. A General Strike! There hasn’t been a call for a
General Strike since the Longshoremen in San Francisco called for one in 1934.
Clearly, the leaders of this General Strike are the vanguard of revolutionary
change in America. They are our hope for tomorrow.
Si, Se Puede!
Yes, We Can! ||
Heart of the Beast’s May Day Festival: 'The Time is Now'"
origins of the May Day Festival"
PHOTOS FROM THE MINNEAPOLIS MAY DAY FESTIVAL: