People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
April 30, 2006
Commemorating The Historic Struggle Of Working People
MAY 1st – International Workers' Day – commemorates the historic struggle of working people throughout the world, and is recognised in most countries. The United States of America and Canada are among the exceptions. This despite the fact that the holiday began in the 1880s in the USA, linked to the battle for the eight-hour day, and the Chicago anarchists. The struggle for the eight-hour day began in the 1860s. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, (organised in 1881 and changing its name in 1886 to American Federation of Labor) passed a resolution which asserted that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's work from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labour organisations throughout this district that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution".
following year the Federation repeated the declaration that an eight-hour system
was to go into effect on May 1, 1886. With workers being forced to work ten,
twelve, and fourteen hours a day, support for the eight-hour movement grew
rapidly. In the months prior to May 1, 1886, thousands of workers – organised
and unorganised members of the organisation Knights of Labor and of the
federation – were drawn into the struggle. Chicago was the main centre of the
agitation for a shorter day.
the Railroad strikes of 1877, the workers had been violently attacked by the
police and the United States Army. A similar tactic of state terrorism was
prepared by the bureaucracy to fight the eight-hour movement. The police and
National Guard were increased in size and received new and powerful weapons
financed by local business leaders. Chicago's Commercial Club purchased a $2000
machine gun for the Illinois National Guard to be used against strikers.
Nevertheless, by May 1st, the movement had already won gains for many Chicago
workers. But on May 3, 1886, police fired into a crowd of strikers at the
McCormick Harvester Machine Company, killing at least one striker, seriously
wounding five or six others, and injuring an undetermined number. Anarchists
called for a mass meeting the next day in Haymarket Square to protest the
brutality. The meeting proceeded without incident, and by the time the last
speaker was on the platform, the rainy gathering was already breaking up, with
only about two hundred people remaining. It was then a police column of 180 men
marched into the square and ordered the meeting to disperse. At the end of the
meeting a bomb was thrown at the police, killing one instantly, six others died
later. About seventy police officers were wounded. Police responded by firing
into the crowd. How many civilians were wounded or killed from police bullets
never was ascertained exactly.
it was never determined who threw the bomb, the incident was used as an excuse
to attack anarchists and the labor movement in general. Police ransacked the
homes and offices of suspected radicals, and hundreds were arrested without
charge. A reign of police terror swept over Chicago. Staging "raids"
in the working-class districts, the police rounded up all known anarchists and
other socialists. "Make the raids first and look up the law
afterward!" publicly counselled the state's attorney. Anarchists in
particular were harassed, and eight of Chicago's most active were charged with
conspiracy to murder in connection with the Haymarket bombing. A kangaroo court
found all eight guilty, despite a lack of evidence connecting any of them to the
bomb-thrower, and they were sentenced to die.
October, 1886, the weekly journal Knights of Labor published in Chicago, began
the publication of the lives of the Haymarket men. Albert Parsons, August Spies,
Adolf Fischer and George Engel were hanged on November 11, 1887. Louis Lingg
committed suicide in prison. The authorities turned over the bodies to friends
for burial, and one of the largest funeral processions in Chicago history was
held. It was estimated that between 150,000 to 500,000 persons lined the route
taken by the funeral cortege of the Haymarket martyrs. A monument to the
executed men was unveiled June 25, 1893 at Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago.
remaining three, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe and Michael Schwab, were finally
pardoned in 1893. On June 26, 1893, the governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld,
issued the pardon message in which he made it clear that he was not granting the
pardon because he believed that the men had suffered enough, but because they
were innocent of the crime for which they had been tried, and that they and the
hanged men had been the victims of hysteria, packed juries and a biased judge.
He noted that the defendants were not proven guilty because the state "has
never discovered who it was that threw the bomb which killed the policeman, and
the evidence does not show any connection whatsoever between the defendants and
the man who threw it. "It is not surprising that the state, business
leaders, mainstream union officials, and the media would want to hide the true
history of May Day. In its attempt to erase the history and significance of May
Day, the United States government declared May 1st to be "Law Day",
and gave the workers instead Labor Day, the first Monday of September - a
holiday devoid of any historical significance. Nevertheless, rather than
suppressing the labour and anarchist movements, the events of 1886 and the
execution of the Chicago anarchists – spokesmen of the movement for the
eight-hour day – mobilised many generations of radicals. Emma Goldman, a young
immigrant at the time, later pointed to the Haymarket affair as her political
birth. As workers, we must recognize and commemorate May Day not only for it's
historical significance, but also as a time to organise around issues of vital
importance to the working-class, i.e. the people, of today.