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Lucy Parsons on the Origins of May Day
“I have made some enemies. My enemies in the southern states consisted of those who oppressed the black slave. My enemies in the north are among those who would perpetuate the slavery of the wage workers” -Albert Parsons, Martyr of Haymarket hanged by the State of Illinois in November 1887.
Introduction by Steven Argue
The following article is by Lucy Parsons. She was the wife and comrade of Albert Parsons, a labor activist and one of the four Haymarket martyrs. This article first appeared in the Labor Defender in November 1926. The Labor Defender was a newspaper of the International Labor Defense, a working class defense organization tied to the early American Communist Party.
Lucy Parsons was probably born a slave in Texas in 1853. She married Albert Parsons, a white man and former Confederate soldier. The two were married despite the fact that they lived in the south at a time when mixed marriages were illegal. They organized against racial segregation and Albert Parsons tried to register Blacks to vote. It was due to these activities that Albert Parsons was shot in the leg and the couple were forcibly driven from the south.
In the north the Parsons were part of early anarchist organizations and fought for the eight hour day. It was due to this work that Albert Parsons became one of the four Haymarket martyrs when he was executed in 1887. Albert Parsons was framed and hung on charges of throwing a bomb at police. Yet, he wasn't even wasn't there during the incident. Three other victims were also wrongly executed, another died in his cell, and another three were given lengthy prison sentences. It was the martyrdom of these early anarchist workers in their fight for the eight hour day that established May 1st as International Workers' Day around the world.
Lucy Parsons went on to continue to fight for the eight hour day and for a socialist transformation of the world. Like many anarchists at that time, she was inspired by the Russian Revolution. In 1925 she began working with the Communist Party. In the 1930s, Lucy Parsons became very active in the Communist Party's campaign to free the Scotsboro Boys, eight African American men and boys framed up for the rape of a white woman and sentenced to death in 1931. This campaign became internationally known and was critical in saving the lives of these victims of southern lynch law "justice". In 1939 Lucy Parsons joined the Communist Party. At that time the Communist Party, despite Stalinist degeneration, was playing an important role in the leadership of the unions and in the struggle for Black liberation. Besides important work saving the lives of the Scotsboro Boys, the Communist Party was even able to organize a demonstration of 20,000 people for workers unity against Jim Crow segregation in Alabama.
It was also reds who were winning the eight hour day. To the extent the working class does have the eight-hour day, the early anarchists played an important role, but the eight hour day was finally won in the 1930s through strikes led by Trotskyists, Communists, and left socialists.
The eight hour day was put into law when the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was passed (giving most of us the 40 hour week).
The thing that had changed the balance of forces were three strikes in 1934. Before 1934 the labor movement of the United States was unable to effectively fight back due to the conservative leadership of the labor unions. It was a situation very similar to today. In 1934 this all changed when socialists took the leadership of three important unions and, unlike the entrenched union bureaucrats, were able to lead successful strikes. These were the San Francisco longshoremen’s union led by the Communist Party, the Minneapolis Teamsters led by the Trotskyist Communist League of America, and the Toledo Auto-Lite Strike led by the left socialists of the Workers Party. General strikes also took place in San Francisco and Minneapolis.
These victorious strikes were the three most important strikes in U.S. history. These 1934 victories (along with the tactics used) inspired the great labor upsurge that formed the CIO and made many gains against the employers. This is what created the climate that forced one of the parties of the ruling rich, the Democrats, to give the working class the “New Deal”. Besides the gains made directly through collective bargaining, gains for the working class included the first minimum wage, Social Security, a federal jobs program, and the 40 hour week.
The books the “The Big Strike” by Mike Quin on the 1934 San Francisco Longshoreman’s strike and “Teamster Rebellion” by Farrell Dobbs on the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters Strike are important resources in understanding the types of leadership and tactics it will take to revitalize the American labor movement and begin to turn the tables on the capitalists and their government.
Despite winning the eight hour day in 1938, for many in the United States, however, the eight-hour day has not yet been won. Farm workers in California, for instance, still do not have the eight-hour day. In addition, wages are so low for many workers in the United States that overtime is an essential supplement to wages. Still others are forced to work multiple part-time jobs, a situation where overtime is not payed.
In the spirit of the Haymarket martyrs we struggle on for fighting unions, the eight hour day (or 6 hour day), a $15 dollar an hour minimum wage, and a socialist future where the wealth and power of society are no longer in the hands of the greedy few.
-Steven Argue for the Revolutionary Tendency
The Haymarket Martyrs
by Lucy Parsons
1926 Article from the Labor Defender
Does this rising generation know that those who inaugurated the eight-hour day were put to death at the command of capital?
Until forty years ago men, women, and children toiled ten and often twelve hours a day in factories for a mere pittance and children from eight to nine years of age had to work to help to keep up the family.
The Knights of Labor, a powerful organization, claiming 500,000 members, had never agitated for a reduction of the hours of labor. Then who were the pioneers of the eight-hour movement?
Those martyrs who were strung from the gallows in Chicago on November 11, 1887, the much lied about and abused Anarchists.
I will verify this statement. Until 1885 there had never been a concerted action for the reduction of the hours of labor. If eight hours was mentioned in some of our meetings (they were never really mentioned), why, that was only a dream to be indulged in by fools; the bosses would never tolerate such a thing, was the reply.
In 1885 a convention was held in Chicago, composed largely of delegates from Canada. They passed a resolution calling upon the workers of this country and Canada to unite in a demand for a reduction of the hours of daily toil to eight a day on the first of May, 1886, and to strike wherever it was refused. Albert R. Parsons brought the matter up before the Trade and Labor Assembly of Chicago, the first central body ever organized in this city, a body which he himself organized and of which he was elected president three consecutive times. The matter was hotly debated and finally rejected on the ground that the bosses would never tolerate it.
The Central Labor Union, composed of German mechanics, took the matter up and endorsed it. At the same time they passed a resolution requesting August Spies, editor of the Chicago Arbeiterzeitung, the daily German paper, and Albert R. Parsons, editor of the Alarm, to support it in their papers and speeches; they were both splendid orators.
Thus it was that the eight-hour movement got under way. Many other cities agitated for it, but Chicago was the storm center of the movement owing to the zeal and courage of the men and women of this city who worked day and night for it. The result was that when May 1, 1886, arrived, it found Chicago well organized and demanding the eight-hour day, striking by the thousands where the demand was refused. It was a veritable holiday for the workers.
The bosses were taken completely by surprise. Some were frightened and threatening; some were signing up; others were abusing those “scoundrels” who had brought all this trouble upon “our” city and declaring that they would be made examples of, that they ought to be hung and the like.
Bradstreet [a financial publication of the time] declared (see Bradstreet of that date) that stocks had slumped on the New York market owing to the strike situation in Chicago.
The police were unspeakably brutal, clubbing and shooting; factory whistles blew, but few responded.
I was chairman of the Women’s Organization Committee and know personally how that great strike spread. I have never seen such solidarity. I only wish I could describe it in detail, those stirring times. It would make the blood course swiftly through the veins of the rebels of today, but lack of space forbids.
In the afternoon of May 3, the McCormick Reaper Works employees were holding a meeting at the noon hour, discussing the strike and declaring for the eight-hour day—they were then working twelve hours—when wagon loads of police dashed down upon them and began clubbing and shooting without a word of warning. An afternoon paper stated there were five killed and many injured at this meeting.
August Spies who was addressing the meeting, returned to the Arbeiterzeitung office and issued the circular calling the Haymarket meeting for the next evening, May 4. I will allow Mayor Harrison, who was the first witness for the defense, to describe that meeting:
“I went to the meeting for the purpose of dispersing it in case I should feel it necessary to do so for the safety of the city...there was no suggestion made by either of the speakers looking toward calling for immediate use of force or violence. I saw no weapons at all upon any person. In listening to the speeches I concluded that it was not an organization to destroy property...”
For holding that peaceable protest meeting, five of as fine young men as ever lived, all labor organizers, were condemned and judicially murdered on November 11, 1887, in Chicago, Illinois.
There was a riot at the Haymarket meeting, it is true, but it was a police riot. Mayor Harrison further testified that, when the meeting was about to adjourn, he went to the police station, half a block distant, and ordered Captain Bondfield to send the reserves to the other stations, as the meeting was about to adjourn and was quiet. Instead of Bondfield obeying the orders of the Mayor, as soon as the Mayor started home, Bondfield rushed a company of police at double quick, with drawn clubs, upon the meeting of peaceably assembled men, women and children. At the onrush of these violators of the people’s constitutional rights someone hurled a bomb. Who threw that bomb has never become known. Neither the police nor the capitalists wanted to know; what they wanted was to get hold of the labor organizers and make “examples” of them as they said openly they would do.
The trial, so-called, lasted sixty-one days. The jury reached their verdict in less than three hours, condemning seven men to the gallows and one to prison for fourteen years. I herewith give a few, just a few, samples of the rulings of the judge who presided at the trial in selecting the jury.
James H. Walker said he had formed an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of the defendants, which opinion he still held. Now the judge takes him in hand.
“Do you believe that you can listen to the testimony and the charge of the court and decide upon that alone, uninfluenced and unbiased by the opinion that you now have?”
“No, I don’t.”
“That is what I asked you.”
“I said I would be handicapped.”
“Do you believe that you can fairly and impartially render a verdict in accordance with the law and the evidence in this case?”
“I shall try to do it, sir.”
“But do you believe that you can sit here and fairly and impartially make up your mind from the evidence whether that evidence proves that they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or not?”
“I think I could but I would feel that I was a little handicapped in my judgment. I am prejudiced, sir.”
“Well, that is a sufficient qualification for a juror in this case. Of course, the more a man feels that he is handicapped the more he will guard against it.”
W.B. Allen, another juror. The judge asked:
“I will ask you whether what you have formed from what you have read and heard is a slight impression or an opinion, or a conviction?”
“It is a decided conviction.”
“Have you made up your mind as to whether these men are guilty or innocent?”
“Would it be difficult to change that conviction or impression perhaps?”
“It would be hard to change my conviction.”
Seven years later Governor John P. Altgeld reviewed the whole case. He, having been a judge before he was elected governor, was amply competent to review the case in a legal manner. He took the testimony and proved from it that our comrades were absolutely innocent. In his masterly State Paper, Altgeld’s “Reasons” (I can only take a few extracts from it here, the document is printed in the Life of Albert R. Parsons in full) Governor Altgeld says:
“The state has never discovered who threw the bomb which killed the policemen and the evidence does not show any connection between the defendants and the man who did throw it...and again it is shown here that the bomb was, in all probability, thrown by someone seeking revenge, that is, a course had been pursued by the authorities which would naturally cause this; that for a number of years prior to the Haymarket affair there had been labor troubles, and in several cases a number of laboring people, guilty of no offense had been shot down in cold blood by the Pinkerton’s men, and none of the murderers were brought to justice...
“All facts tend to show the improbability of the theory of the prosecution that the bomb was thrown as the result of a conspiracy on the part of the defendants to commit murder; if the theory of the prosecution were correct, there would have been many more bombs thrown and the fact that only one was thrown shows that it was an act of personal revenge... The record of the case shows that the judge conducted the trial with malicious ferocity and forced eight men to be tried together who should have been tried separately.”
Albert R. Parsons was not arrested immediately after the Haymarket meeting. He left Chicago and stayed with his friend, D.W. Hoan, father of the present mayor of Milwaukee, at Waukesha, Wisconsin. The day the trial began he came into court and surrendered, stating that he was innocent of bomb-throwing and only wanted a chance to prove his innocence. But he too was murdered along with the other four.
Parsons, Spies, Lingg, Fischer and Engel. Although all that is mortal of you is laid beneath that beautiful monument in Waldheim Cemetery, you are not dead. You are just beginning to live in the hearts of all true lovers of liberty. For now, after forty years that you are gone, thousands who were then unborn are eager to learn of your lives and heroic martyrdom, and as the years lengthen the brighter will shine your names, and the more you will come to be appreciated and loved.
Those who so foully murdered you, under the forms of law—lynch law—in a court of supposed justice, are forgotten.
Rest, comrades, rest. All the tomorrows are yours!
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