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May Day- Made in America, Forgotten and Remembered
The Project, Page 10
The country was shook, both financially and politically on May 1st, as millions of immigrants marched though out the US, protesting the criminalization of immigrants. May First, or May Day, was mentioned in passing, its historical significance was referred to, but not necessarily explained. Where does May Day come from? Why do most working classes in most countries celebrate May Day but not the US? These are questions that should be understood to understand the full significance of the contemporary struggle of immigrants as well as its historical meaning.
We can begin to explain May Day all the way back to the struggles taking place in the 17th century with the anti-enclosure movement in England, but for time’s sake, it would be more relevant to begin in 1877. The effects of the 1873 depression led to many working class people to live in impoverished conditions and on a subsistence basis. Everything changed in Pennsylvania, where a strike began of railroad workers that spread like wildfire throughout the country. Both Chicago and St. Louis had general strikes. The workers in latter, which was the industrial center of the country, took over the political life of the city from the strength and energy of their strike. The National Guard moved in only to be won over by the strikers, so the federal government brought in troops who were hardened from their fighting of Native Americans and slaughtered thousands of workers to end the strike. It was an unforgettable lesson.
By 1881, the Knights of Labor tried to pass legislation for a shorter workweek. Such efforts were in vain and the young American working class was too impatient for such politicians, which fostered a militant revolutionary syndicalist and anarchist political outlook. That year, a new trajectory of strikes that were going on the offensive took place. In 1881, there were 129,000 workers on strike. By 1883, there were 149,000, and by 1886, there were 499,489 workers on strike. A center point was created between the revolutionaries, who wanted to abolish the wage system, and the electoral wing, who wanted to pass progressive legislation, as the concept of the 8-hour day. The nation experienced the emergence of a new labor movement, and Chicago was its heart as it was the most organized.
By May 1st, 1886, the strikes had spread at such an amazing rate that they very much paralleled what took place in 1877. The New York Times reported that thousands of dollars was spent by the Commercial Club to prepare for a new bloodbath against the workers movement. In Chicago, on May 1st, 30,000 workers struck. The movement was flexing its muscle as 1,000 brewers reduced their workday from 16 to 10 hours and 1,000 bakers who had formally worked 14 to 18 hours a day reduced it to ten. In John Swinton’s Paper, a reporter stated, “It is an eight-hour boom, and we are scoring victory after victory.”
The McCormick Harvesting Machine factory was on strike, with violence taking place between the strikers and strike-breakers, so the police came in and shot into the crowd killing four and wounding many. A rally was organized at the Haymarket Square to protest the police abuses. 1,200 people showed up giving speeches about how the movement needed to continue. As the last speaker was winding down, rain fell, and most of the crowd had left leaving only 300 people in the square. Then, a stick of dynamite exploded killing six cops, prompting them to fire into crowd.
The very first red scare followed these events, much like the post 9-11 hysteria, and penetrated all forms of mainstream media calling for an end of anarchy and to reestablish order. The newspapers put labor organizers and terrorists in the same camp, resulting in eight of Chicago's most active labor organizers—Parsons, Spies, Fielden, Schwab, Fischer, Lingg, Engle, and Neebe—being 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 sentenced them to death (except for Neebe who was given fifteen years). 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.
In 1889, one hundred years after the French revolution, a conference of unions and radical labor organizers came together to state that May 1st would be the official day of the working-class. The next year protests and marches took place throughout the world. In 1905, the same year as the formation of the IWW and the St. Petersburg Russian Revolution, Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, changed the official day of the working class to the first week in September- Labor Day. This began a tradition of conservative business unionism that attempted to get crumbs from the empire rather than organize the poor across racial, ethnic, and gender lines in a radical direct action framework. But it seems with recent developments, such a tradition is exhausting itself and something new is forming, but perhaps it’s really not so new after all.