International Workers' Day then and now

2000 to see international actions against capitalism

This May 1st, thousands of activists in dozens of countries are expected to simultaneously disrupt business as usual in what could be the largest international anti-capitalist mobilization in years. Following in the afterglow of Seattle, and coordinated by a loosely knit coalition that staged over 100 simultaneous protests in over 40 countries against economic globalization last June 18, the global mobilization includes a call for a General Strike on May Day, which falls on a Monday this year. In San Francisco, planning is underway for a creative, colorful and effective action against the capitalist forces which are destroying the earth’s environment and emiserating workers both here and abroad. Across the US and around the world, the days leading up to May 1 will feature a rich quilt of anarchist and workers picnics, forums, gatherings and the like.

Every year, May Day, known as International Workers Day in many countries, commemorates the historic struggle of working people throughout the world for liberation and justice. Ironically, in its place of origin, the United States, May Day has little or no significance to people in their everyday lives.

Many think May Day has something to do with the changing of the seasons and can conjure up vague visions of Maypole celebrations happening in a pasture somewhere in Europe. Some think it has to do with celebrating a season of fertility and rebirth. (This is Beltane the festival of fertility in many earth-centered religions). For others, it brings to mind extravagant military parades past the Kremlin celebrating Red power-a Communist holiday.

Most of us educated in state run schools have never heard a word about May Day and its origins. Even a chapter devoted to labor history and the labor unions is a rare occurrence. In fact, the events of May Day and the execution of the Chicago anarchists, spokespeople of the movement for the eight hour workday, mobilized many generations of radicals and continues to reverberate today. Emma Goldman, in her autobiography, Living My Life points to the Haymarket massacre as her political birth.

It all began over a century ago when the American Federation of Labor adopted a resolution that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1st 1886.” With workers forced to work ten, twelve, and fourteen hours a day, support for the eight-hour movement grew rapidly. In the months prior to May 1st, thousands of organized and unorganized workers, members of the Knights of Labor and of the American Federation of Labor, were drawn into the struggle.

In Chicago, the main center of agitation where the anarchists were in the forefront of the labor movement, 400,000 alone went out on strike for the 8 hour day. In the months leading up to May 1, two anarchist labor organizers, Albert Parsons and August Spies addressed crowds of thousands, making themselves the targets of the newspapers who called for “a communist carcass for every lamp post”.

Seeing class struggle and the strike as its most powerful weapons, the AFofL demanded an eight hour work day as a means of organizing the nation’s workers into a fighting force. Despite fierce resistance by industrialists, the press, and other contending forces within the labor movement, most working people supported the eight-hour day and were prepared to walk out for it.

On the morning of May 1, 1886, armed Pinkertons, militia and national guard were ready to put down what they thought would be a workers insurrection. However, all this preparation for violence was a waste of time -a parade and festivities took place without any trouble.

Two days later, at another meeting of striking workers outside the McCormick harvester plant, things were just breaking up with about 200 people remaining when police charged in and started shooting workers in the back as they tried to flee. Outraged by this vicious police attack, Albert Parsons circulated a flyer calling for a meeting at Haymarket Square in Chicago.

The crowd for the demonstration was larger than expected. After beginning to disband because of a storm that was brewing, the police started marching on the crowd. Suddenly somebody in the crowd threw a bomb at the police, killing seven.

Although it was never determined who threw the bomb, the incident was used as an excuse to attack and scapegoat anarchists and the labor movement in general. In the middle of a police reign of terror, union leaders and suspected radicals were randomly arrested without charge-“make the raids first and look up the law afterwards.” Anarchists in particular were harassed and eight of Chicago’s most active were charged with conspiracy to murder in connection with the Haymarket bombing. The martyrs, all anarchists-Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, and Oscar Neebe-were found guilty despite a lack of evidence connecting any of them to the bombing. Neebe received 15 years while the others were sentenced to die. The day before the execution date, Fielden and Schwabs’ sentences were commuted while 21 year old Lingg committed suicide by using a dynamite cartridge which he placed in his mouth before lighting the fuse. As an anarchist, he did not recognize the right of the state to take his life and therefore decided to take it on his own.

On November 11, 1887, known the world over as “Black Friday” by anarchists, Parsons, Spies, Fischer, and Engels stood on the gallows. Under his hood, Spies spoke his final words, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voice you strangle today.”

In 1888, the AFL set May 1st, 1889 as a day of action for the eight-hour day. The following year, the newly formed International Association of Working People voted their support, and workers all over Europe and America demonstrated by holding meetings and parades to celebrate the eight hour workday. This was the birth of the International May Day, still celebrated all over the world.

Despite its setbacks in the U.S., May Day is still embraced by millions of workers in every country of the world as a day to raise class demands and show the strength of the working class as a whole. Why not reclaim May Day as our own, and reject the government milk sop “Labor Day” way off in September, with which workers have no connection.

It’s hardly a shock that the state, capitalist leaders and media would want to keep the true history of May Day hidden from the people. After all, it is an opportunity to show that the conscious organization of the working classes is a potent revolutionary force, the thought of which has haunted bosses and the ruling classes the world over. By reclaiming May Day for the workers of today we are reminding the ruling elite just how very vulnerable they really are.

Today more than ever, there is a need for a universal day of rage and hope and solidarity. May Day is that day.