History of May Day

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Every year, people around the world celebrate May Day as International Workers Day to commemorate the struggle of working people for liberation and justice. In the US, May Day isn*t an official holiday nor is it celebrated by very many people even though celebrating May Day as a worker*s holiday started in the US.

In 1886, 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, 400,000 workers went out on strike. Chicago was the center of agitation and anarchists were in the forefront of the labor movement. On the morning of May 1, 1886, armed Pinkerton private security, militia and the National Guard were ready to put down what they thought would be a workers insurrection. Instead, a parade and festivities took place without any trouble.

Two days later, again police charged in at another meeting of striking workers outside the McCormick harvester They 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 demonstration was larger than expected. After beginning to disband because of a gathering storm, 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,” said the police. You see these tactics today being used against the occupy movement.

Anarchists in particular were harassed and eight of Chicago*s most active were charged with conspiracy to murder in connection with the Haymarket bombing. Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, and Oscar Neebe – were tried and 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 detonating a blasting cap in his mouth. 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 by anarchists the world over as “Black Friday”, 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 around the globe.