A May 1 letter from a retired steelworker
Happy May Day.
May 1st is May Day, the International Workers Holiday. In every nation on earth, working people gather together to celebrate a holiday dedicated to the folks that labor and produce all wealth. As well, it is a day to protest against bad conditions for working people and to join together to fight for a better and more just world.
However, a great many people here in the United States don’t know that May Day originated here in the U.S.A. as a day of remembrance of those leaders of the great eight hour day movement who were arrested, imprisoned and judicially murdered in Chicago, 1886.
Ever since May Day was declared an International Worker’s Holiday, 122 years ago, authorities in our nation have tried and tried and tried to suppress all memory of May Day. It was re-named Flag Day and Law Day, and on Haymarket Square in Chicago, the site of murders of demonstrating workers in 1886 by Chicago cops, a number of statues of policemen were erected.
But 122 years later, working people all across the earth are again rising up, celebrating the solidarity of all working people. Flag Day and Law Day are forgotten and the numerous police statues were blown up, torn down, until it was finally moved to the Police Museum in Chicago.
In 2004, the Chicago Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO paid to erect a beautiful monument to the heroic, embattled workers that demonstrated there on that May afternoon in 1886, and where many laid down their lives, in the hope that the eight hour day, and better conditions for workers, could come to be. If you visit the former Haymarket site in Chicago today, you will find that the memorial to the martyrs of that first May Day is surrounded with flowers, notes20and remembrances from visitors from our nation and from nearly every nation on earth.
As well, while those of great wealth and power have done their best to erase the memory of May Day as a Worker’s Holiday born in our own nation, unionists and working folks across the U.S.A. are rediscovering our own tough and bloody history, the history of those who fought to win whatever rights we have today. That inspiration is spurring new generations on to fight for right to organize, health care for all, rights for foreign and native born workers, peace and justice for all peoples!
The eight hour day movement began, in earnest, in 1884 at the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. That union passed a resolution to ‘establish eight hours work as the legal day’s labor for all workers,’ and called for a ‘universal strike for the establishment of the working day of 8 hours, to take place no later that May 1, 1886.’
Workers across the USA were inspired, as this movement spread. Workers ate ‘8 hour lunch,’ wore ‘8 hour shoes’ and smoked ‘8 hour tobacco.’ The “8 hour song’ swept across the nation;
‘We mean to make things over, We’re tired of work for naught But bare enough to live on, ‘Nere an hour for thought We want to feel the sunshine, We want to smell the flowers We’re sure that God has willed it, We mean to have 8 hours We’re summoning our forces, From shipyard, shop & mill Eight hours for work, 8 hours for rest, Eight hours for want we will!’
When May 1, 1886 arrived, the movement had become huge. Over 350,000 workers, from 12,000 shops struck for the eight hour day. In Chicago, over 40,000 workers walked out. Demonstrations occurred in not only in Chicago, but also New York, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Columbus, Milwaukee, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St Louis, Washington, Philadelphia and many other cities.
The wealthy were terrified and attacks on the workers were organized. In Chicago, a police force of over a thousand cops brutally attacked the demonstration, killing many workers. The numbers killed at this and other rallies isn’t known, since many families took their wounded and dead home to avoid persecution.
In Chicago, a rally was called for May 4 at Haymarket square to protest these murders. But again police attacked and murdered an estimated 20-25 workers, with many, many more wounded. At this demo, a bomb was thrown, killing one cop. The papers called for blood and eight leaders of that rally were arrested and charged with murder, even though none were present at the time of the violence.
Those radical union leaders: Albert Parsons, Oscar Neebe, Samuel Fielden, August Spies, August Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg & Micheal Schawb never had any chance. The establishment papers called for their death, and were sure to get it. Seven of the eight were foreign born, but most were U.S. citizens, from Germany, England & Ireland. Parsons was a former Confederate officer, who’d hated slavery & deserted, later marrying the beautiful former slave, Lucy Parsons, who became a Union/Worker’s leader in her own right. After they were convicted, August Spies, a great orator and union leader stood and told the court.
‘If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement, that movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in want and misery, expect salvation, if this is your opinion, then by all means hang us! But you cannot stamp this movement of humanity out! Here you will tread upon a spark, there and there, behind you and in front of you, everywhere flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire! You can never put it out!’
On Nov. 11, 1887, the hangings were carried out, in spite of a massive worldwide movement for their freedom.
Soon thereafter, the International Workingmen’s Association, an early labor movement that had representatives from many nations, issued a call to ‘observe May 1 as a day of remembrance of the martyrs of May Day, and in solidarity with workers in struggles throughout the world!’ The American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor, the union organizations in our nation, also adopted this call.
On June, 26, 1893, Illinois Governor Peter Altgeld issued a full pardon for all the May Day defendents. He stated that ‘The defendents, leaders of labor, were not guilty of any crime!’ They were he said, ‘completely innocent, victims of a packed jury, public hysteria and a biased judge!’
From that time until the present, working people throughout the world have celebrated May 1st as the Holiday for Workers. In our own nation, labor history, like that of African Americans, women, Hispanics, gays and others marginalized by our society, is being rediscovered. Try as they might, the wealthy and those controlling the media cannot erase history!
In closing, it brings to mind an interview with the great American folk singer, Pete Seeger, shortly after he had finally broken the blacklist put on him during the McCarthy period and had appeared on the Smothers Brothers Show. The interviewer asked Pete, ‘Isn’t folk music dead now Pete? Haven’t people just moved on from that kind of old fashioned music?’ When Pete stopped laughing, he exclaimed, ‘Folk music dead? Hardly, no, never! Folk music is just what it says it is, music of the folks, people’s music. Sometimes, like the people who make it, it is driven underground, covered up, forgotten for a time. But, like the people, it comes back! When the people stand up and speak out for justice, folks will make folk music! Like the people, folk music will never die!’
Like the history our people have made. We will always look back, then forward again, discovering the truth!
with love—- Bruce Bostick (proud Steelworker)
“Ten thousand times the labor movement has stumbled and fallen, bruised itself, then risen again, been seized by the throat and choked into insensibility, enjoined by the courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, shot down by regulars, frowned upon by public opinion, deceived by politicians, threatened by priests, repudiated renegades, preyed upon by grafters, infested with spies, deserted by cowards, betrayed by traitors, bled by leeches and sold out by leaders. But, notwithstanding all these, it is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known!”
— Eugene V. Debs, 1912 (Leader of the Railway Union, Socialist Party leader—candidate for President, received over 1 million votes while imprisoned, for the crime of opposing the World War I, as a “capitalist war against the workers of all nations.”)
This article was originally published on May 2, 2009.
Photo: John Bachtell/PW