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Date: Wed, 1 May 1996 14:44:31 CDT
Sender: Activists Mailing List <ACTIV-L@MIZZOU1.MISSOURI.EDU>
From: NY Transfer News Collective <nyt@blythe.org>
Subject: L&M: May Day, the workers' day

From: "Workers World" <ww@wwpublish.com>
Date: Sat, 27 Apr 1996 16:34:48 -0400 EDT

May Day, The Workers' Day, born in the struggle for the eight-hour day

By Andy McInerney, in Liberation & Marxism,
issue no. 27, Spring 1996

In the opening words of "The Communist Manifesto," Karl Marx and Frederick Engles describe the "specter haunting Europe_ the specter of communism." Since those words were written in 1848, this specter_the conscious organization of the working class into a revolutionary force_has haunted the exploiting classes in every corner of the world.

Before the working class seized state power in the Soviet Union, apologists for the bosses and bankers ridiculed communism as utopian and terroristic. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, the defenders of capitalist rule tried to use defects in the Soviet Union as proof that communism couldn't work. And after the collapse of the USSR, communism was once again deemed a hopeless utopia.

All of these "refutations" of communism are born from the utmost fear of the working class. Revolutions around the world_in Russia, China, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and others_ have shown that capitalist rule is not secure. The workers can win.

Every year, the ruling classes around the world are again reminded of their vulnerability and of the power of their gravedig-gers. On May 1, the world working class displays its strength in demonstrations and strikes. May Day_ International Workers' Day_is a reminder to the ruling classes that their days are numbered.

How did May 1 become a day recognized around the world as a working class holiday, a day of solidarity between workers of all nationalities? Why do the captains of finance and industry still fear the celebration of May Day?

May Day was born from the struggle for the eight-hour day. That struggle, in turn, emerged as part and parcel of the working class itself.

Working classes have existed since the development of agriculture, about ten thousand years ago. Serfs, slaves, tradespeople and others were forced to turn over the fruits of their labor to an exploiting class.

But the modern working class_the class of "free labor," whose exploitation is hidden by the wage system_is only several hundred years old. Although its exploitation is masked, it is no less brutal. Men, women and children are forced to work long hours in miserable conditions just to eke out a bare subsistence.


These conditions gave rise to demands for limitations on the working day. Marx noted in 1867 that "the creation of a normal [fixed] working day is the product of a protracted civil war, more or less dissembled, between the capitalist class and the working class."

Utopian socialist Robert Owen of England had raised the demand for a ten-hour day as early as 1810, and instituted it in his socialist enterprise at New Lanark. For the rest of the English workers, progress was slower. Women and children were granted the ten-hour day in 1847. French workers won the 12-hour day after the February revolution of 1848.

In the United States, where May Day was born, Philadelphia carpenters struck in 1791 for the ten-hour day. By the 1830s, this had become a general demand. In 1835, workers in Philadelphia organized a general strike, led by Irish coal heavers. Their banners read, "From 6 to 6, ten hours work and two hours for meals."

The ten-hours movement had a real impact on workers' lives. >From 1830 to 1860, the average work day had dropped from 12 hours to 11 hours.

Already in this period, the demand for an eight-hour day was being raised. In 1836, after winning the ten-hour day in Philadelphia, the National Laborer declared: "We have no desire to perpetuate the ten-hour system, for we believe that eight hours' daily labor is more than enough for any man to perform." At the 1863 convention of the Machinists' and Blacksmiths' Union, the eight-hour day was put as a top priority.


This agitation was carried out against the backdrop of the Civil War, which broke the back of southern slavocracy_ abolishing slavery and opening the Southern states to free- labor capitalism. Following the Civil War, Reconstruction lifted the aspirations of thousands of former slaves.

This was accompanied by the widespread growth of the eight- hour movement. Marx noted that "out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first real fruit of the Civil War was the eight-hours' agitation, that ran with the seven- leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California."

As evidence, Marx quotes a declaration from the 1866 General Congress of Labor in Baltimore: "The first and great necessity of the present, to free this country from capitalist slavery, is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working day in all States of the American Union."

Six years later, in 1872, a hundred thousand workers in New York City struck and won the eight-hour day, mostly for building trades workers. It was in this rising ferment for the eight-hour day that May Day was born.

The movement for the eight-hour day was wedded to the date of May 1 at an 1884 convention of the three-year-old Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada_the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor. George Edmonston, founder of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, introduced a resolution designed to crystallize labor's support for the eight-hour day:

"Resolved ... that eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this district that they so direct their laws so as to conform to this resolution by the time named."


At that time, three main trends existed in the U.S. labor movement. The largest was the Order of the Knights of Labor, which claimed 700,000 members in 1886. The Knights held to many progressive positions_including organizing Black and women workers_and had included the demand for the eight-hour day in its first constitution in 1878. But they never launched a determined struggle for the demand, preferring lobbying politicians in Washington.

The FOTLU was founded in 1881 by members of the Knights of Labor_including leaders like Samuel Gompers_and several Marxists. Although they initially supported legislative means to win the eight-hour day, more militant elements, influenced by the socialists, advanced the idea of a general strike to win the demand. It was the Federation which took up much of the practical work in building for the May 1, 1886 event, working to win over the Knights of Labor and other labor groups.

The other current in the labor movement was the anarchists, who organized the International Working People's Association in 1883_after the London anarchist group of the same name. While there were several wings within the IWPA itself, they rejected political action like legislative and electoral campaigns in favor of militant tactics_ranging from class- struggle-based strikes to individual terror.

The campaign building up to May 1, 1886, was embraced by sections of all three of these trends. The leadership of the Knights of Labor rebuffed repeated appeals by the FOTLU to join the movement, declaring themselves opposed to any strike actions. But local Knights assemblies began to call on the national leadership to join the May 1 movement.

Responding to the growing pressure and fearful of the workers' militant mood, Knights Grand Master Workman Terence Powderly issued a letter on March 13, 1886, forbidding Knights members to strike on May 1.

In spite of Powderly's call, local Knights leaders took up organizing for May 1. In Chicago, Knights leader George Schilling joined with the IWPA to build for the day. The Knights also played prominent organizing roles in Cincinnati and Milwaukee.


Despite growing support, the FOTLU was too small to carry out a truly national action. Instead, local committees took responsibility for building May 1 strikes and demonstrations.

The growing strength of the eight-hour movement caused a panic in the ruling class. Newspaper headlines blared warnings of "communist infiltrators." Other bosses capitulated in fear: by April 1886, over 30,000 workers were granted the eight-hour day.

Despite the bosses' predictions of violence, the world's first May Day was a massive success, involving hundreds of thousands in peaceful strikes and demonstrations. The largest demonstration was in Chicago, where 90,000 marched_ as many as 40,000 of whom were strikers. Thirty-five thousand Chicago meatpackers won the eight-hour day with no loss of pay after that strike.

In New York, 10,000 marched to Union Square. Eleven thousand marched in Detroit. May Day rallies in Louisville, Ky., and Baltimore were remarkable for the Black-white unity of the demonstrating workers. All told, as many as half a million workers took part in the May 1 demonstrations in every part of the country_from Maine to Texas, from New Jersey to Alabama.

Samuel Gompers, speaking at Union Square, told the crowd, "May 1st would be forever remembered as a second declaration of independence." But the event that guaranteed May Day a place in the history of the working class did not occur on May 1, but three days later at Haymarket Square in Chicago.

Chicago, besides having the strongest eight-hour movement, was the center of the syndicalist wing of the anarchist IWPA_the wing that viewed the unions as the embryo of classless society. With dynamic leaders like Albert Parsons and August Spies, the Chicago IWPA claimed several thousand members and published five newspapers in three languages.

By May 3, the number of workers on strike in Chicago had soared to 65,000. Alarmed, representatives of industry had decided that decisive action against the workers was necessary.

The battle was joined on the afternoon of May 3. Spies was addressing striking lumber workers, preparing to negotiate with the owners over the eight-hour day.

During the rally, several hundred lumber workers left to join the locked-out workers at the McCormick Harvester Works, about a quarter-mile away. The McCormick workers had been locked out for three months; the plant was being run with scabs, and the lumber workers were joining the locked- out workers to confront the scabs at shift change.

Within 15 minutes, hundreds of cops were on the scene. Spies and the remaining lumber workers, hearing gunshots, headed for McCormick to reinforce their comrades. But a force of police intercepted them, attacking them with clubs and firing into the crowd. At least four workers were killed outright, with many other injured.

Spies immediately issued two leaflets in both English and German. One had the headline, "Revenge! Workingmen, to Arms!" and put responsibility for the atrocity at the hands of the bosses. The other called for a mass rally at Haymarket Square to denounce the police murders.

On the day of the rally, May 4, the police carried out a wave of attacks against striking workers. Despite the attacks, 3,000 gathered for the evening rally_including the mayor, who wanted to insure that the rally remained peaceful.

Spies spoke first, taking up the cop murders the day before. Parsons also spoke, addressing the eight-hour day. After these two leaders left, Samuel Fielden addressed the remaining crowd.

Minutes after the mayor left the rally, while Fielden was speaking, 180 cops closed in on the speakers stand and demanded that the rally disperse. Fielden protested that the rally was peaceful.

Just as the police captain was giving orders to the cops, a bomb was thrown from the crowd into the ranks of the police. Sixty-six cops were wounded; seven later died. The cops turned their guns on the workers, wounding 200 and killing several.


The newspapers and the bosses whipped up a witch hunt against militant workers_especially the anarchist leaders. Seven were arrested within days_Spies, Fielden, Michael Schwab, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, and Oscar Neebe. Parsons evaded a police search until he turned himself in on the day of the trial.

The trial itself was a classical frame-up. The prosecutors produced no evidence that any of the eight men threw the bomb, nor that any of them had conspired to throw the bomb. As prosecuting Attorney Julius Grinnel said in his closing remarks, "Law is upon trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they were leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousands that follow them. ... Convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and save our institutions, our society."

All were sentenced to death except Neebe. Fielden and Schwab petitioned for clemency and had their sentences commuted to life in prison; 21-year-old Lingg cheated the hangman by exploding a dynamite tube in his mouth. The rest were hanged on November 11, 1887.

Six years later, Illinois Gov. John Atgeld freed Neebe, Fielden and Schwab and posthumously pardoned the five executed men, revealing that much of the evidence was phony and that the trial was a charade. But the damage had been done, and not just to the Haymarket Eight.

The entire labor movement came under attack in the witch hunt; the eight-hours' strikes by-and-large collapsed, and about a third of the workers who had won the eight-hour day lost it in the month after the Haymarket incident.

In the year between the Haymarket incident and the executions, the worldwide labor movement came to the defense of the accused. While the Knights of Labor officialdom took the opportunity to attack its more militant rivals, many Knights locals_including the Chicago local_championed the clemency campaign. The newly- founded American Federation of Labor, under Gompers, issued a public appeal for clemency.

Outside the United States, workers in England, Holland, Russia, Italy, France and Spain rallied and donated funds for the defendants. Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck of Germany, alarmed by the workers' movement in defense of the Haymarket defendants, outlawed public meetings of workers.

The Haymarket incident placed the U.S. working class_ especially the U.S. movement for the eight-hour day_at center stage of the world workers' movement. So when the AFL convention in 1888 announced that May 1, 1890, would be a day when labor would enforce the eight-hour day with strikes and demonstrations, the world was listening.


In 1889, over 400 delegates met in Paris on the 100th anniversary of the French revolution at the Marxist International Socialist Congress_the founding meeting of the Second International. Gompers sent a delegate with word of their call for action on May 1, 1890.

The Congress passed a resolution, introduced by the French delegate Lavigne, calling for a "great international demonstration" to take place for the eight-hour day. The demonstration was to take place on May 1, 1890, "in view of the fact that such a demonstration has already been resolved upon by the American Federation of Labor."

The call was a resounding success. On May 1, 1890, May Day demonstrations took place in the United States and most countries in Europe. Demonstrations were also held in Chile and Peru. In Havana, Cuba, workers marched in the world's first May Day demanding the eight-hour day, equal rights for Blacks and whites, and working-class unity.

Frederick Engels, who joined the half-million workers in Hyde Park in London on May 3, reported:

"As I write these lines, the proletariat of Europe and America is holding a review of its forces; it is mobilized for the first time as one army, under one flag, and fighting for one immediate aim: an eight-hour working day."

While the 1889 resolution called for a one-time demonstration on May 1, the day quickly became an annual event. Around the world, workers in more and more countries marked labor's day on May Day.

May Day was celebrated for the first time in Russia, Brazil and Ireland in 1891. By 1904, the Second International called on all socialists and trade unionists in every country to "demonstrate energetically" each May 1 "for the legal establishment of the eight-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace."

Chinese workers celebrated their first May Day in 1920, following the Russian socialist revolution. In 1927, workers in India observed May Day with demonstrations in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. By that time, May Day was truly a world workers' day.

While May Day picked up momentum across the world, it lost steam in its country of origin, the United States. The AFL had begun a rightward turn as early as the aftermath of Haymarket; by 1905 it had disavowed May Day altogether, celebrating instead Labor Day on the first Monday of September_sanctioned by the federal government in 1894.

>From that time onward, May Day in the United States was organized by the left wing of the labor movement, against the hostile attitude of the more conservative labor bureaucracy. In 1910, for example, the Socialist Party brought 60,000 into the streets of New York City for May Day, including 10,000 women of the Shirt Waist Makers' Union. Five hundred thousand workers marched on May Day in 1911.

In 1919, following the now-certain victory of the workers and peasants in the Soviet Union, a vicious red scare swept the U.S. May Day rallies were attacked both in the press and physically.

>From 1919 onward, the success of May Day in the United States would depend on the success of the communist movement.

Despite its setbacks in the United States, May Day is embraced by millions of workers in every country of the world as a day to raise its class demands. Its strength has been in raising demands not just of workers in a particular factory or industry, but of the working class as a whole. The demands of May Day_for the eight-hour day, for unity against racism and national chauvinism, against imperialist war_are demands of the working class against the entire capitalist class.

For that reason, May Day_International Workers' Day_haunts the bankers and corporate barons as much as it inspires the millions of workers who observe it. It is the day when workers take their place in the class army that will one day unseat their masters.

Above the clenched fists and red flags of the assembled ranks of workers are the last words of August Spies, chiseled in stone on the monument to the Haymarket martyrs: "The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today."

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