Date: Wed, 1 May 1996 14:44:31 CDT
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Subject: L&M: May Day, the workers' day
From: "Workers World" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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
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.
EXPLOITATION BREEDS RESISTANCE
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
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
CIVIL WAR FUELS EIGHT-HOUR DAY DEMAND
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
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
"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."
TRENDS IN LABOR MOVEMENT
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
A SECOND DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
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
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
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
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
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
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
SOLIDARITY VS. WITCH HUNT
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,
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.
MAY DAY SPREADS WORLDWIDE
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
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
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
>From 1919 onward, the success of May Day in the United
States would depend on the success of the communist
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
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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