The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 70/No. 18           May 8, 2006  
May Day originated in fight
for eight-hour day in U.S.
International Workers Day began in the United States. It is celebrated as May Day throughout the world with the exception of the United States. In 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions began a campaign for the eight-hour working day. The federation set May 1, 1886, as the deadline for the bosses and their government to implement the measure. On that date hundreds of thousands of workers across the country went on strike. The Chicago labor movement, strongly influenced by revolutionary-minded workers who were anarchists, was one of the centers of the strike. Below is an account of the strike and its importance from Revolutionary Continuity: The Early Years 1848-1917 by Farrell Dobbs. Dobbs was a central leader of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes and national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party from 1953 to 1972. This excerpt is being run in place of the Books of the Month column to mark May Day. Copyright © 1980 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

On May 1, 1886, the deadline set for inauguration of the eight-hour day, a gigantic strike wave developed. From coast to coast workers downed their tools, established picket lines, and held mass demonstrations. Then, in Chicago, Illinois—where outstanding labor solidarity was manifested—the capitalists launched a savage counteroffensive.

By that time the anarchists led by [Albert] Parsons and [August] Spies had emerged as the most influential radical tendency within the Chicago labor movement. At first they had been rather indifferent to the eight-hour demand, dismissing it as a reformist compromise with the capitalist system. But when it became apparent that the demand had drawn large masses into united action, they made common cause with the workers in the eight-hour fight as a means of promoting a general confrontation between labor and capital. Acting through trade unions under their sway, the anarchists helped to strengthen the effectiveness of the strike.

As the struggle unfolded, the Chicago police harassed the strikers day after day, trying to provoke an incident that could be used as a pretext for a full-scale attack on the trade unions. A labor rally to protest the police provocations was held at Haymarket Square on May 4. It was a peaceful assembly that was about to adjourn when a large body of cops descended upon it, demanding that those present disperse immediately. At that point a bomb exploded among the police, killing one instantly and wounding others. The forces of “law and order” then fired upon the assembled workers, inflicting many casualties.

This tragedy provided the capitalists with an alibi for a general assault on the eight-hour movement. Through a combination of witch-hunting and police repression labor’s ranks were divided, the strike undermined, and the workers forced to return to their jobs. Even under those adverse conditions, however, some reductions in hours were achieved because the formidable strength displayed by the trade unions had thrown a scare into many employers.

As part of its antilabor campaign the ruling class demanded vengeance against those held responsible for the Haymarket bombing, and the blame was fixed upon the anarchists, who had issued propaganda urging the workers to arm themselves in self-defense. Eight of them were brought to trial before a rigged jury that—acting out of prejudice against the defendants’ ideas—convicted them without the prosecution having presented any proof of guilt. After losing appeals made to higher courts, four victims of the frame-up were hanged: Albert R. Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer. Another of those scheduled to be hanged, Louis Lingg, escaped that fate only by committing suicide. Michael Schwab and Samuel Fielden, both of whom had initially been doomed to execution, later had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. Oscar Neebe received a fifteen-year prison term.

In a political sense, the Haymarket episode put an end to the anarchists’ leading role within the trade unions. Their movement was reduced to little more than a small band of intellectuals, who were located in the eastern part of the country and who exercised no appreciable influence among the masses.

The situation was different, though, concerning the individual anarchists charged with murder. They were honored throughout the mass movement as courageous fighters who had been singled out by the capitalists in an attack that was really aimed at the entire working class. When the jury found the eight defendants guilty, organized labor nationally launched a pardon campaign on their behalf. Following the executions a vast body of Chicago trade unionists attended the funeral of those whose lives had been taken by the capitalist government. The pardon campaign was continued thereafter until finally, a few years later, Governor John P. Altgeld of Illinois reviewed the trial proceedings and declared all the defendants innocent. Altgeld then freed the frame-up victims serving prison terms and granted pardons posthumously to those who had been hanged.
Related articles:
Immigration cops raid company, arrest 1,187 workers, deport 275
Bush: ‘No mass deportations’ Clinton: ‘Build wall along border’
Immigrant rights rallies persist in U.S.
U.S. immigration rises to new levels, shifts from Europe to Asia and Latin America
Stop immigration raids, deportations  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home