BROOKLYN, NY (Workers World Today) — May Day celebration has two contradictory meanings. As TIME explained, “May Day is known for maypoles, flowers and welcoming the spring. On the other hand, it’s a day of worker solidarity and protest….”
Many people may not be aware that Chicago is the birthplace of the labor movement known as May Day, which (ironically) countries other than the US have adopted and continue to celebrate.
History teaches that on May 1st, 1886, over 200,000 American workers, anarchists and unions organized a nationwide strike, Chicago’s Haymarket Square serving as the epicenter of the labor action. Those American workers protested against unfair working conditions and demanded an eight-hour workday, a demand considered radical at the time, which has now become universal.
The Chicago protests were more peaceful and less violent in the beginning. However, the clash between protesters and the police escalated after an unidentified person threw a bomb at the police that killed one officer instantly and wounded others. What happened next was very tragic, and showed corporate America’s extreme violence and miscarriage of justice when it felt threatened, having the police and biased judiciary system at its disposal.
After the bomb attack, “police drew guns, firing wildly. Sixty officers were injured, and eight died; an undetermined number of the crowd were killed or wounded. The Haymarket bomb seemed to confirm the worst fears of business leaders and others anxious about the growing labor movement and radical influence in it. Mayor Harrison quickly banned meetings and processions. Police made picketing impossible and suppressed the radical press.
“…Chicago newspapers publicized unsubstantiated police theories of anarchist conspiracies, and they published attacks on the foreign-born and calls for revenge, matching the anarchists in inflammatory language. The violence demoralized strikers, and only a few well-organized strikes continued,” documented the Encyclopedia of Chicago.
The police began witch-hunting anarchists and other protesters like mad dogs, arresting hundreds of innocent individuals and falsely accusing them of involvement in the bomb attack. Eight individuals were convicted and seven sentenced to death without credible evidence. When the police and prosecutors failed to find evidence that tied the individuals with the attack, they presented writings and public speeches in court room and instructed the jury to pass the death sentence.
“Judge Joseph E. Gary conducted the trial, and all 12 jurors acknowledged prejudice against the defendants. The jury, instructed to adopt a conspiracy theory without legal precedent, convicted all eight. Seven were sentenced to death….The trial is now considered one of the worst miscarriages of justice in American history,” reported the Encyclopedia of Chicago.
Ever since 1886, the labor landscape dramatically changed in America and across the world. The United States, through the Chicago protests, inspired the world to fight for eight-hour workday and other workplace radical changes. International communists, socialists and unionists embraced May 1 as a Workers’ holiday, and not just as a day to welcome Spring and butterflies.
However, America grew wary that the labor movement that rocked Chicago was gaining momentum elsewhere and had become a symbolic day for other countries including the then Soviet Union, which could explain why the government decided to move Labor Day to September.
The Encyclopedia further stated:
“The Haymarket tragedy is remembered throughout the world in speeches, murals, and monuments. American observance was strongest in the decade before World War I. During the Cold War, many Americans saw May Day as a Communist holiday, and President Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 as ‘Loyalty Day’ in 1955. Interest in Haymarket revived somewhat in the 1980s.”
But in the 1980s, the Reagan White House prided itself as the most anti-Labor Union administration. The American labor movement was systematically weakened. Though we still have labor unions that supposedly advocate for workers rights, the majority of them are coopted and mostly serve the interests of management, ignoring the plights of their members.
May Day is a symbolic day, a historical day that reminds us that an idea can be born in one city or nation, but has a potential to transform the rest of the world.
Were it not for the Chicago protests, the 8-hour work day most people cherish today would probably never exist. Most Americans still work more than 10 hours a day, but they at least receive overtime compensation and choose to work the extra hours. Obviously, that assumption excludes undocumented immigrants and migrant laborers. American employers still get away with cheap labor, maximizing their profits. When American workers become expensive, they outsource the jobs to other countries where cheap labor is legally allowed.
And that is precisely why we must remember May Day and continue to strive for a better future where workers, whether American or international, receive their fair share.