May Day: Then and Now

By Jake Carman

In the late 1800s, workers in the US faced abysmal conditions on the job. Workers, including children, could suffer 16 or more hours a day under dangerous, stifling, sweatshop conditions to earn starvation wages and live in cramped quarters. Like today, workers poured in from all over the world to pursue the American Dream through their own honest labor. Workers came from Ireland, Italy, Germany, China, Russia, Japan, Spain, Mexico, Norway, Syria, Slovakia, Poland and elsewhere in search of better lives. When they arrived, however, they faced blatant racism and hate, just like migrant workers do today. Eking out hard livings in tight-knit ethnic communities, most were considered second-class citizens, regarded as diseased criminals, untrustworthy scoundrels and, more importantly, a cheap and dispensable source of labor.

Comparing their tortured conditions to the lives of luxury and leisure that their labor provided to the factory owners and bosses, these workers became determined to organize and win for themselves lives worthy of humans. Many immigrants brought with them the radical traditions of their native countries. Anarchists, socialists and other revolutionaries found eager ears among their fellow workers, foreign and native-born alike. Recognizing the injustices of the United States, they dreamed of a world where workers controlled the products of their labor, where all people had access to food and housing, and where communities - not politicians and bosses - made the decisions.

A movement for an eight-hour day was gaining momentum across the country. This struggle, undertaken by reformers and radicals alike, demanded eight hours for work, eight for sleep and eight for leisure. Chicago's strong labor movement won this right in 1867, to be enacted May 1. However, when that day came, the bosses refused to respect it and the government didn't force them to. Chicago's militant, organized workers went on strike to protest, but the police brutally crushed their resistance within a week and the despondent workers returned to their jobs.

In 1886, another, more radical eight-hour movement gained momentum. Led by migrant and other workers in the anarchist International Working People's Association (IWPA), a general strike was planned for May 1 to proclaim the power and strength of Chicago's determined workers. On May 1, 1886, 400,000 went on strike in Chicago, with another 350,000 joining them across the nation.

Labor Crucified

The workers' momentum continued with strikes and demonstrations. On May 3, the striking 'lumber shovers' union held a public meeting of 6,000 near the McCormick plant. The police attacked the meeting with guns and batons, killing one worker and wounding more. Outraged, anarchists posted a call in their daily German-language paper, the Arbeiter-Zeitung ("Workers' Newspaper"), for a May 4 protest meeting at Haymarket Square.

That night, thousands gathered at Haymarket to denounce police violence. The crowd listened calmly to speeches by migrant anarchist workers such as August Spies and Samuel Fielden. Even the mayor of Chicago, who attended the beginning half of the rally, said, "Nothing looked likely to happen to require police interference," and he advised police captain Bonfield to send his forces home. Bonfield didn't. Around 10 p.m., after the mayor and many attendees left, and as Fielden was calling the meeting to a close, Bonfield's force of 200 officers marched on the rally, threatening violence and demanding dispersal. Someone then threw a bomb at the police, killing one instantly and injuring many. In the chaos, police fired indiscriminately, killing seven of their own plus numerous demonstrators, though they never counted the latter.

"Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards," the state prosecutor said. Police arrested all known anarchists and raided meeting halls, printing offices and homes. Eight prominent anarchists, newspaper editors and unionists - August Spies, Sam Fielden, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Michael Schwab, Louis Lingg and Oscar Neebe - were charged with the Haymarket bombing. Of the eight men, seven were immigrants and only 3 were at Haymarket that night. The state prosecutor handpicked a biased jury, but presented no evidence connecting them to the bomb. As the prosecution argued in court, "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 who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury; convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society." And so they did.

A massive international campaign followed, propelled by Lucy Parsons, an effective labor organizer and wife of Albert Parsons. In response, the state commuted the sentences of Schwab and Fielden to life imprisonment, and Neebe got 15 years. The gallows awaited the rest. The fiery young German carpenter, Louis Lingg, cheated the hangman, committing suicide in his cell the day before his execution. On Nov. 11, 1887, Albert Parsons, Engel, Spies and Fischer were hanged. Six-hundred-thousand people attended their funeral.

At the time, the murder of these anarchist organizers was seen as a setback for the eight-hour movement, but the event actually radicalized many more, including influential anarchists Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre, whose radical careers were inspired by the anarchists of Chicago.

The American Federation of Labor and the anarchist IWPA took the streets again on May Day, 1890, and the movement for the eight-hour day pressed on. Carrying the legacy of the Haymarket Martyrs, organized labor began to make headway. The United Mine Workers achieved the eight-hour day in 1898, as did the Building Trades Council of San Francisco in 1900, printing trades across the US in 1905, and Ford Motor workers in 1914. In 1916, threatening a nationwide general strike, US railroad workers forced the government to pass the Adamson Act, which won them an eight-hour day and additional pay for overtime.

Finally, in 1938, massive militant movements of workers and unemployed forced the Roosevelt government to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act, establishing for many the eight-hour day with extra overtime pay, as well as a national minimum wage and the abolition of "oppressive child labor."

Repression, Deportation and the Decline of Labor

The story doesn't end there. During the May Day parade in 1919, hundreds of workers were arrested, hundreds more were badly beaten and many workers' headquarters were ransacked. In Roxbury, Mass., police and nationalists assaulted parading workers, beating them with clubs, trampling them with horses and shooting at them. In the ensuing battle, two workers and two officers were shot, and a police chief died of a heart attack.

Beyond the police violence, the government also passed a slew of laws to make the deportation of immigrant activists easier and to keep foreign radicals out. In 1903, a new law excluded anarchists and other revolutionaries from entering the US and enabled the government to deport radicals who had lived in the US for three years or less. This law was broadened in 1917 to make immigrants deportable for up to five years, with no time limit for those who advocated anarchism or revolution. This law was used to target the strong Jewish and Italian anarchist currents. In 1918, a new law allowed the deportation of "aliens who are members of, or affiliated with, any organization...that writes, circulates, distributes, prints, publishes or displays, or causes to be written...or has in its possession...any written or printed matter" of an anarchist or revolutionary nature.

From 1919 until 1921, US Attorney General Palmer used these laws in a wave of arrests and deportations, targeting Italian anarchists and other radicals. Radicals who were not deported either fled overseas or went underground. The Palmer Raids decimated the workers' movement. During this time, Massachusetts framed and executed immigrant workers Sacco and Vanzetti based on their Italian heritage and anarchist beliefs in what is recognized worldwide as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in history.

The Struggle Continues: May Day Today

In May 2006, it was again the migrant workers who led the struggle for the rights of workers worldwide. Reviving the tradition of International Workers' Day with El Gran Paro Estadounidense - the Great American Strike - migrant workers organized a one-day strike of work and school and a boycott of commerce. Millions participated in the demonstrations, especially in Los Angeles and Chicago. Everywhere, workers and student allies joined the immigrants, and the demonstrations helped to stop HR4437, a bill that would have made felons of all undocumented immigrants. Across the country, workers again marched for migrants' rights on May Day 2007, 2008 and 2009.

This year, a thousand workers and activists marched from Central Square in East Boston to a rally in Everett, Mass. The march, organized by an immigrant rights coalition, proclaimed: "Yesterday We Voted for Change, Today We Demand Change!" About 100 anarchists and socialists joined the march, bringing a message of anti-capitalism and distributing hundreds of newsletters featuring the history of Haymarket and May Day. The groups that organized the Anti-Capitalist Contingent included BAAM, the Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World and the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN-El Salvador).

More than 1,000 participated in New York City May Day actions. According to NYC Indymedia, rallies were held on Long Island, at Madison Square Park and in Chintatown, converging for a mass rally at Union Square. The demonstrators then marched to the Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan. The Industrial Workers of the World also held an action at a Starbucks in Union Square to protest the company's union-busting attempts and bad labor policies.

At Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, students held two rallies in solidarity with union college staff members and marched on the campus to draw attention to administrative issues.

Maryann Colella, a member of Bread and Puppet Theater from Vermont, reported that 300 marched in Richmond, Va. In a puppet-led parade, people commemorated the day with flags, signs and a Mother Jones puppet. According to Colella, they also protested against "Virginia Commonwealth University's plans to build a parking lot over a slave burial ground."

In Frederick, MD, around 40 anarchists and their allies held a Reclaim the Streets action, drawing passers-by into the road to dance and celebrate May Day. Participants also educated curious onlookers with an anti-capitalist 'zine put out by Unconventional Action-Frederick, called "Refusing the Spectacle." Police eventually forced the demonstrators off of the street.

Hours after anarchists rallied in Milwaukee, according to witnesses, 20-30 masked folks - suspected anarchists! - smashed windows of a US Bank Building, Whole Foods Market, Bruegger's Bagels and Qdoba.

In the nation's capital, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers began International Workers' Day by making a 6 a.m. raid at an apartment complex. Later that day, workers responded with a 1,500 strong march for immigrant rights, organized by the National Capitol Immigration Coalition. Hours later, 60 anarchists and leftist allies held an unpermitted street march, leading to minor skirmishes with the police.

Tens of thousands of workers also fought police and attacked corporate and government property in Berlin, Istanbul; Linz, Austria; every major Greek city and most major cities in France and Spain. In Mexico City, workers defied the ban on public gatherings - presumably to combat swine flu - and marched against the real swine. Large demonstrations also occurred in L'Aquila, Italy; Moscow; Nigeria; Havana; Tokyo; South Korea; Cambodia; Japan; the Philippines; Zimbabwe; Taiwan and England.

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