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(en) Ireland, Organise! Working Class Resistance - THE HISTORY OF MAY DAY

From Al S <klasbatalemo@yahoo.ie>
Date Sun, 16 May 2004 22:42:50 +0200 (CEST)

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Every year May 1st is celebrated as a day of workers resistance
and solidarity. But the reasons behind this tradition, its
origins and its true history are forgotten, hidden in obscurity.
The history begins in the USA in 1884 at convention of
the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions,
the predecessor to the American Federation of Labour.
This convention marked the beginning of the movement
to win the 8-hour day (at that time days of 10, 12 or
even 16 hours were standard for American workers). The
plan was to spend two years ‘persuading’ employers to
adopt the 8-hour day as standard. The campaign was to
climax on May 1st 1886, at which time all workers not
yet on an 8-hour day would stage a nation-wide strike
until the demand was met.

Many employers did not meet the deadline, and
accordingly on May 1st great demonstrations took place
all across the US. The largest was in Chicago, an
estimated 80 000 people marching down Michigan Avenue.
The business leaders saw it as a prelude to
‘revolution’ and demanded a crackdown. So when a
strike broke out at Chicago's McCormick Reaper plant
it was brutally repressed by police, who fired on
strikers and their supporters, killing and injuring
several workers, on May 3rd 1886.

A mass protest was organised for the following day at
the city’s Haymarket Square. Some 20 000 people
attended the rally. As the last speaker was finishing
it began to rain and a force of 200 police arrived to
disperse the crowd. Up until then the meeting had been
peaceful, a fact later testified to by the mayor of
Chicago in court. But as the police moved in someone
threw a bomb at the police, killing one. They opened
fire, killing at least four workers and wounding many
more. Several more police were killed, whether by
workers or ‘friendly fire’ is unknown.

In the aftermath, unions and the homes of labour
organisers and anarchists were raided all across the
country. The 8-hour movement was derailed, not being
enshrined in law until 1935. Eight anarchists were
arrested and put on trial. They were not accused of
the bomb throwing itself but that by their words and
publications they had incited the attack.

Michael Schwab, Oscar Neebe, Adolph Fischer, August
Spies, Louis Lingg, George Engel and Samuel Fielden
were arrested. Albert Parsons evaded arrest, but in a
show of amazing solidarity presented himself at the
courthouse to be tried with his comrades. The trial
was a fraud, the jury packed with people hostile to
the cause of Labour. Parsons, Spies, Fischer, Engel
and Lingg were sentenced to hang. Lingg escaped the
noose by committing suicide in his cell. Schwab, Neebe
and Fielden were jailed until June 26th 1894, when
Governor John P. Altgeld ruled the trial a miscarriage
of justice and pardoned all eight defendants. Scant
comfort to the four hanged on November 11th 1887
despite world wide outcry.

A monument to the Martyrs stands in Forest Home
Cemetery, Chicago. In 1998, it became a national
historical site, the dedication of which saw another
attempt to obscure the history of the Martyrs. A
representative of the US Government and a priest
issued pronouncements over the grave of atheists who
were hanged by the state they had resisted. The irony
was not lost on the many of those who turned up to
show their disgust, only to be reproached and
threatened for doing so.


If we look around today, we see many of the gains that
people like the Chicago Martyrs fought for being swept
away as Capitalism increases its assault on working
people. From the planned introduction of water
charges, privatisation of our public services, the
right of workers to do their jobs free from
intimidation and attack, the assault on the ‘welfare
state’ or the huge rise in casualisation and use of
‘temp’ / agency workers, Capitalism is at war with the
working class.

If we are to reclaim the true history of May Day, it
is most fitting that we do so by renewing the
struggles begun by the comrades we commemorate and
celebrate today. By fighting water charges and
privatisation, resisting casualisation and its
sometimes fatal effects, resisting attacks on people
on benefits. In refusing to tolerate the intimidation
or murder of our fellow workers by either bosses, the
state or paramilitaries. In the ongoing battle against
global capitalism, we will fulfil the prophecy of
August Spies, whose words are inscribed on the bottom
of the Martyrs monument:

“The time will come when our silence will be more
powerful than the voices you strangle today”

>From the pages of Working Class Resistance, bulletin
of Organise!, now online at:


To distribute in your area, contact Organise! at:


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