Workers’ Day history still tragically relevant

Wednesday May 1 is an important day on in the global calendar. I am of course referring to International Workers’ Day. (also known as Labour Day or simply May Day). For some, the day will be nothing more than an excuse to take the day off for a change.

While a break from the daily grind is certainly something to be appreciated, you shouldn’t dismiss May 1 as just an ordinary public holiday because it certainly isn’t. International Workers’ Day is special and represents an important part of the global workers’ struggle.

What marks May 1 as unique amongst other public holidays is its history.

To quote the Mail & Guardian’s Paddy Harper: “May Day was taken, not given. May Day’s a day of forced respect for the wretched of the Earth. A holiday that was wrenched, by sheer, bloody-minded determination, from the hands of the ruling class.”

To truly understand its the importance, of May 1, we have to go back all the way to the 19th-century US.

At this point in time, one of the focal points for the growing labour struggle was the fight for an eight-hour work day. Up to that point, workers had been forced to endure work hours of up to 16 hours a day, often for six or seven days a week. Working conditions were atrocious, labour laws were virtually non-existent, and inequality was skyrocketing.

Child labour was a common feature of early industrial life and existed well into the 20th Century as evidenced by this 1908 photo by Lewis Hine. Source

In such an environment, it’s little surprise that socialism, communism, and anarchism were becoming increasingly popular among the working class, aided by the growth of labour unions.

In 1884, the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions (FOTLU, later the American Federation of Labour) released a statement declaring that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1 1886”.

When FOTLU’s deadline arrived and the much-coveted eight -hours remained unachieved, workers took action. May 1 1886 marked the first-ever May Day celebrations with over 300,000 workers in over 13,000 businesses across the US walking out, bringing the country to a standstill.

Despite the hysterical predictions from newspapers and politicians, the demonstrations remained peaceful for the first two days with parades and even musical performances drawing attention and public support to the cause.

Two days later, the police brought violence into the equation.

The McCormick Reaper Works plant where the protest took place. Source

On May 3 1886, a demonstration by the Metal Workers’ Union outside of the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago were set upon by police and armed members of the notorious Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

Police began beating protesters indiscriminatingly and when the workers retaliated by throwing rocks, they were fired upon with live ammunition. Two strikers were killed and many more wounded.

Following the attack, the workers convened a meeting the next day in Haymarket Square. Turn-out was low due to bad weather, with only 3,000 showing up. Among them was then- Chicago mayor Carter Harrison.

The meeting convened peacefully and union member Samuel Fielden was giving the closing address when a police force of 180 officers led by Captain John Bonfield arrived and ordered the workers to disperse immediately.

Suddenly, a bomb was thrown into the group of police, killing one immediately and injuring several others. To this day, it is not known who exactly threw the bomb with conspiracies pointing towards wildly different suspects such as local anarchists, radicals from out of town, and even a police spy.

Regardless, the police immediately opened fire on the crowd. No official numbers were released but it is estimated that about seven or eight workers were killed with many more injured. During the chaos, six officers were fatally wounded by their own companions’ gun fire.

Colorized engraving showing a composite scene from the Haymarket Massacre. Despite the engraving showing the workers firing back, in reality they were all unarmed. The speaker is Samuel Fielden. Source

Following the Haymarket Massacre, as it came to be known, the US government embarked on a vicious clampdown on leftist leaders and organisations.

Union offices, printing companies, and even private homes were raided while known socialists and anarchists were arrested and subject to brutal treatment at the hands of the police.

Illinois state attorney Julius Grinnell issued a public statement telling police to “make the raids first and look up the law afterwards”.

With regards to the bomb, eight people were tried as accessories to murder: Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, George Engle, Adolph Fischer, and Louis Lingg.

The trial began on June 21 and was a farce from the beginning.

For starters, the normal method of jury selection – randomly drawing names from a box – was abandoned and instead replaced with a special bailiff by Grinnell. The final jury was made up of prominent bussinessmen, their clerks, and a relative of one of the dead policemen. Any hope of a fair trial was long gone.

Secondly, three of the eight men tried weren’t even at Haymarket Square on the day of the bomb attack and no evidence was provided that any of the others had contributed.

However, as Grinnell said in his closing arguments, the trial was never really about innocence or guilt, but about setting an example: “Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the Grand Jury, and indicted because they were leaders. Gentlemen of the jury; convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society.”

Neebe was sentenced to 15 years in prison and the other seven were sentenced to death. Parsons, Engels, Spies and Fischer were hanged on November 11 , 1887 with Lingg committing suicide the day before the execution.

Schwab and Fielden had their sentences reduced to life imprisonment.

On June 26, 1893 Illinois governer John Peter Altgeld pardoned all remaining men, declaring them victims of “hysteria, packed juries and a biased judge”.

The Haymarket Martyrs Monument was unveiled in Chicago in 1893 in memory of the Haymarket Massacre. Source

The trial served as a focal point for the global labour movement and in 1889, the Second International – an international organisation made up of union leaders and leftist thinkers – voted to commemorate May 1 in their memory.

It quickly caught on and soon enough, May 1 became an internationally recognised holiday.

The events that gave birth to the first International Workers’ Day may have happened more than over 100 years ago, but they still remain tragically relevant today.

Despite all the progress made by labour advocates, workers in SA and around the world are still fighting for a liveable wage and quality working conditions while governments and corporations are still working hard to suppress them.

So as you enjoy your May 1 break, take a moment to reflect on all the privileges labour has fought for over the years and consider how much still needs to be done.


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