Apr
23
The Origins Of May Day
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It's May Day in America... Most Americans know little about the International Workers' Day of May Day, and that May Day has its origins here in this country - it is as "American" as baseball and apple pie! But it wasn't a walk in the park. Lives were lost, the landscape of American politics changed and it was the beginning of the concepts of worker's rights. In the late nineteenth century, the working class was in constant struggle to gain the 8-hour work day. Working conditions were severe and it was quite common to work 10 to 16 hour days in unsafe conditions. Death and injury were commonplace. At its national convention in Chicago, held in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions proclaimed that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886." in defiance of business leaders. On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history. In Chicago, the epicenter for the 8-hour day movement, 40,000 went out on strike. Parades, bands and tens of thousands of demonstrators in the streets exemplified the workers' strength and unity. More and more workers continued to walk off their jobs until the numbers swelled to nearly 100,000, yet peace prevailed. It was not until two days later, May 3, 1886, that violence broke out at the McCormick Reaper Works between police and strikers. During a speech near the McCormick plant, two hundred demonstrators joined the steelworkers on the picket line. Beatings with police clubs escalated into rock throwing by the strikers which the police responded to with gunfire. At least two strikers were killed and an unknown number were wounded. Full of rage, a public meeting was called for the following day in Haymarket Square to discuss the police brutality. Due to bad weather and short notice, only about 3000 of the tens of thousands of people showed up from the day before. This affair included families with children and the mayor of Chicago himself. Later, the mayor would testify that the crowd remained calm and orderly and that speaker August Spies made "no suggestion... for immediate use of force or violence toward any person..." As the speech wound down, two detectives rushed to the main body of police, reporting that a speaker was using inflammatory language, inciting the police to march on the speakers' wagon. As the police began to disperse the already thinning crowd, a bomb was thrown into the police ranks. No one knows who threw the bomb, but speculations varied from blaming any one of the marchers, to an agent provocateur working for the police. Enraged, the police fired into the crowd. The exact number of civilians killed or wounded was never determined, but an estimated seven or eight civilians died, and up to forty were wounded. One officer died immediately and another seven died in the following weeks. Later evidence indicated that only one of the police deaths could be attributed to the bomb and that all the other police fatalities had or could have had been due to their own indiscriminate gun fire. Aside from the bomb thrower, who was never identified, it was the police, not the strikers, who perpetrated the violence. Eight anarchists - Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer and Louis Lingg - were arrested and convicted of murder, though only three were even present at Haymarket and those three were in full view of all when the bombing occurred. The jury in their trial was comprised of business leaders. The entire world watched as these eight organizers were convicted, not for their actions, of which all of were innocent, but for their political and social beliefs. On November 11, 1887, after many failed appeals, Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fisher were hung to death. Louis Lingg, in his final protest of the state's claim of authority and punishment, took his own life the night before with an explosive device in his mouth. The remaining organizers, Fielden, Neebe and Schwab, were pardoned six years later by Governor Altgeld, who publicly lambasted the judge on a travesty of justice for the Haymarket Martyrs. Now, a century later, let us remember the people who gave their lives so we could have the 8-hour day, that homes with families in them were burned to the ground so we could have Saturday as part of the weekend, and that 8-year old victims of industrial accidents marched in the streets protesting working conditions to establish Child Labor laws. Let us remember their sacrifices, and celebrate the true gifts of May Day. source:  IWW Eric Chase  
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