Waldheim, The Historical May Day, and The Tactics of Today — Lew Rosenbaum

Waldheim, The Historical May Day, and The Tactics of Today

300,000 workers demonstrated throughout the United States on May 1, 1886,  40,000 of them in Chicago.  The story doesn’t begin here and doesn’t end here.  But this is what May Day commemorates for the working class of the world — the battle to limit the working day to 8 hours.   Four days later, in response to police killings of workers on strike on the South side of Chicago, a few hundred workers assembled in Haymarket Square — corner of DesPlaines and Randolph — to hear a list of speakers decry the rule of the employers, the exploitation of the workers.  Mayor Harrison, after observing the peaceful and dwindling numbers of about 200 at the rally about to break up at 10 pm, left the scene instructing the police to end their surveillance. However the police chief massed 176 officers at the edge of the rally and, under circumstances to this day uncertain, a bomb was thrown and the resultant melee left police and protesters dead and wounded.  In the aftermath, eight anarchist labor activists — 7 of them immigrants, most of them never even at the rally — were arrested, tried,  convicted and 5 sentenced to execution.

One, Louis Lingg, presumably killed himself in his cell.  The other four condemned to die were hanged on November 11, 1987, all appeals exhausted.  The gruesome fact is that they struggled at the end of the rope for more than 7 minutes, twitching while the noose strangled the last element of life from them.  Their bodies were returned to their families where they remained in state in their coffins, tens of thousands of Chicagoans filed by to pay their respect.  Then, at noon on November 13, thousands of workers proceeded down Milwaukee Avenue picking up the caskets from the families along the way, beginning with August Spies who had lived farthest away.  Historian Bill Adelman, in Haymarket Revisited, puts the number of onlookers at half a million.  From downtown Chicago the mourners took the train 10 miles west to Forest Home Cemetery (German Waldheim), where they were buried.

I return here to the struggle for the 8 hour day, what seems something almost prosaic, defined in numbers.  Something as abstract as the concept of the working day.  How  do you

At the 100th anniversary in 1986

describe the working day?  What are its parameters?  Clearly the chronological limits are 24 hours at its maximum and approaching zero at its minimum.  There is of course a natural limit to the working day.  You can’t keep someone working 24 hours every day without killing the worker.  A worker who does not produce the minimum in value that is required to keep him or her alive starves to death.  Somewhere in between lies the length of the working day, and the struggle between capital and labor can be captured in that battleground.  While some have characterized this as the fight for a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.  Others as the fight for the workers’ fair share.  What’s fair is an ideological construct that sets the environment.  But the essence of this contest remains the requirement to limit the surplus value sucked, “vampire-like” as Marx says, from the arteries of the working class.  It’s a tug of war, sometimes pulling one way, other times pulling another, the ground shifting one way or the other.  As long as workers are engaged in production this  rope in the tug of war to determine the terms for the sale of labor power is something that neither side can possibly let go.

For the worker it is a matter of survival, a desperation that mere numbers, hours, percentages cannot evoke.  Beneath those numbers, the flesh and blood brought the workers in their hundreds of thousands out of their homes to look on and to take part in the funeral of 5 Haymarket martyrs (the other 3 were transferred to Joliet to serve out prison terms and were pardoned by John Peter Altgeld, Illinois governor, in 1893).

A number of sources indicate that Waldheim, the German non-denominational cemetery where the martyrs were buried, was chosen because it had no connection to an institution or church. The land had been used in part as burial grounds by the native people (one burial mound is preserved on the land today).  Following the Blackhawk War and the “Treaty of Chicago,” the native people (Pottawatomie) were driven west into exile.  The land was purchased by farmers and became used as a convenient place for laying Chicago’s deceased to rest, as health reasons convinced authorities in Chicago to prohibit more cemeteries within city limits. When the 3 surviving members of the Haymarket 8 died, they were also buried at Waldheim.  Since then, many labor activists and others have been buried here as well.  For a more complete history of Waldheim and the surrounding cemeteries, click here

Emma Goldman was buried here, as were many labor activists, anarchists and communists

In 1889, AFL president Samuel Gompers wrote to the first congress of the Second International, which was meeting in Paris. He informed the world’s socialists of the AFL’s plans and proposed an international fight for a universal eight-hour work day. In response to Gompers’s letter the Second International adopted a resolution calling for “a great international demonstration” on a single date so workers everywhere could demand the eight-hour work day. In light of the Americans’ plan, the International adopted May 1, 1890 as the date for this demonstration.

A secondary purpose behind the adoption of the resolution by the Second International was to honor the memory of the Haymarket martyrs and other workers who had been killed in association with the strikes on May 1, 1886. Historian Philip Foner writes “[t]here is little doubt that everyone associated with the resolution passed by the Paris Congress knew of the May 1st demonstrations and strikes for the eight-hour day in 1886 in the United States … and the events associated with the Haymarket tragedy.”

The first international May Day was a spectacular success. The front page of the New York World on May 2, 1890 was devoted to coverage of the event. Two of its headlines were “Parade of Jubilant Workingmen in All the Trade Centers of the Civilized World” and “Everywhere the Workmen Join in Demands for a Normal Day. The Times of London listed two dozen European cities in which demonstrations had taken place, noting there had been rallies in Cuba, Peru and Chile. Commemoration of May Day became an annual event the following year. (The Haymarket Affair)

A monument to the Haymarket Martyrs was erected in 1893.  Since then the area has been declared a national historical monument:

One of the most recent scenes in the dramas of Haymarket was the ceremony on May 3, 1998, marking the designation of the Waldheim monument site as a National Historic Landmark. Landmark status had been approved in 1997, and the plaque placed near the monument explained that it “represents the labor movement’s struggle for workers’ rights.” Once again the speakers were dominated by labor leaders, with the keynote address given by the president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, who criticized the latest instances of what he termed corporate greed and disregard for the welfare of workers. Present also were descendants of the martyrs, a representative of the National Park Service, the combined German-American Chorus of Chicago, and the German consul.

There are two things left to talk about here, that take this from the realm of a history lesson and pose some real questions of strategy and tactics for today’s movement.

The Haymarket Martyrs were immigrants, nearly all of them. They had come to the US from Europe looking for a better life, and were trade unionists.  They were propagandists, dedicated to introducing new ideas into a burgeoning working class movement, swelled by a Civil War that put an end to chattel slavery.  It was Marx who said that “labor in the white skin could not emancipate itself, so long as labor in the black skin was branded.” He went on: “the first fruit of the American Civil War for the abolition of slavery was the agitation for the eight-hour day, a movement which raced from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California with the seven-league boots of the modern locomotive.” Immigrants have  once again sparked a movement which has touched every section of our country, this time from Pacific to Atlantic.  Many of the immigrant marchers of recent May Days, along the parade route that took them past Haymarket Square, knew of the significance of May Day even if they were unaware of the hallowed ground on which they trod. And once again they are being squeezed by a tug of war:  this time often a tug of war from which they (along with their brothers and sisters in the countries from which they came) have been permanently excluded.

The second point is the matter of numbers.  That zero we referred to earlier.  From the introduction of machinery into production, the time necessary for workers to produce an equivalent value for their survival has dropped.  That is called “productivity.”  For a time, as long as the market of purchasers could increase, “productivity” could expand.  In order to gain a temporary advantage over competitors, corporations strive to increase productivity.  If for the corporation the ideal number would appear to be zero for necessary labor time (everything is surplus value), it means absolute starvation for workers or — workers that do not eat, wear clothes, take coffee breaks or need health care.  That is what immigrant workers and public sector workers alike are competing with:  an era of electronics and robotics that have made many categories of workers obsolete.  This puts the teacher, the sanitation worker, the auto worker, the garment worker on a par in terms of replacement. This is why the rhetoric for improved education is matched equally by deteriorating public schools that are no longer expected to fill the factories and and offices.

A new movement is about to be liberated, birthed. And if the one of the late 1800s moved with the speed of the “seven league boots of the modern locomotive,”  the new movement will move with a multiple of that speed, the speed of gigabytes on silicon chips, and what is loosing this energy is the chain reaction that separates labor from its time immemorial tug of war with its exploiter.

On this 125th anniversary of May Day, it’s time to rededicate ourselves, but not to the old tug of war. It is time to do different things,  to recognize the new nodal point at which we stand, to introduce the new ideas of our own era. Paying homage to the Haymarket martyrs does not mean bowing to nostalgia. It means recognizing the way that they broke with shackles of their times to migrate into their new era.  There is a metaphorical way in which we are now all immigrants.  The borderline on which we stand is the end of the era dominated by corporate-private-property, on the verge of potential economic abundance.  We must move, we must emigrate, but we cannot run away.  No matter what, the people must reorganize society in their interest, or corporations will  organize society to destroy humanity. The fate of humanity depends on what we do.

In addition to the sources in the text above, the following are essential resources:

Haymarket Revisited, William J Adelman (Illinois Labor History Society, 2004)

Haymarket Scrapbook, Franklin Rosemont and David Roediger, (Charles H Kerr, 1986)


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