From Pilsen to Pilsen:
May Day and the immigrant worker
BY CHRIS MAHIN
May Day began in the United States, and immigrants played a decisive role in creating it.
On May 1, 2006, more than 750,000 workers – most of them immigrants – took part in a demonstration for immigrant rights in Chicago. They marched past Haymarket Square, the very spot where immigrant workers had rallied in 1886. Many of the workers in the 2006 demonstration lived in Pilsen, a Chicago neighborhood named after a city in Central Europe where many of yesterday’s immigrants came from. The immigrant workers of Chicago had revived the celebration of May Day in the city where it had been created — by an earlier generation of immigrant workers.
On May 1, 1886, workers throughout the United States struck to demand the eight-hour day. Chicago was the strike’s center. At that time, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. Its factories were being filled by workers from England, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Bohemia, Sweden and many other countries.
Three days later, a rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest a police attack on a group of strikers. Speeches were given in several languages. As this protest was winding to a close, cops moved in. They ordered the last speaker – an English immigrant, Samuel Fielden – to stop. Then someone threw a bomb. It killed one police officer and wounded many. The police opened fire, killing many participants in the rally.
The police responded by breaking into homes, wrecking the printing presses of foreign-language newspapers, and beating and arresting union leaders. Immigrant workers were accused of being terrorists.
Eight union leaders were put on trial, charged with being accessories to murder at Haymarket Square. One – Samuel Fielden – was from Lancashire, England. Six had been raised in Germany: George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, and August Spies.
Despite worldwide protests, four of the defendants were hanged. (A fifth, Louis Lingg, died in his cell under suspicious circumstances.) Three were given long sentences.
In 1889, at the International Labor Congress in Paris, a delegate from the American Federation of Labor proposed that the Congress adopt May 1 as International Labor Day.
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This article was originally published in the May 2013 issue of the Tribuno del Pueblo newspaper. For more information, go to www.tribunodelpueblo.org.