[Published 20 years ago in the People’s Tribune, this article remains relevant as we celebrate the workers’ one universal holiday.]
WHAT IS MAY DAY’S MEANING FOR TODAY?
By Chris Mahin
Holidays are important. Whether joyous celebration or solemn remembrance, each one conveys some meaning or teaches some lesson.
When we celebrate a particular holiday — or decide not to — each of us says something
about who we are and what we believe.
For the downsized and the dispossessed, one holiday stands above all others. It is the only one observed by victims of capitalism the world over: International Labor Day, observed on May 1 — May Day.
May Day began in America. The story of how it began needs to told; it is a tale of how dramatic changes in the economy created a new class of people. It is the story of how men and women of different nationalities, born in different parts of the world, stepped forward to lead a new class of poor people and were willing to pay a terrible price for that decision. Above all else, May Day is about the absolute necessity of the unity of the poor — white and black, male and female, immigrant and native-born.
The story begins in Chicago. By the 1880s, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. Something new had been introduced into the economy — steam power. The introduction of this new productive force led to a gigantic expansion of industry and created a new class — the modern industrial working class. In Chicago, this new class included people from all over the world, as immigrants flooded into the city.
In the factories of that era, the pay was low, the hours were long and the conditions terribly unsafe.
On May 1, 1886, workers throughout the United States engaged in a massive strike to demand the eight-hour day. Chicago was the strike’s center. On May 4, a rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest a police attack on a group of strikers. As this peaceful rally was winding to a close, 176 cops moved in to forcibly disperse the crowd. Someone threw a bomb. It killed one police officer instantly and wounded many others. The police opened fire, killing many participants in the rally.
A wave of hysteria followed. Hundreds of workers were arrested. The police broke into meeting halls, newspaper offices and even private homes without warrants. Suspects were beaten and even tortured.
The extent of the hysteria can be measured by comments published in the respectable Albany Law Journal just 11 days after the Haymarket tragedy. The Journal called for “a check upon immigration, a power of deportation, a better equipment of the police, a prompter and severer dealing with disorder” and denounced Chicago’s union leaders as “a few long-haired, wild-eyed, bad-smelling, atheistic, reckless foreign wretches, who never did an honest hour’s work in their lives.” The Journal declared: “This state of things almost justifies the resort to the vigilance committee and lynch law. … It seems that the penal law of Illinois would warrant treating all these godless fiends as murderers, and we hope they will be so treated and extirpated from the face of the earth.”
In June 1886, several leaders of the Chicago union movement were put on trial, charged with being accessories to murder at Haymarket Square and with a general conspiracy to murder.
Most of the defendants had not even been present when the Haymarket bomb was thrown, but that didn’t matter. They were revolutionary leaders and Chicago’s capitalists wanted their blood.
The trial opened on June 21, 1886, with only seven of the eight defendants in the courtroom. All seven had been born or raised outside the United States. Chicago’s newspapers had noted the foreign roots of most of the defendants and denounced them as “European assassins” and “foreign barbarians.” But just as jury selection began, the eighth defendant entered the courtroom. Albert Parsons was a native-born American. He had escaped the police roundup completely and had been living safely in Wisconsin, but bravely returned to stand trial with his innocent immigrant comrades.
Tried before a biased judge and jury, the defendants never had a chance. They were convicted; seven were sentenced to hang. (An eighth was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor.)
At that point, many people thought the case was closed, but they had not reckoned with Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, the wife of Albert Parsons and a leader of the Chicago labor movement in her own right. While the case was being unsuccessfully appealed, Lucy Parsons took her two small children and travelled across the United States, speaking to anyone she could about the case. In almost a year, she spoke to about 200,000 people in 16 states. Her heartfelt eloquence helped spark a movement to stop the executions.
Despite worldwide protests, four of the Haymarket defendants were hanged by the state of Illinois in November 1887. On the morning of the execution of her husband, Lucy Parsons was arrested and locked with her children in a cell for attempting to see her husband one last time.
On July 14, 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 and a day to remember the “Martyrs of Chicago.” This was accepted. Ever since, May 1 has been a day for the workers of the entire world to march in unison.
Holidays do teach lessons; May Day teaches many. The Haymarket Affair shows that America’s tiny handful of rulers will throw away all pretense of democracy once the stability of their rule is challenged by vast changes in the economy. It shows that they will make scapegoats out of the immigrant workers. It shows they will do anything to hold on to their rule.
But Haymarket also shows us the weapon that a new class created by vast changes in the economy can wield against its rulers: unity. Perhaps the lesson of May Day can be summed up best in the words of Haymarket defendant Oscar Neebe. The last words of his autobiography read simply: “I call on all workingmen or working women of all nationalities and all countries to unite and down with your oppressors.”
This article originated in the PEOPLE’S TRIBUNE (Online Edition), Vol. 24 No. 5/ May, 1997; P.O. Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654. For the current issue and archives to past issues see http://www.peoplestribune.org.