On this day some years ago, after I’d moved to Greece, some friends asked if I wanted to attend the May Day demonstrations with them in the center of Athens. When I asked what “May Day” was, one of them explained that it was International Labor Day.
“Oh,” I said, “In the States, we celebrate Labor Day in September.” I knew that May 1 was an ancient pagan holiday in Europe, but wasn’t sure about its significance for labor.
“Haven’t you ever heard of the Haymarket Affair?” they asked. It rang a faint bell somewhere, but I still failed to make the connection. My young Greek friends then gave me a brief American history lesson.
The first May Day
On May 1, 1886, in Chicago, socialists and anarchists demonstrated alongside disgruntled railroad workers, meatpackers and other major labor groups in the city. A procession of 80,000 workers marched down Michigan Avenue to champion one of the leading causes in labor at the time, the 8-hour workday. The 8-hour workday had actually been the law of the land since the 1860s. But the business leaders of Chicago’s Gilded Age had chosen to disregard this- and profited handsomely by it. Hence the march.
May 1 passed peaceably enough. But on May 2, the workers did not simply go back to life and work as usual. Having gathered a head of steam, and with no concessions from the owner class, labor strikes continued throughout the city. This did not sit well with Chicago’s wealthy industrial elite, nor with Chicago Police Inspector John Bonfield, who was proudly on their payroll. Bonfield had a reputation as a strike buster, and even staged riots to keep shaking down his wealthy benefactors. On May 3, Bonfield’s strike-busting force set upon striking workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. The police fatally shot at least two workers and wounded many more.
August Spies, a German immigrant and anarchist, witnessed the massacre. Spies published a German-language paper, Arbeiter Zeitung (or Workers’ Times). He was a collaborator of Albert Parsons (originally of Montgomery, AL), who published the anarchist workers’ paper The Alarm. The two men published a flier in English and German calling for a mass demonstration the next day, May 4, at Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Their intention was to peacefully air grievances about the McCormick killings and many other acts of police brutality against striking workers and union organizers in recent years.
The Haymarket Affair
The May 4 gathering of about 2,500, though charged, was initially peaceful. Chicago’s popular mayor, Carter Harrison, even attended its 7:30pm commencement, receiving cheers from the crowd. Harrison soon took his leave, anticipating no trouble. Several speakers took the podium, including Spies, Parsons, and Samuel Fielden, a British-born socialist and Methodist lay preacher. Around 10:30pm, following Fielden’s speech, police led by Inspector Bonfield converged on the gathering, already dwindling due to the late hour and a turn in the weather. Bonfield ordered the crowd to disperse, disregarding Fielden’s protestations that the gathering was peaceful.
At that moment, an unknown person hurled a homemade bomb filled with dynamite at the police line. The blast instantly killed one officer, Mathias Degan. After a moment of stunned silence, the panicked police officers drew their revolvers and began firing wildly into the crowd. They killed at least 4 workers and wounded at least 70 others. Some accounts from the time put the number of civilian dead as high as 50, but it is impossible to know for sure. Aside from Degan, at least 6 other officers were mortally wounded. However, it is unclear whether their deaths resulted from the bomb or from their fellow officers firing blindly in the smoke and confusion that prevailed.
“The Chicago martyrs”
Following the Haymarket massacre, police arrested hundreds of labor activists, many of whom had not even attended the event.
In the end, eight men went on trial in the affair for conspiracy to commit murder. These included Spies and Parsons, both of whom had left Haymarket well before the trouble started. Fielden, who was at the podium and could not have thrown the bomb, was also tried. The other five men on trial were Adolf Fischer, Michael Schwab, and Oscar Neebe (all colleagues of Spies), as well as George Engel and Louis Lingg. None of these five had been present at any point during the Haymarket gathering.
Neebe, a pacifist, received a 15-year sentence. The rest of the men were sentenced to hang. And hang they did, with the exception of Lingg, who killed himself in his prison cell with an exploding cigar rather than face the gallows.
While we will never know who threw the bomb that day, we can be certain that it was not one of the condemned men.
To this day, in most of the industrialized world, May 1 is International Workers’ Day. On May Day, international labor groups honor the memory of the Chicago Martyrs and the sacrifices of many other American workers beaten or killed by police and militias at numerous strikes over several decades. Whether or not you agree with their politics, their activism paved the way for workers’ protections that we take for granted today. These include the eight-hour workday, the weekend, and an end to child labor and other exploitative practices.
So why do we celebrate Labor Day in September?
In 1887, President Grover Cleveland designated the first Monday in September as Labor Day. It was a good time of year for a holiday, falling between July 4 and Thanksgiving. Furthermore, it divorced US labor from the global labor rights movements with their revolutionary overtones. It also avoided commemoration of the infamous Haymarket Affair and its less than savory implications about Capitalism.
In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower drove a further nail into the May Day coffin by declaring May 1 to be National Loyalty Day. This now-forgotten holiday celebrated all things patriotic and rejected anything that was vaguely foreign or Commie.
Nowadays, US Labor Day is, ironically, a celebration of Capitalism. US merchants offer blow-out sales to draw in workers with a free day to shop. Labor Day sales revenue is second only to Black Friday.
So whatever you’re doing today, spare a moment to take pride in the fact that the rest of the world is honoring the brave Americans (by birth or by choice) who fought for the rights and dignity of workers everywhere, even if many of us have forgotten them.