A Short History of May Day
International Workers Day (May 1st)
In 1887, four Chicago anarchists were executed; a fifth cheated the hangman by killing himself in prison. Three more were to spend 6 years in prison until pardoned by Governor Altgeld who said the trial that convicted them was characterised by "hysteria, packed juries and a biased judge". The state had, in the words of the prosecution put "Anarchy is on trial" and hoped their deaths would also be the death of the anarchist idea. The anarchists were trade union organisers and May Day became an international workers day to remember their sacrifice. They were framed on false charges of throwing a bomb at police breaking up a demonstration in Chicago. This was part of a strike demanding an 8 hour day involving 400,000 workers in Chicago that started May 1st 1886.
It began over a century ago when the American Federation of Labour adopted an historic resolution which asserted that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labour from and after May 1st, 1886". In the months prior to this date workers in their thousands were drawn into the struggle for the shorter day. Skilled and unskilled, black and white, men and women, native and immigrant were all becoming involved.
In Chicago alone 400,000 were out on strike. A newspaper of that city reported that "no smoke curled up from the tall chimneys of the factories and mills, and things had assumed a Sabbath-like appearance". This was the main centre of the agitation, and here the anarchists were in the forefront of the labour movement. It was to no small extent due to their activities that Chicago became an outstanding trade union centre and made the biggest contribution to the eight-hour movement.
The Chicago anarchist movement was also strong. In 1884, they produced the world’s first Anarchist daily newspaper, the Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung, plus a weekly, Fackel, and a Sunday edition, Vorbote. By 1886, these newspapers had a circulation of over 26,000 - read by the large German immigrant working class community of the city. There were also newspapers for English, Bohemian and Scandinavian speakers. As well as this, Chicago anarchists were active in the unions and organised picnics, lectures, dances, libraries and other events for workers. These helped forge strong bonds of class solidarity, which was worrying to the bosses who were keen to break the workers' organisations.
When on May 1st 1886, the eight hour strikes convulsed that city, one half of the workforce at the McCormick Harvester Co. came out. Two days later a mass meeting was held by 6,000 members of the 'lumber shovers' union who had also come out. The meeting was held only a block from the McCormick plant and was joined by some 500 of the strikers from there. The workers listened to a speech by the anarchist August Spies, who has been asked to address the meeting by the Central Labour Union. While Spies was speaking, urging the workers to stand together and not give in to the bosses, the strikebreakers were beginning to leave the nearby McCormick plant.
The strikers, aided by the 'lumber shovers' marched down the street and forced the scabs back into the factory. Suddenly a force of 200 police arrived and, without any warning, attacked the crowd with clubs and revolvers. They killed at least one striker, seriously wounded five or six others and injured an indeterminate number. Outraged by the brutal assaults he had witnessed, Spies went to the office of the Arbeiter-Zeitung and composed a circular calling on the workers of Chicago to attend a protest meeting the following night. The protest meeting took place in the Haymarket Square and was addressed by Spies and two other anarchists active in the trade union movement, Albert Parsons and Samuel Fielden.
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