The First May Day

We wish all our readers a red May Day! Here we briefly look at the historical origins of this day of struggle. 

May Day, international workers' day. On every continent the advanced layers of workers and youth celebrate interna­tionalist ideas and the struggle of the Labour movement. No surprise that the Tories in Britain tried to eradicate the holiday. No surprise either that workers' demonstrations are the focus of state repression around the world.

But where does the modern May Day come from, who started it and why?

May Day sprang from the struggle of the American working class. In 1884 the American Federation of Labor adopted the following demand:

"Resolved by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, that eight hours shall con­stitute a legal day's labor from May 1st, 1886, and that we recom­mend to labor organizations throughout their jurisdiction that they so direct their laws as to con­form to this resolution by the time named."

This slogan became the focus of a whole series of movements around the eight- hour day.

On May 1st 1886, Albert Parsons of the Chicago Knights of Labor led 80,000 workers on a demonstration through Chicago in support of the campaign for an 8-hour day. They weren't alone. Within a few days 350,000 workers took strike action across the country involv­ing 1200 factories. 70,000 struck in Chicago alone.

August Spies, editor of the Arbeiter­Zeitung (Workers Newspaper), spoke at a meeting of 6,000 workers on May 3rd. Following the meeting many of the participants moved down the street to harass scabs entering the McCormick plant. The police arrived, opened fire, and killed four people, wounding many more.

On May 4 Spies, Parsons, and Samuel Fielden were speaking at a rally of 2,500 people held to protest the police massacre when 180 police officers arrived, led by the Chicago police chief. While he was calling for the meeting to disperse, a bomb exploded, killing one policeman. The police retaliated, killing seven of their own in the crossfire, plus four others; almost two hundred were wounded. The identity of the bomb thrower remains unknown.

On June 21, 1886, on the back of a huge red scare campaign eight labor leaders, including Spies, Fielden, and Parsons went on trial, charged with responsibility for the bombing. The trial was rife with lies and contradictions, and the state prosecutor appealed to the jury: "convict these men, make an example of them, hang them, and you save our institutions."

Each of the eight accused men spoke in court. Here is an excerpt from the address of August Spies:

"The wage-workers of this city began to object to being fleeced too much - they began to say some very true things, but they were highly disagreeable to our patrician class; they put forth well, some very modest demands. They thought eight hours hard toil a day for scarcely two hours' pay was enough.

"This lawless rabble had to be silenced!

"The only way to silence them was to frighten them, and murder those whom they looked up to as their 'leaders.' Yes, these foreign dogs had to be taught a lesson, so that they might never again inter­fere with the high-handed exploitation of their benevolent and Christian masters."

Seven of the accused were sentenced to die and one to 15 years imprison­ment. The trial was condemned by the Chicago bar and some years later all were pardoned by the Governor, not before four had been hanged and one had committed suicide.

Two hundred thousand took part in the funeral either walking behind the coffin or lining the streets.

May Day was born of the struggle of the working class and it celebrates that struggle, across the world today.

Today, Latin America is at the forefront of the international movement of the working class. But that struggle involves us all and will spread across the globe again.

Workers of all Countries unite, we have nothing to lose but our chains!