This year, May 1st
falls on a Sunday, but in 1886, it fell on a Saturday. Back then,
Saturday was a work day, and the day was 10 hours long.
The origins of the strike trace back to
a movement for an 8-hour work day, started in 1884. However, the
roots of the “8-hour” movement trace at least as far back as the
founding of the National Labor Union in 1866, when they resolved to
demand an 8-hour day. (And assuming you know how these large
organizations work, you can assume that some of the member unions
were already demanding an 8-hour day.).
Until the current high unemployement
since 2008, Americans reportedly were averaging 50 hours of work per
week. This excessive work stands as an insult to the workers who
fought and died to reduce the workday from 10 hours to 8 hours, way
back in the 1800s. Shame on us!
What is a General Strike?
Regular strikes are against a single
employer. A general strike differs because it's carried out
across different workplaces, and across different industries.
General strikes usually happen within a city, and are identified as
such, like the Seattle general strike, the San Francisco general
strike, a general strike in Paris, etc. On May First, 1886, the city
of Chicago had a general strike, the first in the United States.
35,000 workers marched out of work to demand an eight hour workday.
Why they struck for “8-hours” is
interesting. According to Alex
Trachtenberg's article, it was because the economy had suffered a
depression in 1873, and was suffering a cyclical recession, and
unemployment was high. The call for a shorter work day - so that
workers could share what little work there was - had appeal outside
of the labor union membership, which was fairly small at the time. As
they propaganzied for 8-hours the two federations, the Knights of
Labor, and the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (later
the AFL), saw their numbers swell, and the call for 8-hours grew in
popularity among the unorganized workers as well. An “8-hour
Association” was formed in Chicago long before May Day 1886, to
prepare for the strike. This association comprised labor,
progressives, and socialists.
Perhaps today, the AFL-CIO should
demand a 7 hour work day, to allow more people to work!
On Saturday, May 1st, 1886, workers in
Chicago went on a general strike. 35,000 workers walked away from
their jobs, and paraded through town encouraging others to stop their
work and join the strike. The strike was an historical success by
any measure, and secured 8-hour days for some 45,000 local workers.
In response to the uprising, two days
layter, the police attacked a meeting of striking workers at the
McCormick Reaper Works, killing six. In response to that, a
demonstration was held on May 4th at the Haymarket Square
to protest the police brutality. A bomb was thrown into the crowd,
killing a police sergeant. That in turn led to the arrests and
show-trial of eight anarchists, and the deaths of five of them. (See
the links for more information.)
General Strikes Today
To give you an idea of how many 35,000
workers is – the recent labor march in L.A. was 20,000 people. So
nearly twice that many participated in the general strike in Chicago.
It was a huge strike.
Today, general strikes are illegal.
The Taft-Harley Act of 1947 restricted legal protections for
strikers to only those involved at a single workplace, with only a
single bargaining unit. That is, if you were on strike, someone else
in another bargaining unit couldn't also go on strike, even if it's
the same employer! Not only that, but allied unions can't go on
strike to support each other. (The trade off is that you can go on
strike, and not lose your job, if it's during a contract negotiation.
Perhaps the labor movement will regain the spirit of civil
disobedience from the DREAM Act students during this march.)
This is why the actions in 2011 in
Wisconsin were so remarkable. It was mass solidarity, and involved
even non-union members. If they were to carry out any kind of
sympathy strike, they could have been fired, with no legal
recourse... but they were willing to do it!
Just like even non-union workers were
willing to participate in the general strike in 1886.
In Wisconsin 2011, and in Chicago 1886,
the people had come to the recognition that all workers have
something in common, and they were willing to break the law to
support each other.
Today's May 1st marches are
about immigrant workers and immigration rights for undocumented
people. This tradition was started in Los Angeles by organizations
that eventually would become MIWON, the Multi-Ethnic Immigrant Worker
Organizing Netowrk, a network of worker centers that do labor
organizing in the immigrant community. (For more information, read
for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy, by Ruth
Milkman, Joshua Bloom, Victor Narro.)
The effort to revive May Day emerged in
Los Angeles as part of a labor movement of immigrants.
Something that people forget is that
back in 1886 it wasn't Americans who were being hung for their
radical politics – it was German immigrants! (And one German
American and an English immigrant.) Many Germans lived in
Germantowns mostly in the Midwest, or in ethnic ghettos in cities
like Chicago; they spoke German, ate German food, drank beer, and
were every bit as “wetback” or “FOB” as our immigrants today. When WWI
happened, some people went around beating up Germans. Moderate liberals
pushed major assimilation campaigns in the hopes
that they would integrate into mainstream society – and they must
have worked because now some of their descendents are attacking
The Germans didn't even get the worst
of the racism back then. Chinese had been lynched, and eventually
had their right to immigrate revoked. Japanese faced hatred, too,
and even an organization called the Anti-Asiatic League was formed to
encourage racist terrorism. African Americans suffered lynching and
terrorism, as we all know. And in this time frame, Native Americans
were considered sub-human. But to compare oppressions is pointless –
the Germans were considered foreigners, and despised by nativists,
just as Latino immigrants are hated today by some nativists.
And for this reason, in the late 1800s,
immigrant workers agitated for labor rights, and participated in the
labor struggle, and some were anarchists and some were socialists.
May 1st is International
Workers Day because it's for all workers, in all countries, and from
May 1st is a day for workers
to assert their right to humanity, to their weekends, to their home
life, and to themselves.
Come out to the May 1st
marches this Sunday at Olympic near Broadway, and participate in
About May First
The Worker Center book
The Haymarket Martyrs
Many of the martyrs worked for the
anarchist newspaper of the German American ethnic community,
Arbeiter-Zeitung (tr. Worker's Newspaper.)