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The History of May Day, Made in the USA

by janus Wednesday, Apr. 27, 2011 at 12:08 AM

Leftist activists know about the eight men who were arrested and tried and convicted for terrorism related to Haymarket Square in Chicago. The bombing happened at a rally on the 4th, but it was due to events on May Day, when the city of Chicago went on strike.

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.).
(See links.)

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.)

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taft%E2%80%93Hartley_Act

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.

Why Immigration?

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 Working for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy, by Ruth Milkman, Joshua Bloom, Victor Narro.)

See: http://books.google.com/books?id=X0vn04PG3xoC&lpg=PA90&ots=ppVRBwTnVb&dq=MIWON%20marches%20history&pg=PA90#v=onepage&q=MIWON%20marches%20history&f=false

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 immigrants.

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 all countries.

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 history!

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.)



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