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May Day event reminder + article on history of May Day
See below for a history of May Day.
Join friends for May Day on Wall Street
Sabotabby - Ottawa's favourite Celtic Hillbilly labour band
Guest speakers - Cuban embassy, CUPW, ODLC, CUPE and more
Saturday, April 29, 2000
Wall St. Pub and Grill
303 Bank St. (near MacLaren)
doors open at 8:30 pm
This event is wheelchair accessible.
For more information call 733-5159
This is a free event but donations to help pay the band are welcome
Sponsored by: Ottawa District Labour Council, Ottawa-Carleton CUPE District
Council, Ottawa-Cuba Connections, Communist Party of Canada,
OPIRG-Carleton/Ottawa, Industrial Workers of the World, Canadian Union of
Postal Workers and more.......
Reprinted from: LIBERATION & MARXISM
The political discussion journal of Workers World Party
Spring 1996 * Issue No. 27
May Day, The Workers' Day
Born in the struggle for the eight-hour day
Andy McInerney. From Liberation & Marxism, issue no. 27, Spring, 1996.
In the opening words of "The Communist Manifesto," Karl Marx and Frederick
Engles describe the
"specter haunting Europe_ the specter of communism." Since those words were
written in 1848, this
specter_the conscious organization of the working class into a revolutionary
force_has haunted the
exploiting classes in every corner of the world.
Before the working class seized state power in the Soviet Union, apologists
for the bosses and bankers
ridiculed communism as utopian and terroristic. After the 1917 Russian
Revolution, the defenders of
capitalist rule tried to use defects in the Soviet Union as proof that
communism couldn't work. And after
the collapse of the USSR, communism was once again deemed a hopeless utopia.
All of these "refutations" of communism are born from the utmost fear of the
working class. Revolutions
around the world_in Russia, China, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and others_ have
shown that capitalist rule
is not secure. The workers can win.
Every year, the ruling classes around the world are again reminded of their
vulnerability and of the power
of their gravedig-gers. On May 1, the world working class displays its
strength in demonstrations and
strikes. May Day_ International Workers' Day_is a reminder to the ruling
classes that their days are
How did May 1 become a day recognized around the world as a working class
holiday, a day of
solidarity between workers of all nationalities? Why do the captains of
finance and industry still fear the
celebration of May Day?
May Day was born from the struggle for the eight-hour day. That struggle, in
turn, emerged as part and
parcel of the working class itself.
Working classes have existed since the development of agriculture, about ten
thousand years ago. Serfs,
slaves, tradespeople and others were forced to turn over the fruits of their
labor to an exploiting class.
But the modern working class_the class of "free labor," whose exploitation
is hidden by the wage
system_is only several hundred years old. Although its exploitation is
masked, it is no less brutal. Men,
women and children are forced to work long hours in miserable conditions
just to eke out a bare
EXPLOITATION BREEDS RESISTANCE
These conditions gave rise to demands for limitations on the working day.
Marx noted in 1867 that "the
creation of a normal [fixed] working day is the product of a protracted
civil war, more or less
dissembled, between the capitalist class and the working class."
Utopian socialist Robert Owen of England had raised the demand for a
ten-hour day as early as 1810,
and instituted it in his socialist enterprise at New Lanark. For the rest of
the English workers, progress
was slower. Women and children were granted the ten-hour day in 1847. French
workers won the
12-hour day after the February revolution of 1848.
In the United States, where May Day was born, Philadelphia carpenters struck
in 1791 for the ten-hour
day. By the 1830s, this had become a general demand. In 1835, workers in
Philadelphia organized a
general strike, led by Irish coal heavers. Their banners read, "From 6 to 6,
ten hours work and two
hours for meals."
The ten-hours movement had a real impact on workers' lives. From 1830 to
1860, the average work
day had dropped from 12 hours to 11 hours.
Already in this period, the demand for an eight-hour day was being raised.
In 1836, after winning the
ten-hour day in Philadelphia, the National Laborer declared: "We have no
desire to perpetuate the
ten-hour system, for we believe that eight hours' daily labor is more than
enough for any man to
perform." At the 1863 convention of the Machinists' and Blacksmiths' Union,
the eight-hour day was put
as a top priority.
CIVIL WAR FUELS EIGHT-HOUR DAY DEMAND
This agitation was carried out against the backdrop of the Civil War, which
broke the back of southern
slavocracy_ abolishing slavery and opening the Southern states to free-
labor capitalism. Following the
Civil War, Reconstruction lifted the aspirations of thousands of former
This was accompanied by the widespread growth of the eight- hour movement.
Marx noted that "out of
the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first real fruit of the
Civil War was the eight-hours'
agitation, that ran with the seven- leagued boots of the locomotive from the
Atlantic to the Pacific, from
New England to California."
As evidence, Marx quotes a declaration from the 1866 General Congress of
Labor in Baltimore: "The
first and great necessity of the present, to free this country from
capitalist slavery, is the passing of a law
by which eight hours shall be the normal working day in all States of the
Six years later, in 1872, a hundred thousand workers in New York City struck
and won the eight-hour
day, mostly for building trades workers. It was in this rising ferment for
the eight-hour day that May Day
The movement for the eight-hour day was wedded to the date of May 1 at an
1884 convention of the
three-year-old Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United
States and Canada_the
forerunner of the American Federation of Labor. George Edmonston, founder of
the Brotherhood of
Carpenters and Joiners, introduced a resolution designed to crystallize
labor's support for the eight-hour
"Resolved ... that eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and
after May 1, 1886, and that we
recommend to labor organizations throughout this district that they so
direct their laws so as to conform
to this resolution by the time named."
TRENDS IN LABOR MOVEMENT
At that time, three main trends existed in the U.S. labor movement. The
largest was the Order of the
Knights of Labor, which claimed 700,000 members in 1886. The Knights held to
positions_including organizing Black and women workers_and had included the
demand for the
eight-hour day in its first constitution in 1878. But they never launched a
determined struggle for the
demand, preferring lobbying politicians in Washington.
The FOTLU was founded in 1881 by members of the Knights of Labor_including
leaders like Samuel
Gompers_and several Marxists. Although they initially supported legislative
means to win the eight-hour
day, more militant elements, influenced by the socialists, advanced the idea
of a general strike to win the
demand. It was the Federation which took up much of the practical work in
building for the May 1,
1886 event, working to win over the Knights of Labor and other labor groups.
The other current in the labor movement was the anarchists, who organized
the International Working
People's Association in 1883_after the London anarchist group of the same
name. While there were
several wings within the IWPA itself, they rejected political action like
legislative and electoral campaigns
in favor of militant tactics_ranging from class- struggle-based strikes to
The campaign building up to May 1, 1886, was embraced by sections of all
three of these trends. The
leadership of the Knights of Labor rebuffed repeated appeals by the FOTLU to
join the movement,
declaring themselves opposed to any strike actions. But local Knights
assemblies began to call on the
national leadership to join the May 1 movement.
Responding to the growing pressure and fearful of the workers' militant
mood, Knights Grand Master
Workman Terence Powderly issued a letter on March 13, 1886, forbidding
Knights members to strike
on May 1.
In spite of Powderly's call, local Knights leaders took up organizing for
May 1. In Chicago, Knights
leader George Schilling joined with the IWPA to build for the day. The
Knights also played prominent
organizing roles in Cincinnati and Milwaukee.
A SECOND DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
Despite growing support, the FOTLU was too small to carry out a truly
national action. Instead, local
committees took responsibility for building May 1 strikes and
The growing strength of the eight-hour movement caused a panic in the ruling
headlines blared warnings of "communist infiltrators." Other bosses
capitulated in fear: by April 1886,
over 30,000 workers were granted the eight-hour day.
Despite the bosses' predictions of violence, the world's first May Day was a
massive success, involving
hundreds of thousands in peaceful strikes and demonstrations. The largest
demonstration was in
Chicago, where 90,000 marched_ as many as 40,000 of whom were strikers.
Chicago meatpackers won the eight-hour day with no loss of pay after that
In New York, 10,000 marched to Union Square. Eleven thousand marched in
Detroit. May Day rallies
in Louisville, Ky., and Baltimore were remarkable for the Black-white unity
of the demonstrating
workers. All told, as many as half a million workers took part in the May 1
demonstrations in every part
of the country_from Maine to Texas, from New Jersey to Alabama.
Samuel Gompers, speaking at Union Square, told the crowd, "May 1st would be
as a second declaration of independence." But the event that guaranteed May
Day a place in the history
of the working class did not occur on May 1, but three days later at
Haymarket Square in Chicago.
Chicago, besides having the strongest eight-hour movement, was the center of
the syndicalist wing of the
anarchist IWPA_the wing that viewed the unions as the embryo of classless
society. With dynamic
leaders like Albert Parsons and August Spies, the Chicago IWPA claimed
several thousand members
and published five newspapers in three languages.
By May 3, the number of workers on strike in Chicago had soared to 65,000.
of industry had decided that decisive action against the workers was
The battle was joined on the afternoon of May 3. Spies was addressing
striking lumber workers,
preparing to negotiate with the owners over the eight-hour day.
During the rally, several hundred lumber workers left to join the locked-out
workers at the McCormick
Harvester Works, about a quarter-mile away. The McCormick workers had been
locked out for three
months; the plant was being run with scabs, and the lumber workers were
joining the locked- out
workers to confront the scabs at shift change.
Within 15 minutes, hundreds of cops were on the scene. Spies and the
remaining lumber workers,
hearing gunshots, headed for McCormick to reinforce their comrades. But a
force of police intercepted
them, attacking them with clubs and firing into the crowd. At least four
workers were killed outright, with
many other injured.
Spies immediately issued two leaflets in both English and German. One had
the headline, "Revenge!
Workingmen, to Arms!" and put responsibility for the atrocity at the hands
of the bosses. The other
called for a mass rally at Haymarket Square to denounce the police murders.
On the day of the rally, May 4, the police carried out a wave of attacks
against striking workers.
Despite the attacks, 3,000 gathered for the evening rally_including the
mayor, who wanted to insure that
the rally remained peaceful.
Spies spoke first, taking up the cop murders the day before. Parsons also
spoke, addressing the
eight-hour day. After these two leaders left, Samuel Fielden addressed the
Minutes after the mayor left the rally, while Fielden was speaking, 180 cops
closed in on the speakers
stand and demanded that the rally disperse. Fielden protested that the rally
Just as the police captain was giving orders to the cops, a bomb was thrown
from the crowd into the
ranks of the police. Sixty-six cops were wounded; seven later died. The cops
turned their guns on the
workers, wounding 200 and killing several.
SOLIDARITY VS. WITCH HUNT
The newspapers and the bosses whipped up a witch hunt against militant
anarchist leaders. Seven were arrested within days_Spies, Fielden, Michael
Schwab, Adolph Fischer,
George Engel, Louis Lingg, and Oscar Neebe. Parsons evaded a police search
until he turned himself in
on the day of the trial.
The trial itself was a classical frame-up. The prosecutors produced no
evidence that any of the eight men
threw the bomb, nor that any of them had conspired to throw the bomb. As
prosecuting Attorney Julius
Grinnel said in his closing remarks, "Law is upon trial. Anarchy is on
trial. These men have been
selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they were
leaders. They are no more guilty
than the thousands that follow them. ... Convict these men, make examples of
them, hang them and save
our institutions, our society."
All were sentenced to death except Neebe. Fielden and Schwab petitioned for
clemency and had their
sentences commuted to life in prison; 21-year-old Lingg cheated the hangman
by exploding a dynamite
tube in his mouth. The rest were hanged on November 11, 1887.
Six years later, Illinois Gov. John Atgeld freed Neebe, Fielden and Schwab
and posthumously pardoned
the five executed men, revealing that much of the evidence was phony and
that the trial was a charade.
But the damage had been done, and not just to the Haymarket Eight.
The entire labor movement came under attack in the witch hunt; the
eight-hours' strikes by-and-large
collapsed, and about a third of the workers who had won the eight-hour day
lost it in the month after the
In the year between the Haymarket incident and the executions, the worldwide
labor movement came to
the defense of the accused. While the Knights of Labor officialdom took the
opportunity to attack its
more militant rivals, many Knights locals_including the Chicago
local_championed the clemency
campaign. The newly- founded American Federation of Labor, under Gompers,
issued a public appeal
Outside the United States, workers in England, Holland, Russia, Italy,
France and Spain rallied and
donated funds for the defendants. Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck of
Germany, alarmed by the
workers' movement in defense of the Haymarket defendants, outlawed public
meetings of workers.
The Haymarket incident placed the U.S. working class_ especially the U.S.
movement for the eight-hour
day_at center stage of the world workers' movement. So when the AFL
convention in 1888 announced
that May 1, 1890, would be a day when labor would enforce the eight-hour day
with strikes and
demonstrations, the world was listening.
MAY DAY SPREADS WORLDWIDE
In 1889, over 400 delegates met in Paris on the 100th anniversary of the
French revolution at the
Marxist International Socialist Congress_the founding meeting of the Second
sent a delegate with word of their call for action on May 1, 1890.
The Congress passed a resolution, introduced by the French delegate Lavigne,
calling for a "great
international demonstration" to take place for the eight-hour day. The
demonstration was to take place
on May 1, 1890, "in view of the fact that such a demonstration has already
been resolved upon by the
American Federation of Labor."
The call was a resounding success. On May 1, 1890, May Day demonstrations
took place in the United
States and most countries in Europe. Demonstrations were also held in Chile
and Peru. In Havana,
Cuba, workers marched in the world's first May Day demanding the eight-hour
day, equal rights for
Blacks and whites, and working-class unity.
Frederick Engels, who joined the half-million workers in Hyde Park in London
on May 3, reported:
"As I write these lines, the proletariat of Europe and America is holding a
review of its forces; it is
mobilized for the first time as one army, under one flag, and fighting for
one immediate aim: an eight-hour
While the 1889 resolution called for a one-time demonstration on May 1, the
day quickly became an
annual event. Around the world, workers in more and more countries marked
labor's day on May Day.
May Day was celebrated for the first time in Russia, Brazil and Ireland in
1891. By 1904, the Second
International called on all socialists and trade unionists in every country
to "demonstrate energetically"
each May 1 "for the legal establishment of the eight-hour day, for the class
demands of the proletariat,
and for universal peace."
Chinese workers celebrated their first May Day in 1920, following the
Russian socialist revolution. In
1927, workers in India observed May Day with demonstrations in Calcutta,
Madras and Bombay. By
that time, May Day was truly a world workers' day.
While May Day picked up momentum across the world, it lost steam in its
country of origin, the United
States. The AFL had begun a rightward turn as early as the aftermath of
Haymarket; by 1905 it had
disavowed May Day altogether, celebrating instead Labor Day on the first
September_sanctioned by the federal government in 1894.
>From that time onward, May Day in the United States was organized by the
left wing of the labor
movement, against the hostile attitude of the more conservative labor
bureaucracy. In 1910, for
example, the Socialist Party brought 60,000 into the streets of New York
City for May Day, including
10,000 women of the Shirt Waist Makers' Union. Five hundred thousand workers
marched on May
Day in 1911.
In 1919, following the now-certain victory of the workers and peasants in
the Soviet Union, a vicious
red scare swept the U.S. May Day rallies were attacked both in the press and
>From 1919 onward, the success of May Day in the United States would depend
on the success of the
Despite its setbacks in the United States, May Day is embraced by millions
of workers in every country
of the world as a day to raise its class demands. Its strength has been in
raising demands not just of
workers in a particular factory or industry, but of the working class as a
whole. The demands of May
Day_for the eight-hour day, for unity against racism and national
chauvinism, against imperialist war_are
demands of the working class against the entire capitalist class.
For that reason, May Day_International Workers' Day_haunts the bankers and
corporate barons as
much as it inspires the millions of workers who observe it. It is the day
when workers take their place in
the class army that will one day unseat their masters.
Above the clenched fists and red flags of the assembled ranks of workers are
the last words of August
Spies, chiseled in stone on the monument to the Haymarket martyrs: "The day
will come when our
silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today."
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