Born in the USA
International Worker’s Day or May 1 was declared a holiday in 1889 by the Second International. It is recognized as a national holiday in more than 65 countries around the world but the United States is not among them. This despite the fact that May Day has its origins in the eight hour work day movement and the Haymarket Massacre, two events that belong to American history.
In 1884, The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions called for a “national eight-hour work day movement”, which would culminate in a nationwide strike two years later, on May 1, 1886. Support for the movement grew and by April 1886, hundreds of thousands of workers across the country had become involved.
In Chicago, at the heart of the movement, the prediction of violence justified police and militia being prepared with new and powerful weapons. One group of local business leaders financed the purchase of a $2,000 machine gun to be used against the strikers. Leaders of the International Working People’s Association, an anarchist group that was largely responsible for organizing Chicago workers in the strike were to be watched and held personally accountable for any violence or trouble.
On May 1, workers across the country took to the streets numbering 10,000 in cities such as New York, Detroit, and Milwaukee. In Chicago, a total of 80,000 people marched down Michigan Avenue in support of the movement. The railroad and stock yards were shut down and industries were paralyzed. Between 300,000 to 500,000 workers from more than 11,500 businesses across the country went on strike that day.
Despite the prediction of violence, the strike proceeded without incident and grew daily as more workers left their jobs and joined the strike.
Then on May 3 violence did erupt, but it came from the police who fired into a crowd of strikers at the McCormick Harvester plant in Chicago, killing four and wounding several others.
A protest meeting was held the next evening at Haymarket Square. Initially 3,000 people had gathered but it began to rain and the crowd dispersed leaving only about 300 people listening to speakers. At one point, 180 armed policemen advanced on the crowd demanding that the meeting end and it was then that a homemade bomb exploded injuring many policemen, of whom seven later died. Police opened fire on the crowd killing several and wounding two hundred.
The next day there were police raids throughout the city and hundreds were arrested for suspected ties to radical labor groups. In the end, eight anarchist leaders were charged with conspiracy to murder; Spies, Parsons, Fisher, Engel, Lingg, Schwab, Neebe and Fielden. Except for Fielden, who was on the speaker’s platform at the moment the bomb thrown, none of the men had been present that evening. There was no evidence linking any of the men to the bomb or the bomb thrower. In fact, to this day, no one knows who threw the bomb.
The trial began on June 21, 1886 with a biased judge and jury and a media frenzy, and two months later it came to the predicted conclusion, eight guilty verdicts. Neebe was sentenced to 15 years in prison and the others were sentenced to death. All appeals were denied.
An international campaign ensued and Schwab and Fielden’s sentences were commuted to life in prison, but Parsons, Engel, Spies and Fischer, were hanged on November 11, 1887. Lingg died the day before the hanging. Suicide was listed as the official cause of death.
Eventually, Neebe, Schwab and Fielden were pardoned by the governor, who in 1893, publicly exonerated all eight men. The pardons, ended his political career.
Episodes such as these are not relegated to the past. They continue in the present. How far have we really come? How much has really changed?