May Day in 2020 brings with it two very different kinds of political actions. Today in downtown Chicago right-wing protesters will be gathering to demand that Illinois re-open the economy in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is not clear if they chose May Day, International Workers’ Day, deliberately to co-opt the radical traditions of this holiday or not. What is clear is that they are callously using the language of civil rights activists and reproductive justice struggles for their own misguided and dangerous purposes.
But there will also be workers from Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Walmart, Target, and FedEx on strike today. Their agenda, unlike the protesters in downtown Chicago, is not to go back to the economic status quo but rather to demand more pay for essential workers, safety on the job, and affordable health care. These two very different actions on May Day show the urgency of reclaiming the narrative of militant struggle from below and telling our own stories and histories as workers. May Day is our holiday and it will not be taken from us.
History has shown us that nothing, especially transformative, fundamental change, comes out of nowhere, nor is it built overnight. Like a wave building in the ocean before it crashes to the shore, the struggles of working people in this country can rise up in moments of fierce intensity, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere, but the power behind these decisive moments has often been built over decades, an accumulation of lessons and struggles that have come before.
In the midst of the current unprecedented humanitarian and economic crisis, we can’t afford to have a short view of history. The rich traditions of radicalism that have come before have a lot to teach us, but instead of formulaically grafting them onto the crises and fissures of this historical moment, some of the most important things we can learn from them are how to be bold, demand more than we think might be possible, and organize in new ways. Our world has been radically reshaped many times before, and it will be again out of this current crisis. As radicals we share connective tissue, threads across time and place, with the hundreds of thousands of militants who have come before us. We have the same enemies, we have the same exploitative capitalist bosses and their partners in government who continue to tell us this is the best it will ever be for humanity. They knew then and we know now that is a lie.
While class struggle has been a consistent part of American history since the very foundation of the nation, May Day and the fight for the eight-hour day is one of the most significant struggles led by radical workers in this country’s history. It is critical, as activists today, that we know this story both because it can inspire us in the hard struggles we are engaged with now and because it can teach us some indispensable lessons to help us win them, most significantly, the importance of radical politics being infused into spaces of shop floor organizing.
The fight for the eight-hour day coincided with the birth of the American labor movement and like many pitched battles in the war between workers and bosses it was bloody, hard-fought, and has reverberated across decades, especially here in Chicago.
However, the story of May Day is not one that begins on May 1, 1886. It begins over twenty years earlier, when the end of the Civil War and the destruction of the racist instiution of slavery changed America forever, with lasting implications for both capitalists and workers.
The Story of International Workers’ Day
On May 1st, 1865, twenty-one years before the battle in Haymarket Square, the body of Abraham Lincoln was paraded through record crowds on the streets of Chicago. Many people, rich and poor alike, in the city believed that the end of the Civil War and the destruction of slavery would usher in an era of peace and prosperity for all.
Instead, as peace finally came to the war-torn nation, another battle was announcing itself: one between the growing capitalist class and the working class and poor of America. No where would this battle be harder fought and have higher stakes than in Chicago, with its rapidly growing economy, population and wealth. In the decades after the end of the Civil War the Gilded Age would come along with several devastating economic depressions, and the working class would not take it lying down. Karl Marx himself wrote about this historical moment in Capital:
Out of the death of slavery, a new vigorous life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight-hour agitation.
At first, it seemed as though the fast-growing city would be able to share its wealth with everyone and create a new normal of stability and security. Already on March 2, 1867 the Republican Governor of Illinois signed into law legislation that would create an eight-hour day for many workers, to take effect on May 1st of that year. However, workers at every turn were met with resistance from employers, who refused to implement the new law. Workers knew that they would need to develop a way to win and enforce the eight-hour day themselves if they were ever to make it a reality.
On May 1, 1867 a general strike was launched, centered around winning an eight hour day for all workers. Sadly the strike was brutally repressed and defeated after several days of pitched street battles. These would become some of the first lessons of the movement: the politicians will not lead the movement for workers rights, the state is not neutral or benevolent, and laws–without the ability or will to enforce them on the ground–mean nothing. In 1868 a similar law would be passed by the United States Congress with the same outcome, nothing changed, since the state would not enforce it. There were also several major loopholes allowing employers to demand overtime hours as they deemed necessary. Many working people realized that they would need to build a movement to win the eight-hour demand. Unfortunately, despite heroic organizing across the country, the eight-hour day would not become federal law until the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.
Despite setbacks, in 1871 a movement half a world away inspired many Chicago workers and showed a vision of the power of workers organizing themselves to run things themselves. The Paris Commune showed our side both what was possible and the ruthlessness by which the state would repress any struggle that shook the foundations of the status quo. It was also clear to many radicals that the conditions that led to the Paris Commune existed in cities across the United States and the world. One of the reasons why Karl Marx quickly wrote The Civil War in France was to try to generalize the key political lessons from the streets of Paris to organizers in cities across the globe. For the ruling class in Chicago and beyond, the Paris Commune made them realize that if they did not put safeguards in place, the same thing could happen here. It is not a coincidence that the Pinkerton private security force-for-hire was formed in 1871 to protect businesses from “looters” looking for food and shelter after the devastating Chicago Fire that same year. They were the first of many preparations the capitalist class made for any anticipated working-class uprising.
In 1873 the first of several economic depressions devastated Chicago. At the same time that banks were closing and businesses were implementing wage cuts and mass firings, workers–mostly newly arrived immigrant workers from Europe–began holding meetings and organizing for relief for the unemployed and hungry. Marches, sometimes in the tens of thousands, took to the street demanding that Chicago and it’s wealthy business elite feed and employ those who suddenly had nothing. Banners reading simply “Bread or Work” expressed the sentiment of the organizers.
But the ruling class did not give bread nor work. Instead they met those in the streets with violence. Newly formed National Guard troops cleared the streets and the media branded the poor people’s marches as led and populated by criminals, communists, and political deadbeats. For many of us living in the era of corporate-owned media and Trumpism, this is a familiar narrative.
Despite this repression, Chicago had become the epicenter of the radical workers movement in America. It’s population growth raced ahead of other American cities because of an influx of over 200,000 new workers in the mid-19th century. Many of them were immigrant workers from Europe, steeped in the socialist and anarchist politics sweeping the continent at the time, as well as young people moving from the South and the East grasping for a chance at the American dream away from the racism and old money interests of their former hometowns. Employers tried to sow division by segregating jobs by ethnicity and immigrant status. In workplaces people working in different parts of the line often didn’t even speak the same language. This was a major hurdle the labor movement had to overcome to bring together different communities of workers into a unified fight. The fight for the eight-hour day would become just such a unifying struggle for many workers.
Out of the struggle for relief and fair pay led by many of the new immigrants came a new formation that argued workers needed to be better organized and more prepared for resistance from the state: the Workingman’s Party of Illinois. This would in a few years become the International Working People’s Association (because there were many women members) and later the Socialist Labor Party and would attract two leaders of the May Day movement: August Spies and Albert Parsons. The Haymarket story includes six other heroic fighters: Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Oscar Neebe and Louis Lingg. August Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel and Adolph Fischer were hanged for the crime of being anarchist organizers, Louis Lingg committed suicide in prison and the others served time in prison.
August Spies and Albert Parsons were part of this new and growing group of radical Chicago workers. August Spies was a young German immigrant who helped to organize workers in his first job as an upholsterer. He joined the Socialist Labor Party, formerly the Workingmen’s Party, after attending several large meetings with dynamic socialist speakers who spoke of the need to replace the greed of capitalism with a collective workers’ democracy. Spies devoured anarchist and socialist literature and newspapers. He was part of the radical German-speaking community on Chicago’s north side that had a rich tradition of militancy, even forming and drilling it’s own militias for “self-protection.” Spies joined the staff of the radical German language newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung in 1880, became editor in 1884 and was a prominent public speaker and leader of the movement of radical workers in Chicago for nearly a decade.
Albert Parsons was a former Confederate soldier who became an anti-racist organizer for the Republican party in West Texas during Reconstruction. He married Lucy Parsons, who was Black and the daughter of a former slave and was a radical activist writer and agitator in her own right. The Parsons moved to Chicago seeking a fresh start away from the violence of the Ku Klux Klan, which followed and attacked them in their campaigns for Black Republican representatives. Albert got a job as a printer, joined the socialist movement in Chicago, and was one of the most prominent speakers for the International Working People’s Association. He also edited the anarchist newspaper The Alarm. He and Spies would be targets because of their explicit anti-capitalist speeches, writings and organizing that urged workers to unite and rise up against the tyranny of the bosses.
Meanwhile economically, increased mechanization and the elimination of piecemeal workshops coupled with another serious economic depression in 1883 that swelled the numbers of unemployed and drove down wages and working conditions even further. In the relentless pursuit of profits, Chicago capitalists instituted draconian working conditions and threatened to immediately replace any workers who tried to organize. A united Chicago ruling class hired armed thugs to break strikes, hunted down and fired union agitators, reds and anarchists and enlisted the help of a sympathetic mayor and ruthless police chief to keep the masses of poor workers from shutting down production.
The Class War Intensifies
But organizing was happening on both sides, not just among the capitalists. Anarchists, socialists and militant union organizers spoke at hundreds of workplaces and fellowship halls, calling for workers and the poor to join them in resisting the new ruling class order. The Knights of Labor, one of the first labor unions in the United States, also grew and led some important solidarity strikes and boycotts. Unfortunately much of the class energy in the early stages of organizing was channeled into running radicals, like Albert Parsons, for elected office on largely protest votes. This strategy proved to be an utterly exhausting effort with little payoff other than affirming that many working people in Chicago wanted to see fundamental change.
A series of bitter labor battles beginning in 1885 would set the stage for the showdown over the eight-hour day in May of 1886. One of the most important occurred at the McCormick Reaper Works when unionized ironworkers were told they would have a 10 percent cut in pay despite the record profits the company was making. When workers struck, the company owner, Mr. McCormick himself, unleashed the Pinkertons and got his friend the mayor to sic the police force on strikers and their supporters. After several bloody street battles McCormick withdrew his wage cut and the workers were able to gain several other concessions from the boss. The lesson McCormick and the rest of the business community learned was that they must rid the city of the unions and radicals leading them once and for all. Both the McCormick family exploits and the fierce struggles of the International Farm Equipment Workers Unions are expertly detailed in Toni Gilpin’s new book, The Long Deep Grudge.
The workers across Chicago learned a valuable lesson from the violent clash at McCormick as well: the only way to prevail against the armed capitalists, the Pinkertons and the police is to organize workers into a mass movement. The workers’ movement would need to be large and militant and ready to face repression, but if the numbers were big enough they could prevail.
The Great Upheaval
The year 1886 is called by historians the Great Upheaval because of the massive uptick in strikes and worker struggles nationally that galvanized around the demand for an eight-hour day. Strikes began in the Southern railroad industry but quickly spread across the country. By year’s end, over 600,000 American workers participated in strike actions. In this dynamic the showdown on May 1 and the events of May 3 and 4 would become the most infamous moments of this larger struggle. Out of the momentum of this national strike wave, workers across the country declared May 1st the beginning of an eight-hour work day for all workers and prepared themselves for the showdown to come.
On Saturday, May 1, 35,000 workers walked off their jobs in Chicago. Tens of thousands more, both skilled and unskilled, would join them on May 3 and 4. Crowds of people traveled from workplace to workplace urging fellow workers to strike over the demand for an eight-hour day. The first days of the general strike were a vision of a festival of the oppressed, with impromptu worker’s parades throughout the city, communal kitchens set up on corners and singing in the streets. They were also met with police violence as the police and hired factory guards clashed with strikers dozens of times, often using live rounds to fire into crowds to disperse gatherings.
On May 3, in an egregious act of state violence, two striking workers were shot and killed by police at the McCormick reaper factory, site of previous bitter labor battles and owned by the notoriously anti-worker McCormick family.
A rally was called for the evening of May 3 in Haymarket Square in response to the police attacks on the general strikers of the previous two days. At the rally a bomb detonated near the line of the nearly two hundred police officers who were preparing to attack the rally. The anarchists were blamed and eight prominent leaders, including Spies and Parsons, who were not even in the square when the bombing occurred, were arrested, tried and convicted on conspiracy charges. In court, the judge and state attorney got around the lack of evidence connecting these leaders to the bomb and laid bare the real motives behind the convictions by arguing that the anarchists had advocated for the use of violence against the police and had urged the overthrow of order and the destruction of property. Sadly, there are many parallels between this language and what we see even now used to describe the resistance of the oppressed. The idea of vilifying those who use force to resist their oppression and equating the violence of the oppressed with the violence of the state is a not a new narrative, but it remains as wrong as ever.
Despite a petition demanding clemency signed by over 100,000 people, Spies, Parsons, Engel and Fischer were hanged on November 11, 1887. In 1893, Illinois’ governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned the remaining defendants and publicly criticized the trial. The Haymarket trial and executions were so unjust that they have been seen as an egregious miscarriage of justice by many ever since, even in history books written by the ruling class. Most importantly, the Haymarket martyrs and the struggle for the eight-hour day have become a major part of the radical working-class narrative for our side too.
The Seeds have been Planted
The fight for the eight hour day has taught us that workers’ determination to resist, no matter what the cost, coupled with radical ideas for change can win in even the most difficult circumstances.
The May Day movement, like the movements for change today, did not spring up overnight and did not come from nowhere. The seeds for these movements were planted in the smaller struggles: the less well-known acts of resistance that came before, and from the tireless work of unsung working-class leaders who did not give up, who carried their struggle forward and continued to fight. These seeds of struggle, if not nurtured and watered by handfuls of people striving for a better world, if not remembered and discussed in spaces like this publication, would have been forgotten and we wouldn’t be able to build on them today.
By remembering the Haymarket martyrs, we can see the seeds are planted, and it’s up to us to cultivate them and reap a radical harvest.
The words of August Spies make clear the battle cry from over a hundred years ago has not been silenced. It is time to light the fires anew.
If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement, the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in want and misery expect salvation–if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there and there, behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.
Note: Much of the information for this piece is based upon the brilliant book, Death in the Haymarket, by James Green. For a more in-depth history of May Day written from the perspective of a radical author, this book is an excellent resource.