Here is a flyer that goes around every year about......
The anarchist origins of May Day
TODAY IT IS just another bank holiday. Not many
people know why May Day became International
Workers Day and why we should still celebrate it.
One more piece of our history which has been
hidden from us.
It all began over a century ago when the American
Federation of Labour adopted an historic
resolution which asserted that "eight hours shall
constitute a legal day's labour from and after May
In the months prior to this date workers in their
thousands were drawn into the struggle for the
shorter day. Skilled and unskilled, black and
white, men and women, native and immigrant were
all becoming involved.
In Chicago alone 400,000 were out on strike. A
newspaper of that city reported that "no smoke
curled up from the tall chimneys of the factories
and mills, and things had assumed a Sabbath-like
appearance". This was the main centre of the
agitation, and here the anarchists were in the
forefront of the labour movement. It was to no
small extent due to their activities that Chicago
became an outstanding trade union centre and made
the biggest contribution to the eight-hour
When on May 1st 1886, the eight hour strikes
convulsed that city, one half of the workforce at
the McCormick Harvester Co. came out. Two days
later a mass meeting was held by 6,000 members of
the 'lumber shovers' union who had also come out.
The meeting was held only a block from the
McCormick plant and was joined by some 500 of the
strikers from there.
The workers listened to a speech by the anarchist
August Spies, who has been asked to address the
meeting by the Central Labour Union. While Spies
was speaking, urging the workers to stand together
and not give in to the bosses, the strikebreakers
were beginning to leave the nearby McCormick
The strikers, aided by the 'lumber shovers'
marched down the street and forced the scabs back
into the factory. Suddenly a force of 200 police
arrived and, without any warning, attacked the
crowd with clubs and revolvers. They killed at
least one striker, seriously wounded five or six
others and injured an indeterminate number.
Outraged by the brutal assaults he had witnessed,
Spies went to the office of the Arbeiter-Zeitung
(a daily anarchist newspaper for German immigrant
workers) and composed a circular calling on the
workers of Chicago to attend a protest meeting the
The protest meeting took place in the Haymarket
Square and was addressed by Spies and two other
anarchists active in the trade union movement,
Albert Parsons and Samuel Fielden.
Throughout the speeches the crowd was orderly.
Mayor Carter Harrison, who was present from the
beginning of the meeting, concluded that "nothing
looked likely to happen to require police
interference". He advised police captain John
Bonfield of this and suggested that the large
force of police reservists waiting at the station
house be sent home.
It was close to ten in the evening when Fielden
was closing the meeting. It was raining heavily
and only about 200 people remained in the square.
Suddenly a police column of 180 men, headed by
Bonfield, moved in and ordered the people to
disperse immediately. Fielden protested "we are
At this moment a bomb was thrown into the ranks of
the police. It killed one, fatally wounded six
more and injured about seventy others. The police
opened fire on the spectators. How many were
wounded or killed by the police bullets was never
A reign of terror swept over Chicago. The press
and the pulpit called for revenge, insisting the
bomb was the work of socialists and anarchists.
Meeting halls, union offices, printing works and
private homes were raided. All known socialists
and anarchists were rounded up. Even many
individuals ignorant of the meaning of socialism
and anarchism were arrested and tortured. "Make
the raids first and look up the law afterwards"
was the public statement of Julius Grinnell, the
Eventually eight men stood trial for being
"accessories to murder". They were Spies, Fielden,
Parsons, and five other anarchists who were
influential in the labour movement, Adolph
Fischer, George Engel, Michael Schwab, Louis Lingg
and Oscar Neebe.
The trial opened on June 21st 1886 in the criminal
court of Cook County. The candidates for the jury
were not chosen in the usual manner of drawing
names from a box. In this case a special bailiff,
nominated by state's attorney Grinnell, was
appointed by the court to select the candidates.
The defence was not allowed to present evidence
that the special bailiff had publicly claimed "I
am managing this case and I know what I am about.
These fellows are going to be hanged as certain as
The eventual composition of the jury was farcical;
being made up of businessmen, their clerks and a
relative of one of the dead policemen. No proof
was offered by the state that any of the eight men
before the court had thrown the bomb, had been
connected with its throwing, or had even approved
of such acts. In fact, only three of the eight had
been in Haymarket Square that evening.
No evidence was offered that any of the speakers
had incited violence, indeed in his evidence at
the trial Mayor Harrison described the speeches as
"tame". No proof was offered that any violence had
been contemplated. In fact, Parsons had brought
his two small children to the meeting.
That the eight were on trial for their anarchist
beliefs and trade union activities was made clear
from the outset. The trial closed as it had
opened, as was witnessed by the final words of
Attorney Grinnell's summation speech to the jury.
"Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men
have been selected, picked out by the Grand Jury,
and indicted because they were leaders. There are
no more guilty than the thousands who follow them.
Gentlemen of the jury; convict these men, make
examples of them, hang them and you save our
institutions, our society."
On August 19th seven of the defendants were
sentenced to death, and Neebe to 15 years in
prison. After a massive international campaign for
their release, the state 'compromised' and
commuted the sentences of Schwab and Fielden to
life imprisonment. Lingg cheated the hangman by
committing suicide in his cell the day before the
executions. On November 11th 1887 Parsons, Engel,
Spies and Fischer were hanged.
600,000 working people turned out for their
funeral. The campaign to free Neebe, Schwab and
On June 26th 1893 Governor Altgeld set them free.
He made it clear he was not granting the pardon
because he thought the men had suffered enough,
but because they were innocent of the crime for
which they had been tried. They and the hanged men
had ben the victims of "hysteria, packed juries
and a biased judge".
The authorities has believed at the time of the
trial that such persecution would break the back
of the eight-hour movement. Indeed, evidence later
came to light that the bomb may have been thrown
by a police agent working for Captain Bonfield, as
part of a conspiracy involving certain steel
bosses to discredit the labour movement.
When Spies addressed the court after he had been
sentenced to die, he was confident that this
conspiracy would not succeed. "If you think that
by hanging us you can stamp out the labour
movement... the movement from which the
downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in
misery and want, expect salvation - if this os
your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread on
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".
One hundred and nine years after years after that
first May Day demonstration in Chicago, where are
we? We stroll though town with our union banners -
about the only day of the year we can get them out
of head office. Then we stand around listening to
boring (and usually pretty meaningless) speeches
by equally boring union bureaucrats. You have to
keep reminding yourself that May Day was once a
day when workers all over the world displayed
their strength, proclaimed their ideals and
celebrated their successes.
It is important that "once upon a time" it was
like that. We can do it again. We need independent
working class politics. No collaboration with
government and bosses, no more PCWs. Defiance of
the Industrial Relations Act, not passively giving
up like SIPTU did at Nolans. Real solidarity with
fellow workers in struggle, not a blinkered
sectional outlook. We still need a further
reduction in working hours, without loss of pay,
to make work for the unemployed.
We need revolutionary politics. That means
politics that can lead us towards a genuine
socialism where freedom knows no limit other than
not interfering with the freedom of others. A
socialism that is based on real democracy - not
the present charade where we can choose some of
our rulers, but may not choose to do without
rulers. A real democracy where everyone effected
by a decision will have the opportunity to have
their say in making that decision. A democracy of
efficiently co-ordinated workplace and community
councils. A society where production is to satisfy
needs, not to make profits for a privileged few.
More articles on Anarchism and the Unions at
Workers Solidarity Movement
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