May 1st is May Day, the international workers’ holiday honoring the labor movement. May Day is celebrated in at least 80 countries worldwide, from Argentina to Vietnam, but not in the United States. Here, our “Labor Day” was carefully put into September – by President Grover Cleveland in 1894 – specifically so that we would not observe May Day, with all of its radical roots in syndicalist labor history. This is deeply ironic, for the event that gave rise to May Day observances the world over occurred right here in the United States: the bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, on May 4, 1886, during a labor rally.
The context for the Haymarket riot in 1886 was the movement for the eight-hour work day. The movement had started at least as early as 1877, when the Workingmen’s Party in Chicago called a general strike beginning July 25 in support of the eight-hour movement. The next day, on July 26, 1877, thousands of strikers were attacked and beaten into submission by police and U.S. Army infantrymen with fixed bayonets. Thirty strikers, including a number of children, were murdered by the police and federal troops. During that strike, typesetter Albert Parsons, later one of the Haymarket martyrs, was fired from his job because of a speech he had given during the strike. The bloody suppression of the 1877 strike caused another of the Haymarket martyrs, upholsterer August Spies, to join an armed worker’s self-defense organization.
The national movement for the eight-hour day reached a crescendo in the mid-1880s. In 1885, there were 645 strikes nationwide at over 2,400 businesses in support of the eight-hour goal. In 1886, the year of the Haymarket riot, the number of strikes had more than doubled to 1,400, affecting over 11,000 businesses!
On Saturday, May 1, 1886, a nationwide general strike in support of the eight-hour day was observed. In Chicago alone, 60,000 workers walked off their jobs. In a truly prescient headline, a Chicago labor newspaper that day announced: “The Dies Are Cast! The First of May, Whose Historical Significance Will Be Understood and Appreciated Only in Later Years, Is Here!” The general strike for the eight-hour day continued on Monday, May 3. On the afternoon of May 3, August Spies was addressing a rally of striking workers that had been locked out of the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago, when hundreds of police officers simply began shooting into the crowd of workers. Several workers died, and many others were wounded. That night, Parsons, Spies, and other anarchists printed leaflets calling for a labor rally the next afternoon in Haymarket Square to protest the massacre of unarmed strikers by police at the McCormick plant. http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/8834-the-haymarket-affair-and-the-origins-of-may-day