Remembering the History of May Day, Recovering the History of Struggle

By James Anderson

Recovering the history of May Day has relevance not just for scholarly historiography, nor merely for exciting the radical working class imaginary. The memory of May Day and evolution of labor struggles informs untapped potentials in the present. This essay tries to identify what lies latent and largely forgotten.

May Day, or International Workers’ Day, started in the United States. Ironic, then, that most working people in the US are unfamiliar with its origins.

The holiday commemorates the Haymarket Affair that occurred in Chicago in 1886, in the wake of a widespread workers’ movement for an eight-hour workday.

What few remember is that the actual Haymarket gathering was only indirectly related to the still-crucial struggle for a reduction in working hours without proportionate decrease in pay.

Yet the eight-hour campaign revivified the union movement and created the necessary preconditions for large-scale labor organizing as well as for something like Haymarket to happen.

While work hours had been appreciably reduced from the 14 or 15 hours per day common in the early part of the nineteenth century, the average work week for the 177,810 workers who engaged in strikes in 1886, Henry David documented, hovered around 61.81 hours, with a 10-hour day typical for most workers.

Economic expansion in the two decades following the Civil War, with accelerated industrialization and increased mechanization of production, contributed to a growing gulf between the rich and poor.

An industrial depression in 1882 led to a labor surplus – generating what Marx called “a disposable industrial reserve army,” a veritable “mass of human material always ready for exploitation by capital in the interest of capital’s own changing valorization requirements” – and depressed wages by 1883. Irregular employment around 1886 led to a greater drop in real wages. The hardship increased the effectiveness of employer disciplinary tactics like firing workers for being late, singing or talking – in addition to use of the “iron-clad oath” prohibiting collective action and black-lists used to keep away union activists – because reserves were also available to replace those who dared disobey.

The eight-hour movement gained traction among many reformists because shortening working hours for those already employed offered a means for hiring more hands and addressing the problem of chronic unemployment that can also incite revolt. But reformists generally advocated an eight-hour day with reduction in pay, protecting employer profits, instead of the notion eight hours of work should still be remunerated with what was previously received for 10 hours of toil.

While some sought legislation to enact an eight-hour rule, much of the working class opted for a massive trans-industrial strike movement for shorter hours, which David claimed constituted “the first, vague approximation of a national general strike in American labor annals.”

Much of the action centered in the Midwest. Chicago became a hub for social-revolutionary organization and agitation. New York did not have nearly the number of International Working People’s Association affiliates as Illinois’ industrial center, and nine hour days were already common in California.

Nevertheless, a massive strike wave swept the US. In Chicago in 1884, a protest on Thanksgiving Day went through the wealthier section of the city. Marchers carried black and red flags past the Palmer House holding signs reading, “Private capital is the reward of robbery,” and “Our capitalistic robbers may well thank their Lord, we their victims have not yet strangled them.”

Not all radicals initially accepted trade unions as vehicles for emancipation. Some considered unions complicit with the exploitation of workers. Some unions were.

But increased organization of labor in the wake of the eight-hour movement prompted staunch radicals to embrace union struggles.

Lucy Parsons, American labor organizer and anarcho-communist, called unions and worker assemblies the “embryonic groups of the ideal anarchistic society,” meaning a society free from forced submission to authority.

Her husband, Albert Parsons, who would become one of the famed Haymarket martyrs, remained skeptical of the liberatory potential of unions for a while, but also came to recognize “in the Trades Union the embryonic group of the future ‘free society.’”

Organized Labor and the Incident that Sparked May Day

Sharon Smith explains in “Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States,” some 300,000 workers across the country, sick of taking orders from others for the greater part of their waking lives, demanded reduced working hours in major demonstrations in early May 1886.

Chicago boasted more than 50,000 strikers and participants in the movement on May 1, more than any other city in the US.

Contrary to popular belief, the eight-hour movement that had generated such excitement was not the primary impetus leading up to what happened at Haymarket Square a few days later.

Instead, a dispute at Chicago’s McCormick Harvester factory, a plant with a long history of labor struggles, “arose,” as David documented in his “History of the Haymarket Affair,” over the issue of unionization, and the discharge of a number of men engaged in union activities,” despite an employer promise made the previous April that union organizing would not be cause for dismissal.

McCormick, who said he would not be “dictated to” by employees, shut the plant down and locked workers out as debate ensued in February. Workers responded, declaring a strike two days later.

The owner planned to reopen in March, and he hired a number of Pinkertons, the private security force infamous for crushing labor strikes, while the city placed several hundred police at the company’s disposal.

An assembly of workers on May 3 included McCormick strikers and featured a speech by August Spies, who would also become a Haymarket martyr. Just before Spies’ speech ended, the McCormick factory bell rang several blocks away, and those workers from the plant made their way for the building where strikebreakers were exiting.

As striking workers drove strikebreakers back into the factory, police fired into the crowd. Officers called for backup. A patrol wagon with 11 officers showed up, followed by 200 more reinforcements on foot. Police proceeded to charge workers with clubs and revolvers.

Spies approached as throngs of workers fell from the onslaught of bullets and clubs.

One striker died and at least five or six were seriously wounded. Six officers suffered injuries, but none were shot.

In his organ, the Arbeiter-Zeitung, or “Workers’ Newspaper,” Spies commented on the events without pulling punches.

“You have for years endured the most abject humiliations; you have for years suffered immeasurable iniquities; you have worked yourselves to death; you have endured the pangs of want and hunger; your children you have sacrificed to the factory lords—in short you have been miserable and obedient slaves all these years,” he wrote. “Why? To satisfy the insatiable greed and fill the coffers of your lazy thieving masters! When you ask him now to lessen your burden, he sends his bloodhounds out to shoot you, to kill you!”

Workers organized a demonstration for the next day, May 4, at what was then Haymarket Square in Chicago, off Randolph Street and between Desplaines and Halsted.

Only 1,200 showed for the rally, likely because of the biting wind and nasty weather.

Spies spoke at around 8:30 p.m.

“Now is the chance to strike for the existence of the oppressed classes,” he told those gathered. “The oppressors want us to be content. They will kill us. The thought of liberty which inspired your sires ought to animate you today. The day is not far distant when we will resort to hanging these men.”

He added the major newspapers contend “there are no Americans among us. That is a lie. Every honest American is with us. Those who are not unworthy of their tradition and their forefathers.”

After a 20 minute talk, Spies introduced Parsons, whose words proved eerily prescient.

“I am not here for the purpose of inciting anybody, but to speak out, to tell the facts as they exist, even though it shall cost me my life before morning,” Parsons said, and he was just about right.

An editorial published in the Chicago Mail on May 1 had already identified the two labor leaders as targets.

“There are two dangerous ruffians at large in this city; two sneaking cowards who are trying to create trouble,” the op-ed claimed. “One of them is named Parsons; the other is named Spies. Should trouble come they would be the first to skulk away from the scene of danger,” and “the first to shirk responsibility.”

The Mail further instructed readers to watch “them for to-day. Keep them in view. Hold them personally responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if trouble does occur.”

As the final speaker, Samuel Fielden, started to conclude, police headed toward the wagon he had been standing on for his talk.

Officers demanded the assembly peaceably disperse.

“We are peaceable,” Fielden responded just before a dynamite bomb flew through the air, hit the ground and detonated near the first rank of the police.

One officer, Joseph M. Dega, died. About 70 others were wounded. Police, stunned for a moment, soon regrouped and retaliated, firing at spectators as people fled while being battered by bullets and bully clubs.

At least four people died in the police assault and several received serious injuries.

In the aftermath, law enforcement arrested eight men: August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden and Oscar Neebe.

One committed suicide behind bars. Three were pardoned. Four were hanged in 1887 despite no substantive evidence connecting them to the explosion.

Parsons blamed police agents, Smith explained, and Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld issued a posthumous pardon to the hanged martyrs in 1893, acknowledging the men had been charged with conspiracy, convicted in the bombing and executed without sufficient evidence.

At his trial, Spies told the court even if he was hanged, the movement would not die.

“If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement … the movement from which the downtrodden millions who toil in want and misery expect salvation – if this is your opinion,” Spies famously said, “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.”

The hanging of the Haymarket martyr and his comrades provided impetus for establishing a May Day holiday before the end of the nineteenth century, in commemoration of a cause still operative in the present with many of the same issues still circumscribing the movement.

Organizing Against Oppression Meets Repression

Immediately after the bomb detonated in Haymarket Square organized labor suffered repression inside the movement and out.

Myriad labor leaders blamed and condemned radicals for the bombing.

Terrence Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor in the 1880s, aimed to excommunicate radicals in Chicago from the movement.

“There is not a Trade Union in America that will uphold those men in Chicago who have been engaged in the destruction of life and property,” he wrote in the Chicago organ Inter Ocean organ on May 6, 1886.

The Typographical Union No. 16 met three days after bomb was thrown and adopted a resolution calling those assumed responsible, “the greatest enemy the laboring man has.” The Chicago Furniture Manufacturers’ Association members pledged not to hire “any communist, anarchist, nihilist, or socialist, or any other person denying the right of private property or recommending the destruction or bloodshed as remedies of existing evils.”

Purging of radicals from the labor movement continued apace, as American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers routinely criticized syndicalist organizations like the International Workers of the World.

Most AFL unions in the early twentieth century excluded black workers, yet Gompers vowed to support “a race hatred far worse than any ever known” if people of color became strikebreakers. When black workers migrated to the St. Louis area during World War I, AFL leaders called them a “growing menace,” and they claimed “drastic action must be taken” to get rid of the people of color already there. The AFL attitude and message helped incite the East St. Louis race riot in 1917, which amounted to a police-sanctioned lynching of blacks and burning of black residences.

Other labor struggles after Haymarket continued to meet repression from police and private security in the service of capital, often with deadly results.

A strike for union recognition and improved working conditions at the New York Triangle shirtwaist factory in 1909 prompted a 13-week general strike in the garment industry, with an estimated 30,000 – predominantly women – striking. Hired thugs aggressively and routinely broke up the picket lines. The Women’s Trade Union League, committed to showing solidarity with the garment workers’ struggle, led a 10,000 strong march to the mayor’s office in December of that year with a petition demanding an end to the police brutality so wantonly deployed against organized labor. The shirtwaist factory tragically went up in flames on March 25, 1911, as 146 workers died in the fire, after strikers had failed to win their demand for an end to the policy of locking them in the building.

In another example of the violent class war waged by concentrated power, John D. Rockefeller’s private army for his Colorado Fuel & Iron company, acting in concert with state troops, opened fire on striking mining families as they slept in tents one fateful day in April 1914. After running out of ammunition, guards drenched the tents in oil and set them ablaze, as 13 women and children burned to death. Beating and shooting miners as they tried to escape, in an episode now known as the “Ludlow Massacre,” the guards proceeded to execute three of the captured strikers on the spot. Later when the United Mine Workers of America organized a response, President Wilson sent in the US army to occupy the territory, and the armed forces stayed until almost the end of the year.

The Red Scare around 1920 and McCarthyism in the 1940s and 1950s accelerated already concerted attempts to extricate any elements from the labor movement – and society – who might radically challenge the exploitative economic arrangements.

Senator McCarthy, Smith noted, spearheaded 169 show trials held between 1953 and 1954 to vilify communists, socialists and any left-wing sympathizers.

Robbie Lieberman, a former professor of history at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, explained her book, “The Strangest Dream,” how the House Un-American Activities Committee summoned 14 women to a hearing in December 1962 based on allegations of Communist Party affiliation and assumptions that groups like Women Strike For Peace were infiltrated by communists, in addition to HUAC’s assertions that many women radicals were Soviet dupes.

Not all accepted the veracity of the allegations, and the hearings sparked sardonic commentary.

“I Came in Late,” one editorial cartoon stated during the HUAC witch-hunts, “Which Was It That Was Un-American–Women or Peace?”

Overcoming Oppression, Transcending Divisions

Smith argues in “Subterranean Fire” that racism functioned as a major component of ruling-class strategy to disunite labor, but there have been many significance instances when workers organized to overcome both internal and external oppression.

Despite criticism coming from the AFL, the IWW declared in 1905 divisions are “imposed by the employer” so “that workers may be pitted against one another and spurred to greater exertion in the shop,” which weakens resistance to exploitation on the basis of “artificial distinctions.”

In contrast to the xenophobia, nativism and racism emanating from people like Gompers, the IWW argued “an injury to one is an injury to all,” advancing a sentiment of solidarity necessary for transcending the ideology of individualism the union insisted actually prevented the realization of every individual’s potentials.

A series of sit-down strikes in the 1930s in the Midwest reinvigorated the workers’ movement after the initial Red Scare.

In December 1936 – at the same time as an anarcho-syndicalist revolution was underway in Spain, organized by the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, or National Confederation of Labor), a union that supported collective self-management of production – a sit-down strike started in Flint, Mich., initiating a 40-day occupation of General Motors’ Fisher Body Plants no. 1 and no. 2. Workers and UAW organizers, explained labor historian Immanuel Ness, held off police assaults by coordinating with picketers on the outside of the plant, in a successful use of the storied “inside-outside strategy.”  The occupation ended only after unionization proved successful and GM agreed to a contract with UAW workers.

Ness detailed how the action spurred organizing “at the point of production” – what unionists consider the “purest form of unionism” – elsewhere in the Midwest.

In May 1933, Ness wrote, the Food Workers Industrial Union, covering both the employed an unemployed, “called a strike for wage racial parity among black and white women workers employed at Funtsen, a nut processing company in East St. Louis,” the same city in Illinois where the racist riot took place just 16 years prior. The strike, which included 500 black and 200 white women, resulted in doubled wages for workers and racial equality in pay, although it did not garner unionization as activists had hoped.

Members of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, a rank-and-file-run organization with a record of militant promotion of both workers’ control and democratic community planning, championed the movement for union democracy in the 1930s. Syndicalist William Sentner, an organizer with the UE, helped connect community and workplace struggles in the St. Louis area. With Sentner as an organizing force, UE local 1102 started a sit-down strike at Emerson Electric in St. Louis on March 8, 1937. By the end of April they had won union recognition and collective bargaining rights.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the legislative outcome of labor struggles in the factory and worker agitation on the streets, granted union recognition and marked a major milestone. The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act after World War II and the second round of purging radicals from the union movement under McCarthyism hindered unionism, but the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s witnessed far more working class radicalism than is often acknowledged.

The supposed relative prosperity of American workers after WWII was never, Smith argued, as equitably distributed as depicted. Mass misery for the working class continued to exist, especially among black workers, and notions of an “Affluent Society” actually served an ideological function, downplaying class divides to make organizing appear less important. Further, Smith suggests, the established order continued – and continues today – to deny many people not only economic needs, but also deprive them of social necessities and impede their creative aspirations.

When this is recounted, it is less surprising that the number of unauthorized strikes in the US doubled between 1960 and 1969, from about 1000 to 2000. A strike wave also launched in 1970, which included 67 strikes at General Motors alone. A 1972 strike at GM’s Lordstown plant in Ohio, led by Vietnam veterans and young workers, received ample support from the public for those out on the picket lines.

“If the guys didn’t stand up and fight, they’d become robots too,” a 29-year-old president of the United Auto Workers local famously told journalist Studs Terkel. “They’re interested in being able to smoke a cigarette, bullshit a little bit with the guy next to ‘em, open a book, look at something, just daydream if nothing else. You can’t do that if you become a machine.”

During the “world revolution” of 1968, black autoworkers formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. Established after a wildcat strike to combat both company and union racism at the General Motors’ Dodge Main plant in Detroit, DRUM received support from both white and black unionists.

Reactionary Measures Counter Union Organizing and Transform Higher Education

Elected Governor of California in 1966, Ronald Reagan vowed to “clean up that mess at Berkeley,” following a slew of student protests, and he augured a new paradigm to beat back efforts at democracy in both the university and the workplace.

After assuming office, Reagan slashed funding for higher education and laid the foundation for the tuition-based university model behind the exploding student debt regime. The shift to privatized education, paid for by tuition and fees, meant working class students were forced to take on ever-increasing debt burdens to pay for school. Debt, it turns out, can be a tremendously effective disciplinary mechanism, compelling new graduates to work diligently – and obediently – immediately after, and usually during, their university stay, in order to make money to pay back student loans with interest.

Once president, Reagan inaugurated the ongoing attack against organized labor when he fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981, after striking workers ignored his order to return to work.

Deindustrialization, especially in the Midwest, also accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s as new technologies enabled companies to pick up shop and relocate to other regions or countries where they could pay cheaper wages and not worry about unions or worker revolt.

Rates of unionization decreased precipitously, dropping to just 11.1 percent of all wage and salary workers in 2014, much lower than the 20.1 percent rate of union membership in 1983.

Coeval with these processes, universities started eliminating tenure-track positions and shifting toward greater reliance upon low wage adjunct and graduate employee labor.

When the American Association of University Professors tried to represent graduate teaching and research assistants at Adelphi University in 1972, the National Labor Relations Board ruled against including graduate student employees in the bargaining unit on the basis that they were “primarily students,” not workers.

Economic Crisis, Recovering Struggles

Since the financial crisis of 2007-09 the US has seen a resurgence of working class radicalism aimed at advancing economic justice, sometimes out of necessity.

Kari Lydersen, a stunning Chicago-based journalist, documented in her book, “Revolt on Goose Island,” how the December 2008 sit-down strike at Republic Windows and Doors, organized by UE local 1110 after the factory manager informed workers the plant would close, became a national news story. Bank of America, much maligned at the time because of its role in the global financial shock, had withdrawn credit from an enterprise already in dire straits as a result of mismanagement and the chief Republic owners and executives lavish personal spending at company expense. Occupation of the factory by workers denied payments and benefits they had been promised made national headlines and ended with workers receiving their expected remuneration. With the help of The Working World, an organization geared toward assisting worker-owned enterprises, workers at Republic converted the business into a collectively-owned and democratically-controlled cooperative in 2013.

On the university front, the NLRB ruled in 2000 that the graduate research and teaching assistants at New York University could organize and collectively bargain for the first time. But the NLRB ruled a few years later that graduate assistant labor was part of an educational process subject to the control of faculty and administrators, not collective bargaining agreements.

Yet NYU became the only private university in the US with unionized graduate student employees after a successful bid for unionization culminated in recognition of the UAW-affiliated Graduate Student Organizing Committee/Science and Engineers in December 2013.

Public universities, like the University of California system, faced recalcitrance during organization drives several years back too when the UC administration echoed the tired arguments about graduate student workers being first and foremost students, not workers. The UC administration opted to ignore how graduate student employees had been shouldering increased labor loads teaching in the classroom and grading papers.

The UC system saw a wave of student strikes in response to impending tuition hikes in 2009. The UC Student-Workers Union – UAW local 2865 representing teaching assistants, associate instructors and undergraduate tutors across UC campuses – conducted a two-day strike in early April 2014 against intolerable working conditions and intimidation from the administration.

 “Making people aware of the labor behind education and through demystifying the relations of academia has been an important part of our contract over the last year,” the incredible Caroline McKusick, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at UC Davis and the spokesperson for UAW local 2865 at the time, told me back in April 2014. “And that’s required us to make our version of the story very clear and make it clear that we are the workers who make the university run.”

During a recent occupation at the London School of Economics, the student occupiers demanded authentic university democracy, which would empower a student-staff council to make key decisions on campus and truly run the university collectively. They also called for workers’ rights, which would mean an end to the precarious labor many university employees consistently face.

At Southern Illinois University Carbondale, non-tenure track faculty face that sort of uncertain future, given Governor Rauner’s proposed budget cuts, and many realize the situation calls for radical collective action.

One display of recent collective action in that vein occurred when adjunct professors at campuses across the country walked out back in February to protest the poverty level wages and always-intensifying working conditions they deal with. Many adjuncts joined thousands of other low-wage workers who walked off the job in a nationwide action in April. It says something about the prevalence of inadequate pay at universities that adjunct faculty properly fit under the “Fight for $15” banner at present, but it also speaks to the potential for uniting workers across trades to enliven the labor movement again.

Given the long history of law enforcement siding with employers over employees, as shown above, collaborative efforts between low-wage workers and those fighting against police brutality under the label of the “Black Lives Matter” movement could amplify efforts to fight for both racial and economic justice. Organizing in concert with the increasing numbers of déclassé intellectuals – the large swaths of college-educated persons who are deeply in debt but unable to find adequate work commensurate with their levels of education and tech-savvy skills, like many who participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 – the untapped potential of authentic, transformative solidarity might be realized.

Would-be militants intent on recapturing the spirit of May Day would also need to consider the global implications of the system and ongoing struggles against its exploitative functions.

In the era of corporate globalization, when mega-enterprises are always ready to quickly relocate production overseas if labor gets organized or unruly, concerted efforts at ending socioeconomic oppression have to assume transnational scope.

We just passed the two year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, in which 1,138 died as a result of unsafe working conditions at a garment factory in Bangladesh where big brand name clothes were made. A huge factory fire at another Bangladesh factory killed 112 employees in 2012, injuring others and illustrating the unjust social arrangements that led to the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire in New York a century before have not been changed, but are only distributed differently.

Reigniting what August Spies called the “subterranean fire” will require addressing these concerns and creating real democracy at the university and throughout society through solidarity across borders, trades and traditional divides.

When the four Haymarket martyrs took their positions at the gallows on November 11, 1887, Spies spoke from beneath his hood, once the noose was loosened a little from his neck, suggesting a time for the labor movement that may now be approaching.

“There will come a time, when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!”

James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee.  He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His academic writing has appeared in journals like Critical Studies in Media Communication and the International Review of Information Ethics. His journalistic work and editorials have been featured in news outlets including Truthout, In These Times, Toward Freedom, ROAR Magazine, ZNet and Counterpunch.

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