The AnarCom Network wishes all our comrades across the world a Happy and Revolutionary International Workers Day.
Below are some pictures from protests that have taken place around the world followed by our article on the origins of the modern May Day.
The origins of May Day
A three-year depression; a banking collapse; falling production; a crisis of living standards and working conditions that lead to continent wide mass strikes and demonstrations.
Capitalism’s response: the demonisation of migrants, foreign workers and strikers as militant anarchists. Police violence and state repression. This familiar story whilst sounding like today, is the birth of May Day as International Workers Day nearly 150 years ago.
The events that led to it were part of a rolling campaign by workers for the eight-hour day. It began 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 1st, 1886”.
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. This movement was particularly strong in the large industrial cities and on May 1st 1886, 400,000 rallied in Chicago
The beginning of May as a day for the celebration of the fruits of labour go back millennia as a pre-Christian pagan festival. According to the anarchist historian David Graeber:
“May day came to be chosen as the date for the international workers holiday largely because so many British peasant revolts had historically begun on that riotous festival.” (Graeber & Wengrow ‘A New History of Humanity’)
A Chicago newspaper of the time reported that that day: “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 centre organised labour and made the biggest contribution to the eight-hour movement.
2 years earlier they had produced the world’s first Anarchist daily newspaper, the Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung, plus a weekly, Fackel, and a Sunday edition, Vorbote. They were among the many labour militants from migrant backgrounds active across the city in many languages.
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 plant.
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 and composed a circular calling on the workers of Chicago to attend a protest meeting the following night.
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 peaceable”. 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 exactly ascertained.
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 state’s attorney.
What followed was a famously sham trial that the Governor later, declaring the anarchists, innocent of the charges. described as based on: “hysteria, packed juries and a biased judge”. Of the eight anarchist workers tried, 4 were judicially murdered while a 5th took his own life. When Spies himself 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 is 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”.
From then on May Day demonstrations spread worldwide to commemorate the “Chicago Martyrs”, until the international labour organisations adopted it across the globe in 1889.
It has internationally become a day when workers express their solidarity and the power on the street. Governments have always feared it and many have tried to cancel or change it – American capitalism introduced Labour Day in October to replace it, Thatcher in the UK abolished it in the early 80s replacing it with the May bank holiday. It continues to mobilise across the world.
There is no new lesson to learn from this today. The lesson remains the same. Capitalism and its relentless assault on workers continue to this day as it did then, with austerity, violence and war. The villainous class remains in power, our struggle against it, to overthrow it, towards emancipation, continues.