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Remembering May Day on Labor Day: Five Lesser-Known Facts of Radical Labor History

By Lisa Brock

In 2014, more and more workers are being squeezed. Some are facing reduced hours so their employers can avoid paying for health insurance and others being forced to work 12-hour days in order to just keep their jobs. On this Labor Day, it is important that we continue to struggle for jobs for all, livable wages, and work hours that allow for everyone to have a full and meaningful life. This is what was behind the May Day struggle for the eight-hour day.

1. A day to commemorate workers in the United States emerged as a result of the fight for the eight-hour day, which emerged in the United States and around the world during the mid 19th century. Workers, who were not enslaved or indentured at the time, including children, often worked more than 10 hour days, with little right of negotiation. Workers of color and women, who were enslaved, agricultural, domestic, and/or indentured, worked more.

2. May 1st, 1886, May Day, was actually declared the first Labor Day by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labor). At their Chicago Convention of 1884, the Federation declared: Eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886. Labor organizations, many of them socialist, joined the effort to define this day with strikes, demonstrations, and demands.

NEW YORK CITY - MAY 1, 2012 : Occupy Wall Street is joined by labor unions expressing their solidarity by marching down Broadway in honor of International Workers’ Day (a katz | Shutterstock.com)

3. Chicago took Center stage on May 1st when an estimated 250,000 skilled and unskilled workers went on strike and marched down Michigan Ave. Agitation continued for days when on May 4th, in Haymarket Square, a firebomb was thrown and police rushed the crowd. In what has now become known as the Haymarket Riot, both police and workers were killed. While it was never known who threw the bomb, four leaders of the May Day strikes—Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer—were executed on November 11th, 1887. They are known throughout the world as the Haymarket Martyrs.

4. Lucy Parsons-Gomez, a black woman, was a major leader in the Chicago organizing committees for the May 1st Strike. She and her husband, Albert Parsons, who was white, came to Chicago from Texas where they had suffered racist harassment. Albert was one of the Haymarket martyrs executed on November 11th, 1887. Parsons-Gomez lived in Chicago until her death and continued her labor activism.

5. Although May 1st is celebrated as Workers’ Day in over 80 countries of the world, President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a federal holiday in 1894 to appease members of the American Railroad Union who were waging one of the largest strikes in American history against the Pullman Railroad Company. September was chosen because May 1st was connected to early worker radicalism. Despite this attempt to devalue May Day as August Spies, one of the Haymarket Martyrs, said before he was executed: “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

 

4 thoughts on “Remembering May Day on Labor Day: Five Lesser-Known Facts of Radical Labor History

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  4. Well said doc Brock. In this era, when much attention is given to define social justice, the struggles of working people the world over has reached that crucial time when all of our shoulders must press harder against the doors being closed on the democratic process. While the one percent wallows in mounds of money, they have set into motion old and new tactics to divide and conquer, simultaneously turning back the clock on all working people. Occupy Wall street was the correct response to the present crisis, which opened the door for a truly eye-opening experience for the entire work force in this country alone. And due to the ongoing crisis, the potential for Occupy to reignite still exist. For many of us, who do not see an end to this crisis the brutal force of police departments across the country will be called upon to enforce the scapegoating of people of color for supposedly being a drag on the economy. Yes racism can still be sole to working class whites, but let us hope that some valuable long term lessons are being learned as this economic crisis rages on

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