How many Americans, how many labor leaders, know the American origins of May Day as an International Day of Worker Solidarity?
Some Americans just celebrated May Day, a Day of International Workers Solidarity. But ask most Americans what they know about the American origins of May Day and you will be greeted with a blank stare.
Yet May Day began in the United States of America - Chicago to be precise.
The story begins in Chicago in 1884. A struggling labor organization passed two resolutions that were to profoundly affect the history of the American and international labor movements.
The 25 delegates to the 1884 convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions passed a resolution proclaiming “to be labor’s annual holiday the first Monday of September. Leave your benches, leave your shops…”
At the same convention, the three-year old organization adopted a resolution “that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886 and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this district that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.”
Both resolutions had immediate impact. The first nationwide observance of Labor Day took place on September 7, 1885.
But it was the eight-hour movement that really caught fire. Eight Hour Associations sprouted up in cities throughout the Untied States, often over the vociferous objections of the leadership of the Knights of Labor, the far more dominant labor organization of the day. In Chicago, the Anarchists and Socialists took the lead in agitating for the May Day strike.
May 1st, 1886 was a Saturday. An estimated 350,000 workers went out on strike, 40,000 in Chicago alone. Phillip Foner, labor historian, estimates that 185,000 of those workers won the eight-hour day on that first day.
Sunday was quiet. But Monday trouble happened. At the McCormick Harvester factory in Chicago, 1,400 workers were locked out. When the strikers demonstrated against scabs working with police protection, the police fired into the strikers killing four.
Immediately, a cry went out for a protest rally to be held the following day, May 4, 1886 at Haymarket Square in Chicago. As the rally was winding down, the police marched on the thinning crowd of demonstrators. A bomb went off. A policeman was killed. Thus was the Haymarket Riot. Eight leaders in the labor movement were indicted, seven of them sentenced to death, four of them eventually hung. Only one of the eight was present in Haymarket Square when the bomb went off. No bomb thrower has ever been identified.
The event fueled both sides of the dispute between labor and business. Employers mounted an offensive against labor unions creating an anti-union and anti-socialist hysteria. Yet at the same time the travesty of justice against the eight indicted “Haymarket Martyrs” generated intense international attention and support for the American labor movement and its struggle for the eight-hour day.
Later that year, in Columbus Ohio, the American Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions agreed to merge into the newly founded American Federation of Labor.
Two years later in St. Louis, undaunted by the employer offensive against unions, the A.F. of L. renewed and refocused their efforts for an eight-hour day. This time the target date was May 1, 1890.
Meanwhile the eight-hour movement had picked up some international momentum. The international leaders of the organized Socialist movements were scheduled to meet in Paris on the 100th anniversary of the fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1889. There was a movement to designate a date for an international day of worker solidarity. The A.F. of L. was not officially represented at the convention, but Samuel Gompers sent a message asking that the group recognize the efforts of American workers focused on the struggle for eight-hour day on May 1, 1890.
One version of the story has Gompers sending two representatives to Paris to plead the case on behalf of American workers. In the days before expense accounts, the two made it to Paris as stowaways with the assistance of a unionized ship crew.
The Second International as it came to be known did resolve:
“To organize a great international demonstration, so that in all countries and in all cities on one appointed day the toiling masses shall demand of the state authorities the legal reduction o the working day to eight hours…
“Since a similar demonstration has already been decided upon for May 1,1890, by the American Federation of Labor …the day is accepted for the international demonstration.”
Ten months later, on May 2, 1890 the New York World newspaper had the headline:
“Parade of Jubilant Workingmen in all the Trade Centres of the Civilized World”.
Is it time for “jubilant workingmen” and workingwomen to reclaim our history?
Tue May 01, 2012 at 10:35 AM PT: It is May 1st again and it looks like it finally may becoming an American holiday. Hats off and a raised fist to the occupy movement