The Guardian May 1, 2002


May Day: a day of protest

by Karl Dennis

On June 22, 1835, in Philadelphia, on the Schuykill River coal wharves, the 
workers paraded in the streets behind banners demanding, "From 6 to 6, ten 
hours work and two hours for meals." They won their demand, only to lose it 
in 1841 when the vast majority of workers were forced to return to a 
workday of 12 to 14 hours, six days a week. In 1884 the Order of the 
Knights of Labor declared their desire, "To shorten the hours of labor by a 
general refusal to work more than eight hours." But the statement was never 
followed by any effort to win the eight-hour day.

Meanwhile, until May 1, 1886, unions agitated for the eight-hour day 
through mass meetings and distribution of circulars. "Arouse, ye toilers of 
America! Lay down your tools on May 1, 1886, cease your labor, close the 
factories, mills and mines for one day in the year. One day of revolt  
not of rest", one flyer said.

"A day of protest against oppression and tyranny, against ignorance and war 
of any kind. A day on which to begin to enjoy 'eight hours for work, eight 
hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.'"

They sang the Eight Hour Song, one verse of which said: "We want to see the 
sunshine./We want to smell the flowers./We're sure that God has willed 
it./And we mean to have eight hours."

Newspapers speculated on the size of the coming strike and some bewailed 
the influence of "Communism, lurid and rampant" and predicted "loafing and 
gambling, rioting, debauchery, and drunkenness, bringing lower wages, more 
poverty and social degradation for American workers."

Workers across the country downed tools on May 1, 1886, prompting AFL 
President Samuel Gompers to tell a New York City demonstration, "May 1 will 
be forever remembered as a second declaration of independence."

Eleven thousand Detroiters marched on May 1; 5000 in Troy, N.Y.; 10,000 in 
Milwaukee; in the largest march, some 50,000 in Chicago. Interracial 
solidarity reached a high point when 6000 Blacks and whites marched through 
Louisville's National Park, which was closed to Black people.

Marches and demonstrations continued in Chicago, where several hundred 
striking sewing women  the Tribune called them "shouting Amazons" 
 marched on May 3.

Four strikers at the McCormick Harvester plant were killed when police 
opened fire on a demonstration protesting the use of scabs. This barbarous 
act by a police force already hated for its savagery against labour brought 
forth a May 4 demonstration in Haymarket Square, which ended when a bomb 
was thrown into the crowd by an unknown person.

Several police were killed and the remaining police emptied their guns into 
the panic-stricken protestors.

Hundreds were arrested, eight union leaders were accused of murder, but not 
of throwing the bomb. Although the evidence presented at the trial was 
questionable, seven were found guilty, four of whom were hanged November 
11, 1887.

In 1893 Governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned the rest and stated that the 
hanged men had not received a fair trial.

At the December 1888 AFL convention in St Louis, a call to enforce an 
eight-hour day climaxed with a mass strike on May 1, 1890. Labour 
organisations in England, France, Germany and other European countries, 
many of them affiliated with the International Working Men's Association, 
led by Karl Marx, supported the US workers by advancing the call for an 
eight-hour day.

On May 2, 1990, the front-page headline of the New York World 
screamed: "Everywhere the workmen join in demands for a normal 
workday."

Hundreds of thousands of workers secured increases in their wages and 
reduced their hours of labour in the strikes and other struggles sparked by 
the May Day struggles of the 1880s and '90s.

Despite efforts by the giant corporate media and their subsidised think 
tanks to negate, substitute and trash this workers' holiday, it continues, 
throughout the world, to be a day during which labour's banners affirm 
their struggle for a better life.

* * *
People's Weekly World, paper of Communist Party, USA

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