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