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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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Remembering May Day

May Day, the only international holiday advocating workers rights, has just passed again. Unfortunately the celebration is not acknowledged in the United States. In the U.S. they formally acknowledge May 1st as Law Day. However, the holiday was actually created due to an abhorrent act in American history. The history of the Haymarket Square Massacre and the subsequent trial is not commonly discussed in this country but it is an important event that should be remembered by any of us who are concerned with the plight of working class people.

The struggle for an eight hour work day arguably began with Robert Owen, a Welsh socialist, and arguably the founder of the communal cooperative movement. By 1835 this idea had spread to the United States and Irish coal workers in Philadelphia had demanded this reform. In the 1860’s and 1870’s the eight hour worked day was accepted in a few cities but it was not the norm. By 1884 in Chicago the struggle seemed to have gained sufficient momentum.

That year the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions declared that the “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1st, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this jurisdiction that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.” On May 1st, they planned the first May Day rally. They decided to go on a four day strike to press this demand. Anarchist labor activist, Albert Parson, led the march that day. The next three days citizens from all over the nation went on strike in support of their demands.

The Chicago Mail held Parson and anarchist leader, August Spies, responsible for the melee. The newspaper suggested that the police should “keep them in view” and “make an example out of them if trouble occurs.” On May 3rd Parson, Spies, and several others were put in exactly that position. Striking workers, in front of McCormick Harvester Works, fought local scabs the plant had brought in. Instead of using common crowd control methods the police opened fire on the striking workers, killing four people and wounding many others.

Local anarchists began circulating flyers calling for a rally at Haymarket Square. Spies wrote a scathing circular in English and German. He stated, “You have for years endured the most abject humiliations? your Children you have sacrificed to the factory lord? you have been miserable and obedient slaves all these years. Why? To satisfy the insatiable greed, to fill the coffers of your lazy thieving master? When you ask them to lessen your burdens, he sends his bloodhounds out to shoot you, to kill you!”

Three thousand workers assembled on the evening of May 4th. It was a surprisingly peaceful rally, with slight rain, and a somber mood. The crowd was so peaceful Mayor Carter Harrison had decided to leave early. The crowd dwindled to a few hundred workers and the police sent a detachment of around 200 officers. They advanced on the platform and demanded the crowd to disperse. In their advance someone throw a bomb into the police lines killing seven officers and wounding many more. The police again opened fire on the crowd killing four more workers and wounding scores more. Several police officers and workers were wounded in the ensuing riot.

There was no evidence who threw the bomb, but they arrested eight anarchist leaders immediately. The Chicago Journal stated “justice should be prompt in dealing with the arrested anarchists.” The trial was prompt. Their ideas were mainly on trial and they were all found guilty and sentenced, all but one, to death. There was evidence that only one of the convicted were even at the event. The court argued that the defendants encouraged these actions so they were guilty of murder as well. Evidence had eventually been released that a man named, Rudolph Schnaubelt, allegedly an anarchist, was actually an agent provocateur and responsible for the bombing. However, this is not a proven fact. A year after the trial four of the accused were publicly hung, one of the individuals blew himself up in his cell, and three remained imprisoned.

The initial result of the trial and massacre was suppression of the labor movement. But the execution aroused unprecedented sympathy and anger all over the country and the world. We may never know how many people were actually aroused to revolutionary politics by this one act. On May 1st, 1890 the Second International advocated the day as an international workers day of demonstration.

In various countries it is recognized and important things occur. Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, nationalized several crude oil installations in the Orinoco basin. Last year Evo Morales nationalized the petroleum industry in Bolivia. However, in the U.S. there is no official recognition of the day. It must be too painful to admit the crimes at Haymarket Square.

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