Friday, May 01, 2009

Labor Day

Happy May Day Labor Day!

May 1st is a legal holiday here Mexico as in most countries of the world. Mexican workers are entitled to a day off work with full pay or double pay if they do work. The day is celebrated around the world as International Workers Day, except for the United States, where children are taught to dance around a flowered pole in welcome of Spring. This is especially curious since May Day honors events that happened in the the US. The designation of May 1 as Labor Day by nations other than the US came about from worldwide outrage over events that took place in Chicago. It is the story of Haymarket Square.

Of course, labor history is anathema to corporate America and is edited out of textbooks. (Except for examples of corruption). As Orwell pointed out in 1984: "Those who control the present, control the past, and those who control the past, control the future." We should take strength from the brave Americans who fought against the entrenched forces of the right.

All of the privileges workers enjoy today - a minimum wage, safety laws, and even an eight-hour workday -came about only with the sacrifice of the workers who came before them. Although governments prefer our collective amnesia, workers on May Day should remember the past and realize they too are part of an ongoing struggle to bring about an end to the exploitation of labor around the world. From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, people in factories have worked very long shifts, lasting up to fourteen or more hours a day.

During the 1880s a new movement in the US calling for an eight-hour day inspired both labor unions and unorganized workers. At its 1884 convention, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions adopted a resolution stating that beginning May 1, 1886, "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's work" and workers would strike at companies that did not recognize the eight-hour day. By April 1886, a quarter of a million workers had committed themselves to go on strike as part of the May Day movement. This enabled thousands of workers to win shorter shifts. Most employers, however, refused to reduce working hours.

By May 1 some 200,000 US workers were on strike. An additional 340,000 workers in the industrial cities of Boston, New York, Milwaukee, Chicago and Pittsburgh, turned out for local parades and rallies. One of the most militant campaigns occurred in Chicago. The syndicalist International Working People's Association — promoting equal rights and an end to racism and the class system — had successfully organized huge numbers of workers, building a movement that included African-Americans, immigrants, and women standing together with white men. Largely because of the organization’s efforts, 50,000 workers went on strike, with tens of thousands attending the city's May Day parade. The IWPA's successful broad-based appeal worried businesses and the government alike. This fear resulted in the expansion of both the police and the militias.

On May Day, Albert Parsons, along with Albert Spies, spoke to a huge crowd assembled as part of the May Day activities. Parsons was a member of both the Knights of Labor and the Chicago Central Labor Union, and Spies was the editor of the German workers' paper Die Arbeiter-Zeitung. Despite the city leaders' expectations of violence (which led to a heavy police presence), the rally ended without incident. Two days later, Spies spoke to a meeting of 6,000 workers. Among the workers were striking lumber workers and employees from the McCormick Harvester Works.

Cyrus McCormick, a determined union-buster had locked his workers out as a result of their strike of two and a half months. Nonstriking workers and replacement workers became the focus of heckling by other meeting participants, which created a chaotic atmosphere. Then, in a classic case of overreaction, police fired into the crowd and killed at least two men while wounding many more. Appalled by the police violence, Spies called for a massive rally the next day in Haymarket Square. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people attended the May 4 rally. Parsons gave an hour-long speech that was relatively tame. He specifically stated, "I am not here for the purpose of inciting anybody."

Chicago Mayor Harrison, who had attended most of the meeting, stopped by the police station on his way home. He reported to Police Captain Bonfield that "nothing looked likely to require police interference." Despite this advice the captain, who regularly employed Pinkerton detectives and supported "shoot to kill" policies when dealing with strikers, sent additional officers to the square. After hours of speeches, people had begun to leave, when Samuel Fielden, a Methodist preacher and the final speaker, took the podium. Concluding his speech, he encouraged workers to stand up to the law, which did not protect them, urging them to "kill it, stab it . . . to impede its progress."

The police considered this "inflammatory language" and 200 police officers ordered the remaining crowd to disperse immediately. As Fielden argued with the police of the peaceful intent of the meeting, someone threw a dynamite bomb at the police. One sergeant was killed immediately. The police then opened fire at the crowd. Estimates indicated that seven or eight civilians were killed. Several policemen and additional civilians died later. Following the event, hysteria swept the city.

Mayor Harrison declared martial law. Some believed the bomb had been thrown by an agent provocateur. Indeed, it served nicely as an excuse for the police to harass and attack scores of people. Hundreds were arrested. State Attorney for Cook County J. Grinnell announced in a public statement, "Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards." Labor unions were broken up. Picketing strikers were arrested and the police continued to beat labor supporters.

In conjunction with the bombing, the state arrested and indicted eight anarchists: Spies, Michael Schwab, Fielden, Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg and Oscar Neebe. All were charged with conspiracy to murder, despite the fact that only three had been present at the Haymarket meeting. For their trial, a special bailiff was appointed to pick the jury. He stated, "These fellows are going to be hanged as certain as death." During the trial in June 1886, the state could not provide evidence that any of the men had knowledge of the bomb or that they had incited or participated in the violence.

But it wasn't the men so much as their ideas that were considered dangerous. As Grinnell stated in his summation: "Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they were leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousands who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury: convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society."

As a result of the trial, all but one of the men received death sentences (Neebe received 15 years). Despite international outcry, Spies, Parsons, Fischer, and Engel were hanged on November 11, 1887; Lingg escaped by committing suicide. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the funeral procession for the executed men. Later, in 1893, when newly elected Governor Altgeld granted pardons to Neebe, Schwab, and Fielden, he admitted that the trial had been unfair and that the men had always been innocent of the crimes.

After Haymarket, workers all over the world pointed towards May 1 as their day. After 1886 rallies, strikes and other militant actions promoted the cause of the working class around the world. Unfortunately, a conservative element within U.S. organized labor, combined with the crushing government repression of left politics, allowed the significance of the day to become lost in the United States. As early as 1894, President Cleveland signed a bill naming not May 1 but the first Monday in September as "Labor Day." This creatively sidestepped the day with more historical significance. Adding further insult, President Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 as "Law Day" in 1958. In light of the history of May Day, it is ironic that the theme of the 2002 year's Law Day, sponsored by the American Bar Association, became "Celebrate Your Freedom." The focus being worded to "equal protection of the laws", though the effect was the opposite.

What happened at Haymarket must not be forgotten, lest it give reactionary forces the opportunity to revoke what the labor movement has gained. In 1886 the movement was strong and visible. It was the state that provoked crowds into violence in order to create an excuse to undermine the progress of the working class. Governments cannot be allowed to frighten workers back into silence. Instead, it behooves them to follow the examples set by Parsons, Spies, Fischer and Engel, and all the others who have died or been imprisoned by the state. The events of May Day 1886 remind us that workers will continue to be exploited until they stand up and oppose that exploitation. It is only with organization and the courage to speak out against injustice that there will be better working conditions, better pay, and better lives.

Now a George W Bush has once more further obscured the truth of history by newly changing the name and function of the real Labor Day to "Loyalty Day". Haymarket Square no longer exists. Its location was where the Kennedy Expressway now crosses Randolph Street. The statue which marked the point of Labor Day's inception has been moved to the Chicago Police Academy and can only be viewed with special permission. They can rename, they can distort, they can run, but they can't hide, for the world remembers.

I conversed with Manuel Paz in early morning of last May 1st as he prepared to open his taquería. Many local workers exchange stories there as they take their afternoon siesta with his tacos and ceviche tostadas. The old men of our small pueblo gather at Manuel's in the evenings to comment on events as they play dominoes. Manuel is thus regarded as the town's fountain of local thought and knowledge, for what is said in his taqueria and then repeated in one home, is soon known in others.

Manuel was well aware of the role of Chicago's Haymarket Square beginning of that day's world celebration of May Day, Law Day, and Loyalty Day, Labor Day, but there was one thing about it he did not know. He had a hard time believing me when I told him it is neither taught nor celebrated as such in the United States. That night, the people of our pueblo also pondered that.

This year they will join their nation and its workers both at home and abroad in purchasing nothing on May 1st that is either gringo made or sold.

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