May Day is celebrated internationally as a workers holiday, and most of us are familiar with the celebrations that accompany it, the annual Trades Union parade, for example. However, the real reasons behind the adoption of May 1 as a workers day, the real meaning of May Day itself, have been largely forgotten, or have faded into obscurity. Recent times have seen attempts made to bring the real meaning of May Day back into the public eye, and in doing so to Reclaim May Day, its history and our own lives.
The adoption of May 1 can be traced back to the USA in 1884, when a convention of the Federation of Organised Trades and Labor Unions (the forerunner of the current American Federation of Labor, or AFL) instigated a movement to force American employers to adopt a standard working day of eight hours; at that time working days were 10, 12 or even 16 hours long.
The movement was to culminate on May 1 1886, when there would be a general strike of all workers not yet on an eight hour day.
While many employers had adopted the standard by the May 1 deadline, many did not. Accordingly, the promised strike took place all across the country. Chicago had one of the largest demonstrations, an estimated 80 000 people marching on Michigan Avenue.
Anarchists and radicals, who enjoyed strong support in Chicago, were initially reluctant to support the eight hour movement, which they considered reformist, as opposed to revolutionary, but were persuaded to come on board by the more moderate Trade Unionists, who knew the anarchists had a substantial following in the city, many of them being known for their powerful and impassioned oratory.
On May 3 a strike and mass demonstrations broke out at the McCormick Reaper plant in Chicago. In ugly scenes, strikers and their supporters were killed and injured by police deployed to control the crowd. To protest this brutality, local activists called a mass meeting at the Haymarket Square for the following day, May 4. Somewhere in the region of 2 000 people attended to hear the speakers. Carter Harrison, Mayor of Chicago attended for a time and reported the meeting to be peaceable, something he would later testify to in court. After he had left, it began to rain and numbers began to dwindle, but as the last speaker was finishing a force of around 200 police arrived at Haymarket Square, demanding that the crowd disperse. As the police moved into the crowd a bomb was thrown from the crowd which killed one officer. In the ensuing riot, at least four workers and several more police were killed, and many more injured. In the following few days most known radicals in Chicago were detained and there were raids on homes, union halls and the officers of radical newspapers. The eight hour day movement was severely damaged, indeed the eight hour day was not enshrined in law until 1935.
Those arrested were August Spies, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab. The other accused, Albert Parsons, evaded capture but in an astonishing display of solidarity presented himself at the courthouse to stand trial with his co-accused.
Although none of the defendants could be directly accused of the bomb - throwing, they were charged with conspiracy, and that by their actions and exhortations had encouraged the act to be carried out.
Much was made of a passage from radical newspaper The Alarm, of which Parsons was editor, which seemed to advance the merits of dynamite as a weapon in the labour struggle: In giving dynamite to the downtrodden millions of the globe science has done its best work.... . The jury was quite blatantly tampered with to be made up of twelve people patently unsympathetic to the cause of labour, and the outcome was a guilty verdict, with Spies, Parsons, Fischer, Engel and Lingg. sentenced to hang. Fielden and Schwabb were sentenced to hang as well, but this was commuted to life in prison. Lingg took his own life in his cell before the sentence could be carried out.
Despite world wide outcry, and petitioning by many hundreds of thousands of people, the executions of Spies, Parsons Fischer and Engel were carried out on November 11 1887. Neebe had received a 15 year jail term. Along with Fielden and Schwabb he served 6 years of it before the defendants were pardoned by the Governor of Illinois, John P. Altgeld on June 26 1894. Altgeld made it clear that he was not pardoning the men because they had suffered enough, but because they were innocent of the crimes for which they had been convicted.
It was obvious that the trial and executions were a grave miscarriage of justice. Although it is no secret that some of the defendants, particularly Fischer and Lingg, did advocate violence, it is unlikely that any of them were involved in a plot to bomb at the Haymarket meeting. Neebe and Engel were not even there and Parsons had left well before the explosion. August Spies had appealed to workers not to let the May strikes and demonstrations become destructive confrontations, although he had corresponded with Johann Most concerning the use of dynamite. It seems certain that Chicago business and government were concerned at the strength of support for the eight hour movement and the McCormick strikers and wanted to send a clear message. In July 1889 a delegate of the AFL, attending an international labour conference in Paris, proposed that May 1 be adopted as an annual international day of labour solidarity.
The proposal was adopted and accordingly May 1 became an international workers day.
A monument was erected to the Martyrs in Forest Home Cemetery, Chicago in 1893. In 1998 it was declared a US National Historic Site. At an event sponsored by the Illinois Labour History Society, speeches were given by a US Senator and a priest, ironically over the graves of anarchists and atheists who had been unjustly killed by the US government. No one from the radical tradition to which the men belonged was invited or allowed to speak. Those who demonstrated their opposition to the spectacle were made unwelcome and eventually forced away from the commemoration.
We should not allow the real events of 1886 - 87 to be forgotten. As unsatisfactory as we might find our current working lives, we should give thought to the fact that, but for the sacrifice of workers in the past, in many cases the sacrifice of their lives and freedom, they might be a lot worse. We owe to them to strive to protect and better the gains that they won, often at great cost, even though we face a much more difficult and complicated world today. If it should start by our reclaiming the real history of Mayday it is nothing if not appropriate. As the words of August Spies speak >from the bottom of the monument: The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today . More information / details....
(Industrial Workers of the World)
(Illinois Labour History Society)
(University of Missouri Dept. of Law)
(Chicago Historical Society)
Today s protest of The Gap inc., is to bring attention to the conditions of indentured slavery forced upon textile workers across the world. We are here to bring to public attention Gaps reliance on sweated labour in the manufacture of its products and to call for an end to indentured slavery, for the right to unionise for all workers across the industry, whether they are retail or textile workers, in Belfast, Russia or Siapan.
We do not support calls to close Gap retail outlets in Belfast or elsewhere we do not want to see retail workers here, who are after all forced to work in order to survive, thrown onto the dole.
Protests and boycotts by concerned people and organisations outside the textile industry may be fine in the short term but we need a long term strategy in order to effectively confront global capitalism.
Such a strategy must include workers across the industry, including in Gap retail outlets. Workers across the world demand the right to organise and to union recognition, and building links and solidarity among textile and retail workers is surely the best way to secure a victory in the fight against sweatshop conditions.
We are opposed to the encouragement and use of sweat shops in the production of clothing, we need to put pressure on The Gap inc., to help bring about the end of such conditions. Gap workers are not the problem, in fact they should be part of the solution, properly organised they could add a great deal of strength to the campaign to end to the barbarism practised in sweat shops in places like Siapan.
Women make up half the workforce in Northern Ireland but women continue to get a worse deal than male workers. There are still substantial differences in rates of pay. Women are more likely to be employed in casual, part-time work with low pay and poor conditions. Equal opportunities for women is far from being a reality in the absence of free, adequate childcare. Many more women are employed in the black-market economy, i.e. doing the double, with no contract, no job security, and the constant fear of being caught breaking the law .
It is a fact that unionised women workers earn more than their non-organised counterparts, have better terms and conditions and greater job security. The situation even in workplaces which are unionised in reformist trade unions is far from ideal but it is still of practical benefit to many women.
Hierarchical structures, union boss fear of anti-union legislation and a social partnership approach does a great deal of harm to the potential strength of an organised workforce. Trades unions organise by trade or in general unions, promoting sectionalism and a weakening of industrial strength.
While union membership and organisation is a necessity we must ask ourselves whether the existing unions provide us with an adequate form of organisation in the long-term.
The Syndicalist Solidarity Network believe they do not. While we recommend membership of these unions for the minimal protection they can offer the most important form of organisation comes with a workforce which is solid on the shopfloor. Solidarity must be built across the existing union structures, across industries, throughout industries and globally. We need a morality of solidarity which extends deep into the heart of our communities which cherishes all workers as equal. We believe that an injury to one is the concern of all .
Such a movement should be built from the bottom up, it should be controlled directly by its members without building up a layer of bureaucrats to rely on who would ultimately strangle the movement and its vitality. The methods of such a movement must be based on direct action at the point of production and in our communities. We need to build our own strength, not give it away to those politicians who would have us believe they can represent us.
Ultimately we believe in the establishment of a new labour movement, one which aims at workers control of society and the abolition of all top down institutions and oppression. One that would replace capitalism with a society ran directly by workers on the basis of need not profit.
Such a labour movement exists in other parts of the globe. Its most famous accomplishments were carried forward by the workers of the CNT union in Spain during the Spanish civil war and revolution. This type of labour movement has a name - Revolutionary or Anarcho-Syndicalism.
Reprints from the previous issue of "Globalisation, Sweatshops & The Textile Industry", "Stop Saipan Sweat Shops" and "Post Feminism & Working Class Women".
Programme of events for Belfast Reclaim may day events, including thanks to Kraft for the benefit night, Giro s for the use of their venue, Labor Beat of Chicago, Greg Dropkin, Catalyst Arts, the SSN and everyone else who helped out. See details of events elsewhere on this website.