Why we celebrate May Day

By Vittorio Longhi


1 May, International Workers’ Day, commemorates the historic struggle of working people throughout the world, and is recognised in most countries.

Despite the fact that the holiday began in the 1880s in the United States – linked to the battle for the eight-hour day, and the Chicago anarchists – the US and Canada two of the countries that don’t celebrate it.

Haymarket Bombing (Photo/EqualTimes)

The struggle for the eight-hour day began in the 1860s.

In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, born in 1881 (and which changed its name in 1886 to American Federation of Labor) passed a resolution which asserted that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s work from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this district that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution”.

The following year the Federation repeated the declaration that an eight-hour system was to go into effect on 1 May, 1886.

With workers being forced to work 10, 12 and 14 hours a day, support for the eight-hour movement grew rapidly.

In the months prior to 1 May, 1886, thousands of workers – organised and unorganised – members of the organisation Knights of Labor and of the federation, were drawn into the struggle.

Chicago was the main centre of the agitation for a shorter day.

The anarchists were at the forefront of the Central Labor Union of Chicago, which consisted of 22 unions in 1886, among them the seven largest in the city.

During the railroad strikes of 1877, the workers had been violently attacked by the police and the army.

A similar tactic of state terrorism was prepared by the bureaucracy to fight the eight-hour movement.

The police and National Guard were increased in size and received new and powerful weapons financed by local business leaders.

Chicago’s Commercial Club purchased a 2000 US dollar machine gun for the Illinois National Guard to be used against strikers.

Nevertheless, by 1 May, the movement had already won gains for many Chicago workers.

But on 3 May , 1886, police fired into a crowd of strikers at the McCormick Harvester Machine Company, killing at least one striker, seriously wounding five or six others, and injuring an undetermined number.

Anarchists called for a mass meeting the next day in Haymarket Square to protest the brutality.


Haymarket bombing

The meeting proceeded without incident, and by the time the last speaker was on the platform, the rainy gathering was already breaking up, with only about 200 people remaining. It was then that a police column of 180 men marched into the square and ordered the meeting to disperse.

At the end of the meeting a bomb was thrown at the police, killing one instantly. Six others died later. About 70 police officers were wounded. Police responded by firing into the crowd.

Exactly how many civilians were killed or wounded by police bullets was never determined, and even though the perpetrator was never found, the bomb was used as an excuse to attack anarchists and the labour movement in general.

Police ransacked the homes and offices of suspected radicals, and hundreds were arrested without charge.

A reign of police terror swept over Chicago. Staging “raids” in the working-class districts, the police rounded up all known anarchists and other socialists.

“Make the raids first and look up the law afterward!” publicly counselled the state’s attorney.

Anarchists in particular were harassed, and eight of Chicago’s most active were charged with conspiracy to murder in connection with the Haymarket bombing.

A kangaroo court found all eight guilty, despite a lack of evidence connecting any of them to the bomb-thrower, and they were sentenced to die.

In 9 October, 1886, the weekly journal Knights of Labor published in Chicago, carried on page one the following announcement. “Next week we begin the publication of the lives of the anarchists advertised in another column.”

The advertisement, carried on page 14, read: “The story of the anarchists, told by themselves; Parsons, Spies, Fielden, Schwab, Fischer, Lingg, Engle, Neebe. The only true history of the men who claim that they are condemned to suffer death for exercising the right of Free Speech: Their association with Labor, Socialistic and Anarchistic Societies, their views as to the aims and objects of these organizations, and how they expect to accomplish them; also their connection with the Chicago Haymarket Affair.

Each man is the author of his own story, which will appear only in the “Knights of Labor” during the next three months, – the great labor paper of the United States, a 16-page weekly paper, containing all the latest foreign and domestic labor news of the day, stories, household hints, etc. A co-operative paper owned and controlled by members of the Knights of Labor, and furnished for the small sum of $1.00 per annum. Address all communications to Knights of Labor Publishing Company, 163 Washington St., Chicago, Ill.”

Later this journal and the paper Alarm published the autobiographies of the Haymarket men.



Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolf Fischer and George Engel were hanged on 11 November, 1887.

Louis Lingg committed suicide in prison.

The authorities turned over the bodies to friends for burial, and one of the largest funeral processions in Chicago history was held. It was estimated that between 150,000 to 500,000 persons lined the route taken by the funeral cortege of the Haymarket martyrs.

A monument to the executed men was unveiled 25 June, 1893 at Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago. The remaining three, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe and Michael Schwab, were finally pardoned in 1893.

On 26 June, 1893, the Governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, issued a pardon message in which he made it clear that he was not granting the pardon because he believed that the men had suffered enough, but because they were innocent of the crime for which they had been tried, and that they and the hanged men had been the victims of hysteria, packed juries and a biased judge.

He noted that the defendants were not proven guilty because the State “has never discovered who it was that threw the bomb which killed the policeman, and the evidence does not show any connection whatsoever between the defendants and the man who threw it.”

It is not surprising that the State, business leaders, mainstream union officials, and the media would want to hide the true history of May Day.

In its attempt to erase the history and significance of May Day, the US government declared 1 May to be “Law Day”, and gave the workers Labor Day on 1 September instead – a date devoid of any historical significance.

Nevertheless, rather than suppressing the labour and anarchist movements, the events of 1886 and the execution of the Chicago anarchists mobilised generations of radicals.

Emma Goldman, a young Russian immigrant at the time, later pointed to the Haymarket affair as the moment of her political birth. Instead of disappearing, the anarchist movement only grew in the wake of Haymarket.


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