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    Vol.62/No.18           May 11, 1998 
May Day Originated In U.S. Class Struggle  

Below we print an excerpt from American Labor Struggles: 1877-1934 by Samuel Yellen. The chapter is titled "Haymarket," and describes the working-class mobilizations of May 1886, and the subsequent ruling-class reaction. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions - the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor - had called for strikes and mass actions beginning May 1, 1886, demanding the eight-hour work day.

On May 3, police attacked a Chicago rally supporting the eight-hour day, killing at least four pickets at the McCormick reaper plant, where 1,400 workers had been locked out for many months (described below). A demonstration called for the following evening at Haymarket Square was attacked by cops. A dynamite bomb was thrown into the police ranks by an agent provocateur, killing seven cops, and the police opened fire on the crowd. Four workers were killed, with others injured. Almost immediately every prominent labor leader in Chicago was arrested. Eight men, all anarchists, were framed up for murder and convicted without any proof. Four were hanged and one committed suicide before his scheduled execution; the others were pardoned in 1893. This was the origin of May Day as an international workers holiday. American Labor Struggles is copyright (c) 1936 by Sam Yellen. Reprinted by permission from Pathfinder Press.

The strike opened in Chicago with a display of great strength and much promise of success. Nearly 40,000 workers walked out on May 1 as prearranged, and the number jumped to 65,000 within three or four days. Nor was this the full strength of the movement in the city: more than 45,000 were granted a shorter working day without striking, the bulk of them - 35,000 - workers in the packing-houses. In addition, there were already several thousand men on strike at the Lake Shore, the Wabash, the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul, and other freight yards in protest against the hiring of non- union labor. With such a mass movement on foot, Chief of Police Ebersold apprehended difficulties and called upon the entire detective and police force to be on duty Saturday, May 1; and his force was augmented by Pinkerton detectives previously engaged by the railroads, and by special deputies, many of whom were selected from the Grand Army of the Potomac. In spite of these martial preparations, Saturday passed peacefully. The city, with hundreds of factories idle and thousands of strikers and their families promenading the streets, had a holiday appearance. There were processions and mass meetings, addressed in Bohemian, Polish, German, and English.

Faced with a strike of unexpected power and solidarity, the leading business men and manufacturers united to crush it. On April 27 the Western Boot and Shoe Manufacturers Association, with 60 firms represented in person and 160 by letter, was formed in Chicago for combined action. The chief iron and steel foundries, as also the copper and brass, declared that they would reject the eight-hour demand. A session of the principal planing mills was held on the morning of May 1 at the office of Felix Lang to determine procedure against the strikers. In the evening these were joined at the Sherman Hotel by all the lumber yards and box factories, and the lumber industry in concert decided to grant no concessions to the workmen.

Nevertheless, by Monday, May 3, the spread of the strike was alarming. Lumber-laden craft blocked the river near the Lumber Exchange, and 300 more vessels with cargoes of lumber were expected to join the idle fleet. The building interests, then enjoying a boom, were suddenly paralyzed. The great metal foundries and the vast freight yards were tied up. To break the strike aggressive action was needed. On Monday police clubs began to scatter processions and meetings.

That afternoon serious trouble arose at the McCormick Harvester Works. The soreness here was old. It had begun in the middle of February, when Cyrus McCormick locked out his 1,400 employees in reply to a demand by the men that the company quit its discrimination against certain of their fellows who had taken part in a former strike at the plant. In the following two months strike-breakers, Pinkertons, and police had attacked the locked-out men with wanton savagery. [Writers E.L.] Bogart and [C.M.] Thompson say of this period:

The police force of Chicago reflected the hostility of the employing class, regarding strikes per se as evidence that the men had placed themselves in opposition to law and order. During these months of unrest it became a pastime for a squad of mounted police, or a detachment in close formation, to disperse with the billy any gathering of workingmen. The billy was an impartial instrument: men, women, children, and shop-keeping bystanders alike composed its harvest. It was the police, aided by the "Pinkertons," who added the great leaven of bitterness to the contest. To the workingmen they furnished concrete and hateful examples of the autocracy against which they protested.

But a greater police provocation was reserved for Monday afternoon, May 3. At this time 6,000 striking lumber-shovers met near Black Road, about a quarter of a mile north of the McCormick works, to appoint a committee to be sent to the lumber-yard owners. While August Spies was addressing the meeting, a group of some 200 detached itself spontaneously from the crowd of strikers, marched to McCormick's, and heckled and attacked the scabs, who were just then leaving for their homes. Within 10 or 15 minutes there were more than 200 policemen on the spot.

Meanwhile Spies, who was still speaking, and the strikers at the meeting, seeing patrol wagons and hearing gunfire, started toward McCormick's, but were met by the police. The clubs and guns broke up the crowd; the police fired deliberately into the running strikers, so that at least four were killed and many wounded.  
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