THE ORI­GINS OF LABOUR DAY (MAY DAY)

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LABOUR DAY -

In the late 19th cen­tury, the work­ing class was in con­stant strug­gle to gain the 8-hour work day. It was quite com­mon to work 10 to 16 hour days in se­vere and un­safe con­di­tions. Death and in­jury were com­mon­place at many work places. As early as the 1860s, work­ing peo­ple ag­i­tated to shorten the work­day with­out a cut in pay but it wasn’t un­til the late 1880s that or­ga­nized labour was able to gar­ner enough strength to de­clare the 8-hour work­day. This procla­ma­tion was with­out con­sent of em­ploy­ers.

At this time, so­cial­ism was a new and at­trac­tive idea to work­ing peo­ple, many of whom were drawn to its ide­ol­ogy of work­ing class con­trol over the pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion of all goods and ser­vices. Work­ers had seen first-hand that cap­i­tal­ism ben­e­fited only their bosses, trad­ing work­ers’ lives for profit. Men, women and chil­dren were dy­ing need­lessly ev­ery year in the work­place, with life ex­pectancy as low as the early twen­ties in some in­dus­tries.

A va­ri­ety of so­cial­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions sprung up through­out the lat­ter half of the 19th cen­tury, rang­ing from po­lit­i­cal par­ties to choir groups. Many so­cial­ists were elected into gov­ern­men­tal of­fice but were ham-strung by the po­lit­i­cal process which was so ev­i­dently con­trolled by big busi­ness and the bi-par­ti­san po­lit­i­cal ma­chine. Tens of thou­sands of so­cial­ists broke ranks from their par­ties and cre­ated an­ar­chist groups through­out the coun­try. Lit­er­ally thou­sands of work­ing peo­ple em­braced the ideals of an­ar­chism, which sought to put an end to all hi­er­ar­chi­cal struc­tures (in­clud­ing gov­ern­ment), em­pha­sized worker-con­trolled in­dus­try, and val­ued di­rect ac­tion over the bu­reau­cratic po­lit­i­cal process. It is in­ac­cu­rate to say that labour unions were “taken over” by an­ar­chists and so­cial­ists, but rather an­ar­chists and so­cial­ist made up the labour unions.

At its na­tional con­ven­tion in Chicago, held in 1884, the Fed­er­a­tion of Or­ga­nized Trades and La­bor Unions pro­claimed that “eight hours shall con­sti­tute a legal day’s la­bor from and af­ter May 1, 1886.”

On May 1, 1886 more than 300,000 work­ers in 13,000 busi­nesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day cel­e­bra­tion in his­tory. In Chicago 40,000 went out on strike with the an­ar­chists in the fore­front of the public’s eye. With their fiery speeches and rev­o­lu­tion­ary ide­ol­ogy of di­rect ac­tion, an­ar­chists and an­ar­chism be­came re­spected and em­braced by the work­ing peo­ple and despised by the cap­i­tal­ists.

More and more work­ers con­tin­ued to walk off their jobs un­til the num­bers swelled to nearly 100,000, yet peace pre­vailed. It was not un­til two days later, May 3, 1886, that vi­o­lence broke out at the McCormick Reaper Works be­tween po­lice and strik­ers. Armed Pinker­ton agents and the po­lice ha­rassed and beat locked-out steel­work­ers as they pick­eted. Beat­ings with po­lice clubs es­ca­lated into rock throw­ing by the strik­ers which the po­lice re­sponded to with gun­fire. At least two strik­ers were killed and an un­known num­ber were wounded.

Full of rage, a public meet­ing was called by some of the an­ar­chists to dis­cuss the po­lice bru­tal­ity. Due to bad weather and short no­tice, only about 3,000 of the ex­pected tens of thou­sands showed up. The Mayor of Chicago would later tes­tify that the crowd re­mained calm and or­derly. As the po­lice be­gan to dis­perse the thin­ning crowd, a bomb was thrown into the po­lice ranks. No one knows who threw the bomb, but spec­u­la­tions var­ied from blam­ing any one of the an­ar­chists, to an agent provo­ca­teur work­ing for the po­lice.

En­raged, the po­lice fired into the crowd. An es­ti­mated seven civil­ians died, and up to forty were wounded. One of­fi­cer died im­me­di­ately and an­other seven died in the fol­low­ing weeks. Later ev­i­dence in­di­cated that only one of the po­lice deaths could be at­trib­uted to the bomb and that all the other po­lice fa­tal­i­ties had or could have had been due to their own in­dis­crim­i­nate gun fire. Aside from the bomb thrower, who was never iden­ti­fied, it was the po­lice, not the an­ar­chists, who per­pe­trated the vi­o­lence.

Eight an­ar­chists were ar­rested and con­victed of mur­der. Four were hung to death and one took his own life the night be­fore with an ex­plo­sive de­vice in his mouth. The re­main­ing three were par­doned six years later.

May Day was sub­se­quently es­tab­lished as an In­ter­na­tional Work­ers’ Day. It is an of­fi­cial hol­i­day in 66 coun­tries and unof­fi­cially cel­e­brated in many more but rarely is it rec­og­nized in the US where it be­gan.

Pro­test­ers in the Bastille Square in Paris in 2002 for the

tra­di­tional May Day march.

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