by Ellis Mayfield
Basics Issue #9 (May 2008)
This May 1st, 2008, marked the 117th anniversary of International Workers Day, or May Day. The governments of Canada and the United States recognize Labor Day in September in an effort to disassociate labor activism, protest, and struggle from its origins in police brutality and worker repression. Although the September holiday is a welcome one, the significance of May Day is a much more symbolic one as it is an international day of solidarity as declared by the working people, and not the state.
May Day celebrations commemorate the Haymarket Massacres of 1886, when Chicago police officers open fired on workers during a general strike. At this point in history, most workers would work between 10 hours and 16 hours a day and death and injury were a common occurrence. The general strike’s aim was to try and get the 8-hour work-day.
Through organization and solidarity with their fellow workers in 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, the epicenter for the 8-hour day struggle, 40,000 went out on strike. on May 1. More and more workers continued to walk off their jobs until the numbers swelled to nearly 100,000, and 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. The police and the Pinkertons (a 19th century private spy agency, forerunner to the FBI) open fired on the Haymarket killing many and arresting dozens more. A bomb thrown into the crowd by a Pinkerton agent triggered the police firing. Eight protestors were then tried and convicted for the bombing by a biased jury comprised of upper class business-men who sought to prolong the unsafe and long work days to ensure their profits. The jury returned guilty verdicts for all eight defendants – death sentences for seven of the men, and a sentence of 15 years for the other. Four of the workers were eventually executed and one eventually committed suicide in prison.
Despite these hardships and the loss of the martyrs, workers would soon be successful in their goal of attaining the 8 hour work-day. This shows us that May Day is undoubtedly the real Labor Day. The welfare of workers is rooted in struggle and organization not gifts handed down from the bosses and their governments.
This year in the United States, May Day was used by our fellow workers as a rallying point to assert the rights of migrant workers, the most exploited workers today. Protests were held against deportations, anti-immigrant legislation, brutality against migrant workers, the militarization of the border, and racist detention programs.
Here in Toronto, No One Is Illegal held a rally on May 3rd at Christie Pits, with a march that took hundreds of workers and activists across Bloor to Dufferin Grove Park. The rally was drawing attention to the racist and exploitative Bill C-51 immigration changes being rammed through by the Federal Conservatives. ∗