International Workers Day or Labor May Day is commemorated around the world today. Today is also “Law and Order Day” in the United States.
International Workers Day or Labor May Day has it’s origins in the United States. At its national convention in Chicago in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, FOTLU, (which later became the American Federation of Labor), proclaimed that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” The choice of May 1 by FOTLU was partly based on the pre-Christian holiday of Beltane, a celebration of rebirth and fertility.
The following year, the FOTLU, backed by many Knights of Labor locals, reiterated their proclamation stating that it would be supported by strikes and demonstrations.
An estimated quarter million workers in the Chicago area became directly involved in the crusade to implement the eight hour work day, including the Trades and Labor Assembly, the Socialistic Labor Party and local Knights of Labor. As more and more of the workforce mobilized against the employers, these radicals conceded to fight for the 8-hour day, realizing that the tide of opinion and determination of most wage-workers was set in this direction.
There grew a sense of a greater social revolution beyond the more immediate gains of shortened hours, but a drastic change in the economic structure of capitalism.
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, the epicenter for the 8-hour day agitators, 40,000 went out on strike on May 1, 1886.
The names of many – Albert Parsons, Johann Most, August Spies and Louis Lingg – became household words in Chicago and throughout the country. Parades, bands and tens of thousands of demonstrators in the streets exemplified the workers’ strength and unity.
More and more workers continued to walk off their jobs until the numbers swelled to nearly 100,000. It was not until two days later, May 3, 1886, that a clash took place at the McCormick Reaper Works between police and strikers.
For six months, armed Pinkerton agents and the police harassed and beat locked-out steelworkers as they picketed. Most of these workers belonged to the Metal Workers’ Union. During a speech near the McCormick plant, some two hundred demonstrators joined the steelworkers on the picket line. 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.
A public meeting was called for the following day in Haymarket Square to discuss the police brutality. Due to bad weather and short notice, only about 3000 of the tens of thousands of people showed up from the day before – including the mayor of Chicago. Later, the mayor would testify that the crowd remained calm and orderly and that speaker August Spies made “no suggestion… for immediate use of force or violence toward any person…”
As the speech wound down, two detectives rushed to the main body of police, reporting that a speaker was using inflammatory language, inciting the police to march on the speakers’ wagon. As the police began to disperse the already 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. The exact number of civilians killed or wounded was never determined, but an estimated seven or eight 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 activists (then referred to as anarchists)- Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer and Louis Lingg – were arrested and convicted of murder, though only three were even present at Haymarket and those three were in full view of all when the bombing occurred. The jury in their trial was comprised of business leaders who were opposed to the unions.
On November 11, 1887, after many failed appeals, Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fisher were hung to death. Louis Lingg, in his final protest of the state’s claim of authority and punishment, took his own life the night before with an explosive device in his mouth.
The remaining organizers, Fielden, Neebe and Schwab, were pardoned six years later by Governor Altgeld, who publicly lambasted the judge on a travesty of justice.
Ironically, May Day is an official holiday in several countries and unofficially celebrated in many more, but rarely is it recognized in this country where it began. This is why May Day is not a Federal Public Holiday in the United States.
Over one hundred years have passed since that first May Day.
When the US government established “Law and Order Day” on May 1, organized labor accused the government of deliberately creating a distraction from Workers Day.
Today is also the 60th Anniversary of “Law and Order Day” in the United States. President Dwight Eisenhower established the first Law Day in 1958 ostensibly to mark the nation’s commitment to the rule of law.
In 1961, Congress issued a joint resolution designating May 1 as the official date for celebrating Law Day, which is codified at 36 U.S. Code §113. Every president since then has issued a Law Day proclamation on May 1 to celebrate the nation’s commitment to the rule of law.
“At the American Bar Association, one of our most important jobs is ensuring that all citizens understand the rule of law that forms the foundation for our democracy,” ABA President Hilarie Bass said.