The Chicago Martyrs and May Day. An international day of struggle of the working class

By Emilio Poliak

In 1890, called by the Second International, this date of international importance was first celebrated.  It’s origin is linked to the struggle for the eight-hour work day and the events of 1886 in the US that culminated with the hanging of the Martyrs of Chicago.

During the 19th century, when capitalism was developing and spreading to the entire world, the working class increased their ranks and their struggles against the bourgeoisie. In a context of super-exploitation work days that stretched for more than 12 daily hours, the demand for an eight-hour work day became one of the main assertions of the workers in different countries of the world and a center of their struggles.

May Day, 1886, in the US

In North America, the first demands for the eight-hour work day date back to the 30’s. Different states of the Union achieved laws in that sense, although they always came with exception clauses  that allowed the extension of the work days, so in reality these law ended up being useless. In the 80s, the agitation for shorter working hours gained new momentum. The massive unemployment caused by the depression of 1884-1885 found in this demand a way to fight unemployment. In October 1884, during the fourth congress of the Federation of Organized Guilds and Unions – predecessor of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) – a resolution was passed that stated “the legal length of the working day as of May 1st, 1886, shall be 8 hours” and to this end recommended that labor organizations try to “have laws enacted in accordance with this resolution as of the date established.”

When May 1st, 1886 arrived, some 200,000 workers joined the strike. It is also estimated that about 150,000 obtained the reduction of the work day only with the threat of the strike. By the end of that year, the reduction had already reached more than 250,000 workers. The day, of course, was not without clashes with the police in many cities.

The events in Chicago

In this city, one of the most important industrial centers, the demonstrations passed without incident, but the bourgeoisie responded with a lock out, so the mobilizations did not cease. On May 3rd, during a rally at the gates of the McCormick factory (where layoffs had taken place), a section of the demonstrators clashed with the strikebreakers and the company’s private security. The police intervened in favor of the latter, opening fire on the demonstrators, causing 6 deaths and more than 50 injured. In response, anarchist groups called a rally for the following day in Haymarket Square, which was authorized by the mayor himself and was attended by some three thousand people. As the rally was ending, the police attempted to break up the rally. A bomb then flew towards the officers, killing one policeman and injuring several others. The government declared a state of siege and a curfew, unleashing a fierce repression in which hundreds of workers and leaders were arrested and tortured.

The judicial farce

At the request of the bourgeois press, which demanded a summary trial, Judge Joseph Gary and State Prosecutor Grinnell brought the accusation, without any evidence, against the main leaders of the movement: Michael Schwab, Louis Lingg, Adolph Fisher, Samuel Fielden, Albert Parsons, Auguste Spies, Oscar Neebe and George Engel.

The anomalies of the process were configured from the beginning. The selection of the jury was made through a bailiff appointed for that purpose by the prosecutor, and it was so rigged that among the jury there were relatives of the policemen injured by the bomb. The prosecution witnesses, as it would turn out, were paid by the police themselves. Even so, it could never be proved that any of the defendants were related to the bombing. The aim of the farce was clear, it was to convict the main leaders of the movement in an attempt to break it up and set a precedent for the working class as a whole. Nothing shows it better than the closing argument of the prosecutor Grinnell: “The law is under process. Anarchy is under process. These men have been selected by the Grand Jury and tried because they were leaders. They were no more guilty than the thousands of their followers. Gentlemen of the jury: convict these men, make a mockery of them, hang them, and you will save our institutions, our society.”

In the end, five of the defendants were sentenced to death, two to life imprisonment and the remaining one to 15 years in prison. Before the execution date, Lingg was killed inside the penitentiary with a stick of dynamite, passing it off as a suicide. On November 11, Engel, Spies, Parsons and Fisher were hanged.

The international significance of May Day

With the beheading of the workers’ movement and the division produced within it, the bourgeoisie did not take long to do away with the eight-hour work day. The struggle would remain a pending task for the working class.

On July 14, 1889, a congress of workers’ and socialist organizations met in Paris, prologue to the establishment of the Second International. It would end a week later by voting a resolution that said: “A great demonstration will be organized on a fixed date so that simultaneously, in all countries and in all cities on the same agreed day, workers will ask the official authorities to reduce by law the working day to eight hours and to put into effect the other resolutions of the Paris congress. In view of the fact that a similar demonstration has already been approved for May 1, 1990 by the North American Federation of Labor at its congress held in St. Louis in December 1988, this date is adopted for the international demonstration. The workers of the various countries will carry out the demonstration under the conditions imposed on them by the special situation of each country.”

It was for the first time a call for a concrete action of the working class at the international level against the bourgeoisie and for the demands of the workers’ movement. The day was celebrated in several countries with different levels of mobilization. In France there were about 300 thousand people in more than 100 cities and strikes in various sectors. In the most industrialized countries of Europe and in the U.S.A. the demonstrations were important. In the rest of the world it was uneven, due to the different levels of organization of the working class and its vanguard.

That same day, Engels wrote the preface to a new edition of the Communist Manifesto in which he said: “(The International) is more alive than ever and of this there is no better testimony than today’s day. At the moment I am writing these lines the European and American proletariat is reviewing its mobilized militant forces, and it is the mobilization of a unique army marching under a banner also unique and has a near objective: the fixing by law of the normal eight-hour working day already demanded by the Paris Workers Congress in 1889. The spectacle you will witness today will make the capitalists and landlords of all countries see that indeed the proletarians of all countries are united.”

International day of struggle of the working class

Despite the inequalities, in many countries there were actions, and the most important thing is that a date was born that would become part of the collective tradition of the working class. Over the years, both the bourgeoisie and the bureaucratic and reformist organizations of the workers’ movement have tried to strip this date of its class and international content of struggle, adding it to official calendars as a “holiday or Labor Day”. In general, it has been the revolutionary left that has preserved the original tradition of May Day. With the current capitalist crisis, the class struggle between the workers and the bourgeoisie, as well as the international nature of this struggle becomes more visible for broad sectors of the mass movement. More than ever we raise up the memory of the Chicago Martyrs, promoting on this date, and in our daily struggles, the fight to put an end to this system of exploitation and oppression throughout the planet.