other imc's:

by MaoTzu 9:45am Wed May 1 '02 (Modified on 6:31pm Fri May 3 '02)

In the absence of any evidence linking them to the bomb, the "Chicago Eight" were tried solely on the basis of their political beliefs. All eight were sentenced to death; most were eventually executed.

May Day in the USA: A Forgotten History


by Michael Thomas

Every year on May 1st, for over a century, workers around the world have marked Labor Day with rallies and speeches, picnics and celebrations, demonstrations and riots. Traditionally, these May Day events have provided a primary occasion for workers, especially in Europe, to collectively express their unity, their enthusiasm, and their commitment to social change. Today, the United States stands virtually alone among the industrialized nations in officially ignoring the historical and political significance of May Day for the Labor movement.

When Americans do look past the occasional rites of spring, our responses are usually dominated by fearful Cold War images of May Day riots in Europe or tanks and mobile missile-launchers parading before the Kremlin. Few Americans realize that the seemingly foreign celebrations of labor held worldwide on May 1st actually commemorate historical events here in the United States.

During the late 19th century, while corporate power was growing at an unprecedented rate, American workers faced a political and legal system that failed to recognize even the most basic rights of workplace safety, community sanitation, and child protection, let alone the right to organize and strike. On May 1st, 1886, the American Federation of Labor declared a national strike to demand an eight-hour work day and 350,000 workers across the country responded.

In particular, the city of Chicago was virtually paralyzed; railroads, stockyards, and other businesses were forced to close. Two days later, police fired randomly into crowds of fleeing strikers, killing four and wounding many more. Angry workers began to call for armed retaliation.

The next day, when police attempted to disperse a peaceful rally in Haymarket Square, a bomb was tossed into their midst, wounding nearly 70 officers, some mortally. Again firing randomly into the crowd, police wounded another 200 citizens, killing many. With no clues as to the source of the bomb, police arrested eight revolutionary labor leaders, seven of whom had not even been present in Haymarket at the time. In the absence of any evidence linking them to the bomb, the "Chicago Eight" were tried solely on the basis of their political beliefs. All eight were sentenced to death; most were eventually executed.

News of the trial electrified labor groups everywhere; protests were held around the world. In 1889, the Socialist International declared May 1st a day of demonstrations, and since 1890 these have been held annually worldwide by a variety of labor movements, in many cases eventually forcing official recognition of the holiday. Soon, labor advocates in the United States, too, pressed for a national holiday recognizing workers. Although by the 1890s, May 1st was already being celebrated as Labor Day in some states, other states celebrated in early September.

Proponents of the September date emphasized that this filled a long gap between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving holidays. Presented thus, flanked between patriotic celebrations of national origin and family unity, this Labor Day was obviously attractive to business and government leaders opposed to labor militancy, and had the additional advantage of being as far away as possible from the "subversive" May Day, while still promising good summer weather for outdoor festivities. Thus, the first Monday in September received official recognition.

Nevertheless, neither labor militancy nor public interest in May Day celebrations showed any signs of abating. May Day rallies were held, for example, in New York City's Union Square every year since 1924. And soon, the simple displacement of Labor Day was no longer deemed a sufficient tactic; conservatives began renaming May Day itself in an effort to finally erase its unsettling symbolism from the American consciousness.

In 1947, amidst the anti-Communist Cold War hysteria, the U.S. Veterans of Foreign Wars renamed May 1st "Loyalty Day" and a joint session of Congress later made the pronouncement official. Loyalty Day was explicitly designed as a weapon against leftist labor tendencies, and specifically the American Communist Party, by encouraging citizens to reaffirm their commitment to the State. The right of citizens to join legal political parties of their own choosing without harassment was apparently not an American value to be celebrated on this holiday.

During the 1950s, Loyalty Day flourished at the expense of traditional May Day events. For example, the Loyalty Day parade in New York City, one of the largest in the nation, was designed to lure citizens away from the long-standing Union Square rallies and to distract attention from the Communist Party march on the same day. Ten years later, however, the association of such parades with support for the American war in Vietnam led to a drastic decline in public participation across the land. Nevertheless, despite this waning interest, these conservative holidays actually succeeded in their objective; for if Loyalty Day has now been all but officially forgotten, so too has the historic significance of May Day.

The tragic irony is that this historic memorial to American labor, which continues to inspire workers abroad, has been largely forgotten by workers at home. Mention a Labor Day picnic in May to most people today and they will assume that you have misplaced your calendar. Sadly, what has really been lost, or should I say stolen, is a powerful symbol of the historical struggle by average working Americans for freedom and democracy.

As IWW songwriter Joe Hill wrote in one of his most powerful songs:

Workers of the world, awaken!
Rise in all your splendid might
Take the wealth that you are making,
It belongs to you by right.
No one will for bread be crying
We'll have freedom, love and health,
When the grand red flag is flying
In the Workers' Commonwealth.

mayday | www.agp.org