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May Day's Radical History: What Occupy Is Fighting for This May 1st

Occupy actions planned on May Day are tied to the generations-long movement for the eight-hour day, to immigrant workers, to police brutality and repression of the labor movement.

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The Illinois law and its defeat, however, were not forgotten. By the 1880s, a new labor movement had grown up in Chicago. This one was more radical and was dominated by immigrant workers from Germany. They remembered 1877, when a strike by railroad workers spread around the country. For a brief moment, as strikers took control of St. Louis and Pittsburgh, staring down the national guard and local police, nobody knew what would happen. But President Rutherford B. Hayes called out the army and brutally repressed the strike. They also remembered the state was rarely if ever on the side of the worker. Yet they also remembered the brief shining moment when it appeared that there might be an eight-hour day.

So in 1886, the Chicago Central Labor Union again demanded an eight-hour day. Led largely by anarchists like August Spies and Albert Parsons, this renewed movement demanded “eight for 10”--that is, eight hours’ work for 10 hours’ pay. Throughout the winter of 1886, they successfully organized and won a series of small victories, largely in German butchers’ shops, breweries and bakeries, where owners agreed to recognize unions and grant shorter hours. Then they issued a new demand: that again on May 1, Chicago would go on a general strike and not return to work unless employers agreed to an eight-hour workday.

The demands of the militant Chicago anarchists coincided with a massive upswing in other militant movements. Workers and Texas farmers were rebelling against a monopolistic railroad system. The Knights of Labor were rapidly organizing and spreading their vision of a cooperative, rather than capitalistic, society. “What happened on May 1, 1886,” writes James Green, the most recent and most accessible historian to have written about it, “was more than a general strike; it was a ‘populist moment’ when working people believed they could destroy plutocracy, redeem democracy and then create a new ‘cooperative commonwealth.’”

Four days later, it all came crashing down. On May 3, police had shot to death six strikers at the McCormick Works, where a long-standing labor dispute had turned the factory into an armed camp, and beaten dozens more. On May 4, anarchists held an outdoor indignation meeting at a square called the Haymarket to protest the police murders. Anarchist leader Samuel Fielden was wrapping up his speech when the police, led by the same inspector who had led the charge at McCormick the night before, moved in to disperse the crowd. “But we are peaceable!” Fielden cried, and just then somebody wasn’t. Somebody threw a bomb at the police, the police open fire, and the course of American history changed. 

To this day we do not know, nor will we likely ever know, who threw the bomb. Some say it was an agent provocateur. Some say it was an anarchist. If it wasn’t an anarchist, it surely could have been, since there were indeed anarchists who made bombs and would have thrown one given the opportunity. But we also know that many of those who died that night, including police, were felled by the police bullets.

We also know that the effect of the Haymarket bombing was far greater on the labor movement than it was on the police. Eight anarchist leaders were rounded up and put on trial for the murder of a police officer. No evidence was ever given that any of them threw the bomb, and only the flimsiest evidence was presented that any of them were remotely involved. All eight were convicted, and seven were sentenced to hang. Two of these had their sentences commuted, and a third—Louis Lingg, undoubtedly the most radical and militant of them—cheated the hangman by chewing a detonator cap and blowing off his jaw. The remaining four—August Spies, Albert Parsons, Samuel Fischer, and George Engel—were hanged on November 11, 1887. They went to their deaths singing the Marseillaise, then an anthem of the international revolutionary movement, and before he died, Spies shouted out his famous last words: “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”