How May Day Became a Workers' Holiday Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How May Day Became a Workers' Holiday

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In most of the industrialised world, the first day of May is celebrated as a day to honour those who labour, and is frequently cause for rallies and demonstrations as well as picnics and parties. Unions are at their most militant and calls for unity and solidarity among the fraternity of labour are at their most vocal. There is a reason why this particular holiday falls on that particular day. May Day, as International Workers' Day, actually commemorates an event that happened in the United States, one of the few industrialised countries in which it is not recognised as a holiday.

The Resolution

In 1884, the following resolution was introduced and accepted at the convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada (FOTLU)1:

(It is) Resolved ... that eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this district that they so direct their laws so as to conform to this resolution by the time named.

The resolution was adopted unanimously.


National or local officials of the three main labour organisations present in the United States at the time, the FOTLU, the Knights of Labor2 and the International Working People's Association (IWPA)3 began preparing for a general strike to be held on that date. The national office of the Knights of Labor, the most conservative of these three organisations, opposed the strike. Local offices ignored Grand Master Workman Terence Powderly's letter of 13 March, 1886, forbidding members of the Knights to strike. The FOTLU and the IWPA organised aggressively. In particular, Albert Parsons and August Spies spoke to gatherings of working people in Chicago at every opportunity.

Meanwhile, newspapers and industrialists were predicting, and preparing for, violence and bloodshed. Melville E Stone, head of the Chicago Daily News4, predicted a 'repetition of the Paris Communal riots'. National Guard units made preparations for mobilisation, private investigators increased the number of armed employees on staff and special police were deputised.

Saturday 1 May, 1886

Rallies were held throughout the United States on the scheduled day. The largest was in Chicago, where an estimated 90,000 people participated. There were an estimated 10,000 demonstrators in New York and 11,000 in Detroit. In other cities throughout the United States, smaller gatherings were made unique by the unity of black and white workers marching side by side, a strange sight indeed in 1886!

The newspaper The Chicago Mail5 ran an editorial that morning, which read, in part,

There are two dangerous ruffians at large in this city. One of them is named Parsons. The other is named Spies.

Mark them for today. Keep them in view. Hold them personally responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if trouble does occur.

Along the parade route in Chicago, tens of thousands of working men, along with their wives and children, marched happily. It was a Saturday, normally a working day, but this was a strike and an unusual chance to be with family during daylight hours.

Just off the parade route waited police officers and militia members, armed with rifles and Gatling guns, ready to put down any trouble at any moment.

At the end of the parade route, there were speeches in the languages of the workers of Chicago at that time, including English, German, Polish and Bohemian. Then everybody went home. There was no violence, no bloodshed.

Monday 3 May, 1886

Some 65,000 workers were on strike in Chicago, including employees of the McCormick Harvester Works. About a quarter of a mile (0.16 km) away, August Spies was addressing a group of striking lumber workers at a rally. A group of the lumber workers decided to join the striking McCormick Harvester Works employees in confronting strike-breaking workers at the end of the work day.

At closing time, police officers charged the waiting strikers, with revolvers drawn. It was reported by one witness that, as the strikers retreated, the police 'opened fire into their backs. Boys and men were killed as they ran'. Most sources state that six strikers were killed, although some put the number of fatalities at four. Many more were injured.

Another rally, to be held the following evening at Haymarket Square, was called to protest against police violence.

Tuesday 4 May, 1886

The turnout for the rally at Haymarket Square consisted of some 3000 people, including the then Mayor of Chicago, who wanted to ensure that the rally remained peaceful. There was also a force of 180 police officers mobilised, ready to break up the rally at the first sign of violence.

The first speaker was August Spies, who took the police department to task as murderers. Then Albert Parsons spoke. Near the beginning of his speech, he made it clear that he was not calling on anybody to take any action that night, but was planning on simply stating the facts of the previous day's events. The Mayor made his way out of the crowd and told the police captain that the rally was peaceful and that the mobilised police officers should be put back onto regular duty. After Spies and Parsons had spoken, other, less charismatic, speakers took the platform. It was now about 10 o'clock at night. While Samuel Fielden was speaking, the 180 police officers, with clubs drawn and in military formation, closed in on the remaining participants of the rally. The police captain commanded that the rally 'immediately and peaceably disperse'.

As Fielden was protesting that the rally was peaceful, a bomb exploded in the ranks of the assembled police officers, killing one immediately and wounding 65 others, seven of whom later died of their injuries. The remaining police officers drew their revolvers and fired into the crowd, wounding 200 and killing an unknown number.

Arrests and the Trial

Several witnesses identified Rudolph Schnaubelt as the man who threw the bomb. Schnaubelt was arrested, but was later released without being charged with any crime. There was, and still is, some question as to whether or not Schnaubelt was an agent provocateur hired by either the police department or the industrialists of Chicago.

Within days seven labour leaders were arrested for the murder of Mathias J Degan, the police officer who died at Haymarket Square. Those arrested were August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg and Oscar Neebe. Albert Parsons, who was also indicted, avoided arrest until the first day of the trial, when he walked into the courtroom and announced 'I have come to stand trial, your Honor, with my innocent comrades.' After turning himself in, Parsons said to a friend:

I know what I have done. They will kill me. But I couldn't bear to be at liberty, knowing that my comrades were to suffer for a crime of which they are as innocent as I.

The presiding judge, Joseph E Gary, ruled that a relative of one of the police officers killed was a competent juror. He then ruled that a man who stated outright that he was deeply prejudiced against the defendants was also a competent juror.

At the trial itself, the prosecutors made no attempt to prove that any of the defendants threw the bomb or conspired to throw the bomb. Instead, they set about trying to prove that the bomb was thrown by an unknown person motivated by the ideals held by the defendants. Prosecuting Attorney Julius Grinnel, in his closing remarks, stated that

Law is upon trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they were leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousands that follow them. ... Convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and save our institutions, our society.

In his final comments to the court, August Spies said

If you think by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement... if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there and there, behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.
And now these are my ideas. They constitute a part of myself. I cannot divest myself of them, nor would I, if I could. And if you think you can crush out these ideas that are gaining ground more and more every day, if you think you can crush them out by sending us to the gallows... if you would once more have people suffer the penalty of death because they have dared to tell the truth... then I will proudly and defiantly pay the costly price! Call your hangman! Truth crucified in Socrates, in Christ, in Giordano Bruno, in Huss, in Galileo still lives - they and others whose number is legion have preceded us on this path. We are ready to follow!

All of the defendants were convicted. With the sole exception of Oscar Neebe, all of the defendants were sentenced to death. Neebe was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He asked that he also be condemned to death, because he was no more innocent than the other defendants.

Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab petitioned for clemency and had their sentences commuted to life in prison. Louis Lingg avoided hanging by committing suicide. Some reports say that he accomplished his own death by biting a percussion cap. Others say that he exploded a stick of dynamite in his mouth. On 11 November, 1887, the other defendants were hanged.


In 1889, at the Marxist International Socialist Congress in Paris, a resolution was passed calling for a 'great international demonstration' for the eight hour day to take place on 1 May, 1890. On that date, there were May Day demonstrations in the United States and many European countries, as well as in Chile, Peru and Cuba.

In 1891, May Day was celebrated in Russia, Brazil and Ireland. China first celebrated May Day in 1920. In 1927, the holiday had spread to India, where there were demonstrations in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay.

As May Day was becoming a worldwide holiday, with the date having been chosen to commemorate the union fight for the eight-hour work day in the United States, within the United States itself the mainstream labour movement, now represented by the American Federation of Labor, was becoming more conservative. That organisation chose to support the first Monday in September as Labor Day. In 1894, federal legislation designating the September Labor Day holiday was passed and signed into law by the then-United States President, Grover Cleveland.


Seven years after the Haymarket incident, the then-governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, pardoned all of the Haymarket defendants and released those who were still living from prison, knowing that by so doing he was ending his political career.

In reviewing the trial, Governor Altgeld told Clarence Darrow,

If I conclude to pardon those men it will not meet with the approval that you expect; let me tell you that from that day I will be a dead man politically.

A little more than a month before signing the pardons, Governor Altgeld spoke at the graduation ceremony at the University of Illinois. He may have been working up the courage to sign the pardons. Some excerpts from his speech follow:

Let sunlight into dark places and the poisons collected there disappear. So with the dark places in the government and civil affairs that are now festering with wrong; let the sunlight of eternal truth and justice shine on them and they will disappear.
Wherever there is wrong; point it out to all the world, and you can trust the people to right it; wrongs thrive in secrecy and darkness.

On the day that Governor Altgeld signed the pardons, his Secretary of State warned him that, by this act, he was endangering his own, and the party's, future success. His response? 'No man has the right to allow his ambition to stand in the way of the performance of a simple act of justice.'

Governor Altgeld made certain that the reasons for his pardon were known. The pardons were accompanied by detailed evidence showing that the entire trial had nothing to do with justice. He provided documentation that the main prosecution witness, who had claimed to have seen the entire incident at Haymarket Square was, according to the testimony of ten prominent citizens of Chicago, 'an inveterate liar'. He provided documentation that the bailiff in charge of the jury pool purposely selected men who would convict, regardless of the evidence. He provided documentation that the judge denied defence challenges to obviously biased jurors.

As he expected, Governor Altgeld was vilified by the press. The Washington Post pointed out that he had not been born in the United States. The New York Times stated that he 'would have developed into an out-and-out Anarchist himself if his lucky real estate speculations had not turned the course of his natural tendencies'. The Chicago Tribune stated that he did not have 'a drop of true American blood in his veins. He does not reason like an American, does not feel like one, and consequently does not behave like one'.

Condemnation by the press was not, however, universal. Springfield's Illinois State Register and the Decatur Daily Review supported him. The Review, in fact, stated that had he not issued the pardons after reviewing the evidence, he would have been 'a coward, unfit for the position which he occupied'.

With the rest of his party's ticket, Altgeld was defeated in the next election.

1This organisation evolved into the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations), currently the largest labour organisation in the United States.2This was the oldest and most conservative labour organisation in the United States at the time. The official position of its national leadership was that strikes were wrong. Education would lead to the gradual introduction of workers' co-operatives as the means of production.3A radical, anarchist organisation.4This newspaper went out of business in 1978.5This newspaper went out of business before 1900.

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