May 1st, International Workers Day, commemorates the historic
struggle of working people throughout the world, and is recognized
in most countries. The United States of America and Canada are
among the exceptions. This despite the fact that the holiday began in the 1880s
in the USA, linked to the battle for the eight-hour day, and the Chicago anarchists.
The struggle for the eight-hour day began in the 1860s. In 1884, the Federation
of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, organized in 1881
(and changing its name in 1886 to American Federation of Labor )
passed a resolution which asserted that eight hours shall constitute a legal
days work from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations
district that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution. The
following year the Federation
repeated the declaration that an eight-hour system was to go into effect on May 1, 1886.
With workers being forced to work ten, twelve, and fourteen hours a day, support for the eight-hour
movement grew rapidly. In the months prior to May 1, 1886, thousands of workers, organized and
unorganized, members of the organization Knights of Labor and of the federation, were drawn into the struggle.
Chicago was the main center of the agitation for a shorter day. The anarchists were in the forefront of the Central Labor Union of Chicago, which consisted of 22 unions in 1886, among them the seven largest in the city.
During the Railroad strikes of 1877, the workers had been violently attacked by the
police and the United States Army. A similar tactic of state terrorism
was prepared by the bureaucracy to fight the eight-hour
movement. The police and National Guard
were increased in size and received new and powerful weapons
financed by local business leaders. Chicagos Commercial
Club purchased a $2000 machine gun for the Illinois National Guard to be used
Nevertheless, by May 1st, the movement had already won gains for many
Chicago workers. But on May 3, 1886, police fired into a crowd of strikers at
the McCormick Harvester Machine Company, killing at least one striker,
seriously wounding five or six others, and injuring an undetermined number.
Anarchists called for a mass meeting the next day
in Haymarket Square to protest the
The meeting proceeded without incident, and by the time the last
speaker was on the platform, the rainy gathering was already
breaking up, with only about two hundred people remaining. It was then
a police column of 180 men marched into the square and
ordered the meeting to
disperse. At the end of the meeting a bomb
was thrown at the police, killing one instantly, six others died later.
About seventy police officers were wounded. Police
responded by firing into the crowd. How many civilians were wounded or killed
from police bullits never was ascertained exactly.
Although it was never determined who threw the bomb, the incident
was used as an excuse to attack anarchists and the labor movement in general.
Police ransacked the homes and offices of suspected radicals, and
hundreds were arrested without charge. A reign of police terror swept
over Chicago. Staging raids in
the working-class districts, the police rounded up all known
anarchists and other socialists. Make the raids first and
look up the law afterward! publicly counseled the states attorney.