The Story of Labor Day and May Day

May 1st is May Day AKA International Workers’ Day. This day is not widely celebrated in the US, even though the day came about because of events that took place here. Or rather, maybe, that is why it is not recognized here.

The Haymarket Affair was an event that took place in the context of the fight for the 8 hour day. It occurred on May 4th 1886. There was a public meeting that day in reaction to the killing of several workers by the police the previous day. At the public meeting, which took place in Haymarket Square in Chicago, a bomb was thrown. In the ensuing fight between the workers and the police, seven police and at least four workers were killed.

In the aftermath of the event eight workers, who were also well know anarchists, were charged with conspiracy. The trail was a sideshow. There was no real evidence against them. The evidence presented in the court was to prove that they were in fact anarchists. This was not only beside the point of the case but also unnecessary as none of the defendants hid this fact.

Albert Parsons, husband of Lucy Parsons, had managed not to be picked up by the police. How-ever, he returned to Chicago and turned himself in to stand in solidarity with his comrades.

The Haymarket eight were convicted. Seven of them were sentenced to death but three had their sentence commuted to life in person. The remaining defendant was sentenced to 15 years in jail.

August Spies last words before he was killed by the state were: “the day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

It is because of these events that May Day became International Workers’ Day honored almost the whole world over.

Except in the United States.

In 1887, just one year after the event, Labor Day was established on September 1st in the US. Promoted by the more conservative labor unions; the government got behind the idea as a way to placate labor and also direct people’s attention away from the mockery of justice that was the Haymarket Affair.

It is of little doubt that for most of us these days we think nothing of Labor Day, let alone know why it is a holiday or where it came from. It is also of little doubt that we think so little of the history of the eight hour work day and the struggle that was fought by many to make it a reality.

This is just another part of our history, the worker’s history, which has been stolen from us. But we can fight back! And every little bit we reclaim is a victory.


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