Countdown to May Day

Although May Day is celebrated in many countries around the world not many know how and where it started. We can look to the United States of America for that answer.

At the end of the1800's the conditions of the working class were tough in many parts of the world with long hours, unsafe conditions and many deaths at work. By the 1880's there was a strong push by unions for an 8 hour day. Socialism was becoming popular and offered an alternative to the oppression of capitalism and many socialist organisations came into existence; many thousands broke away from the traditional political parties and embraced the ideals of anarchism with the aim of workers controlling the industrial sphere. Many unions had a large number of socialists and anarchists.

The Federation of Organised Trades and Labor Unions met for their national convention in Chicago in 1884. They declared that the eight hour day would constitute a legal day's work from 1st May 1886. Other unions supported this and if necessary would carry out strikes and demonstrations to achieve it.

In Chicago 250,000 workers became involved and were supported by the Trades and Labor Assembly, the Socialist Labor Party and the local Knights of Labor. It was the beginning of a greater social revolution to change the economic structure of capitalism.

One proclamation at the time stated:

  • - Workingmen to Arms!

  • - War to the Palace, Peace to the Cottage, and Death to LUXURIOUS IDLENESS.

  • - The wage system is the only cause of the World's misery. It is supported by the rich classes, and to destroy it, they must be either made to work or DIE.

  • - One pound of DYNAMITE is better than a bushel of BALLOTS!

  • - MAKE YOUR DEMAND FOR EIGHT HOURS with weapons in your hands to meet the capitalist bloodhounds, police and militia in proper manner.

  • On 1st May 1886 over 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs. This was the first May Day celebration. In Chicago 40,000 went on strike; anarchists led the way and made fiery speeches for direct action, they were accepted by the working class as their leaders. There were parades with bands and thousands of workers but there was no violence on the 1st May.

Two days laterthere was a meeting at the McCormick plant several hundred demonstrators joinedsteelworkers on a picket line. Police began beating the protestors, the strikers threw rocks at them, the police responded with gunfire. At least two strikers were killed as well as others becoming injured.

The anarchists called a meeting for the following day, 4th May, in Haymarket Square to discuss the police brutality. The weather was bad and only about 3,000 turned up, including families with children and the Mayor of Chicago. There was no suggestion of violence - the Mayor would later testify that the crowd remained calm and orderly. Towards the end of the speeches there were only about 200 people left and a police column of 180 marched into the square and ordered the meeting to disperse. The police rushed in and reported the use of inflammatory language. As the crowd began to leave a bomb was thrown into the police ranks. It was never discovered who threw it.

The police fired into the crowd and at least 7 or 8 civilians were killed and up to 40 wounded. One police officer died and another 7 in following weeks, 70 were injured; only one police death was related to the bomb, the others were the result of their own indiscriminate firing.

This was used as an excuse to attack the anarchists and the labor movement in general. Police ransacked homes and offices of suspected radicals and arrested hundreds without charge. The State's Attorney said "make the raids first and look up the law afterward."

Eight of the most active anarchists who were all active union organisers were arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder. They were convicted of murder in a kangaroo court, despite the lack of evidence; they were supported by a hysterical press. Only 3 of them had been at the Haymarket and all were in full view when the bomb was thrown. The jury comprised entirely of business leaders. All eight were innocent of the murders but were found guilty because of their political beliefs. There was world wide protest but this was ignored. On 11.11.1887 four of them were hung, one committed suicide the night before.

It is estimated that the funeral procession was attended by 150,000-500,000. A monument was unveiled on 25.6.1893 at Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago.

The final three were pardoned 6 years later on 26.6.1893 by the Governor of Illinois who publicly attacked the judge for this travesty of justice, saying "..the evidence does not show any connection whatsoever between the defendants and the man who threw it [the bomb]."

These Haymarket Martyrs led to the establishment of May Day as the International Worker's Day.

The engraving on the Haymarket Monument says:


Never forget that many people fought and died for the rights and dignities that we enjoy today.The sacrifices these people made cannot be forgotten or we will have to fight for them all over again.

This is why we celebrate MAY DAY.

Source: Article by Eric Chase, 1993.