When I was asked to write on the history of May Day, I took a big gulp. Having never been taught about May Day in either school or college, I had to do some reading. Oh, I knew the basic one sentence, isn’t that when they hung those guys in Chicago for throwing a bomb? Clearly that wouldn’t be enough of speech, nor is it in fact the real story. So after all my digging, I’m going to start with my conclusion: as the old saying goes, “What goes around comes around.”
May Day, the left-wing version of Labor Day, has its roots in 1880’s in the demand for shorter work days. The parallels between the events of 1886 and today are both startling and unnerving. The country was undergoing profound economic change as the Second Industrial Revolution took hold. In a ten year period between 1880 and 1890 capital investment in manufacturing grew threefold. The death of small-business capitalism was giving way to trusts, mergers, and monopolies. Steel production went from half of England and France’s to outstrip them both and provide a third of the total steel production in the world. The workforce grew dramatically, from 2.7 million to 5.9 million. This was the period when those huge factories sometimes employing 10 thousand or more workers were built.
It was the Gilded Age and robber baron capitalism. While the rich lived in splendor (ever been through their castles in Newport, Rhode Island?), things were terrible for the vast majority of working people (railroad and food workers, factory hands, miners, textile, clothing and shoe workers, clerks). The trusts, the monopolists, and the wealthy justified their position through social Darwinism. This was an ideology particularly suited to the robber barons’ needs. Much like today’s right-wing ideology, it held that “Poverty is only a proof of indolence a advice. Wealth simply shows the industry and virtue of the possessor.”
No need to be concerned about the poverty of the vast majority, it was their fault. The country was just showing signs of recovering from the financial crisis of the 1870’s which had touched off such widespread riots and strikes that it became known as the Great Uprising. Nine years later unemployment still hovered around 20 percent. Wages, which had declined 15 percent from 1882-1886 alone, were finally beginning to stabilize. The average workweek was six days, twelve to sixteen hours a day. Child labor and company stores, especially in the South, were common.
Working conditions were horrendous (mind you, the Triangle Shirt Factory was still in the future). Injury rates were rising. Boycotts, the main weapon of the working class, were only slightly more successful than strikes. Lockouts, scabs, company militias, blacklisting, and “yellow dog” contracts (I promise not to join a union if you promise to hire me) were common.
Although unions were still illegal and subject to conspiracy charges, business was rapidly turning to the injunction because increasingly juries weren’t returning guilty verdicts. Things were better left to friendly judges. As bad as things were in the workplace they were even worse at home. Rent gouging prevailed. The situation was, as Mother Jones said, one of “hunger, rags, and despair.”
Many of the new workplaces were full of foreign-born workers. Incidentally, until immigration restriction laws were passed in 1924, about half of immigrants returned to their country of origin, just staying long enough to make some money. But back to our story. Those that were coming to this country in the mid-1880s were often met at the boats by Day Labor Pools and employment agencies. Unknowingly their first job was more than likely to be a scab. Sometimes, especially when strikers could explain to these workers what was going on, they would walk off the job. Many times they joined the picket line. But usually, these workers just went from one scab situation to another.
Working people weren’t completely defenseless, however. Although the repression following the Great Uprising had devastated the labor movement, the movement was hanging on and starting to regroup. Still, most workers weren’t organized. There were a number of labor organizations around, the most significant being the Knights of Labor. The Knights began in 1869 as a small secret order of men with definite socialist leanings. By the early 1880s it had become an open labor organization practicing what today we would call social or community unionism. Believing in equality and a broader vision of the working class than just skilled laborers, the Knights drew in a wide cross section of working people: women, men, blacks, whites, skilled, unskilled, factory, office, miners, railroad workers, draftsmen, school teachers, reporters, you name it. Everybody, that is, except the Chinese, who were refused admittance.
The group didn’t just limit itself to workplace issues but believed in political action. However, they were officially against a labor party because it was “un-American.” The Knights had a utopian and revolutionary streak that appealed to many: they “were opposed to the wage system (that is, working for money) and wanted to replace it with a society based on cooperative production for the “public good.” This group totally understood class solidarity. “The condition of one part of our class can not be improved unless all are improved together.” Their slogan “an injury to one is the concern of all” has been adopted by workers and labor organizations all over the world.
The Knights top leadership, headed by Grand Master or President Terence Powderly, was considerably more conservative than the rank and file. Although the Knights were the most successful boycotting organization in history, Powderly vehemently opposed strikes. This, as we shall see, never bothered the rank and file, who disregarded official policy whenever they saw the need.
Not surprisingly, many in the Knights Local assembly leadership were revolutionaries, anarchists, and socialists of every conceivable stripe and association. During this time there was ” fairly healthy labor/radical press-about twenty monthly labor journals and four hundred weeklies.The two main political groups at the time were the Socialist Labor Party and the International Working People’s Association. The Socialist Labor Party looked to European Marxism for inspiration. It was dominated by foreign-born socialists and retained a uniquely foreign-born character until the events of 1886 forced them to change. The International Working People’s Association was a more “American” collection of socialists, communist folks, syndicalists, etc. The group was dominated by the anarchists.
In the 1880s Chicago was the center of labor and political activity in this country. Chicago was the hub of America’s vast railroad system, the center for meat and food processing. It had a significant manufacturing base—for example, it was the home of the McCormick/Harvester farm equipment works. It was also home to perhaps the most savage and brutal of America’s capitalists, who literally owned the police (the police collected paychecks from both the city and the big companies), using them as their private army.
The leading left political group in Chicago was the anarchists. Indeed, the head of the Chicago labor movement was the anarchist, Knight, and printer Albert Parsons. The Knights and the anarchists were an excellent match. Contrary to what I was always taught, the anarchists were not at all about chaos and disorder. They believed in equality regardless of sex or race, wanted to abolish wage slavery (and the capitalist class) and replace it with cooperative organization of production in which different cooperatives would make contracts with each other for goods exchange and would link up in a federalist model. One of the smaller labor organizations in existence at this time (it included Knights) was the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions. It was formed in 1881 by 150 people on the initiative of some prominent socialists. At the time things seemed really bleak, and the Knights weren’t doing too well.
This group took a more traditional, conservative approach to unionism: “Trade unionism pure and simple,” as they themselves said. Unlike the Knights, they weren’t opposed to the wage system. Modeled after the British trade union movement which grew out of the old guild/craft tradition, they concentrated on bread and butter issues-better wages and working conditions for members “without any concern for the working class as a whole and to achieve those aims [wages and working conditions] at the expense of the rest of the laboring class.”
They did, however, have political demands: compulsory education and legalizing labor unions (labor unions were technically illegal under the conspiracy theory) for instance. At their third congress in 1883 they elected Samuel Gompers (yes, him, the future head of the AFL, who at the time considered himself a socialist) as the President. At the 1884 congress they passed a resolution calling for the eight hour day and a general strike to get it, since legislative efforts to win the eight hour day were nowhere on the horizon. The deadline was May 1, 1886.
Many of you have probably been to a political or labor convention. A lot of excellent sounding and well-meaning resolutions get passed. That, however, doesn’t mean that real action on them will take place. Well, this is exactly how the Federation treated the May first deadline for the eight hour day. Members and leaders largely ignored it except for letter writing campaigns to legislators. The same approach was taken by Powderly, inside the Knights, who had been approached by the Federation.
The millions of working men, women, and children in America had a very different opinion. They had been fighting for a shorter workday since the early 1830s and took this resolution and ran with it. By the middle of 1885 nearly every city and many towns had Eight Hour Leagues which held marches and rallies with thousands of men, women, and children. In the larger cities, the crowds swelled to tens of thousands. Activity was not limited to rallies and speeches. What also happened was the greatest strike wave in U.S.history. In 1886 nearly 10 percent (500 thousand) of the working population had gone on strike. With the economy in a slight recovery, strikes were now waged for the eight hour day rather than against wage cuts.
At the head of the pack were the Knights’ railroad workers on Jay Gould’s southwest railroad. Their first successful strike in 1885 against wage cuts had opened the floodgates. Workers were joining the Knights in droves. Organizers couldn’t even keep up. Powderly, trying to keep a lid on things, had stopped issuing charters. Nobody cared. They just started a Knights’ lodge anyway. In the two year period between 1884 and 1886 the Knights went from 70 thousand to 730 thousand members. The closer it came to May 1, 1886 the wilder things became. Most strikes now were spontaneous. It wasn’t unusual for workers to strike, or get locked out, then get organized, and then join the Knights.
Everyone, capitalists and labor alike, was preparing for what newspaper columnists were calling a “repetition of the Paris Commune riots” (1871). While workers were gearing up for strikes and parades (May first was a Saturday), the capitalists were mobilizing the police, Pinkertons, and National Guard. Nationwide about 340 thousand paraded, and 190 thousand went out on strike on the first of May.
Chicago was the epicenter. The May first parade was 80 thousand strong (remember this is a workday)—it was peaceful and festive—no bloodshed, no Paris Commune. That Monday, May 3rd, the giant McCormick works headed off an eight hour day strike with a lockout. The company brought in 300 scabs and police who clubbed and beat workers. Finally the cops opened fire on the workers, killing six. A rally on behalf of the McCormick workers was called for the next day, May 4th, at Haymarket Square in downtown Chicago. By comparison to Saturday it was a small crowd—only 3 thousand. The mayor was there (actually a rather friendly force) and so were all 180 of the Chicago police, definitely not a friendly force. Just as the last speaker was saying, “In conclusion,” and most of the crowd had already gone home, a bomb exploded at the police lines, killing six and wounding fifty. The police went berserk and started shooting, clubbing, and charging the crowd.
This was what the capitalists had hoped for. Now they had an excuse to bust the workers movement. The retaliation was swift and sure. Radicals everywhere (not just in Chicago) were rounded up. In Chicago several hundred arrests were made.
The powers that be were intent on making an example of what they called “the leaders of the Black Terror.” Eight people were finally put on trial for the bombing, although only one had even been present at the rally and he had been in the midst of saying “in conclusion.”
The press helped turn public opinion against the workers movement. The trial of the eight took on the proportions of the O.J. Simpson trial. All but one of the defendants got the death penalty. In a couple of years a worldwide protest movement was in full swing. In the end four were hanged despite a mountain of evidence that the whole thing was trumped up and none were involved in the bombing. To this day, no one knows who did it.
On the labor front, employers, with the press and public support behind them, took a hard line. Unfortunately, they found a friend in Terence Powderly, who personally submarined two very important strikes, settling winning strikes out from under local Lodges. One was the third in a series of strikes against Jay Could, probably the most hated of all the robber barons. This strike ended May 6, 1886. The next involved the massive Chicago Packinghouse workers who were sold out in October 1886. This proved to be the beginning of the end for the Knights. They were in severe decline by the 1890’s. In their place rose the American Federation of Labor, founded in 1886 by Samuel Gompers. Sadly, the robber barons crushed not only the labor movement, but the eight hour day as well. The eight hour day wasn’t achieved until 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, after one hundred years of struggle.
There are many themes from this story that have relevance for us today and which remain to be discussed:
One: The gap in the trade union movement between the rank and file, local leaders, and their national officers, and the disastrous consequences which result from this situation. Here the Staley struggle comes to mind.
Two: Putting people on trial for their political beliefs and mounting an international campaign for justice. Here Mumia Abu-Jamal is an example.
Three: How radicals and the labor movement can successfully build a working-class movement in the midst of deep structural changes in the economy.
Four: The critical role immigrant workers play in our labor movement.
And, five, what I’d like to end with: The power of shorter work time to mobilize the working class to take on capital.
It’s almost incomprehensible from today’s vantage point that after 100 years of struggle, the eight hour day has receded from most people’s consciousness. There are a number of reasons why this has become essentially a dead issue since 1938: the rise of war production, the consumer or “shop till you drop” economy, and the change in how people were taught to view work. During the century of struggle, the vast majority took the altitude, “I work to live,” even if they were in fact working all the time. Today who we are is defined by what we do. We no longer work to live, but live to work. This has permitted business interests to chip away at the eight hour day: Salaried workers, especially in the office, finance, and legal world, no longer have an eight hour day.
You’ve heard about sixty to eighty hour workweeks. Increasingly, unions representing hourly and salaried workers are giving up: massive overtime is the rule in most shops. Not only do the companies want it (it’s cheaper than hiring additional workers), but workers need it because of their own falling wages. The irony is that this only serves to further cheapen labor. The new benchmark in both manufacturing and in the health care industry is the twelve hour day in rotating shifts.
The fact that Congress is proposing to gut the Fair Labor Standards Act and a mass movement has not sprung up says something. Let me leave you all with a few thoughts for discussion:
1. Mass movements, even like the old eight hour movements, won’t grow spontaneously, even though once stared they may take on a spontaneous character;
2. There is plenty of evidence that working people are choking on too much work, want to do something about it, but don’t yet see the means. The successful UAW Flint strike a couple of years ago has yet to be replicated. (That was a local initiative by the New Directions leadership in that local.)
3. The AFL-CIO campaign to “Give America a Raise” must be linked to shorter work time. Shorter work time with no loss in pay is a significant pay increase, as well as a strategy to put millions of our young people to work.
4. Clearly, work time is an issue which means a lot to people. I believe a campaign around this could help us rebuild our lab or movement to once again be a beacon for the working class.
This article was originally published in Monthly Review in 1998.Download this piece as a PDF