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April 28, 2006

May Day is Almost Here

Below is an email forward I received on the history of May Day, by Chris Mahin of UNITE-HERE:

May Day and the fight for immigrants' rights:

On May 1, 2006, huge demonstrations for immigrants' rights will take place in Chicago and other U.S. cities. May 1 is an especially appropriate occasion for these demonstrations.

May 1st is May Day, celebrated throughout most of the world as International Labor Day. This holiday began in Chicago - and it began in the fight not only for the eight-hour day, but also for immigrants' rights.

On May 1, 1886, workers throughout the United States engaged in a massive strike to demand the eight-hour day. Chicago was the strike's center. At that time, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. Workers were pouring into the city from all over the United States, and from many different parts of the world. The factories of the city were being filled not only by young people being driven off the farms of the U.S. Midwest, but also by workers from England, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Bohemia, Sweden and many other countries. In those factories, the pay was low, the hours were long, and the conditions were terribly unsafe. (This was true for all workers, but especially true for immigrant workers.)

Just days after that strike -- on May 4, 1886 -- a rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest a police attack on a group of strikers. As this peaceful rally was winding to a close, 176 cops moved in to forcibly disperse the crowd. They ordered the rally's last speaker - an English immigrant worker, Samuel Fielden - to stop. Then someone threw a bomb. It killed one police officer instantly and wounded many others. The police opened fire, killing many participants in the rally.

A wave of hysteria followed, directed at working-class organizations, revolutionary groups, and immigrant societies and publications. The police went wild, filling the city's jails with large numbers of immigrants, breaking into private homes, wrecking the printing presses of foreign-language newspapers, and arresting leaders of Chicago's emerging trade union movement (whether those leaders had been present at the rally or not.) Immigrants were accused of being terrorists; suspects were beaten and even tortured.

The extent of the hysteria can be gauged by the comments published in the respectable Albany Law Journal just 11 days after the Haymarket bombing:

"[The recent events in Chicago] have revived very strongly in us several desires long vaguely entertained, such as a check upon immigration, a power of deportation, a better equipment of the police, a prompter and severer dealing with disorder in its first overt act. It is a serious thought that the lives of good and brave men, the safety of innocent women and children, and immunity of property should be, even for one hour, in a great city, at the mercy of a few long-haired, wild-eyed, bad-smelling, atheistic, reckless foreign wretches, who never did an honest hour's work in their lives, but who, driven half crazy with years of oppression and mad with envy of the rich, think to level society and its distinctions with a few bombs. There ought to be some law. ... to enable society to crush such snakes when they raise their heads before they have time to bite. ... This state of things almost justifies the resort to the vigilance committee and lynch law. ... It seems that the penal law of Illinois would warrant treating all these godless fiends as murderers, and we hope they will be so treated and extirpated from the face of the earth."

The authorities in Chicago exploited the Haymarket tragedy to attack the emerging trade union movement in the city. In June 1886, several leaders of the Chicago union movement were put on trial, charged with being accessories to murder at Haymarket Square and with a general conspiracy to murder. Most of the defendants had not even been present when the Haymarket bomb had been thrown, but that didn't matter. They were militant leaders of the workers, and Chicago's capitalists wanted their blood.

Given the composition of Chicago's work force in 1886, it was hardly surprising that most of the accused were immigrants. Of the eight men who eventually stood trial, seven were immigrants. (One defendant - Samuel Fielden - was from Lancashire, England. Six had been raised in Germany: George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, and August Spies.) In the late 1880s, immigrant workers were concentrated in the most exploited section of the industrial work force, so it was natural that the people who emerged as leaders of the working class as a whole were often immigrants.

Only one man among the eight individuals charged in what came to be known as "the Haymarket Affair" had been born and raised in the United States. His name was Albert Parsons. He had managed to slip out of Chicago after the bombing, and escaped to the relative safety of southern Wisconsin. There, he spent a few days on the top of a hill overlooking the peaceful countryside. Then, he decided that he could not live with himself if he let his colleagues stand trial alone. On June 21, 1886 - the first day of the trial - Albert Parsons appeared in court, telling the judge: "I have come to stand trial, your Honor, with my innocent comrades."

Tried before a biased judge and jury, the defendants never had a chance. They were convicted; seven were sentenced to hang. (An eighth was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor.) At that point, many people thought the case was closed, but they had not reckoned with Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, the wife of Albert Parsons and a leader of the Chicago labor movement in her own right. While the case was being appealed, Lucy Parsons took her two small children and traveled across the United States, speaking to anyone who would listen. In almost a year, she spoke to about 200,000 people in 16 states about the case. Her heartfelt eloquence helped spark a movement to stop the executions.

Despite worldwide protests, Albert Parsons, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, and August Spies were hanged by the state of Illinois in November 1887. (A fifth defendant, Louis Lingg, died in his cell the day before the executions under very suspicious circumstances.) On the morning of the execution of her husband, Lucy Parsons was arrested and locked in a cell with her children for attempting to see her husband one last time.

On July 14, 1889 - the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille Prison -- at the International Labor Congress in Paris, a delegate from the American Federation of Labor proposed that the Congress adopt May 1 as International Labor Day and a day to remember the "Martyrs of Chicago." This was accepted. Ever since, May 1 has been a day for the workers of the entire world to march in unison.

On June 26, 1893, Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld - an immigrant from Germany - pardoned the three living Haymarket defendants: Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, and Michael Schwab (all immigrants). Altgeldā€™s decision produced a firestorm of criticism. The Chicago Tribune condemned the decision with these words:

"The anarchists believed that he [Altgeld] was not merely an alien by birth, but an alien by temperament and sympathies, and they were right. He has apparently not a drop of true American blood in his veins. He does not reason like an American, not feel like one, and consequently does not behave like one."

Given all this history, can anyone doubt that the fight for immigrant rights is interwoven throughout the celebration of May Day? This year, let's honor the memory of the Haymarket Martyrs - both immigrant and native-born - by demanding justice for today's immigrant workers. Perhaps the lesson of May Day can be summed up best in the words of Haymarket defendant Oscar Neebe. The last words of his autobiography read simply: "I call on all workingmen or working women of all nationalities and all countries to unite and down with your oppressors."

amen, brother.

FYI, I've been looking for this article on the web for awhile now. Couldn't find it anywhere. But here's what I did find:

Chicago Indymedia (scroll down for May Day updates)

Labor Express, "Chicago's only labor news and current affairs radio program"

An anarchist celebration of May Day. This site offers a detailed history of the Haymarket rally and how those prosecuted / murdered by the state were really on trial for being anarchists / socialists. [Aside clarification: I am a feminist social activist who respects anarchists, but am not one myself.]

Chicago Public Library's entry for the "Haymarket Riot." Interesting history of a monument to the dead police included. (And how did I live in Forest Park for four months without knowing there was a monument out there to the Haymarket martyrs?!?)

Posted by cj at April 28, 2006 11:28 PM

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