Monday, May 3, 2010

Why We Commemorate May Day

By the 1880’s the primary demand of labor was the eight hour day. Several states passed legislation supporting the eight hour day. However, the politicians in these states supported the interests of the owners of corporations and therefore these businesses were free to violate the law in order to gain a tidy profit. The only force in the United States that was capable of forcing corporations to enact an eight hour day were the labor unions. The American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor were the two principal labor organizations. On May 1, 1886, in cities across the U.S. over 400,000 workers went on strike demanding an eight hour day.

The labor movement had changed since the defeat of the 1877 labor uprising. The government showed that it was willing to force working people to endure starvation conditions even if it meant mobilizing the army. Those who argued that an armed self defense was necessary to defend workers gained a wider audience. Many of those who advocated armed self-defense called themselves anarchists. Albert Parsons who became a leading anarchist wrote about his thinking in the anarchist journal called the Alarm.

“The present order of society is based upon the spoliation of the non-property by the property owners, the capitalists buy the labor of the poor for wages, at the mere cost of living, taking all the surplus of labor. . . Thus while the poor are increasingly deprived the opportunities of advancement, the rich grow richer through increasing robbery. . . This system is increasingly unjust, insane, and murderous. Therefore those who suffer under it, and do not wish to be responsible for its continuance, ought to strive for its destruction by all means and with their utmost energy. . . The laborers can look for aid from no outside source in their fight against the existing system, but must achieve deliverance through their own exertions. Hitherto, no privileged class have relinquished tyranny, nor will the capitalists of to-day forego their privilege and authority without compulsion. . . It is therefore self evident that the fight of proletarianism against the Bourgeoisie must have a violent revolutionary character; that wage conflicts cannot lead to the goal. . . Under all these circumstances, there is only one remedy left--force. . . Agitation to organize, organizations for the purpose of rebellion, this is the course if the workingmen would rid themselves of their chains.”[1]

The revolutionaries who founded the United States understood that it was the duty of citizens to organize against a despotic government. The following words were taken right out of the Declaration of Independence:

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.”

The Constitution of the United States clearly defended the right of freedom of speech. However, the owners of corporations didn’t like what Albert Parsons said and they clearly did not relish the thought that the anarchist movement was growing. These capitalists were also vehemently opposed to granting the eight hour day. They preferred to work employees 10 or even 14 hours per day while paying the lowest wages that they could get away with. On May 3, 1886 the corporations of Chicago demonstrated one method they would use to fight against the interests of labor.

At the time the workers at the McCormick Havester Machine Company were on strike demanding an eight hour day. The lumber shover’s union called a mass meeting to be held one block away from the McCormick plant. 6,000 lumber shovers were joined by 500 striking workers from McCormick. The right to freedom of speech was supposed to be protected by the Constitution of the United States and therefore the workers should have had every right to hold their demonstration. However, the demand of the Harvester Company to attain a maximum profit outweighed the words in the Constitution. As a result, 200 police officers attacked the demonstration without warning using clubs and revolvers. At least one striker was killed and five to six others were seriously injured.

A meeting was held May 4, in the vicinity of the Haymarket Square to protest the armed attack against the working people of Chicago. Carter H. Harrison, who was the mayor of Chicago informed the captain of the police that, “nothing had occurred yet, or looked likely to occur to require interference,” and suggested that the police who were on duty be sent home. At about 10:00 PM when the meeting was about to end, a column of 180 police officers marched towards the meeting and ordered the few remaining participants to disperse immediately. A bomb was then thrown into the column of police and one officer died immediately along with seven others who died as a result of the wounds inflicted because of the resulting explosion.

The person who threw the bomb was never discovered. Instead of attempting to find the person who threw the bomb, the police arrested eight leaders of the anarchists who were also leaders of the movement demanding an eight hour day. Albert R. Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Michael Shwab, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, and Louis Lingg were all charged with being accessories to the murder of Policeman Mathias J. Degan.

Although the City of Chicago claimed to place these eight labor leaders on trial, in reality the proceedings that masqueraded as a trial were nothing more than a legalized lynching. It was the custom in Chicago to select jurors by drawing the names from a box. In this case a special bailiff who was nominated by the State’s Attorney was appointed for the purpose of selecting the jurors. The lawyer who defended the accused was denied the opportunity of presenting evidence that this special bailiff had publicly stated, “I am managing this case and I know what I am about. These fellows are going to be hanged as certain as death. I am calling such men as the defendants will have to challenge peremptorily and waste their time and challenges. Then they will have to take such men as the prosecution wants.”[2]

The police were never able to apprehend Albert Parsons and he no doubt could have escaped if he wanted to. Instead, after saying good-bye to his family, he gave himself up at the courtroom where the trial was taking place. Upon his surrender he informed Judge Joseph E. Gary: “I present myself for trial with my comrades, your Honor.”

According to Philip S. Foner in his introduction to the book The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs:

“No proof was offered by the State that any of the indicted men had thrown or planted the bomb, and at no time during the trial was the State able to connect the defendants directly with the throwing of the bomb, or even to establish that they had in any way approved or abetted this act. In fact, only three of the defendants had been present-- Spies, Parsons, and Fielden--and only Spies and Fielden were at the scene when the bomb exploded. No proof was offered that the speakers had incited violence; indeed, Mayor Harrison described the speeches as ‘tame.’ No proof was offered that violence had been contemplated. Parsons, in fact, had brought his wife and his two small children to the meeting.”

State Attorney Julius S. Grinnell acknowledged that the accused were on trial because they were leaders of working people and stated in his closing to the jury that, “These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they were leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousands who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury; convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society.”[3]

Despite the fact that all rules of law were broken in order to attain a conviction of the eight defendants, the Illinois Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court both upheld the guilty verdicts. Although the courts lent a deft ear to the truth in this case, the victims of this so-called trial received support from all over the world. Labor unions in the U.S. and other countries supported the Haymarket defendants. The list of their supporters included, several judges from Illinois, a U.S. Senator, a future president of the American Bar Association, and a future Secretary of the Treasury. Meetings supporting the victims of Chicago justice were held in Britain, France, Holland, Russia, Italy, and Spain.

Five of the eight convicted labor leaders were sentenced to execution by hanging. The day before the execution Louis Lingg committed suicide. The following day Albert R. Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, George Engel were hung by the State of Illinois. Between 150,000 and 500,000 mourners came to the funeral of those who were executed. Michael Shwab, and Samuel Fielden were sentenced to life in prison. Oscar Neebe was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

In 1892 John Peter Altgeld became the governor of Illinois. On June 26, Atgeld pardoned Swab, Fielden, and Neebe who were serving out their sentences at the time. Unlike the courts that railroaded the Haymarket Martyrs, Atgeld stated that their was no reason to believe that any of the victims had committed any crime at all. He stated that the state, “has never discovered who it was that threw the bomb which killed the policeman, and the evidence does not show any connection whatsoever between the defendants and the man who threw it.”[4]

As part of the campaign to defend the Haymarket Martyrs, each of the convicted men wrote their own autobiography. In these autobiographies we see that six of the eight victims were either born or raised in Germany. Albert R. Parsons was the only one raised in the U.S. Samuel Fielden was born and raised in Britain.

Albert R. Parsons who was an anarchist wrote of the problems that made him think the way he did:

“All laws are directed against the working people. In so far as the opposite appears to be the case, they serve on one hand to blind the worker, while on the other hand they are simply evaded. Even the school serves only the purpose of furnishing the offspring of the wealthy with those qualities necessary to uphold their class domination. The children of the poor get scarcely a formal elementary training, and this, too, is mainly directed to such branches as tend to producing prejudices, arrogance and servility; in short, want of sense. The church finally seeks to make complete idiots out of the mass and to make them forgo the paradise on earth by promising a fictitious heaven. The capitalistic press on the other hand, takes care of the confusion of spirits in public life, All these institutions far from aiding in the education of the masses, have for their object the keeping in ignorance of the people. They are all in the pay and under the direction of the capitalistic classes. The workers can therefore expect no help from any capitalistic party in their struggle against the existing system. They must achieve their liberation by their own efforts. As in former times a privileged class never surrendered its tyranny, neither can it be expected that the capitalists of this age will give up their rulership without being forced to do it.”[5]

Parsons went on to describe exactly what he meant by the use of force:

“Anarchists do not advocate or advise the use of force. Anarchists disclaim and protest against its use, and the use of force is justifiable only when employed to repel force. Who, then, are the aiders, abettors and users of force? Who are the real revolutionists? Are they not those who hold and exercise power over their fellows? They who use clubs and bayonets, prisons and scaffolds? The great class conflict now gathering throughout the world is created by our social system of industrial slavery. Capitalists could not if they would, and would not if they could, change it. This alone is to be the work of the proletariat, the disinherited, the wage slave, the sufferer. Nor can the wage-class avoid this conflict. Neither religion nor politics can solve it or prevent it. It comes, as a human, an imperative necessity. Anarchists do not make the social revolution; the prophesy its coming. Shall we then stone the prophets? Anarchists do not use or advise the use of force, but point out that force is ever employed to uphold despotism to despoil man’s natural rights. Shall we therefore kill and destroy the Anarchists? And capital shouts “yes, yes! exterminate them!”[6]

Parsons quoted the New York Herald which pointed to the real reason as to why the leaders of the movement to implement an eight hour day were sentenced to be executed.

“Two hours, taken from the hours of labor, throughout the United States by the proposed eight-hour movement, would make a difference annually of hundreds of millions in values, both to the capital invested in industries and existing stocks.”[7]

As to who threw the bomb, Parsons stated that their was clear evidence that the corporations who would loose these “hundreds of millions in values,” had a hand in the affair:

“Who threw the bomb? Who inspired its throwing? John Philip Deluse, a saloon-keeper, living in Indianapolis, Indiana, makes an affidavit, supported by the affidavits of two other men, who were present, and witnessed and heard it (all three men will-known citizens of Indianapolis), that a stranger stepped into his place on Saturday, May 1, with a satchel in his hand, which he placed upon the bar while he ordered a drink. The stranger said he came from New York City, and was on his way to Chicago. He spoke of the labor troubles. Pointing to his satchel he said: ‘I Have got something in here that will work. You will hear of it.’ Turning at the door as he went out, he held up his satchel and pointing to it again, said, ‘You will here of it soon.’”[8]

Michael Schwab compared the working conditions in the United States to the conditions in other countries:

“American miners work 10 to 11 hours a day, and get from $25 to $50 a month. Of course the lower figures prevail. Out of 300 working days they work about 200.”

Schwab continued by saying how prices in the U.S. compared to prices in other countries.

“The workingmen of this country are “protected” by a high tariff and it is a matter of fact that the commodities of life in this country are one-third dearer than in Germany.
Schwab also said that:

“There is no first-class industrial country on earth whose factory laws give so little protection to the workingman, as the factory laws of this country, with its ‘highest civilization.’”
Schwab was part of a committee that investigated the housing conditions of working people in Chicago. The following is a description of what he found:

“We found single rooms where three or four families lived, we found dwelling places in such a condition, that the officer only took some of us to the second story for fear the ceiling would break through; we saw rooms where only light came in through rents of wall, there human beings slept on rotten straw or rags, where broken chairs and tables were luxuries, where fire was not in the stove although it was bitter cold, and three or four members of the family were sick, we observed water-closets full with excrement. The atmosphere in these ‘residences of sovereigns’ was stifling and sickening. The parents looked hungry and starving, the children if there were any, were on the road to eternity. Some of these people get their vegetables from the waste-barrel, others beg or buy offal of meat and make sausages out of that. Such is the condition of thousands in Chicago.”

Schwab compared what he saw in Chicago to the inhuman conditions of the Roman Empire:

“What is the difference between the Roman heathens and the American or European Christians? The Romans held wild beasts to tear and devour fellow-beings, and applauded lustily. This was done in open daylight. Christian humanity, of course, is different. They train their fellow-beings by the existing order of things till they submit to perish secretly in poverty, hunger and dirt. Their tender feelings do not allow them to gaze upon their victims, and so highly civilized and respectable citizen prefers to read about these cruelties in his paper, enjoying thereby his comfort as the better.”[9]

Oscar Neebe described the conditions of child labor in a factory where he worked making oil cans:

“That was the first place where I saw children from 8 to 12 years old work like slaves, working on machines; most every day it happened that a finger or hand was cut off, but what did it matter, they were paid off and sent home, and others would take their places. I believed that children working in factories has for the last twenty years made more cripples than the war with the south, and the cut off fingers and mangled bodies brought gold to the monopolies and manufacturers. How often has the sweat of a poor man or child paid for the silk dress of a kept woman of these men, whose only desire is ‘to have lots of fun and a good time.’”[10]

These were the conditions that the Haymarket Martyrs gave their lives to change. However, the State of Illinois felt that this endeavor merited imprisonment and execution by hanging. Working people learned some important lessons as a result of the murder of their leaders. They learned the extent to which the government would go to serve the interests of the millionaires who controlled the nation. They also learned that the anarchist method of openly advocating violence to overthrow the government would not be tolerated. It became clear that those workers who advocated isolated acts of terrorism were in effect inviting the government to mobilize to suppress the interests of labor.

In commemoration of these events, May 1 became an international holiday for working people.

[1]Yellen, Samuel. American Labor Struggles, 1877-1934, P. 47
[2]Ibid. P. 60
[3]The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs, Edited by Philip Foner, P. 7-8
[4]Ibid. P. 10
[5]Ibid. P. 40-41
[6]Ibid. P. 45-46
[7]Ibid. P. 52
[8]Ibid. P. 54
[9]Ibid. P. 122-123
[10]Ibid. P. 163