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Home World Labor Day - Remembering the fallen

Labor Day – Remembering the fallen

Labor Day is an international holiday honoring the struggles of the working class and efforts of labor unions.

labor day haymarket - Labor Day - Remembering the fallen
Haymarket – Labor Day

International Workers’ Day which is called Workers’ Day or Labor Day in some countries also widely known as May Day is internationally commemorated every year on 1st May to honor the struggles of the working class and labor unions endeavoring to win their rights.

In 1988, American Federation of Labor (AFL) decided to restart the campaign of shorter work day. It was decided to hold general strike on May 1, 1890 for eight hours work day for labors. Then AFL president Samuel Gompers coordinated with Second International and proposed an international fight for a universal eight hour work day. Second International responded by passing a resolution calling for “a great international demonstration” all over the world in favor of eight hour work day for workers on Labor Day, May 1. One of the great stimulus behind choosing the date was to honor the memory of the Haymarket martyrs killed on May 1, 1986 in Chicago.

The First International Workers Day (Labor Day) was a major success. Demonstrations took place around the world and was reported as newspaper headlines. Since then 1st May is commemorated as Labor Day – an international annual event.

Haymarket Affair

Haymarket affair also known as Haymarket massacre, Haymarket Square riot or Haymarket incident occurred on May 4, 1986.

On May 1, thousands of workers started a general strike on the call of Federation of Organized Traders and Labor Unions. Their slogan was “Eight-hour day with no cut in pay”. As usual, there were also some strikebreakers who were going to work under the protection of a garrison of 400 policemen. On May 3, when end-of-day bell sounded, the strikebreakers and strikers had a clash. Police opened fire on the strikers killing two workers.

Public was outraged by such police brutality and violence. Local anarchists printed and distributed fliers for a rally the following day at Haymarket. It was during this demonstration, an unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at the police when they tried to disperse the rally. The bomb killed one policeman Mathias J. Degan and mortally wounded six other officers. This turned the demonstration in to a riot. The police opened fire at the demonstrators which killed at least four civilians and dozens were injured. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in death of seven police officers as well.

Haymarket Flier - Labor Day - Remembering the fallen
Flier calling for a rally in the Haymarket on May 4

A police official told Chicago Tribune “A very large number of the police was wounded by each other’s revolvers. … It was every man for himself, and while some got two or three squares away, the rest emptied their revolvers mainly in to each other” (Source: Chicago Tribune)

Eight labor activists were arrested and were held responsible for the riot and bombing. The defendants, August Spies, Louis Lingg, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Michael Schwab, were German born immigrants; Oscar Neebe was a US born citizen of German descent. Albert Parsons and Samuel Fielden, born in the US and England, respectively, were of British heritage. The jury returned guilty verdict for all of the defendants. The judge sentenced seven of the defendants to death by hanging and Neebe to 15 years in prison.

August Spies - Labor Day - Remembering the fallen
August Spies as he appeared at the time of his conviction of conspiracy to commit murder in 1886.

This verdict was met with outrage from labor and workers’ movements and their supporters. Protests were held around the world and the defendants were praised as martyrs by the sympathizers. It is important to mention here that Captain Schaack, lead investigator in the case, was dismissed from police force for allegedly fabricating evidence in the case. He was reinstated in 1892.

In 1887, a petition for certiorari was filed to the Supreme Court of Illinois and then to the United States Supreme Court, which were denied. On November 10, 1887, sentences of Fielden and Schwab were commuted to life in prison by Illinois Governor Richard James Oglesby. Lingg committed suicide with a blasting cap concealed in a cigar on the same date.

On November 11, 1887 – Spies, Engel, Fischer and Parson – were taken to the gallows and hanged to death. According to the witnesses, before hanging, Spies shouted “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

Supporters of the labor movement in US and around the world believe the trial was unfair and a notorious miscarriage of justice. Prominent figures like William Dean Howells, Clarence Darrow, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and William Morris strongly condemned the decision.

The state never discovered who threw the bomb and the evidence did not show any connection between the defendants and the man who threw the bomb.

In US, Labor Days is celebrated on the first weekend in September as May 1 ties the day to chaos and bloodshed followed by contentious public trials and miscarriage of justice.

Labor Day 2020

In 2020, Covid-19 has severely impacted businesses and economies; thus ultimately affecting employees and workers across the globe. Employees of companies like Amazon and Instagram have organized protest to voice their concerns but these protest are of small scale. Activists are trying to organize a general strike on Labor Day this year to show unity and strength. Their demands include essential health protection, sick leave and hazard pay.

On this Labor Day, let’s join hands together and commit to help each other out in these difficult times.

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