For working people today it might be hard to imagine people coming together to fight and change things. This is because there is a history of struggle that doesn’t get taught in our schools, doesn’t get made into movies or T.V. shows. It is intentionally hidden from us. One of the major battles in our history was when tens of thousands of workers came together all over the U.S. to fight for the eight hour workday. For many workers, the struggle was not simply a matter of getting more time to relax. It was a step toward changing the whole world!
In the 1880s, people worked in oppressive conditions, up to 16 hours per day! Many workers faced racism because they were immigrants from Eastern Europe, Italy, Germany and other countries.
By 1886, a massive campaign was gaining momentum to win the eight hour workday. Workers all over the U.S. were talking about the idea of a general strike to shut down all industry. At this time, unions were more like underground networks that had to operate in secrecy for much of the time. In Chicago, some workers formed armed self-defense groups to stand up to the bosses’ intimidation. In spite of massive propaganda and police repression, there were over 1,400 strikes for the eight hour day, involving half a million workers, particularly in the Midwest and East Coast. In many strikes there was solidarity between black and white workers.
On May 1st, tens of thousands of workers went out on strike and tens of thousands more demonstrated in the streets to show support. Over the next days, 340,000 workers stopped work in 12,000 workplaces around the country. On the 3rd, Chicago police fired into a mass meeting, killing four workers and wounding 200. Workers stood their ground and battled the police.
The next night, there was a mass demonstration of 3,000 at Haymarket Square to protest the police brutality. At the very end of the protest, dynamite suddenly exploded among the police, killing seven and wounding dozens more. In response, the police fired into the crowd. It is unclear who was responsible for the dynamite, but the ruling class saw the explosive nature of a united working class movement. They were terrified.
Many workers were inspired by revolutionary ideas. For them, the struggle was linked to a vision of transforming society into one where working people are in charge – socialism. This was the perspective of the leaders of the eight hour movement, especially in Chicago. The ruling class felt that it needed to eliminate these leaders and the ideas they stood for.
All over the country, these radicals became the scapegoat for the violence by the media. The mayor of Chicago declared martial law, raided radical organizations and arrested hundreds. Without a shred of evidence, eight of the leaders were declared guilty of the bombing with seven to be hung and one to serve a long sentence. After the repression, two were pardoned, but one killed himself in jail and four were hung. Their funeral drew twenty-five thousand workers to honor them.
Some reforms for shorter workdays and better conditions were won, but many were not. However workers all over learned from the experience of open class warfare. This experience showed workers the potential power that was in their hands.
May 1st was declared to be International Workers Day. Although it may not have a big impact in the U.S. today, it is celebrated by masses of working people all over the world. In 2006, over one million immigrant workers reclaimed May Day and demonstrated against a law that would further criminalize them. May Day is a day to honor the struggles of the past and fight for the future.
Today, working people are still facing long hours, low wages and oppressive working conditions. We still need to fight – for better conditions and ultimately change the whole world!