In 1886 the working class of the United States was engaged in a struggle for the eight hour day. This struggle of working people across the United States was not just a struggle for better conditions, it was a struggle for a better world. For this reason May first came to be known as International Workers Day, a holiday celebrated in every country in the world, but almost forgotten in the U.S.
In the 1880s, the working class suffered from extreme conditions, working up to 16 hours per day for low wages. Many workers were immigrants, from Germany, Eastern Europe, Italy and other countries. Just like today immigrants faced discrimination, the loudest voices coming from the wealthy elite and the politicians who serve them.
The working class did not suffer exploitation in silence, they organized to fight back. By 1886, a mass movement swept the country, demanding that the bosses and the government reduce working hours. The movement united workers across the U.S. under the slogan “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!”
May first, 1886 was chosen as the date for a major fight to be launched, to force employers and the government to accept the eight hour day. But the bosses were also preparing. The media began to attack the movement using scare tactics, racism, and every other dirty trick. The owners of the big companies funded paramilitary groups, and the federal government expanded the National Guard. The ruling class was prepared for violence.
In early Spring, strikes began to break out, involving almost a quarter of a million workers. The movement was strongest in the big working class centers, but it spread all over the midwest and east coast. Mass rallies, parades and demonstrations involving thousands of workers took place around the country. Brewers, bakers, furniture workers, clothing cutters, tobacco, shoe, packinghouse and other workers won reduced hours at the same pay.
In the following week, 340,000 workers stopped work in 12,000 work places in the U.S.. It was a festival of the oppressed, with bands and flags and joy. Many struggles were victorious, with workers forcing their bosses to accept the eight hour day.
The workers’ leaders, especially in Chicago where the movement was strongest, were revolutionaries – socialist and anarchist militants. They opposed the capitalist system, and believed that workers could put an end to capitalism and run society for human need and not for profit. For these revolutionaries the eight hour day was just a step on towards the transformation of society.
It wasn’t long before the ruling class struck back at the workers on strike and especially at the revolutionaries. On May 3, in Chicago police attacked killed four strikers and wounding 200. The next day the workers held meetings and rallies to protest the killings and police brutality. In Haymarket Square, the revolutionary leaders in Chicago held a meeting to denounce the violence used to by the bosses to defend their system. as the last speaker was finishing up, hundreds of police marched in and declared that the rally must disperse. At the same time dynamite began to explode among the police killing seven. The cops fired at the crowd wounding hundreds of workers.
No one ever found out who threw the bomb, but eight anarchist leaders were charged with the bombing even though there was no evidence that they were involved. Seven were sentenced to hang and one to a long prison term. The government used the frame-up to launch a campaign of repression against revolutionaries and union activists.
Despite these attacks, the movement showed the potential power of the working class. In 1889, workers organizations from around the world voted to designate May first a day of solidarity to honor workers’ struggles and the revolutionaries who died for the cause of the working class.
The struggle of working people around the world is far from over. This year we have seen major strikes of garment workers in Bangladesh, shoe factory workers in China, railway workers in Korea. Here in the Bay Area we felt the power of BART workers on strike, and the potential this strike had if it was united with other transit workers and beyond. This International Workers Day, lets remember that we don’t have to suffer in silence. We can organize together against the attacks of the ruling class, and eventually to put an end to their system altogether.