| This speech was delivered at a rally and march in Santa Cruz on May Day and
at an International Workers Day event on May 3 at SEIU Local 715 in San
Jose. The event was organized by the SEIU Local 715 Latin oand African
American Caucuse and the Local's Civil and Human rights Committee. It was
warmly received by the particpants at both events.
MAY DAY: BORN IN THE USA
May 1&3, 2005 Fred Hirsch 831/475-4192
When it comes to International Workers' Day, May Day, workers have been
treated like mushrooms, kept in the dar and covered with manure. Even
observing May Day has been considered "UnAmerican." They said it was a
Russian Holiday or Communist Holiday. The FBI called it a Chinese holiday.
Under Herbert Hoover, it was "Child Health Day." In the 50s it was
renamed "Loyalty Day, " and "Law Day." Instead of militant marches and
picket lines they wanted us to have picnics in the park and forget that May
Day was born in the USA in the struggle for the eight hour day. They bury
the truth that mostly immigrant workers who, suffering intolerable hours,
took their demands to the streets and were met by deadly police state force
Right after the Civil War, in 1866, the National Labor Union made the first
countrywide demand for an eight hour day. It was immediately picked up in
Geneva by Karl Marx's International Workingmen's Association as a demand of
the "Workers of the World." With workdays of 10, 12, 14 and 16 hours, the
eight hour day was seen as the starting point to improve workers' lives. It
was the imperative basic step of our working class to organize.
In 1884 the Knights of Labor demanded an eight hour day and, within two
years membership grew from 200,000 to 700,000. So, too, with the Federation
of Organized Trades and Labor Unions which swelled and reorganized as the
AFL, with a visionary Preamble: "A struggle is going on in the nations of
the world between the oppressors and the oppressed of all countries, a
struggle between capital and labor which must grow in intensity from year
to year and work disastrous results to the toiling millions of all nations
if not combined for mutual protection and benefit."
A song rang out across the country:
We mean to make things over
We're sure that God has willed it
We're tired of toil for naught
And we mean to have eight hours
But bare enough to live on; never
We're summoning our forces from
An hour for thought
Shipyard, shop and mill
We want to feel the sunshine: we
8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest
Want to smell the flowers
8 hours for what we will!
In those two years 600,000 workers struck 1572 times, and on May 1, 1886
about half a million workers hit the streets with parades and picket lines.
Over 80,000 demonstrated in Chicago, winning the 8 hour day for 45,000
packing house, construction and clerical workers and reduced hours for
90,000 others. The Chicago Tribune threatened, "A communist carcass for
every lamp post," and the workers chanted "Whether you work by the piece or
work by the day, decreasing the hours increases the pay."
On May 3 police attacked an eight hour strike at McCormick Reaper Co.
killing six workers. Bilingual leaflets brought out 4000 in the rain to
protest at Haymarket Square the next day. By 10:00 PM with about 200
protesters left, 170 cops marched on them. A bomb was thrown killing one
cop and fatally wounding six others. The cops opened fire at the workers,
killing six and wounding many others.
A police reign of terror was unleashed against trade unionists, "foreigners"
and radicals. The majority of workers were immigrants. Homes were broken
into, meetings invaded and presses smashed. The Illinois Attorney General
said: "Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards." One
nonconforming editor, wrote: "Corrupt judges and police who are slaves of
monopoly are now dragging citizens to prison by the wholesale." The Albany
Law Journal called for, "a check upon immigration", for deportations and
better equipment for the police to protect property from being "at the mercy
of a few long-haired, wild eyed, bad smelling... reckless foreign wretches."
Those arrested were beaten, tortured and bribed to build evidence for an
Eight men, seven from the Central Labor Union were charged with conspiracy
and murder. The jury was openly stacked. Headlines screamed for hanging.
One courageous judge said, "The evidence was pure fabrication
(by)...terrorized innocent men (facing) torture if they refused to swear to
anything desired." Ideas were on trial, not deeds. None of those charged
had anything to do with the bomb or the violence. Only two were at
Haymarket Square at the time, yet seven were condemned to death. The
prosecutor told the jury: "These men have been selected and indicted because
they were leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousands who follow
them...Convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our
institutions and our society."
Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, of African, Mexican and Native American origins, who
had been run out of Texas by the Ku Klux Klan with her husband, Albert
Parsons, campaigned relentlessly for the defense. The work of Lucy Parsons,
more than any other person, brought the case into the national and
international spotlight. Her speeches and organizing made the Haymarket
Affair a global working class call to action. After AFL founder, Sam
Gompers said, "Labor must do its best to maintain justice for the radicals
or find itself denied the rights of free men." He appealed to the governor.
The sentences of Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden and Oscar Neebe were
commuted to life imprisonment. Proclaiming their innocence, Albert
Parsons, August Spies, George Engel and Adolph Fischer were to be legally
lynched on November 11, 1887.
Lucy Gonzalez Parsons brought her two young children to see their father the
day he was to be hanged. The jailers denied their visit. Instead, the two
children and Lucy were stripped naked and thrown, into a cold jail cell
until the gallows trap was sprung. Imagine: the beautiful Black - Bronze
Lucy, ogled by the jailers while sheltering her trembling children as the
lynchers' knot murders her husband. Imagine the fire in her eyes!
Before the hangman did his deed, August Spies' shouted: "You may strangle
this voice, but there will be a time when our silence will be more powerful
than the voices you strangle today."
No major paper opposed the trial or verdict. Burial sites were refused.
The city denied funeral marchers the right to have flags, speeches or music
other than dirges. In defiance, five hundred thousand people, more than
half the population of Chicago, lined the streets to honor the fallen
The Red Scare and anti-immigrant hysteria after the Haymarket Affair was
said to have set back the eight-hour day movement. Actually, the bomb,
evidently thrown by a police agent, and its aftermath, set off a global
chain of events seen as the beginning of the modern labor movement.
In 1888 the AFL honored the Haymarket events by targeting May , 1890 for
actions to win the eight-hour day. Gompers sent a delegate to the
International Workingmen's Congress in Paris asking for simultaneous
international May Day actions for the eight hour day. That Congress agreed
and added to the eight hour demand, the struggle for peace between workers
of all nations, and the vision of socialism.
On International Workers' Day, 1890, marches and strikes took place across
the USA, in Europe, and even in Australia, with 1000 shearers who marched in
Queensland. Chicago saw over 30,000 marchers from more than 100 unions, led
by the Carpenters Union and the Socialist Labor Party. Two of the
Carpenters signs were "We Live by Labor Not By War" and "Abolish Wage
Slavery." The largest demonstration, with a half million workers, was
organized in London by Evelyn Aveling Marx, daughter of Karl Marx, the
father of communism. The New York World saw it as "Labor's Emancipation
Day," one of the most powerful labor demonstrations in history. More than
ten thousand marched in Los Angeles, led by Carpenters and Plumbers. Bay
Area building trades workers won an agreement for the eight hour day. The
San Jose Mercury said, "There was no disturbance, no strikes, no discord on
Mayday in the whole state of California." The Santa Cruz Sentinel wanted
boss-worker cooperation and railed against "blatherskites...loud mouthed and
red-handed anarchists who are doing all they can to arouse and keep up a
spirit of warfare between capital and labor."
May Day actions won eight hours for many thousands of workers and shortened
the work day for many thousands more. Sam Gompers wrote: "Agitation for
the Eight-Hour Movement has given courage and hope to the working
people...against the encroachments of the employing classes. Every trade
and labor union of the country has vastly increased its membership."
Chicago was the Silicon Valley of its day. It had new industry and vast
unearned wealth, amid devastating poverty. The workers, mostly immigrants,
were desperate to survive and willing to struggle. The Eight-Hour Movement
gave them a concrete cause. They joined the unions and made them tools to
shook the pillars of class power.
While our militant heritage has been suppressed in our country, it is
honored and celebrated by workers in almost every corner of the globe.
Workers from abroad know more about May Day than those educated here. In
Mexico City the streets are traditionally filled with marching workers every
May Day. Even the newspapers shut down. In Mexico's Palace of Justice a
Diego Rivera mural depicts the Haymarket scene and the martyr's portraits.
In the Phillipines, the biggest union is named after May Day. Australian
workers have celebrated every May Day but two since 1890 - Venezuela, Haiti,
Colombia, Iraq, India, China, South Africa - we are everywhere!
The Chicago Martyrs have had a stunning influence. We still fight for
shorter hours, better conditions, health care and security. But to live to
the example of Lucy Gonzalez Parsons who was, to the Chicago police, "more
dangerous than a thousand rioters," we have to shake our labor movement out
of business as usual . We have to create a vision of a future free of
military aggression and institutionalized poverty, a future in which we
welcome immigrants with amnesty. We have to revive the class conscious
truth that our enemy is corporate America, not the working people of Iraq,
Afghanistan, Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti, or of any other nation and, with that
truth, build global worker solidarity and unity.
Let 2005 begin to witness the truth August Spies spoke on the gallows. Its
strength demands repetition: "There will come a time when our silence will
be more powerful than the voices you are strangling today."
The hangman interrupted the last words of Albert Parsons: "Let the voice of
the people be heard." In 2005 let the power of our voice be heard ending
preemptive wars for U.S. imperial domination, ending the Iraq occupation -
and in Albert Parson's own words, give voice to his vision of: "the right of
toilers to the free and equal use of the tools of production and the right
of the producers to their product....socialism."
Let us rebuild our unions to fulfill the vision of August Spies as he defied
his legal lynch-mob in court: "If you think that by hanging us you can stamp
out the labor movement - the movement from which the downtrodden millions
who toil and live in want and misery - the wage slaves - expect salvation -
if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but
here, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere, flames
will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out...."
To truly honor May Day , the hanged martyrs and the work of Lucy Gonzalez
Parsons - we have to be part of that fire.