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Humans unite!

1 May 2009

The working class of the world will bring them back to life every first of May.

(José Martí, 1886, on the Haymarket Martyrs)

When you mention that today is a holiday in Mexico, the foreign residents — mostly from the United States give you an incredulous stare.  A few think they’ve mixed up their days, and it’s Cinco de Mayo (a very minor holiday indeed).  A very small number recognize that it’s  International Workers’ Day, celebrated everywhere on the planet — except the United States, Canada and a few other places.  It is not only the only Mexico holiday  that celebrates an event in the United States… one forgotten or conveniently left out of history lessons in school, it seems that immigrants are needed to reintroduce American History to Americans.

In 1884, the Federation of Labor, the nascent labor union in the United States voted to push for a nationwide standard work day of eight hours.   Employers resisted, considering it “socialist” or “anarchist” (which only convinced socialists and anarchists it was a good idea).  With management generally opposed, even after negotiations, the union called for a general strike on the First of May 1886.  There were demonstrations and strikes throughout the nation… up to a a half-million workers walked off the job and demonstrations throughout the country were the largest ever seen up to that time.

In Chicago, where 40,000 workers were on strike, an estimated 80,000 marched down Michigan Avenue on May First.  The marchers included about half the non-union scab replacements at the McCormick Harvesting Company plant where union workers had been locked out since February.  On 3 March, when unionized workers protested in front of the plant, the Chicago Police opened fire on the unarmed workers, killing at least two people.

An anarchist-led (and… organized) protest against police brutality on 4 March attracted a large crowd, including off-duty police officers.  Someone (probably a by-stander, and possibly working for McCormick) threw a pipe-bomb that killed a policeman.  The police opened fire, killing several of their own officers in the resulting melee.

Of course, the anarchists and other organizers were blamed — all but two of the eight condemned men immigrants, all but one received a death sentence and four would hang.

This is old history to almost everyone — except those in the United States, one of the few places where the First of May is NOT celebrated as Labor Day (the Chicago Historical Society maintains a good website on those of us who never learned this part of our American history — which is most of us ).

August Spies, , Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab were German immigrant workers.  Oscar Neebe was born in the United States, but raised in Germany.  Samuel Fielden had been sent to work in the English cotton mills at the age of ten, had emigrated to the United States in his 20s and was self-employed.  Only Albert Parsons was described at the time as being of “native stock.”

Parsons, whose ancestors were New England Puritans, had been born in Alabama, raised in Texas by a black nanny after he was orphaned and joined the Confederate Army as a teenager.  In post-Civil War Texas he quickly became unpopular for his support of equal rights for non-whites and his shocking marriage to Lucy Ella Gonzales, who was of Mexican and African-American ancestry.  Forced to flee to Chicago, Parsons worked as a journalist until he was blacklisted for supporting workers’ rights.  He then became active in the labor movement, especially active in the movement for the eight-hour work day.

He happened to be in Cincinatti on May First, but was giving a speech when the pipe bomb was thrown, and — as a labor organizer, considered a “co-conspirator” in the incident.  Parsons managed to avoid arrest, fled Chicago, but turned himself in, believing he and the others could get a fair hearing.

He was wrong.  Neebe, the American-born defendant was given a fifteen year sentence.  Fielden and Schwab petitioned the Governor of Illinois for clemency, and their sentence was reduced to life in prison. Lingg cheated the state of its revenge.  A friend smuggled in a blasting cap in a cigar, and Lingg, the night before his execution, comitted suicide with an exploding cigar.   Spies, Fischer, Engel and Parsons were hanged 11 November 1887.

Lucy Gonzales Parsons would continue working for human rights — not only for laborers, but for persons of color, women and the unemployed.  She was an orator and organizer, assisting at strikes both in the United States and Argentina.  The Chicago Police paid her the fine compliment of calling her “more dangerous than a thousand rioters,” and paid her the backhanded compliment of seizing her “dangerous” library when she died at the age of 89 in 1942.

The working class — and everyone who enjoys a little time off, who has a weekend, who is an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant, a person of color, who has been unemployed or ever held a job owes a debt to August Spies,  Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, Albert Parsons and Lucy Gonzales Parsons.

And every First of May we bring them back to life.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. gav permalink
    1 May 2009 10:49 am

    With unions so demonized these days, people don’t realize how much we owe to these early organizers. Thanks for this reminder, and HAPPY MAY DAY!

    (I, being an estadounidense, foolishly tried to find an open lavanderia in Santa Cruz today. Even here, right-wing haven that it is, nearly everything is closed. I will wear my smelly clothes as a badge of pride!)


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