by David Brons (Ottawa)
May 1 has a special significance for the labour and anarchist movements. In almost every country of the world, except for Canada and the U.S., it is observed as International Workers’ Day. Ironically, the observance of May 1 has its origins in the struggle for the eight-hour day in Canada and the US.
On May 1, 1886 there was a general strike in support of workers’ demand for an eight-hour day. Most factory workers of the day were immigrants who faced discrimination both on and off the job. It was normal for them to work fourteen-hour days seven days a week. The strike was organized by the major radical labor organization of the time, an anarchist group called the International Working Peoples Association. Prominent organizers with this group were Albert Parsons, Lucy Parsons, and August Spies.
Between 300,000 and 500,000 workers went on strike, including 90,000 in Chicago alone. The police and militia were mobilized but the first day passed peacefully enough. On the third day of the strike, there was a confrontation between strikers and strikebreakers at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago. Police opened fire on the crowd, killing four and wounding many others including several children. The people of Chicago were outraged and some were calling for revenge against the police.
A protest rally was called for the evening of May 4 in Haymarket Square. As people listened to speeches by August Spies and other organizers of the strike, the heavily armed police marched into the square, pushing back the crowd and demanding that the rally disperse. As police confronted the strikers, an explosion occurred in police lines, killing one officer. In the darkness and confusion, police opened fire, killing six more of their own and an unknown number of strikers. The Chicago Herald described the scene as “wild carnage” and reported that there were at least 50 dead or wounded civilians lying on the street.