May 1st and the “Troublesome Element”

Mike Ely

A flyer passed hand-to-hand, calling for militant action for an eight-hour working day in the U.S. on May 1, 1886:

“One day of revolt — not rest! A day not ordained by the bragging spokesmen of institutions holding the world of labor in bondage. A day on which labor makes its own laws and has the power to execute them!”

The workers who struck on May 1 faced police bullets. Their leaders were hanged. Outraged, an international gathering of revolutionary workers declared that May 1 would become a worldwide day of resistance and revolution.

May 1 is our day and this is its story: In 1886, American capitalism felt triumphant. Its armies had carved up Mexico and defeated the Southern slave-owners. Its government had betrayed the African American people and created Jim Crow. Its armies were hunting down Native peoples on the plains.

But meanwhile, in the slums of Chicago, dreams of working men and women found expression — in radical politics.

Chicago was alive with revolutionary newspapers, underground union networks and armed militias of workers. Some were veterans of class war in Europe. Albert Parsons participated in struggles of freed slaves in Texas. Their movement embraced the “Chicago Idea” — a militant form of syndicalist anarchism.

The Arbeiter Zeitung wrote: “If we do not soon bestir ourselves for a bloody revolution, we can not leave anything to our children but poverty and slavery.”

  • The right wing press called radical immigrants “the troublesome element.” The Philadelphia Tribune reported: “‘The Labor element’ has been bitten by a kind of universal tarantula — it has gone ‘dancing mad.'”

    Chicago authorities feared they might lose control of the city. When 30,000 struck on May 1, police attacked. After two workers were shot, a leaflet proclaimed, “WORKING MEN, TO ARMS!!!”

    Thousands gathered at Haymarket Square on May 4. Armed police demanded that workers disperse. Suddenly a bomb went off among the cops. Hundreds were shot in the volleys of police bullets. Several died.

    A frenzy of repression erupted. Newspaper subscription lists were used to round up thousands. Captives were tortured. Leaders of Chicago’s movement were put on trial for murder. A hysterical press demanded their execution.

    The defendant Louis Lingg died violently in his cell. Then Nov. 11, 1886, four heroic men — August Spies, George Engel, Albert Parsons and Adolph Fischer — were hanged. Workers around the world mourned.

    Ever since, May 1 is the day we rise, we dream, we fight, in every country of the world. May Day is when the working class speaks in its own name.

    This article originally appeared on Occupied Wall Street Journal

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