Today, May 1st, is Labor Day.
“Now wait,” I hear you say. “Labor Day is in September!”
Some of you may be aware of where I’m going with this, but shush! No spoilers!
For the rest of you, a question: What is the purpose of Labor Day? What significance does it hold for you? Is it just a long weekend? A brief but welcome respite dispersed somewhat randomly in September? Or do you work in an industry where you do not even get Labor Day off? Why was it established, anyway?
Labor Day got its roots in 1886, when the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor set May 1st as their “line in the sand.” It was a pretty simple demand. There Are 24 hours in a day; you get eight for labor, eight for sleep, and eight for leisure. Thanos later gave his opinion on the matter, stating “Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. May 1st, 1886 came and went, and the U.S. blew off the demands of the worker’s unions. The labor unions responded by organizing a labor strike. Now these weren’t the sad remnants of organized labor we have today. This was *half a MILLION* workers just putting down their equipment and saying ‘Fuck You’ to the owning class.
Chicago was the biggest flashpoint of these nationwide marches. On May 3rd, there was a demonstration by the Lumbershover’s Union. Six thousand of them were in attendance, along with about five hundred members of the McCormick Harvesting Corporation. After being violently harassed by both police and strikebreakers (a term for thugs hired by companies to attack union organizers and pressure workers to return to the job), August Spies gave a speech rallying the crowd. Cops showed up and fired into the crowd. They wound up killing two of the strikers.
As you might have imagined, having a pair of murders in their midst did little to ease tension. A rally was organized at Haymarket Square in Chicago to mourn the dead, give speeches, and announce their next actions.
If you’re an avid Vermin Supreme Institute reader, you’ll know that several of the writers for the Institute, myself included, have written historical fiction about Haymarket. It begins here and I’d love for you to check it out!
The next day came, and in the evening, the event commenced. Anarchists and labor organizers gave speeches without incident. The mayor attended the event, having given it his blessing and declaring it peaceful. He encouraged the policemen standing by to go home. Instead, after the mayor departed and the crowd began to disperse, with a scant 200 left in the crowd, and worsening weather bringing in a light rain, the cops, led by Inspector John Bonfield, superfluously ordered the crowd to disperse.
Suddenly, as angry protestors confronted the police, a bomb was thrown. The plaza then erupted into chaos. The police, stunned by the blast, opened fire seemingly at random. An anonymous officer later told the Chicago Tribune: “‘A very large number of the police were wounded by each other’s revolvers. … It was every man for himself, and while some got two or three squares away, the rest emptied their revolvers, mainly into each other.’ In the aftermath, seven officers and four workers were killed, and many, many more were wounded.”
No one ever determined the identity of the person who threw the bomb. The cops were quick to blame anarchists, as by then the stereotype of the “bomb throwing anarchist” was cemented in the mind of those who covet power. The protestors themselves were split. Some believed it could have been a radical faction, while others say it was likely a Pinkerton saboteur, or perhaps even an officer. History was at the time, and still is, littered with similar examples.
What we do know is what happened next. A harsh anti-union clampdown followed the Haymarket incident. There was a massive outpouring of community and business support for the police and many thousands of dollars were donated to funds for their medical care and to assist their efforts. The entire labor and immigrant community, particularly Germans and Bohemians, came under suspicion. Police raids were carried out on homes and offices of suspected anarchists. Dozens of suspects, many only remotely related to the Haymarket Affair, were arrested. Casting legal requirements such as search warrants aside, Chicago police squads subjected the labor activists of Chicago to an eight-week shakedown, ransacking their meeting halls and places of business. The emphasis was on the speakers at the Haymarket rally and the newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung. A small group of anarchists were discovered to have been engaged in making bombs on the same day as the incident, including round ones like the one used in Haymarket Square.
Newspaper reports declared that anarchist agitators were to blame for the “riot,” a view adopted by an alarmed public. As time passed, press reports and illustrations of the incident became more elaborate. Coverage was national, then international. Among property owners, the press, and other elements of society, a consensus developed that suppression of anarchist agitation was necessary. While for their part, union organizations such as The Knights of Labor and craft unions were quick to disassociate themselves from the anarchist movement and to repudiate violent tactics as self-defeating. Employers regained control of their workers and traditional workdays were restored to ten or more hours a day. Organized labor was dealt a crippling blow.
While many people suffered under the crackdowns and arrests, eight men in particular were targeted. Their names were August Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engell, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwabb, Oscar Neebe, and Samuel Fielden. You know how in America, you expect to receive an individual trial by an impartial jury of your peers? Well, in every aspect, this trial was anything but impartial. It is difficult to understate how wildly biased the proceedings were. In addition to being ushered into a group trial, the judge, prosecutor, bailiff, and nearly all of the jury that were selected were *openly* contemptuous of the men on trial. The bailiff in question, who was appointed by the prosecution, was the one who handpicked the jurors. He was quoted as saying “I’m in charge of this trial, and I know what I’m about. These men are to be hanged, as sure as death.” This quote was, of course, not allowed to be admitted into evidence.
In his closing statements, the prosecutor said, “Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the Grand Jury, and indicted, because they were leaders. They were no more guilty than the thousands who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury, convict these men. Make examples of them, hang them, and you save our institutions, our society.”
At no point in the trial, was any evidence presented that any of the men had taken part in the bombing, planning or organizing of the bombing, approving of the bombing, and only three of them were even there on the day of the bombing. One of the men, Albert Parsons, had even brought his two kids, which kinda implies he wasn’t aware that there’d be any sort of attack. Eyewitness testimony confirmed that none of the men were the ones who threw the bomb. Their crime was basically “being famous anarchists.”
Shocking literally no one, all eight men were convicted. Oscar Neebe was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and the other seven men were sentenced to death, although Schwabb and Fielden later had their sentences commuted to life in prison. Louis Lingg, in a final act of defiance, smuggled a bomb into his cell, setting it off in his own mouth. August Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engell, and Adolph Fischer were hung.
Six years later, due to mounting pressure, Illinois governor John Altgeld issued a pardon, stating that the men were innocent of the crimes they were accused of, and “victims of hysteria, packed juries, and a biased judge.” This was of little solace to the deceased.
By 1891, the Second International, a socialist labor organization had declared May 1st “Labor Day” in honor of the massacre and subsequent kangaroo trial.
So…how come the U.S. celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday of September?
Enter Grover Cleveland. He didn’t particularly like the fact that a May 1st commemoration might give Americans some “Pinko ideas”, reflecting on the deaths of anarchists at the hands of state violence. Everyone that heard that story tends to go “Hey Anarchists! Thanks for looking out for us! Shame what happened to you, though, getting railroaded by the state into government sanctioned murder. I wonder if I can learn anything from that.” This was a big issue for Cleveland.
Fortunately for him, this is where the Knights of Labor came in. Stepping in as a “state-approved” toned down and neutered labor movement, they offered up to Cleveland the idea of calling Labor Day the first Monday of September. Cleveland immediately latched onto the idea, and ordered its dissemination, drowning out the proper date in a flood of propaganda spearheaded by the lapdog Knights of Labor.
As if we couldn’t get any more dystopian, in 1955, Dwight D. Eisenhower declared May 1st…wait for it…Loyalty Day. The day where Americans redeclare their loyalty to the United States. This was a nice counter to the day that commemorated the day where citizens had been murdered by the state for their beliefs. Do you catch the implication? “Don’t step out of line and acknowledge those murdered by state violence! Instead, pledge your undying loyalty to the government that killed them!” And lest you brush it off as some antiquated Cold War Red Scare bullshit, know that every sitting president since then has made an official Loyalty Day proclamation ever since.
That is the true history of Labor Day.
That’s pretty dreary, huh? Not a fun story. But it’s all ancient history, right? It happened over a hundred years ago, so there’s no way it relates to modern life, right?
Indeed, modern workers jobs are vastly different, but in many ways, labor is on the decline from the gains paid for in blood, sweat, and tears by our forebears. The eight hour workday and forty hour workweek are hardly a given anymore, retirement is increasingly a pipedream for most, and labor and productivity have completely separated as wages have stagnated as the cost of living rises. Just last month, Amazon pumped out so much propaganda, they were able to crush an attempt to unionize in Alabama.
Organized labor was crushed in the Haymarket Massacre. It was crushed in the Battle of Blair Mountain. It was crushed by the Red Scare. Today, organized labor is a pitiful remnant of its former strength, and we pay for that loss in power in reduced wages and quality of life.
If I can make any sort of call to action with this piece, it would be this: Join a labor movement. I am a dues paying member of the IWW: The International Workers of the World. I support them, but if the Wobblies don’t do it for you, join some other labor movement!
When August Spies was sentenced to death, he gave this as his statement:
“If you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement, the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in misery and want, expect salvation…if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here, you will tread on a spark! But there and there, behind you, and in front of you, and all around, flames blaze up.
It is a subterranean fire. You can not put it out.”
Editors Note: A substantial portion of this essay was crafted with help from the groundwork Thought Slime laid down in his video essay “Today is Labor Day.” Please take a moment to watch it here.