Today is one of the most important, least understood, and most underrated holidays all year here in America. There are several reasons for that, but first and foremost, as usual, is that most Americans are ignorant.
While some folks refer to today as May Day, and that’s cute, doing so mostly reminds me of that movie where Nicolas Cage gets covered in bees. I think today is best referred to as International Workers’ Day, as it’s commonly known in countries where they don’t let Nicolas Cage make movies.
No big surprise, International Workers’ Day honors the workers of the world, and is primarily celebrated by the labor movement, along with anarchists, socialists, communists, and others who understand the critical importance of workers to the economic health and stability of our nation and our world. I find it’s also a day of interest to people who are intelligent enough to actually take a moment to consider their place in the social order of their world and what the consequences of their actions are in terms that extend beyond their own ignorance and selfishness.
While I’m oversimplifying and viewing from a primarily American perspective, it’s safe to say International Workers’ Day has deep roots in the efforts of the labor union movement in the U.S. in the late 1880s. During that time, labor was heavily involved in mobilizing support for a system in which workers would be entitled to eight hours a day for work, eight hours for recreation, and eight hours for rest. The lack of controversy that would today be associated with such demands makes them seem all but laughable to our modern ears, but in those days asking for an eight-hour work day could get you killed. And during one such mobilizations in support of the eight hour work day, referred to as the “Haymarket” demonstration, that’s exactly what happened.
The Haymarket affair took place in Chicago in May 1886, and began as a peaceful public demonstration in support of the eight-hour system, as well as to express disgust about several workers having been killed by police at the site of a general strike at a machinery plant the day before. When police began to brutally disperse the Haymarket protesters, an unknown person threw a homemade bomb into the fray. The explosion and subsequent police gunfire into the crowd turned the demonstration into a bloodbath, resulting in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians. Many more in the crowd were wounded by both the bomb and police gunshots.
In the wake of this incredible tragedy, eight arrests were made of Haymarket protesters suspected of being involved in the bombing. A “trial of the century” quickly ensued; a trial that to this day is widely considered a sham and an outright miscarriage of justice. All eight defendants were found guilty, despite grossly insufficient evidence to arrive at a guilty verdict. Four of the condemned men were later hanged, and one cheated the hangman by taking his own life in his cell. It’s probably worth noting that the court acknowledged it had no idea who actually threw the bomb, but hey, they SEEMED guilty, right?
The Haymarket tragedy and the subsequent sham trial and senseless executions of American workers are today considered extremely important to International Workers’ Day in the U.S. The Haymarket site is now an official Chicago Landmark, and the executed men’s burial site has been designated the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument and is a National Historic Landmark.
It’s shocking to me how as American workers we continue to engage in petty squabbles over who should earn minimum wage or who should get paid sick leave or whether or not women deserve to make as much as men for equal work, while corporations rake in untold billions of dollars on the strength of our labor and the 1% laugh all the way to the bank at what poor fools we are.
There’s a wonderful quote that is forever mis-attributed to John Steinbeck, that speaks perfectly to what idiots we working and middle class Americans are, and today is the best possible day to repeat it.
“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
The only thing I’d add to it is that thanks to Cold War goons like Ronald Reagan, it will take generations before we can start to appreciate concepts like socialism for the good they have to offer, and cease fearing them for the misplaced, idiotic right-wing jingoism that still clings to them like the stench from Reagan’s rotting corpse. The ultimate reason Bernie Sanders will NEVER be president is that he openly calls himself a “democratic socialist,” and that’s truly a shame, but hey, welcome to America folks.
So, as American Slander advised in our article about the tragic victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, take a moment today to thank the victims of the Haymarket demonstrations. They died so that you could have an eight-hour work week, can you even imagine that such a thing even had to happen??? It’s an obscenity.
Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.