The movement for the eight-hour day was wedded to the date of 1 May at an 1884 convention of the three-year-old Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada - the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor. George Edmonston, the founder of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, introduced a resolution which "Resolved ... that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this district that they so direct their laws so as to conform to this resolution by the time named."
The growing strength of the eight-hour movement caused a panic in the ruling class. Newspaper headlines warned of "communist infiltrators" but by April 1886, over 30,000 workers had been granted the eight-hour day. Despite predictions of violence, the world’s first May Day was a massive success, involving hundreds of thousands all over the United States. The largest demonstration was in Chicago, where 90,000 marched, of whom approximately 40,000 were on strike. As a result of their action 35,000 Chicago meatpackers won the eight-hour day with no loss of pay.
However, the event that guaranteed May Day a place in the history of the working class did not occur on 1 May, but three days later at Haymarket Square in Chicago. Besides having the strongest eight-hour movement, Chicago was the centre of syndicalism. Representatives of industry, alarmed that the number of workers on strike had soared to 65,000, decided that decisive action was necessary. During a rally, several hundred lumber workers left to join the nearby locked-out workers at the McCormick Harvester Works where workers had been locked out for three months and the plant was being run with scabs. Within 15 minutes, hundreds of police were on the scene. The remaining lumber workers, hearing gunshots, headed for McCormick to reinforce their comrades but a force of police intercepted them; they were attacked with clubs and shots were fired into the crowd. At least four workers were killed outright, with many others injured.
At a rally that evening, a bomb was thrown from the crowd into the ranks of the police. Sixty-six policemen were wounded and seven died later. The police then turned their guns on the workers, wounding 200 and killing several. Years later, evidence came to light that the bomb had been thrown by a police agent.
Arrests were made and after a farcical trial, with a jury made up of businessmen, their clerks, and a relative of a dead policeman, four anarchists were hanged on 11 November 1887 (Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel and Adolph Fishcer) some of whom hadn’t even been at the protest meeting! Another anarchist (Louis Lingg) escaped the noose by taking his life the day before his execution. Workers in England, Holland, Russia, Italy, France and Spain rallied and donated funds for the defendants. Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck of Germany, alarmed by the workers’ movement in defence of the Haymarket defendants, outlawed public meetings of workers.
During the trial Attorney Julius Grinnel said in his closing remarks, "Law is upon trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they were leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousands that follow them. ... Convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and save our institutions, our society."
At their funeral, an estimated 500,000 people lined the route and up to 25,000 saw the burial. Seven years after the execution, an inquiry found those executed innocent of all charges, and three anarchists serving life sentences were released. However, in the witch hunt that followed, the entire Labour Movement came under attack; the incident was used to victimise leading working class militants and the eight-hours’ strikes by-and-large collapsed. As a result, about a third of the workers who had won the eight-hour day lost it shortly after the Haymarket incident.
On 14 July 1889 (the centenary of the storming of the Bastille) an International Workers’ Conference, which included socialist and Marxist organisations, was held in Paris. Present were 467 delegates from twenty countries; those who attended from Britain included William Morris, Tom Mann and Keir Hardie. On a red banner behind the platform were inscribed the words: "Proletarians of all countries, let us unite!" The conference established 1 May as the international day of working class demonstrations as the American Federation of Labour had already set 1 May 1890 for action in support of an eight hour day.
The first May Day event in the United Kingdom took place in London in 1890, when 200,000 demonstrated in Hyde Park for the establishment of the eight-hour day. May Day demonstrations also took place in most countries in Europe, Chile and Peru. In Havana, Cuba, workers not only demanded the eight-hour day but equal rights for blacks and whites.
Trade unionists in Chelmsford have marked this important day in the working class calendar many times since we were established. We are proud that since since 1972 this has taken place every year; sometimes with a march but mostly with an indoor rally.
Guest speakers: Dan McCarthy National Executive NASUWT, Tony Dykes ACTSA and Alan Chinn-Shaw, Secretary Essex FBU.