Monday, September 06, 2010

Labor Day 2010: Origins of Labor Day

The US Department of Labor (DOL) provides a saccharine The History of Labor Day. Here's the goody-two-shoes version of the day's history:

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on September 5, 1883.

In 1884 the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, as originally proposed, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a "workingmen's holiday" on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country.

Through the years the nation gave increasing emphasis to Labor Day. The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. From them developed the movement to secure state legislation. The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. During the year four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.
The word "Haymarket" does not appear in the DOL account. It does appear in the BBC's article How May Day Became a Workers' Holiday 10/04/2001.

The May Day of the title refers to May 1, celebrated around the world as International Workers Day. But for the most part, not in the US. What's the connection between "Haymarket", Labor Day and International Workers Day? The BBC article explains what the DOL version does not, that a number of labor unions established May 1, 1886, as a day on which general strikes should be held to highlight the demand for the eight-hour day:

National or local officials of the three main labour organisations present in the United States at the time, the FOTLU [Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada], the Knights of Labor and the [anarchist] International Working People's Association (IWPA) began preparing for a general strike to be held on that date. The national office of the Knights of Labor, the most conservative of these three organisations, opposed the strike. Local offices ignored Grand Master Workman Terence Powderly's letter of 13 March, 1886, forbidding members of the Knights to strike. The FOTLU and the IWPA organised aggressively. In particular, Albert Parsons and August Spies spoke to gatherings of working people in Chicago at every opportunity.
Parsons was a printer in Chicago who had been an Abolitionist prior to the Civil War, a Radical Republican (which meant something entirely different then than it does today!) who by 1886 was a socialist and active supporter of the union movement. Spies was a German immigrant who became an anarchist and the editor of the Arbeiter Zeitung.

The May 1 general strike went off successfully and peacefully in Chicago. But, two days later:

Some 65,000 workers were on strike in Chicago, including employees of the McCormick Harvester Works. About a quarter of a mile (0.16 km) away, August Spies was addressing a group of striking lumber workers at a rally. A group of the lumber workers decided to join the striking McCormick Harvester Works employees in confronting strike-breaking workers at the end of the work day.

At closing time, police officers charged the waiting strikers, with revolvers drawn. It was reported by one witness that, as the strikers retreated, the police 'opened fire into their backs. Boys and men were killed as they ran'. Most sources state that six strikers were killed, although some put the number of fatalities at four. Many more were injured.
In those days and through the 1930s in the US, gun thugs, cops and National Guards deployed on behalf of employers were commonly used against strikers and labor organizers. The workers organized a rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square for the next day to protest the police violence and killing.

The first speaker was August Spies, who took the police department to task as murderers. Then Albert Parsons spoke. Near the beginning of his speech, he made it clear that he was not calling on anybody to take any action that night, but was planning on simply stating the facts of the previous day's events. The Mayor made his way out of the crowd and told the police captain that the rally was peaceful and that the mobilised police officers should be put back onto regular duty. After Spies and Parsons had spoken, other, less charismatic, speakers took the platform. It was now about 10 o'clock at night. While Samuel Fielden was speaking, the 180 police officers, with clubs drawn and in military formation, closed in on the remaining participants of the rally. The police captain commanded that the rally 'immediately and peaceably disperse'.

As Fielden was protesting that the rally was peaceful, a bomb exploded in the ranks of the assembled police officers, killing one immediately and wounding 65 others, seven of whom later died of their injuries. The remaining police officers drew their revolvers and fired into the crowd, wounding 200 and killing an unknown number.
The BBC article describes the subsequent trials against anarchists who were railroaded by the courts. The bombing has never been fully clarified, though it is entirely possible that a Rudolph Schnaubelt, who was named by multiple witneses as the bomb-thrower, may have been "an agent provocateur hired by either the police department or the industrialists of Chicago." The BBC article continues:

In 1889, at the Marxist International Socialist Congress in Paris, a resolution was passed calling for a 'great international demonstration' for the eight hour day to take place on 1 May, 1890. On that date, there were May Day demonstrations in the United States and many European countries, as well as in Chile, Peru and Cuba.

In 1891, May Day was celebrated in Russia, Brazil and Ireland. China first celebrated May Day in 1920. In 1927, the holiday had spread to India, where there were demonstrations in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay.

As May Day was becoming a worldwide holiday, with the date having been chosen to commemorate the union fight for the eight-hour work day in the United States, within the United States itself the mainstream labour movement, now represented by the American Federation of Labor [AFL], was becoming more conservative. That organisation chose to support the first Monday in September as Labor Day. In 1894, federal legislation designating the September Labor Day holiday was passed and signed into law by the then-United States President, Grover Cleveland.
The date celebrated as International Workers Day all over the world was established to commemorate the disgrace of the Haymarket trials and the anti-labor violence connected with the celebration of May 1 in Chicago by a general strike to demand the eight-hour day. Conservative Democratic President Grover Cleveland in cooperation with the politically conservative AFL established Labor Day in the US as an alternative to International Workers Day.

While Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Frederick Engels (1820-1895) were very influential figures in the social-democratic movement in Europe. To what extent the Social Democratic Parties in the Socialist International of 1889 could be called "Marxist" is less clear-cut, although that's probably quibbling as far how we understand the terms we use today. But the leading Social Democratic Party in Europe, one with which Marx and Engels were closely associated, was the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). In 1889, the SPD was still operating under the Gotha Program of 1875, about which Marx had expressed his differences in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, first published in part in 1890-91.

The SPD adopted a new program in 1891, when Marx had been dead several years. But his close collaborator Engels wrote A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Program of 1891 (1891) indicating his differences with the official text. Brief English excerpts of both programs are availabe from the Hanover Historical Texts Project. The orginal German texts of both Das Gothaer Programm and Das Erfurter Programm are available online; both are short.

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