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May Day in Chicago: then and now
April 30, 2012 11:58 PM   Subscribe

As Chicago prepares to join other cities in marking May Day with a march and a general strike, it is interesting to think about these actions in the context of May Day's Chicago origins and Chicago's role in labor history.

Early-May strikes and rallies have a significant place in Chicago labor history, starting with a crippling week-long strike on May 2, 1867 to enforce Illinois' new eight-hour day law. Unfortunately, the strike was unsuccessful, and when it collapsed, Illinois' 8-hour law fell with it. However, it sparked a series of actions in support of the Eight-hour Movement, which finally came to national fruition with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 as part of the New Deal.

On May 1, 1887, Chicago workers again struck to demand an 8-hour day. The action grew over the days that followed until a rally on May 4 in Haymarket Square turned tragically violent when someone hurled a bomb and a fire-fight erupted. Eleven died; many more were injured. Unable to find the bomber, the prosecution accused eight anarchists who were then convicted based solely on their writings and without any evidence connecting them to the bomb. The falsely-accused were pardoned in 1893 by Governor Altgeld... but only after four were hanged and a fifth committed suicide. Labor organizations commemorated Haymarket and the struggle for the eight-hour day on May 1, and celebrations of May Day as a worker's holiday spread worldwide.

The idea of a general strike -- one that is not tied to any union in particular -- has other significant historical ties to Chicago. In 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was founded in Chicago as "One Big Union" that sought to unite workers across different occupations. The concept of the general strike can be traced back to a pamphlet by Stephen Naft that was published that year in Chicago, along with a 1933 pamphlet by IWW activist Ralph Chapin. The general strike was promoted by the Wobblies as "not only the hope of Labor [but] the hope of the human race," and similar general strike tactics have been employed by activists worldwide. While IWW membership has dwindled dramatically since the Red Scare, the IWW remains active and has an ongoing presence in Chicago.

Interestingly, while the Chicago Spring flier mentions the parade and a large number of union locals as parade endorsers, it doesn't actually mention the "general strike". This may be due to many of the endorsing union locals having no-strike clauses in their contracts that prohibit them from officially participating in work-stoppages while their contract is active. By prohibiting sympathy strikes, no-strike clauses hamper the ability of unions to act in solidarity with one another; some versions even go so far as to require union leaders to publicly discourage their members from participating on their own. As a result, widespread participation in a general strike by union members who have no-strike clauses would be a wild-cat action -- one that occurs without the support of their union's organizing structure. Since wildcat strikes are not a protected form of labor action under the National Labor Relations Act, they are a risky and significant action.

Wildcat strikes (which were illegal prior to the NLRA as well) also have a significant place in Chicago labor history, most notably with the Pullman Strike that took place in on May 11, 1894, when nearly 4000 Pullman workers walked out -- without the authorization of their union -- in protest of wage cuts and cost increases in the company-owned town. (Ralph Chapin, the author of the 1933 IWW General Strike pamphlet linked above, cites his witnessing the Pullman Strike at the age of 7 as one of his influences.) Led by Eugene V. Debs, the Pullman strike and boycott spread nationwide, and in early July President Cleveland brought in the US Marshals and Army troops to break the strike. The strike-breaking succeeded -- despite popular support for the strikers -- due in part to lack of cohesive union leadership (including the AFL's refusal to support the strike) and to racial tensions that undermined labor solidarity. On the heels of the violent clashes between the troops and the railroad workers, President Cleveland made a symbolic gesture by declaring Labor Day a US federal holiday as the first Monday in September (leaving May 1 to be officially marked in the US as Loyalty Day). Although the Supreme Court would later validate Cleveland's actions in In Re Debs, the brutal strike-breaking cost Cleveland his bid for reelection when Governor Altgeld (who was also responsible for pardoning the falsely-accused Haymarket anarchists) used his influence as leader of the Illinois delegation to the Democratic Party Convention to block Cleveland's nomination.

Today's planned protests continue this fight for economic justice, and will take place -- particularly here in Chicago -- amidst this rich history. Happy May Day!
posted by Westringia F. (20 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
I, for one, am not working today. I'm sleeping.
posted by TwelveTwo at 12:11 AM on May 1, 2012


a crippling week-long strike on May 2, 1867 to enforce Illinois' new eight-hour day law.

Eight-hour work day? How quaint.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:12 AM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Strangely, in Japan, April 29th and 30th, and May 3rd-5th are national holidays (Golden Week, they calls it), but May 1st is a working day.* Then again, strikes here are usually announced well in advance by the unions, and usually only last an hour or two at most and are held at off peak times (to avoid inconveniencing too many people). There was a baseball 'strike' here, which happened in the off season (no games were missed) and the players' union was crucified for it in the press, even though the strike was held to point out the insanity of the training regimes here, which are partly to blame for some players' shortened careers. Similar 'strikes' by the employees of JR are equally condemned.

I can't wait (until after work) to really dig into this post, it looks awesome.

*Some lucky people actually get the full week off from the 29th to the 5th. My jealousy knows no bounds.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:38 AM on May 1, 2012


My workplace (retail) is going to have a big sickout and those of us that are working (like me, I have plans for another day) are wearing our union local t-shirts. Should be interesting.
posted by jonmc at 5:14 AM on May 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


Excellent post! Like Ghidorah said above, I'm excited to read through these links later today.
posted by graphnerd at 5:21 AM on May 1, 2012


At least the folks in Chicago are talking to the unions, that didn't seem to be happening before. I hope that's the case elsewhere.
posted by zombieflanders at 6:33 AM on May 1, 2012




Unable to find the bomber, the prosecution accused eight anarchists who were then convicted based solely on their writings

My understanding was that the accused were all union leaders as well.

The National Mexican Museum of Art in Pilsen had a floor-to-ceiling painting of a neon flaming Haymarket-remembering skull in last year's Day of the Dead exhibit. It was great, unfortunately I cannot find the artist now. The NMMA is sponsored by Target, who is super anti-union, so I also got a little giggle out of that minor rebellion. This is related in my mind because the accompanying text to the painting is my reference to the above claim about union leaders.
posted by newg at 7:49 AM on May 1, 2012


While IWW membership has dwindled dramatically since the Red Scare, the IWW remains active and has an ongoing presence in Chicago.

And yet membership is growing in a lot of places, and we're still organizing bike couriers, starbucks, truckers, jimmy johns, and anywhere else the traditional trade unions don't fit.

In the words of Hunter S Thompson, "I believe the IWW was probably the last human concept in American politics."

Some of the best people I know carry red cards.
posted by Stagger Lee at 7:53 AM on May 1, 2012 [4 favorites]



My understanding was that the accused were all union leaders as well.

The National Mexican Museum of Art in Pilsen had a floor-to-ceiling painting of a neon flaming Haymarket-remembering skull in last year's Day of the Dead exhibit. It was great, unfortunately I cannot find the artist now. The NMMA is sponsored by Target, who is super anti-union, so I also got a little giggle out of that minor rebellion. This is related in my mind because the accompanying text to the painting is my reference to the above claim about union leaders.
posted by newg at 7:49 AM on May 1 [+] [!]


Albert Parsons is one of the more recognized martyrs, and he worked in newspapers. A lot of them were organizers, but not trade unionists. They were executed for being anarchists as much as for being labour leaders.

Death in the Haymarket should be required curriculum in American highschools.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:16 AM on May 1, 2012


I miss the Soviet May Day parades when the socialist unions got to goose step in Red Square and show off the workers' nuclear weapons and tanks. That was cool.

Boasting about an eight hour workday will always seem weak in comparison.
posted by three blind mice at 8:16 AM on May 1, 2012


Fuck yeah wobs.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 8:16 AM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]



I miss the Soviet May Day parades yt when the socialist unions got to goose step in Red Square and show off the workers' nuclear weapons and tanks. That was cool.



Yeeeeeeah those didn't belong to the workers, those belonged to the state. Those were the same weapons the USSR used to slaughter sailors in Kronstadt and crush the revolutionary councils and workers militias in Hungary.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:24 AM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Immigrant Justice Protest is hitting 40th street right after the Williamsburg bridge was closed to ped traffic, and the marches are meeting each other right about now - live stream
posted by The Whelk at 9:31 AM on May 1, 2012


Songs Of The Wooblies
posted by The Whelk at 9:32 AM on May 1, 2012


And just in the nick of time The feds catch self-professed anarchists and prevent them from blowing up a bridge....

How... Convenient.
posted by symbioid at 10:08 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]






And just in the nick of time The feds catch self-professed anarchists and prevent them from blowing up a bridge....

FBI heroically locks up ridiculous anarchists on May Day: Feds stop inept radicals from carrying out a plot feds helped them conceive and carry out
posted by homunculus at 1:10 PM on May 1, 2012


newg: The National Mexican Museum of Art in Pilsen had a floor-to-ceiling painting of a neon flaming Haymarket-remembering skull in last year's Day of the Dead exhibit.

Wow, that sounds very cool -- I'd have loved to see that!

In poking around the web looking for it, I learned that Mexico's observance of May Day is still strongly associated with recognition of the Haymarket martyrs; this article even suggests that it's referred to as "the Day of the Martyrs of Chicago."

I find it so interesting that other countries recognize an event in US history. Aside from religious observances, what other holidays are celebrated by countries that had no connection to their origin? Pretty powerful stuff. But it's depressing how we in the US ignore it, and how May Day has been so strongly associated with communism that many Americans aren't even aware that it originated on our own soil with sacrifices made by our own countrymen.

ps. As Stagger Lee said, they weren't trade unionists, but they were definitely pro-labor rabble-rousers; the Arbeiter-Zeitung was the radical newspaper with which Parsons and the others were associated.
posted by Westringia F. at 1:25 PM on May 1, 2012


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