When we celebrate 1 May, many people merely perceive it as a tradition. They might have a vague idea of what it is about without giving much thought to it. In Copenhagen, people traditionally gather in different parts of the city and then walk in procession with music and red flags to the actual venue, Fælledparken (a public park in Copenhagen). But why do we celebrate this day? And when did it become the International Workers’ Day?

In 1866, at the First International (International Workingmen’s Association) in Geneva, the congress adopted the proposal of the General Council on the limitation of the working day:

“The legal limitation of the working day is a preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvements and emancipation of the working class must prove abortive […] “The Congress proposes eight hours as the legal limit of the working day.” [1]

By formulating the demand for the eight-hour working day, the First Internationale presented the workers with a common goal in their fight for improved conditions. For many year since then, even down to this day, it has been one of the slogans under which workers demonstrate around the world.

The precursors to 1st of May

The fight for better living and working conditions is by now means of a recent date. Ever since we first walked the earth, people have been fighting for decent living conditions. When the industrialisation takes hold radicalising the exploitment of human labour power, the battle lines between employers and employees are drawn.

In view of the early and rapid industrialisation of the country, it is hardly surprising that the idea of and demand for the eight-hour working day was formulated in England. The employers generally refused to meet the workers’ demands and their response was to exclude any worker who was unwilling to submit to the conditions laid down.

Mange arbejdere så ingen anden udvej for at skaffe sig og sin familie det daglige brød end at emigrere til den nye verden: Amerika, Australien og New Zealand.

Struggling to make a living, many workers had no alternative but to emigrate to the New World; America, Australia and New Zealand.

”We were the first in …” 
Samuel Duncan Parnell, the founder of the eight-hour working day

Samuel Duncan Parnell, the founder of the eight-hour working day

It may not be entirely wrong, when New Zealand claims to be the first country in the world to introduce the eight-hour working day and later raise it to status of law. The founder of the eight-hour working day was a carpenter and joiner named Samuel Duncan Parnell who arrived at Wellington February 1840 by the first ship carrying British emigrants.

Parnell refused to built a warehouse for a local merchant if the working day exceeded eight hours. As only three carpenters resided in the area, the merchant had no choice but to accept the demand. Each time a new ship with emigrants docked, Parnell would be there explaining to the carpenters and other workers how the working conditions should be.

Soon, an eight-hour working day was considered a normal working day within different fields of work. In other parts of New Zealand too, the workers were successful in enforcing their demands; In Dunedin in 1848 under the lead of painter Samuel Shaw and in Auckland in 1857 under the lead of another painter, William Griffin.

Australien  

Australia was not far behind. As early as 1855-56, the masons’ trade union in Sidney and the building workers’ trade union in Melbourne had pushed through their demands using strikes, demonstrations and other types of protest and action. Their slogan was:

“Eight hour to work,
eight hour to play.
Eight hour to sleep and 
eight bob a day”. 

That is to say, 10 year before the Congress of the First Internationale formulated the demand of an eight-hour working day, on a whole, most workers in Australia had achieved that and celebrated 1st of May as a day of rest.

Labor Day

Likewise, since the middle of the 19th Century, the English workers had celebrated 1st of May under the slogan of a reduction of the working hours. Around the same time, the workers’ unions in America had created their ‘Labour Day’ celebrated by most unions the first of May. On this day, the workers took the day off and made it a day of national festival.

The nature of May Day changes

Due to the rapid and comprehensive industrial development and, consequently, increasing number of industrial workers, Labour Day gradually became a political action day, where workers raised awareness of their political and economic demands.

In 1884, at their congress in Chicago, the trade unions and labour organisations of the Federation of the United States and Canada adopted the declaration to organise the struggle for the workers’ main demand; the introduction of the eight-hour working day. Deadline for the implementation of the demand was set for 1 May 1886.

The resolution was enthusiastically received by the workers [2]. 1 May 1886, more than 366.000 workers, in Chicago alone, demonstrated for the introduction of the eight-hour working day and six-day week. The workers’ determination had such powerful effect on the employers that many companies agreed to comply with the workers’ demand.

The prolonged arm of the factory owners

Not all companies complied with the workers’ demand, however. The large McCormick reaper factory refused to negotiate and had imposed lockouts since February that year. The factory management provoked the workers by hiring strikebreakers. Thus, 3 May 1886, the workers initiated a protest rally outside the factory. Here they would receive the strikebreaker at the close of the workday. When the strikebreakers left the factory, the police attacked the demonstrators with clubs and firearms. Many were injured and ‘some’ were killed.

The rally at Haymarket Square
Leaflet announcing the rally at Haymarket Square the 4th of May 1886

Leaflet announcing the rally at Haymarket Square 4 May 1886

The unions organised a rally at Haymarket Square the next day, 4 May 1886, to demonstrate and protest against police brutality. Around 2000 people attended the rally, listening to the speeches. At about 10 o’clock at night, most of them started the walk home.

At that time, 180 policemen marched into the square from a nearby police station and requested that those still assembled should go their separate ways. Suddenly a bomb exploded next to the policemen. Great confusion breaks out in the darkness and the police squeeze off shots in every direction. One policeman is instantly killed, seven died later from their injuries. ‘Some’ demonstrators drop dead and are carried away.

The unions organised a rally at Haymarket Square the next day, 4 May 1886, to demonstrate and protest against police brutality. Around 2000 people attended the rally, listening to the speeches. At about 10 o’clock at night, most of them started the walk home.

At that time, 180 policemen marched into the square from a nearby police station and requested that those still assembled should go their separate ways. Suddenly a bomb exploded next to the policemen. Great confusion breaks out in the darkness and the police squeeze off shots in every direction. One policeman is instantly killed, seven died later from their injuries. ‘Some’ demonstrators drop dead and are carried away.

Demonstrators are attacked by the police at Haymarket Square, seven police officers and an unknown number of workers are killed

Demonstrators are attacked by the police at Haymarket Square

To our knowledge, it is not possible to find sources indicating how many workers were killed on that day at Haymarket Square. In contrast, the sources indicate that eight policemen were killed. A statue has even been erected in their honour.

The movement curtailed

A lynch mood soon spread – spurred on by the newspapers. The eight organisers of the rally were arrested and accused of planning the murder of the police officers. The defendants believed that the bomb was thrown by a provocateur bought by the employers.

From what we can tell, it was never known for sure, but it is highly probable that they were right: the bomb did not only kill police officers and workers, it hit the entire eight-hour day movement with a crushing blow that left it in ruins for years to come. As early as October 1886, all the employers who had signed the eight-hour day agreement revoked it. Those who were unwilling to work under the conditions dictated by the employers were excluded.

”Our silence will cry out…”
Engraving with the faces of the seven men who were sentenced to death for the murder of police officer Mathias J. Degan

Engraving with the faces of the seven men who were sentenced to death

The eight men arrested were brought to trial. One of the accused passed away before the trial was completed, two were sentenced to life in prison and five were sentenced to death.  One of the condemned men, Lewis (Louis) Lingg, committed suicide in his cell. The names of the five men who were sentenced to death are listed on the back of the Haymarket Martyr’s Monument, located at Forest Home Cemetery in Chicago: Louis Lingg, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parsons, August Spies, editor of Arbeiter Zeitung (Chicago).

On the front of the monument these words are set in stone: “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” It was August Spies’ last words on the gallows.

The execution of George Engel, Adolph Fisher, Albert Parson og August Spies on 11 November 1887

The execution of George Engel, Adolph Fisher, Albert Parson and August Spies

The four men; Engel, Fischer, Parsons and Spies, who were executed 11 November 1887, sang the Internationale before they were hanged. According to eyewitnesses, the hanged men did not die straight away, but slowly suffocated to death.

Reverberating in Europe

From a human standpoint, the events at Haymarket Square in Chicago were immensely tragic. And they were a disaster for the North American labour movement’s future work as well. However, the sacrifices were not in vain. Indirectly, they were the reason that most countries celebrate the International Workers’ Day on the 1 of May. At the International Workers Conference in Paris, 1889, the French delegate, Raymond Lavigne, put forward a proposal, on behalf of the French trade unions, on a strong manifestation to help ensure the demand of the Congress for an eight-hour working day. The resolution read:

International demonstration 1 May 1890

“The Congress decides to organize a great international demonstration, so that in all countries and in all cities on one appointed day the toiling masses shall demand of the state authorities the legal reduction of the working day to eight hours, as well as the carrying out of other decisions of the Paris Congress. … The workers of the various countries must organize this demonstration according to conditions prevailing in each country.” [3]

The decision to demonstrate 1 May 1890 was a huge success and in Denmark, the workers demonstrated in Fælleden (the ‘Common’) in Copenhagen. (The Common was a much wider area than the present Fælledparken (‘Common Park’), where 1 May is held to this day.

1 May each year
Communist 1 May demonstration in Medborgarplatsen (‘Civic Square’), Stockholm, Sweden, 2006

Communist 1 May demonstration in Medborgarplatsen, Stockholm, Sweden, 2006

This is not, however, the end of the (hi)story of 1 May. The workers had no intension of demonstrating, put their tools down and celebrate that particular 1 May. It should be an annual, international event. And indeed it was, although not without the personal sacrifices of the participating workers. (Sadly, in some parts of the world, the workers are still making these sacrifices). This year, we celebrate the 129th anniversary of the International Workers’ Day.

 


Quotes/sources:

[1] Wikipedia.org: Eight-hour day

[2] Holst, Thorkild: “1. Majs Historie” (“The History of 1 May”), 1941Danmarks Kommunistiske Parti Arkiv (Archive of the Communist Party of Denmark)

[3] Communist Ghadar Party of India


Translated from Danish by Maria Busch