Sunday, May 1, 2016

May Day, Labor Day, and the Haymarket Monument

A colorized version of one of the widely circulated images of the so called Haymarket Riot.  With Samuel Fielden on the wagon platform the police charged and someone threw a bomb into their midst


Note:  This is the text for a free brochure I prepared for the May Day Meander in Forest Home Cemetery originally scheduled for today but postponed due to rain.  The first section was adapted from annual May Day posts on this blog.  The section on the Haymarket monument and the graves around it is new.

Chicago was a-boil with labor turmoil in 1886.  The burgeoning city had become a major manufacturing center and tens of thousands of immigrants had poured into the city since the Civil War to join displaced American born farmers and former independent craftsmen in giant factories.  Hours were long, working conditions hard and dangerous, bosses harsh, and pay cuts frequent. 

Since the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 tensions had been building.  And so had a labor movementcraft unions loosely organized under a city central labor body, and the Knights of Labor, officially a benevolent society whose national leadership was opposed to strikes.  But unlike the craft unions, the Knights would enroll all workersskilled and unskilled alike.  In addition immigrant communities had their own radical leadership and press.  None was as vigorous as or developed as the Germans, who were not only the largest immigrant community in the city, but had a highly educated leadership steeped in European radicalism.  Many of these leaders identified with the growing international anarchist movement.

There were several major strikes ongoing in the city that spring.  The largest was at the giant McCormick Harvesting Machine plant on the South Side where strikers had been replaced by scabs under police protection and daily clashes were occurring at the factory gates. 

On May 1st workers responded to a call for a General Strike for an 8 Hour Day which had been issued nationally by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (ancestor of the American Federation of Labor.)   In Chicago the International Working Peoples Association (IWPA) organized a march by 8,000 workers led by Albert and Lucy Parsons, the main English language figures in the anarchist labor movement.  The General Strike got so much support that even half of the scabs at McCormick lay down their tools to join.

Employers were in a panic at the turn of events.  They met with city officials demanding suppression of strikes and demonstrations and agreed among themselves to redouble their own efforts to violently suppress strikes through the use of the Pinkerton Agency and bands of thugs and criminals hired off the streets. 

On May 3 a rally in support of striking McCormick workers was addressed by German anarchist leader August Spies.  When strikers confronted scabs emerging from the plant after the 4 PM end shift, police opened fire killing six workers and wounding scores.  Outraged Spies rushed to the North Side where his daily newspaper, Arbeiter-Zeitung was published.  He and his associates decided to call a protest meeting at the Haymarket just west of downtown for the next day.  Flyers in German and English were hastily printed and rushed into distribution.  Spies noticed that the flyers contained the words “Workingmen Arm Yourselves and Appear in Full Force!  He ordered the copies destroyed and new ones printed without those words.  Spies had consistently counseled non-violence.  Most of the thousands of flyers distributed omitted the words, but a few hundred of the first run were circulated before they could be recalled.

The anarchists charged for the Haymarket bomb.


The evening of May 4, a huge crowd gathered at the Haymarket in a drizzling rain to hear speakers orate from the back of a wagon.  Mayor Carter Harrison stopped by and observed that the crowd was orderly and peaceful.  He ordered police massed near by not to intervene.  The last scheduled speaker of the evening, English born Samuel Fielden, a Methodist lay preacher as well as a labor activist, was addressing a thinning crowd when the police officer in charge, Inspector John Bonfield, who was getting “supplementalincome and support from a coalition of major employers, decided to act. He ordered a phalanx of 175 officers to advance through the crowd from the rear.  Captain William Ward addressing Fielden on the wagon ordered the crowd to disburse.  Fielden protested that the assembly was peaceful and he was nearly finished anyway.  Ward issued a second warning.  Fielden said, “All right.”

Then someone—it has never been determined whothrew a bomb from a side ally into the massed police.  Five officers were killed and others injured.  Police responded by firing wildly, wounding many of their own.  About 60 officers were wounded—most by friendly fire, but so were dozens of workers, including Fielden.

The crowd ran and Fielden limped away.

After the bomb blast the national and Chicago press whipped up sympathy for the Police and hysteria about anarchists.
The press went, predictably, berserk.  The offices of the Arbeiter-Zeitung and regular meeting places and haunts of anarchists and unionists were raided.  Police quickly rounded up much of the German leadership. 

A warrant was out for Albert Parsons, who had spoken at the rally earlier but was gone when the attack occurred.  Parsons disguised himself and fled to Wisconsin.  He later decided to turn himself in and stand trial in solidarity with his German comrades. 

In addition to Spies, Parsons and Fielden authorities charged Adolph Fischer, George Engels, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, and Oscar Neebe.  Some of the defendants had not been at the Haymarket that night at all, and Neebe was out of town.  21 year old Lingg was known to be an advocate of propaganda of the deed and had written a provocative article in the Arbeiter-Zeitung advocating the use of dynamite.  But he was not at the rally.

The trial began on June 21 and was presided over by Judge Joseph Gary who made no attempt to conceal his animus to the defendants.  Although no evidence could be brought forward linking any defendant to the bomb, prosecutors argued that they were in a conspiracy and that the defendants were guilty because they had not actively discouraged the unknown bomber.  All eight men were convicted by the jury.  Seven were sentenced to death and Neebe to 15 years in prison.

Before sentence could be carried out, Lingg committed suicide in his cell by biting a blasting cap. 

After appeals had been exhausted, Illinois Governor Richard James Oglesby commuted Fielden’s and Schwab’s sentences to life in prison on November 10, 1887.  The next day, November 11, the four remaining condemned men were led to a scaffold in a courtyard of Cook County Jail and hung.  Their execution drew outrage and protest from the labor movement around the world.


The hanging of Parsons, Spies, Engel, and Fischer.

In 1893, Governor John Peter Altgeld, a liberal Democrat, signed pardons for Fielden, Neebe, and Schwab and concluded all eight defendants were innocent. The pardons and his opposition to calling in Federal troops to intervene in the Pullman Strike ended his political career.

In 1898 Samuel Gompers, head of the newly reorganized AFL petitioned the First Congress of the Second International (socialist) to designate May 1 to commemorate the Martyrs of Chicago and support a new general strike call for an 8 hour day scheduled more May 1, 1890.  The International enthusiastically agreed calling for “a great international demonstration” on that date.  Huge crowds responded around the world including a march by tens of thousands in New York City.  The event was so successful that it was made annual the next year and has been celebrated globally ever since.

But in the United States, where May Day was born, the holiday was officially abandoned within a few years.  Samuel Gompers stuck his historic deal with the employer’s organization, the Civic Federation, which gave craft unionists a “place at the table.”  Part of that deal was the abandonment of May Day, now associated with Socialism in exchange for recognition of a non-ideological Labor Day in September around the time of a local New York City building trades celebration.

An early call for May Day by British socialist artist Walter Crane.


Industrial and militant unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) kept May Day, as did socialists of all stripes.  Large celebrations persisted in many cities until the post World War II anti-Communist hysteria when the press successfully identified May Day with military parades in the Kremlin.

In recent years, even conservative unions have revived the May Day tradition.  The Chicago Federation of Labor funded a new Haymarket Memorial featuring a speaker on a wagon at the exact location of the original and hold annual commemorations there.  Hispanic and immigration activists have staged huge marches for immigration reform on May Day, increasingly with the support of the labor movement.


The Haymarket Monument and Radical Row

The Haymarket  Memorial at Foresst Home Cemetery before its recent restoration.
The Pioneer Aid and Support Association was organized to provide aid to the surviving families of the Haymarket Martyrs and to raise funds by subscription for a monument at German Waldheim Cemetery—now Forest Home Cemetery—where Spies, Fischer, Engel, Lingg, and Parsons were all buried.  The impressive monument with a 16 foot high shaft with a bronze sculpture by Albert Weinert  featuring a heroic woman standing protectively over the prostrate body of a slain worker was dedicated on June 25, 1893.  It is inscribed with words spoken by Spies just before his execution:  “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voice you are throttling today.”
A large Bronze plaque was later attached to the back of the column recorded the words of Governor Altgeld in his pardon message. 
The monument became a magnate for annual May Day observances and a point of pilgrimage for unionists and radicals of all stripes.  Many important American radicals—and many ordinary workerschose to be buried or have ashes interned or scattered as close as possible to the monument.  That included Schwab, Neebe, and Parson’s widow Lucy, a labor leader, organizer of demonstrations of the unemployed, and active anarchist speaker and writer, who died in a Chicago house fire in 1943.  Others include anarchists Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre, and Dr. Ben Reitman; the Socialist industrialist Joseph Dietzgen; IWW organizer and orator Elizabeth Gurley Flynn; Communist leaders William Z. Foster and Eugene Dennis;  Marxist intellectual and founder of News and Letters Raya Dunayevskaya; Spanish Civil War veteran and one-armed poet and piano player Eddie Balchowsky; Franklin Rosemont a writer and leading figure in the anarchist Situationalist International and the long-time chairman of and publisher of the historic Charles H. Kerr & Co., the nation’s oldest Socialist publisher.

After a 1985 May Day rally--Franklin Rosemon, artist, author and publisher of the Charles H. Kerr Co; Penelope ;  IWW and Chicano artist and poet Carlos Cortez, and Francis Wright of the British anarchist newspaper Freedom Press.  Rosemont is now burried near by and Cortez's ashes were scattered here.
In addition the ashes of other figures have been surreptitiously scattered around the monument.  That includes at least two late discovered packets of IWW songwriter and martyr Joe Hill’s ashes and those of Carlos Cortez, IWW editor, poet, artist, print maker, and a leading figure in the Movemento Artistico Chicano (MARCH).  It is where I hope to have my ashes scattered as well when the time comes.
For many years the aging members of the Pioneer Aid and Support Association maintained the Monument until they handed off that responsibility to the Illinois Labor History Association.  In 2010 funds were raised by subscription to clean and restore the monument, including recreating the laurel wreath and flowers stolen from the base in the ‘80’s. 
The monument has been officially plaqued by the National Park Service listing it on the  on the National Register of Historic Places.  Some of the modern anarchists who visit the monument and participate in May Day rallies resent the plaque and consider it a government desecration of the monument.