May Day began over two hundred years ago during the industrial revolution, a weeks work was six days, each lasting 10-16 hours. This was the beginning of a monumental change, a revolution of great importance and historical significance – “Eight hours’ labour, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hours’ rest” is the slogan that brought unity to the labour movement during a time when workers’ rights, health and safety were non-existent and disregarded by Governments and Employers.
This was to change, but not without cost to the labour movement. On May 1, 1886 in Chicago, Illinois workers joined together in a peaceful parade to protest for workers’ rights. However, this peace was short-lived. Only a few days later during a meeting in Haymarket Square, radicals and anarchist speakers addressed the crowd of over a thousand people. Suddenly an explosion, gun-fire from police, what started as a peaceful protest turned into chaos – injuring and killing workers, protestors, supporters, and bystanders.
The Haymarket Riot was the result of a perfect storm, a combination strikebreakers hired by employers, government inaction, media misinformation, and public hysteria that would later draw a dark cloud over the labour movement for many years after the incident. It was not until many years later that then Governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned the workers that had been wrongly convicted of inciting the riot, and noted that the accused were victims of “hysteria, packed juries, and a biased judge” – and to this day the person who ignited the bomb that caused countless unnecessary deaths has never been identified.
Throughout humanities history we have always had differences of opinions, conflicts, or displeasure toward other people – but it is our perseverance to improve on past failures and effect positive social change that keeps us united on common ground.
On May 1, 2016 take a moment to reflect on the sacrifices and suffering that society, families and friends have endured to not only gain workers’ rights, but human rights (health, safety, right to strike, collective bargaining, weekends, paid leave, benefits…) – and challenge what you think you know about the labour movement by taking the time to learn about todays modern labour movement that has evolved well beyond what the first labour activists had envisioned a uniting of workers could achieve.
Written By: Alexander Lambrecht, President