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Every first Monday of September, the United States celebrates Labor Day. A federal holiday since 1894, it honors, not just the labor movement, but all who contribute with their work to make America better. This day which, traditionally, closes out the summer season has a controversial beginning. This is best explained when one ponders why most countries in the world celebrate their version of a day dedicated to the workforce on May 1st.
Five Germans, one German American, an Englishman and a former Confederate American soldier, all anarcho-socialists, are the reason for the May 1st worker’s day observance in most of the world. Their names were August Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, Oscar Neebe, and Samuel Fielden. The socialist movement was very much intertwined with anarchism and labor organizations. Socialism’s obsession with dominating all worker groups, something very visible in the 19th century, in fact was an integral part of Soviet communism’s strategy for world hegemony.
Some industrial worker strikes in the 1880’s in the United States sought, not just workplace betterments and structural labor laws, but the overthrow of the capitalist system. The American labor movement of that era was heavily permeated by socialists, anarchists, and communists. Many of them were immigrants, mostly from Germany. The International Working People’s Association (IWPA), headed by Spies and Parsons, was an anarcho-socialist organization that expressly pursued a “worker’s” revolution. Spies was the editor of the German-language newspaper Die Arbeiter-Zeitung. It catered to German residents in Chicago. Parsons, an American who was a former Confederate soldier, was the editor of Alarm, the English-language complement of Spies publication. Both newspapers were important proselytizing agents for the anarcho-socialist group, which contained over five thousand members.
The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (later known as the American Federation of Labor) organized a mass demonstration on May 1st, 1886, to support the striking workers at Chicago’s McCormick Harvesting Machine Company (McCormick Harvesting), a large farm equipment manufacturer, where employees were demanding an eight-hour day. The IWPA joined the protest. Since the management at McCormick Harvesting had hired an alternate workforce to replace the striking workers (pejoratively called “scabs”), another protest was organized for May 3rd.
A huge clash ensued at the McCormick Harvesting plant on the scheduled demonstration day between the mob of about eight thousand and an outnumbered police force (twelve officers before reinforcements came in) that were defending the strikebreakers and the property. Steven L. Danver relates in Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in American History, examples of the seditious nature of the labor protesters. Fritz Schmidt, a socialist from the Central Labor Union, for example, began making calls for violence and the storming of the McCormick factory. In his speech, Schmidt claimed that “violent revolution was the only cure for the ills of the workers, encouraged them (protesters) to destroy the McCormick factory and shoot policemen if they tried to stop them.”
As the strikers and demonstrators headed for the McCormick plant, the strikebreakers were getting out of work. They were met with bricks and violence. Fifty of the radical thugs broke into the factory grounds, looted the gatekeepers house, and attempted to break in. Fortunately, they were prevented from doing so when the small force of twelve policemen arrived. The protesting strikers and the mob were armed. Within minutes, hundreds of gun shots were fired in all directions. As police reinforcements of two hundred additional officers arrived, the crowds scattered. In the end, there were only two deaths but many injuries. The McCormick Harvesting incident was the prelude for the more explosive event, the Haymarket Square riot.
In the May 4th editorial of Die Arbeiter-Zeitung, Spies summoned the workers to revolt and asserted that, according to Danver, “history had proved that all private property was secured and maintained by violent means.” Capitalism, argued the German anarcho-socialist, had converted workers into “slaves.” In reaction to the two worker deaths at McCormick Harvester, a massive protest was called for that day. As the police arrived at night towards the conclusion of the protest and began dispersing the crowd, someone from the protesters side threw a bomb into the group of policemen. Gun fire commenced from both sides. The result was seven dead police officers, sixty wounded, four to eight civilians were killed, and many others were injured.
The eight anarcho-socialist subversives were arrested, charged with murder, tried, and found guilty. The jury’s verdict condemned seven of the agitators to die by hanging (one committed suicide before and another’s sentence was commuted) and one received a 15-year sentence which was later commuted. These extremists who advocated the violent downfall of the United States, became martyrs to the worldwide left.
At the First Congress of the Second International in 1889, the French syndicalist Raymond Lavigne proposed that worldwide demonstrations take place on May 1st, 1890, to commemorate the death of the Haymarket Square anarcho-socialists. Protests occurred on that date across the United States, Europe, and some Latin American countries. In 1891, at the International’s Second Congress, May 1st was formally recognized as a worker’s annual event. In communist regimes, this date is treated as politically religious.
Prior to the 1886 Haymarket Square riot, two competing versions exist of where America’s current Labor Day originated. Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union and Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of labor (no direct relation), both claim to have proposed in 1882 that the first Monday of September be set aside as a celebration of labor. After the terrorist acts of that 1886 spring in Chicago, there were dueling forces between the socialist unions, that wanted May 1st to be the designated date, and the non-socialist ones that called for the first Monday in September.
Grover Cleveland, probably the last great Democratic president in America, during his first presidential term in 1887, gave support to the September date. Rightly concerned that a May 1st commemoration would favor socialism and anarchism, he finally settled the matter signing into law, during his second term in 1894, the labor federal holiday for September. It is ironic that one of socialism’s most revered dates (May 1st) owes its existence to a far-left group’s failed attempt to annihilate the American Republic. It is worth celebrating that labor in America is honored in September and not May. Happy Labor Day!
Julio M Shiling, political scientist, writer, director of Patria de Martí and The Cuban American Voice, lecturer and media commentator. A native of Cuba, he currently lives in the United States. Twitter: @JulioMShiling // Julio es politólogo, escritor, director de Patria de Martí y The Cuban American Voice. Conferenciante y comentarista en los medios. Natural de Cuba, vive actualmente en EE UU.