May Day Began in Chicago

Labor Day for the world: “Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own. Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone?”

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In most parts of the world, May 1st is Labor Day but not here in the States, even though May Day had its beginning here in Chicago. It was part of the struggle for an 8 hour work day. Most Chicagoans are totally oblivious of this. In fact, most are only dimly aware that there may have been any controversy about having an 8 hour work day, thinking that it just came naturally. Rather than having this handed to us on a plastic platter, it was part of a political process wherein people were killed or wounded by the police or executed by the State. The incident that came to symbolize this was the Haymarket Affair that took place on Chicago’s near west side on the evening of May 4, 1886.

After some noodling around on the web, I found this documentary by Argyrios Marmaras and Gus Prekezes. It appears to be one of the better of those available on YouTube, especially as it draws on some of the past leaders of the Illinois Labor History Society. Two of them, Les Orear and William Adelman, have passed away since then. (They look quite young compared to when I last saw them.) It also includes comments from Oscar Neebe a descendant of one of the Haymarket martyrs.

At only a half hour, the documentary leaves a lot out.

One thing that might have been interesting would have been to include comments from descendants of Inspector John “Black Jack” Bonfield, who gets a lot of shade in this account. This would not be for “balance” as far as I’m concerned. I’m not on Bonfield’s side, so much so you would have to pay me to live on Bonfield Street. But at least one account that I recall reading indicated his descendants were still to this day firmly on Inspector Bonfield’s side. The contrast would have helped illustrate that this conflict is not just history but part of the present as well.

As Warren Lemming comments in this documentary, you can’t recreate the past. But you can approximate it. William Adelman comes close when he points out that at the time of the Haymarket incident, elections in Chicago were not done by secret ballot, making even dissent by voting a risky business. What Adelman does not mention is that the 1st Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly were also not especially respected in law, never mind practice. Local governments in particular were regarded as having much the same rights as private land owners. Thus a demonstration on public property could legitimately be prohibited or dispersed if the local government did not like the message or even just the messenger. Or for no reason at all. This didn’t begin to change until the 1920s.

All this is to point out something the documentary (and the Illinois Labor History Society) skirts: Some of the Haymarket Martyrs were advocates of armed violence (dynamite as a political tool) and bombing — and in fact builders of bombs and organizers of left-wing militias. This position may seem unreasonable if you can in fact organize and speak out, but in the context of the times, it makes some sense. The documentary does discuss a systemic campaign of repression prior to the incident, but without the legal context, it’s easy to assume this was something unusual or extraordinary when in fact it was not even, legally, misbehavior. Adelman also mentions how the poor lived within a very few city blocks of the very wealthy, implying the contrast was a motivation for outrage among the poor that they lack today. But proximity has got to have been an inspiration for fear and loathing among the wealthy as well. Poverty makes people crazy, most especially the very rich.

If you’d like to learn more about labor history in Illinois, check out the Illinois Labor History Society.