On the original May Day it was declared that from that day “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1st, 1886”.
This declaration came from the anarchist-led labour movement which was organised on a bottom-up system based on the type of society that the anarchists involved aspired to.
On the 3rd of May, 1886, police opened fire on the striking workers of the McCormick Harvester Company, killing one and wounding several more. This was followed by a protest meeting at the Haymarket the next day.
What ensued at the Haymarket was nothing short of a police riot. The police opened fire after a bomb was thrown into the ranks of the policemen, there is no evidence to suggest that the bomb was thrown by a protestor and it is often suggest that an agent provocateur working for the police threw the bomb. Many innocent people were killed and wounded.
Eight anarchists stood trial for murder after the Haymarket affair although there was no evidence to suggest that they were involved or that they had used inflammatory language. Like the case of Sacco and Vanzetti which would follow some 40 years later it is quite clear that they were on trial for being anarchists.
Neebe was sentenced to 15 years in prison, Fielden's and Schwab’s sentence to death was commuted to life imprisonment. Engel, Fischer, Parsons, and Spies were all hanged at the gallows and Lingg committed suicide as a final protest to the state’s unjust claim of authority.
The radical and revolutionary roots of May Day, including the radical trade union organising that made it possible is not to be found today in the lead up to the 1st of May.
Many anarchists in 1886 felt that the demand for an “eight hour workday” did not go far enough and among anarchists the story remains unchanged. Today we have a demand for “job creation”, “fair pay”, “proper work conditions” coming from mainstream trade unions and socialists. They could talk about these things all day long, trade unionists especially believing them to be some sort of panacea; they will talk about everything except for what work really is.
Work, including working hours, dress code/uniform, behaviour, routine, is a way of instilling a capitalist discipline on the working class. Employment and unemployment are tools of this capitalist discipline with a culture of consumerism being used to fuel society.
Unemployment and the unemployed is used as a threat constantly hanging over the heads of the workers, it is a vital component of capitalism because if you don’t do your job properly there are a bunch of people down at the job office who will do it.
Employment is a nice way of saying that you sell your labour to your boss who can turn your labour into a profit and sell you a percentage of it back in the form of a wage.
You spend your day performing tasks that oftentimes have no relevancy to your life and do not contribute to your happiness. Our lives are spent making money that we are never going to see – yet we are told that this is right, “you’ve got to pay your way”. Those who do not work are demonized and hated by the rest of society, branded leeches and sponges, not realising that their existence is a capitalist creation to keep the working class divided.
Through representations in the [political economy of the] mass media, we are made to admire and idolize the rich – those who have never “paid their way” and whose wealth is only made possible through exploitation. They are never subjected to the demonization that they deserve the same demonization that is directed to the unemployed.
Let’s name names; work is a misnomer. When we are talking about work we are talking about forced labour.
So what should work be then? Something that you enjoy and take pride in? Something whose end has a meaning – that you can see will make a good and positive impact on someone / a group of people / a community?
As we prepare for the next strike action in the north we must keep in mind that it is the, the lowly worker, the worst paid, the nobodies, who run this society and we can shut it down as easily as we run it.
The powerful and the wealthy know the power that we have and they tremble at the thought of us discovering it. We need a general strike, the sleeping giant must wake. They think that they can treat us like vermin but they forget that they are the rats.
Solidarity and direct action are our best bet and we must continue to organise on this basis.
The most fitting way to commemorate the Haymarket martyrs is to remember the dead and fight like hell for the living.