Working people still struggle to win their rights in workplaces around the world. One hundred and twenty-five years ago at Haymarket Square in Chicago, the struggle for the eight-hour day in 1886 led to an event that forever memorialized the rights of working people as an international holiday. The Haymarket Square gathering began as a peaceful demonstration on May 4th for the eight-hour day. As police moved into to disperse the participants, a bomb was thrown which ended in the death of seven police officers and a number of the demonstrators. Eight of the organizers were convicted of conspiracy and four were hanged in 1887. In 1893, newly elected Governor Peter Altgeld, who criticized the original trial, pardoned those still remaining in prison. May 1st was chosen to represent working peoples’ struggle for justice and became a holiday around the world. In the United States, those in the economy and the government distanced themselves from May 1st celebrations and instead chose the first Monday in September to memorialize Labor Day. In the United States, Labor Day is celebrated as the end of Summer and the beginning of the Fall season. The underplaying of this holiday that celebrates the rights of working people is even starker today against the backdrop of increasing economic and social distance between the oligarchs and those who are the primary producers in our society.
Even those who are on-the-line or over-the-counter workers sometimes lose sight of their democratic rights in the functioning of our economy. The recent negative vote for a union to represent the workers in the newly built Volkswagon factory in Tennessee is a case in point. The Volkswagon management, growing out of a history of German labor-management cooperation, favors working directly with democratically elected unions within their plants. Within Germany since the 1950s the policy of mitbestimmung has been part of the German economic environment. Mitbestimmung guarantees the rights of workers to elect a worker’s council that deals directly with management in those areas that concern the rights and conditions of workers. In the Tennessee case, the anti-union stance of local politicians and “the right to work” climate in the South worked against a favorable vote for a union. Too bad the workers at Volkswagen didn’t look to the Harley-Davidson Company as an example of labor-management cooperation. Harley-Davidson management moved to a labor-management cooperation model in the 1980s. In the process the Harley-Davidson workers won fairer equity and greater work security and the company saw higher productivity and better quality in their products.
This year on May 1st, the labor community in Chicago will not forget the long tradition it has in the Haymarket event. The Illinois Labor History Society and the Chicago Federation of Labor will celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Haymarket struggle, also called The International Workers’ Day, at 3 p.m. in Haymarket Square at Randolph and Desplaines Streets. To lift up the global character of May 1st, representatives of the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT) will place an international commemorative plaque on the Haymarket Memorial. One would hope our U.S. government would recognize and accept our own dramatic part in this global event and celebrate May 1st as a national holiday.