By Staughton Lynd
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 Industrial Worker
On May 1, 1886, the first general strike in U.S. history brought workers into the streets on behalf of one simple demand: an eight-hour working day. Their anthem was:
“We want to feel the sunshine;
We want to smell the flowers;
We’re sure (that) God has willed it
And we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces from
Shipyard, shop and mill;
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest,
Eight hours for what we will.”
As is the case in the movement of low-wage workers today, the movement for eight hours was characterized by skilled and less-skilled workers, and workers in different trades, making common cause.
On May 3, 1886, union members at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago, who had been locked out, confronted strikebreakers as they left the plant. A firefight broke out involving the police, and strikers were killed. In response a protest rally was called at a downtown open area called The Haymarket. The rally was peaceful, but as the meeting was coming to an end someone threw a bomb and seven policemen died. After a dramatic trial and unsuccessful appeals, four so-called “anarchists” were hanged.
This story became familiar to working-class movements all over the world. May 1 became international May Day. In Mexico City, it has been a tradition that every May Day translated excerpts from the last words of two of the executed men, Albert Parsons and August Spies, are read aloud to huge crowds in the central public square, or zocalo.