That revolt ended with the execution of a group of anarchist trade unionists, the “martyrs” of that day. It was in Paris, in 1889, by agreement of the Socialist Labor Congress of the Second International, that May 1 was established as Worker’s Day to commemorate the Chicago Martyrs.
The origin: why is Labor Day commemorated?
The 19th century witnessed the first organized claims, in England, the United States, Germany and France. The application of the steam engine to industry and transportation generated a new panorama. With mechanization, there was a shift from craft production to standardized and scaled industrial manufacturing, which requires the massive employment of salaried labor. This gave way to the emergence of a working class or proletariat, which began to claim their rights.
The social conflict became more relevant with the influx of workers from the countryside to the city, who were looking for forms and livelihoods based on work. This wave caused the big cities to present problems, especially with salary and employment conditions, which are increasingly harsh and adverse. Clashes were seen due to overcrowding, epidemic diseases and the increase in crime, generating an explosive combo that led to social protest.
The May Day Strike and the Haymarket Riot
Many of these strikes were unsuccessful and others were only partial or transitory successes. However, one of these demonstrations achieved a special significance that changed working conditions permanently. It was the one that is rightly remembered on this date: the riot of May 1, 1886 in Haymarket, Chicago.
As this large industrial city in the US had already witnessed other violent claims, in which an 8-hour workday was demanded, the American Federation of Workers had called for a protest that May 1 with the same demand. The new labor laws granted that right to employees of federal offices and public works, but not to industrial workers.
The strike mobilized 350,000 workers from all over the country, but it had its epicenter in Chicago, where workers worked 14-hour days. That day there were disturbances and on May 4 a riot was called to repudiate the repression. 20,000 people gathered to listen to the speakers who repudiated what had happened. The tension reached its height when anarchist leader Samuel Fielden addressed a crowd in Haymarket Park.
Fielden was a worker of English origin, a preacher of the Methodist Episcopal Church, related to the socialist movement in which he stood out for his oratory. As treasurer of the American Group, he was invited to speak at the conference alongside Albert Parsons and August Spies. As Fielden addressed the crowd, a police delegation ordered the riot to break up.
With the police cracking down, Fielden began to protest the disruption when someone threw a bomb into the crowd. One officer was killed and 60 protesters were injured, including Samuel Fielden himself. The authorities opened fire leaving 38 dead and hundreds of wounded among the crowd.
Event organizers, including Fielden, Parsons, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, Louis Lingg, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel, were imprisoned and tried. They were all sentenced to death by hanging. Louis Lingg committed suicide, and Schwab and Fielden’s sentences were changed to life in prison (although both were released after a few years in prison). The other four were executed on November 11, 1887.
It was never possible to prove who threw the bomb or that any of the defendants was involved in the attack. The Haymarket incident was repudiated throughout the world. The leaders were buried in the Old German Cemetery in Chicago, where a statue honors the memory of the Haymarket martyrs.
During the radical’s presidency, Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear, in 1925, the Government decreed the “day of celebration” for the workers to the Day of the Workers. And only 19 years later, under the leadership of Edelmiro Farrell and with Juan Domingo Peron in the position of Secretary of Labor and Welfare, the date reached the rank of an official holiday and was renamed “Labor Day”.
Perón said in those years that the commemoration of the day is a “symbol of the just aspirations of the worker and a fervent tribute to the noble dignity of all human labor.”