Dick Meister: The real May Day

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By Dick Meister

May Day. A day to herald the coming of Spring with song and dance, a day for
children with flowers in their hair to skip around beribboned maypoles, a
time to crown May Day queens.

But it also is a day for demonstrations heralding the causes of working
people and their unions such as are being held on Sunday that were crucial
in winning important rights for working people. The first May Day
demonstrations, in 1886,  won the  most important of the rights ever won by
working people ­ the right demanded above all others by the labor activists
of a century ago:

"Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!"

Winning the eight-hour workday took years of hard struggle, beginning in the
mid-1800s. By 1867, the federal government, six states and several cities
had passed laws limiting their employees' hours to eight per day. The laws
were not effectively enforced and in some cases were overturned by courts,
but they set an important precedent that finally led to a powerful popular
movement.

The movement was launched in 1886 by the Federation of Organized Trades and
Labor Unions, then one of the country's major labor organizations. The
federation called for workers to negotiate with their employers for an
eight-hour workday and, if that failed, to strike on May 1 in support of the
demand.

Some negotiated, some marched and otherwise demonstrated.  More than 300,000
struck. And all won strong support, in dozens of cities ­ Chicago, New York,
Baltimore, Boston, Milwaukee, St. Louis, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Denver,
Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Detroit, Washington, Newark, Brooklyn, St. Paul
and others.

More than 30,000 workers had won the eight-hour day by April. On May Day,
another 350,000 workers walked off their jobs at nearly 12,000
establishments, more than 185,000 of them eventually winning their demand.
Most of the others won at least some reduction in working hours that had
ranged up to 16 a day.

Additionally, many employers cut Saturday operations to a half-day, and the
practice of working on Sundays, also relatively common, was all but
abandoned by major industries.

"Hurray for Shorter Time," declared a headline in the New York Sun over a
story describing a torchlight procession of 25,000 workers that highlighted
the eight-hour-day activities in New York. Never before had the city
experienced so large a demonstration.

Not all newspapers were as supportive, however. The strikes and
demonstrations, one paper complained, amounted to "communism, lurid and
rampant." The eight-hour day, another said, would encourage "loafing and
gambling, rioting, debauchery, and drunkenness."

The greatest opposition came in response to the demonstrations led by
anarchist and socialist groups in Chicago, the heart of the eight-hour day
movement. Four demonstrators were killed and more than 200 wounded by police
who waded into their ranks, but what the demonstrators¹ opponents seized on
were the events two days later at a protest rally in Haymarket Square. A
bomb was thrown into the ranks of the police who had surrounded the square,
killing seven and wounding 59.

The bomb thrower was never discovered, but eight labor, socialist and
anarchist leaders ­ branded as violent, dangerous radicals by press and
police alike ­ were arrested on the clearly trumped up charge that they had
conspired to commit murder.  Four of them were hanged, one committed suicide
while in jail, and three were pardoned six years later by Illinois Gov. John
Peter Altgeld.

Employers responded to the so-called Haymarket Riot by mounting a
counter-offensive that seriously eroded the eight-hour day movement's gains.
But the movement was an extremely effective organizing tool for the
country's unions, and in 1890 President Samuel Gompers of the American
Federation of Labor was able to call for "an International Labor Day" in
favor of the eight-hour workday. Similar proclamations were made by
socialist and union leaders in other nations where, to this day, May Day is
celebrated as Labor Day.

Workers in the United States and 13 other countries demonstrated on that May
Day of 1890 ­ including 30,000 of them in Chicago. The New York World hailed
it as "Labor's Emancipation Day." It was. For it marked the start of an
irreversible drive that finally established the eight-hour day as the
standard for millions of working people.

Bay Guardian columnist Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the SF
Chronicle and KQED-TV, has covered labor and politics for a half-century as
a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website,
dickmeister.com, which includes several hundred of his columns.

(The Bruce blog is written and edited by Bruoe B. Brugmann, editor at large of the Guardian. He is the former editor of the Guardian and with his wife Jean Dibble the co-founder and co-publisher of the Guardian,1966-2012.)

Comments

Fair pay for a days work. Good idea.
Why doesn't PG&E pay home owners anything, nothing, zip, zero, for the millions of dollars worth of solar energy that home owners feed onto the grid daily?

I have a large roof. Large enough for 33 solar panels, in a perfect sunny location in South Park. I hired a solar company to install the 33 panels.

They refused to do it because PG&E has a rule: You can't install more solar panels than the size of your electric bill.

I use very little atomic energy from PG&E, $44. a month, because I live on less energy than most people. I get up when the sun comes up & I go to bed when the sun goes down. I am a farm boy.

I violate the rule, because I do not consume enough energy.

So if I want to harvest $500. worth of solar energy a month,
from my roof, & sell it to PG&E,
PG&E will not pay me for my surplus electricity.

That makes no sense to me.

Bruce, do you have solar panels?

What is the biggest problem in the world today?
Is it global climate collapse?
If that is true, and if we could end climate collapse by switching to solar,
and stop using gas, why don't we all install solar panels and charge up our electric cars with our solar?

Enough solar energy hits SF in one day to run the whole city from solar, 100%, if just 10% of the homes have solar panels.
That fact is from the film "Here Comes the Sun - Scheer".
On May Day we need to update our priorities on workers rights.
Am I not doing valuable work harvesting solar energy?
I demand to be paid a fair price for the energy I harvest!
I demand the right to stop global climate collapse with solar.

Posted by Paul Kangas on May. 05, 2014 @ 6:26 am

Your Blog fascinated me, although there are few that needs to be corrected but above all it’s great.

Posted by Behance Dean Winchester on May. 29, 2014 @ 11:12 pm

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