May Day as International Workers’ Day has its origins in the Haymarket Affair of 1886, a double display of state violence: on May 3rd, the third day of a general strike for an eight-hour work day, police protecting strikebreakers fired into a crowd of striking workers. At a mass meeting the following day, someone threw a bomb into a group of arresting officers, and the ensuing police raids and arrests ended with eight men sentenced to death. The state hanged four and later pardoned two; one took his own life in prison. Meanwhile, labor organizers continued their work, and in 1889 the Second International declared May 1st International Workers’ Day.
I also want to talk about another day in May.
Starting–but more about that in a minute–on May 1st, 1867, striking workers in Chicago shut down the economy of the city for a week to close loopholes in a law calling, already for the eight-hour workday. Industries in and around Chicago at that time included meatpacking, garment manufacturing, shipping, lumber processing, iron molding–so we can guess that fewer components were poured and fewer cuffs and collars sewn, that cargo ships sat at their moorings and that meat rotted on the packing lines. A week of people earning no money, drawing from the strike fund if they could. A week in which a city that bragged about how much it could produce, how fast it grew, couldn’t hold onto that pride and had–if only for a week, after which the strike collapse–to admit who made that pride possible.
The strike itself started on May 1st, but the work of making it possible started long before: in conversations, in the nurturing of loyalties, in meetings, in the gathering of resources, in the asking of questions, in the distribution of knowledge, in arguments, in shared meals, in the washing of clothes and the tending of children, in corners, in quiet, under the cover of machine sounds.
The fight for the eight-hour workday is a fight to be owned less than entirely. It says: we won’t let you use us up. It says: we are more than fuel.
My attention keeps turning to the failures to refuse in the May Day origin story: the police who, on May 3rd, didn’t have to but chose to fire into a crowd of striking workers. The jury. The hangman. Someone would probably have punished them, or tried to, if they refused, but that’s not identical with not having a choice. Examine your promises: who do they require you to hurt?