On May 1 1886, the streets of the United States were filled by protesting workers.
Workers all over the country were marching and striking for a standard eight-hour working day. Although the protests and pickets were peaceful, the state reacted with predictable violence. Many workers were hospitalised and a number beaten to death by the attacks of brutal and vicious cops.
At a meeting in Haymarket Square, Chicago to protest the murder of strikers by police in Chicago the previous day, a bomb was thrown into the lines of cops, with one cop killed immediately and many others wounded. The police had been trying to disperse the protest at the time of the incident and, following it, they opened fire indiscriminately, killing and wounding many workers.
The reaction of capitalism was to blame the attack on the police on the leaders of the campaign for an eight-hour working day. In Chicago, this meant August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe and Louis Lingg. All eight were charged with murder.
Although some of the accused weren’t even at the protest meeting and the cops and lawyers provided no evidence that any of them had thrown the bomb, seven of the eight were convicted of the attack. Four would be executed, while one took his own life rather than let the state take it.
What follows is the story of the life of Albert Parsons, who was one of the four workers’ leaders hung in Chicago by capitalists determined not to cede the eight-hour working day.
His father and mother both died before he was six years-of-age and, after that, Albert was raised by elder brothers or sisters. When the American Civil War, or ‘slaveholder’s revolt’ as Parsons called, it broke out in 1861, 13-year-old Parsons was living in Waco, Texas and soon volunteered for a local Confederate militia called the Lone Star Greys.
After some involvement in early battles, the young Parsons arrived home to Texas where, despite his sister’s instructions and the advice of friends, he enlisted in the regular Confederate army. For the duration of the war, Parsons was never far from the front but, as he matured in age, he gained a new insight into the causes of the war.
When he arrived home from the front at the end of the war, he took up the trade of type setting and began working in a printing office. In 1868, he established his own newspaper, The Spectator. The paper was of a campaigning nature and central to Parson’s post-war political outlook was that freed slaves should be entitled to full civil rights.
Within a short period of time, the youthful Parsons found himself a pariah in Waco, with his views gaining active opponents from among his neighbours, his former army comrades and the local Ku Klux Klan. When Parsons became involved in local politics to rally people to his side – a career “full of excitement and danger” – he soon found his newspaper closed down and he was driven out of town to find employment.
Chicago and Socialism
After a variety of short term jobs and many postings, Parsons found himself in Chicago on assignment. He was fascinated with the city and, soon, the newly-married couple moved there. Parsons immediately found work in the printing trade and, within a matter of months, became interested in the struggles of workers as a result of a massive scandal then shaking Chicago.
A huge fund of money had been collected throughout north America and from international donors to provide relief for the victims of the great Chicago fire of 1871. The money was then being held by corrupt speculators and parasites, who were using it for their own enrichment rather than providing any assistance to the impoverished Chicago residents that the fund had been subscribed for.
The labour movement in the city were making much of this great crime and the vicious attacks of the local capitalist media on these campaigners for justice attracted Parson’s attention.
On investigation, Parsons found that the charges made by socialist agitators of corruption against the Relief and Aid society were true. Once exposed to the literature of the socialists, he found it easy to understand the exploitative relationship that existed between the rich and the working class. He went as far as to say that the attitude of large landowners in Texas to ex-slaves was similar to the exploitative relationship that existed in Chicago.
Reading socialist literature, attending public meetings and conferences, Parsons soon found himself at the centre of labour struggles in Chicago. In July 1877, a major strike of railway workers was underway, with Parsons addressing a meeting of over 30,000 workers. The next day, he found himself in the presence of the chief of police, who chastised him and then not to subtly threatened his life. He also found himself sacked from his job with the Times and, after getting a night’s work in the Tribune, he discovered he was blacklisted when he was escorted from the building by private security goons, one of whom placed a gun to his head and threatened to blow his brains out. For the next two years, Parsons found it almost impossible to find paid employment in the city.
Parson’s experience was but a premonition of things to come. On July 23 1877, the state of Illinois released its full forces of coercion. Police and the Illinois National Guard were sent to attack strikers and labour agitators. Over two days, mass meetings were broken up, with hundreds injured by batons and gunshots. Union halls were surrounded and members barred from entering. At the Furniture Union Hall, the police arrived as a meeting was taking place. They broke in through the building’s locked doors and proceeded to shoot indiscriminately into the crowd. Many were wounded and one union member was killed.
Both Parsons and the Chicago labour movement reacted vigorously against this repression. Parsons, himself, continued to be a very active member of his union and also stood for election for a number of posts. This period saw the launch of the Knights of Labour in Chicago and, in less than a decade, it had tens of thousands of members in the state of Illinois, with national membership at over one million. In political terms, the Socialist Labour Party was launched and it elected many representatives throughout Illinois. The class lines were being drawn very clearly. Parsons explains the situation well:
“The millionaires and their representatives on the pulpit and rostrum avowed their intention to use force to quell their dissatisfied labourers. The execution of these threats; the breaking up of meetings, arrest and imprisonment of labour ‘leaders’; the use of club, pistol and bayonet upon strikers; even to the advice to throw hand-grenades (dynamite) among them- these acts of violence and brutality led many workingmen to consider the necessity for self-defence of their persons and their rights. Accordingly, workingmen’s military organisations sprang up all over the country.”
The similarities to the situation that saw the launch of the Irish Citizen Army in response to the attacks of the police during the 1913 Lockout are clear. In the United States, people were used to handling arms, which they saw as a basic right. However, the legislature in Illinois soon passed a law banning organised workers’ bodies from bearing arms. While workers appealed this legislation all the way to the US Supreme Court, they were to find that this right was one which workers did not possess.
On the political front, Parsons found, too, that there were limits to the rights which workers had. While the Socialist Labour Party organised mass rallies, with tens of thousands in attendance on occasion, and fought many election campaigns, they found themselves thwarted at every turn.
While they did have many electoral successes, they found that, all too often, the capitalists were engaging in fraud – stuffing ballot boxes and applying voter impersonation. Among many leaders of the labour movement it was felt that promising change solely through electoral politics was misleading workers as no worker would be free until they had economic as well as political power and no ballot box was taking votes on that. They also found that, with the working day well over 10 hours for most workers and sometimes up to 13 or 14 hours, there was very little opportunity to develop political awareness.
As a result, Parsons and a large number of other activists withdrew from the Socialist Labour Party and began to build campaigns around the demand for an eight-hour working day. Parsons, on behalf of Chicago workers, travelled all over the United States to lobby labour unions to back the campaign.
From Washington to Pittsburgh, his resolutions were backed strongly and, from 1880 when work had begun, there was a steady increase in momentum.
Many of those who were at the forefront of this campaign joined the new International Working People’s Association, which, over time, was more popularly understood to be the Anarchist International.
The name anarchist had first been used as a term of insult by the capitalist media but, as Parsons says, “We began to allude to ourselves as anarchists, and the name which was at first imputed to us as a dishonour, we came to cherish and to defend with pride... The word anarche is derived from the Greek words an, signifying no, or without, and arche, government; hence anarchy means no government.”
These anarchists were central to the decision that was reached to lead workers out on strikes, work stoppages, marches and rallies on May 1 1886 in demand for an eight-hour working day.
While hundreds of thousands of workers took to the streets, there was resistance by the state and, following attacks and murder by the police on striking workers, a protest meeting in Chicago was called for Haymarket Square.
While Albert Parsons had addressed the meeting, he was a block away sheltering from the rain when the bomb was thrown and the police rioted.
Nevertheless, he was hung for this action. The judges and the police, understanding that the capitalists wanted him punished for the crime of demanding improvements in the lot of workers, carried out their dreadful bidding.
This May Day, remember all those campaigners, fighters, thinkers and leaders who gave their lives that their class might be free. And remember also the work that remains to be done – nothing less than the emancipation of the working class and the ushering in of a completely new social order. Ar aghaidh linn le chéile.
Smash the NAMA Republic!
Different Name, Same Aim
Campaign for British withdrawal
We Only Want the Earth!
No British Royal Visits!
Workers in Struggle
Reclaim The Republic
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