See below for the story about the Haymarket Martyrs and a certain Chinese Chicken dish by Lachlan Hurse. Featured photo in the masthead depicts the Workers Self Management Group at 1971 May Day march (Fortitude Valley Brisbane) Photo: Graham Garner
The Brisbane May Day Celebration Committee
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International Workers’ Day Concert
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The international day of the workers in any language
organised by The Brsbane May Day Celebration Committee Endorsed by the QCU Labour Day Committee
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The Haymarket Martyrs
By Lachlan Hurse
10 May 2007
As we celebrate the Day of the Workers this weekend, I am reminded of a story I heard which irrefutably links the famous Hainanese Chicken dish with the origins of May Day.
At its convention in Chicago in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions resolved that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labour organizations throughout this jurisdiction that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.”
On May 1, 1886, Albert Parsons, head of the Chicago Knights of Labor, with his wife Lucy Parsons and two children, led 80,000 people down Michigan Avenue, Chicago, in what is regarded as the first-ever modern May Day Parade, in support of the eight-hour day.
In the next few days they were joined nationwide by 350,000 workers who went on strike at 1,200 factories, including 70,000 in Chicago, 45,000 in New York, 32,000 in Cincinnati, and additional thousands in other cities. Some workers gained shorter hours (eight or nine) with no reduction in pay; others accepted pay cuts with the reduction in hours.
Lucy Parsons was well known not only for her labour activism, but her great culinary skill. Often at the Parson’s family home labour activists would gather to discuss their campaign for the eight hour day and discussed strategies over a meal prepared by Lucy. One of her favourite dishes was one that had come from the Chinese workers on the Californian goldfields, a simple steamed chicken dish, garnished with available spices including a ginger sauce. Her own diary of the time recorded such a meal on May 2, on the eve of yet another demonstration in support of the eight hour day.
On May 3, 1886, August Spies, editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung (Workers Newspaper), spoke at a meeting of 6,000 workers, and afterwards many of them moved down the street to harass scabs at the McCormick plant in Chicago. The police arrived, opened fire, and killed four people, wounding many more.
At a subsequent rally on May 4 to protest this violence, a bomb exploded at the Haymarket Square. The rally began peacefully under a light rain on the evening of May 4. August Spies spoke to the large crowd while standing in an open wagon on Desplaines Street. According to many witnesses Spies said he was not there to incite anyone. Meanwhile a large number of on-duty police officers watched from nearby. The crowd was so calm that Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr., who had stopped by to watch, walked home early. Some time later the police ordered the rally to disperse and began marching in formation towards the speakers’ wagon. A bomb was thrown at the police line and exploded, killing policeman Mathias J. Degan. The police immediately opened fire. While several of their number besides Degan appear to have been injured by the bomb, most of the casualties seem to have been caused by bullets. About sixty officers were wounded in the riot, as well as an unknown number of civilians. In all, seven policemen and at least four workers were killed in the riot. There is no accurate count of the latter, as those injured were afraid to seek medical attention for injuries, fearing punishment for their part in the riot
Eight people connected directly or indirectly with the rally and its anarchist organisers were charged with Degan’s murder: August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden and Oscar Neebe.After an exhaustive trial where all eight were found guilty and seven sentenced to death, appeals saw two of the men having their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment. Of the remaining five, one (Lingg) suicided on the eve of his execution while the next day, November 11, 1887, Spies, Parsons, Fischer, and Engel were hanged together before a public audience.
Taken to the gallows in white robes and hoods, they sang the Marseillaise, the anthem of the international revolutionary movement. Family members including Lucy Parsons who attempted to see them for the last time were arrested and searched for bombs. None were found. August Spies was widely quoted as having shouted out, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” Witnesses reported that the condemned did not die when they dropped, but strangled to death slowly, a sight which left the audience visibly shaken.
The American Federation of Labor, meeting in St Louis in December 1888, set May 1, 1890 as the day that American workers should work no more than eight hours. The International Workingmen’s Association (Second International), meeting in Paris in 1889, endorsed the date for international demonstrations, thus starting the international tradition of May Day.
The trial is often referred to by scholars as one of the most serious miscarriages of justice in United States history. Most working people believed that [private detective] Pinkerton agents provoked the incident. On June 26, 1893, Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld signed pardons for Fielden, Neebe, and Schwab after having concluded all eight defendants were innocent. The governor stated that the real reason for the bombing was the city of Chicago’s failure to hold Pinkerton guards responsible for shooting workers. The pardons ended his political career.
The police commander who ordered the dispersal was later convicted of corruption. The bomb thrower was never identified, although some anarchists privately indicated they had later learned his identity but kept quiet to avoid further prosecutions
Authors note: Some historians might quibble about the Hoinanese Chicken reference