Under The Radar - May Day & The History of Exploitation


By Francis White


After finding out that Buffalo Bills' coach Rex Ryan had joined the dark side of the force, I got a message from someone about a May Day 2016 skate party in Buffalo. For those of you who don't know, May Day (May 1st) is a universally accepted day around the world that is designated as International Worker's Day. It has its origins in the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 in Chicago. 

Everyone knows, or should know by now the history of slavery and worker exploitation in this country. If not, here's my quick synopsis of it. The slave trade, particularly the buying and selling of African slaves by European slave traders was happening in the new world as early as the late 1300's or early 1400's. This was happening in places like the Caribbean and in Central and South America. The country of Brazil has the largest black population in the world outside of Africa and most of this was because of the slave trade. The Spanish Conquistadors essentially made slaves out of the many native populations they encountered in the new world. After the first Thanksgiving was over, some of the early European settlers tried to make slaves out of the native Americans of North America. And, of course we know about the history of slavery with black slaves in North America.

I'll get back to May Day in second because I want to talk a little about the history of slavery and exploitation in Europe. Europe had been battling with what could be classified as white slavery (whites enslaving other whites) with its Feudal System. This was a system of classcism that featured a social/economic hierarchy of kings, queens, nobles, knights, serfs, and pheasants - just like something out of a Robin Hood or King Arthur story. Feudalism (sometimes called Serfdom) started in about the 8th century and lasted in some form up until the mid 1800's in parts of Europe and in Russia. Life under feudalism was harsh. The upper class (kings, queens, nobles) could literally take from the lower class (serfs, pheasants) whatever they wanted. This included money, land, food, housing, possessions, tools, equipment, and in some cases even your children and wife. It must be noted that the upper class made up the minority of the European population (call it the 1% of its day), while the lower classes made up the majority of the European population. The term "feud" is a root of the word feudalism.

Although feudalism is officially over in Europe, it seems that this particular beast never really died, it just changed form. Now we have something called capitalism (We all know about that, don't we?), which to me is the off spring of feudalism. If I had the time I would tell you about the history of all the rebellions, revolutions, industrial revolutions, crusades, wars, and world wars that to me are directly linked to this continent's history of creating, having and promoting an exploitative culture. In many cases, these many feuds that were happening in Europe, were happening because those with power and money wanted to keep all the power and money. It is an old feud, a class warfare that never really seems to end. Feudalism mutated, morphed, and was even exported to other places around the globe from Europe.

Getting back to the origin of May Day, some would argue that the formation of the original 13 American colonies (and other European settlements in the new world) was an outgrowth of European exploitation. It was just a savvy business move on their (the rich's) part. Most people don't realize that the trips to the new world for the colonists and settlers had to be financed - they had to paid for. They weren't just given boats, supplies, food, and weapons for free. This stuff had to be paid for, and in many cases the bill for this trip to the new world was paid by the European governments or by corporations. These governments, corporations, and wealthy private citizens had a self interest in getting colonists to the new world - they saw dollar signs. You have to spend money to make money, and if these guinea pigs actually survived the long sea voyage, could help sub due the local natives, and get intel of the layout of the land, then the initial up front costs were well worth it. The American Revolution was more about a feud between two business partners over a bad deal than it was about freedom. 

In 1886, in Chicago, and in the rest of America, many of the advances in labor justice that we know today like the 8 hour work day, many of the rules dealing with fair pay, child labor, workplace safety, and more were non-existent. It took organizing and terrible events that got publicity (where people were hurt and/or killed) and national attention, to get any just labor legislation passed into law. Such was the case with the Haymarket Massacre.

There may be differing accounts of what exactly happened, but here is my take. Chicago, probably because of it's size and location has historically been sort of a headquarters or ground zero for organizing, particularly in labor. This was certainly true in the late 1800's. There were union and other groups organizing and working for better working conditions like an 8 hour work day. A couple of men, Albert Parsons and August Spies were two men who lived during this era and who had developed reputations for being anarchists. Because of the attention garnering activities of the American chapter for the International Working People's Association (IWPA), whom Parsons was the head of, he is sometimes credited in history with this anarchist label. Spies was an editor at a labor newspaper (considered by some to be anarchist) called The Alarm. Parsons is also said to have been an editor as well at the Alarm. The Alarm was published weekly, and was considered to be the voice for the IWPA. On May 3rd, 1886 there was a strike at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago. McCormick Reaper was a factory that manufactured horse drawn reapers. During this rally, a few of the strikers became physically engaged with some of the scabs (temporary replacement workers), and the Chicago police became involved.  It is said that hundreds of police got involved in clashes with strikers, and 2 of the striking workers were killed. A rally was called for the next night at Haymarket Square in Chicago by labor groups in protest of the deaths of the 2 strikers. This rally was organized by Chicago labor groups and Parsons and Spies were said to have helped to organize this event. They were allegedly present at this rally. Hundreds of Chicago police and paid security were there to help keep the protestors under control. A bomb was thrown by an unidentified person and all hell broke loose. After the smoke cleared, many protesters were dead or injured. At least 60 police officers were injured and a few dead, many had been hit by gun shots fired from fellow officers. There was a trial and Parsons and Spies were blamed. I'll let you do your own research to find out what exactly happened to them.

This is the origin of  May Day. Some interesting back stories and things to consider are that Parsons fought in the Civil War as a Confederate soldier, and after the war he married a former slave (a black woman). This Haymarket incident and many of the early labor battles, these battles between labor and the corporation, were essentially a feud between two classes of whites. Of course the owners and operators of the corporation were white. At Haymarket, many of the protesters and striking workers were white, specifically poor German Americans. Many of the police and paid security involved were white. African Americans generally around this time and even later (even til this day in some industries) were really not allowed (or they were discouraged) to join unions. Or, they were encouraged and corralled into certain types of work and occupations at a mill, factory, corporation, etc. An example of this is the porter unions. Often, if they did organize on a job, they had to create their own separate (segregated) unions.