May 01, 2008

Premier Mai (May Day), la Fête du Travail, in France and in Chicago. 
 Today, May 1, 2008, many immigrants will organize parades in the streets of Chicago to focus the attention of the public on their various problems in this country. But very few people know that this day is in fact celebrated all over the world as “Labor Day” , an international workers holiday, and that it has its (tragic) origin in some events that took place in Chicago between May 1 and May 4, 1886.

Every year on the first day of May I feel very nostalgic of the way the “Fête du Travail’’ (Labor Day) was celebrated in France in the fifties where it was one of the most joyous national holiday. I enjoyed watching the marches and parades organized by the major labor unions in the large cities with its colorful banners and loud slogans, the traditional bountiful picnics or lunches with friends, and sometimes the music and dances on public squares. And of course it was also a celebration of Spring with the tiny bouquets of muguet (Lilies of the Valley) that you would buy from street vendors for a few francs, and that men and boys would offer to their girlfriends, mothers or favorite female teachers. Some years the muguet was scarce and expensive, but most often its powerful fragrance would overpower the living room of the house or the bar room of the neighborhood café-restaurant. It was really a day of popular joy and good humor, even in socio-political environments not too fond of any left-wing connotations, or very remote from workers rights and demands, and it was even observed in conservative and bourgeois families who read the Figaro rather than L’Humanité. Of course I remember the food that was simple but flavorful: Deviled eggs (oeufs durs mayonnaise), quiches, omelettes aux fines herbes ou au lard (omelettes with parsley and chives or with bits of fried bacon), cornets de frites (french fries), poulet rôti et jardinière de légumes ( roasted chicken with fresh spring peas, baby carrots and pearl onions), and sometimes when they were already available, fraises au sucre avec de la crème Chantilly (fresh strawberries sprinkled with powdered sugar with whipped cream). At the end of the day lots of young people had initiated their first serious amorous, or just flirtatious connection, and many were not walking that straight after a few too many glasses of pastis or rosé wine. In those days the Premier Mai’s workers parades were rather good-humored, rather than charged with hard political chants and slogans, except during periods of strikes or social discontent when they became a perfect occasion to remind the population and the government of their “revendications” (demands), protests, and rights.

But I am ready to bet that if you had asked any marching worker what was the origin of the Premier Mai or the Fête du Travail, very few would have been able to say that it was a commemoration of some tragic events that took place in Chicago on May 1, 1886. On that date workers, including members of unions, socialists, a few anarchists, and more generally members of organizations demanding reforms, got together to launch a national movement towards obtaining an eight hours working day. Following several days of marching in various streets Thirty five thousands workers walked off their plants, workshops and stores, joined by many thousands more the following days, calling other workers to go on strike. There were several rough contacts with the police, some including shooting episodes. The most serious of them occurred on May 3 at the Mc McCormick plant (the famous farm implement manufacturer) that had been on strike for a while when policemen shot 2 or 3 striking workers. This provoked more violence and some anarchists called for revenge at a protest meeting that they had organized at the Haymarket square on Randolph Street. Initially that meeting that took place on DesPlaines St, half a block north of Randolph, was rather calm, under the watch of the police department. But an encouragement to civil disobedience by one of the speakers motivated a police force of 176 men to march into the crowd and try to disperse the meeting. Someone threw a bomb that killed a police officer and that event prompted the police to open fire in every directions, killing and wounding many people. Sixty police officers were wounded and eight killed. The Haymarket episode was regarded by big business owners as a proof that the workers movement was infiltrated by radicals and anarchists that threatened the future of the American enterprise system. The mayor of the city banned all meetings and marches. Any kind of picketing was immediately dispersed by police. The local press published very tough articles against anarchists and foreigners accused by the police of being responsible for all the trouble. In spite of hundred of arrests, the Chicago Police Department never found the person who had thrown the bomb. But this conspiracy theory that everything was caused by anarchists and foreigners did nothing to calm things down. In 1887 eight anarchists were arrested and found guilty by a biased judge and preconditioned jury. Half of them were hanged, one committed suicide in jail, 3 were eventually pardoned by the Governor of Illinois in 1893. The involvement of these men in the events of May 1886 was never proved.  

But this movement for a shorter workday initiated by the American Labor movement on May 1, 1886, is at the origin of using May Day as a holiday celebrating labor, all over the world... except in the United States where that holiday was considered after World War II as a “communist” holiday by many Americans. Additional Source: For more info on the Haymarket story consult the marvelous " The Encyclopedia of Chicago", Published in 2004 by The University of Chicago Press, where I refreshed my memory on this event

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