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Dungeons dark? Gallows grim? Words from the Red Flag … but what’s it all about? And in that second verse, often not sung let alone understood, why Chicago?

The sturdy German chants its praise,/ In Moscow’s vaults its hymns are sung/ Chicago swells the surging throng.

And how does this fit with May Day. Isn’t all about dancing around a village green or something?

The big struggle, thirteen decades ago, was to win the 8-hour work day without a cut in pay – eight hours rest, eight hours play, and eight hours work. This coincided with a new mood, which included interest in the newish idea of socialism. This had begun to reappear in Britain in the 1880s and, intriguingly considering later developments, in America, too, and this is where May Day as a workers’ day began.

At a national convention of unions held in Chicago in 1884, it was decided to call for the 8-hour day to operate, whether employers agreed it or not, from May 1st 1886. It was a general strike call, effectively.

More than 300,000 workers in 13,000 workplaces across the United States walked out in the first May Day celebration in history. In Chicago alone there were nearly 100,000 out. Only on May 3 did violence erupt on the picket line at a factory where a lock-out had been underway for six months.

Private security agents and police both with firearms and heavy clubs attacked steelworkers as they picketed. This provoked rock-throwing by workers, to which the police responded with gunfire, killing two and wounding many more.

A protest meeting was called for the following day in Haymarket Square. There, as the mayor of Chicago himself later testified, the crowd remained calm and no speakers called for violence.

But two detectives rushed to the police lines, claiming a speaker was inciting violence. Just as the police were urging the already departing crowd to leave, a bomb was thrown. It has never been established who did this but it was enough for the police to fire into the crowd. At least eight civilians and eight police died and up to forty were wounded. But only one police officer died as a result of the altercation, the rest were killed by what would today be called `friendly fire’.

Despite a complete lack of evidence, eight people were convicted of murder by a jury of businessmen, though only three were even present at Haymarket.

On November 11, 1887, after many failed appeals, the hangings began, although three escaped the noose and were pardoned six years later.

In 1889, at a congress in Paris, attended by socialists from many countries, on the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, a call for international demonstrations on the anniversary of the Chicago events was made and international workers May Day was launched. Today, it is an official holiday in eighty countries and unofficially celebrated in many more, but rarely is it recognised in the country where it began.


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