The First of May is commemorated around the world as International Workers Day or May Day. Its origins lay in the Haymarket Massacre, an infamous act of state repression designed to bludgeon the burgeoning US workers’ movement. Instead of defeating the workers’ movement and its demand for a more just world, it sparked international solidarity. Today, throughout the United States and the world, workers, including at Amazon, Target, and Whole Foods, are continuing to fight for their basic rights as workers. Their collective action aimed at building a more just world represents the power and importance of free speech and the right to protest.
As a civil liberties organization dedicated to defending the right to free speech, we remember that the cause of labor was an important center of focus for the early civil liberties movement. While forming a union, going on strike, picketing, or boycotting are clear examples of the right of freedom association, assembly, and speech, many were loath to recognize them as such. As part of its fight for its very survival, labor had to mount a defense of basic civil liberties we all take for granted today. As we explained in an earlier statement,
We know that the struggle for workers’ rights has always been closely connected with the struggle for the right to freedom of speech. The very right to form a union is protected under the right to freedom of association. Strikes and picket lines are amongst the most quintessential examples of expressive action our Bill of Rights is meant to protect. Yet, for far too long federal, state, and local governments would go to great lengths to suppress these rights. Judges declared unions illegal and jailed workers. Police, national guardsmen, and private mercenary forces, like the infamous Pinkerton Detectives, attacked picket lines with great violence. Assemblies and presses were banned; ideas were criminalized. Yet, the workers’ movement refused to give up, refused to concede that the Bill of Rights were merely a promise the government had no intention of delivering on.
In 1939, the Supreme Court recognized for the first time (in Hague v Committee for Industrial Organization) a right to political assemblies on public streets and parks when striking down a law meant to ban labor meetings. This is emblematic of how everyone who enjoys free expression in the United States owes a tremendous debt to the labor movement. We must also remember that while these rights were eventually ratified by the courts, during a shameful period in our past, when it came to the rights of working people, politicians and courts were more than willing to side with powerful corporate interests over our Bill of Rights. As a result, these rights had to be won on the picket line, in the mine encampment, on the factory floor. Thanks to this struggle all Americans, whether they participate in the labor movement or not, enjoy a range of rights. This is why one cannot support freedom of speech without standing in solidarity with the labor movement.
Today, we recall those contributions as we defend the rights of those workers involved in strikes and protests actions today. With a deadly pandemic and government officials apathetic to the safety of workers, the rights of working people to strike, picket, boycott, protest, and speak up are of the utmost importance.
Background on the Origins of May Day!
Want to learn more about the origins of May Day? Check out this except from our 2018 May Day statement on its history and origins:
while May Day is less celebrated in the US than other parts of the world where it is an official holiday, May Day’s origins lie in the Haymarket Massacre. On May 1, 1866 workers across the United States went on strike demanding an eight-hour work day. On May 3, striking workers in Chicago, Illinois were shot down by police, resulting in the death of two workers. As a response, a demonstration in support of the strikers and against police violence was called for on May 4. This demonstration was undeniably peaceful until police decided to break up the crowd, at which point an unknown individual threw a bomb. At the end of the event, seven police and four workers were dead.
The police responded with swift repression. Unable to find a real suspect for the bombing, eight anarchist organizers, some of whom were not even present at the rally, were put on trial. Their political views and writings were submitted to the jury as evidence of their guilt. At the end of the trial, all were found guilty and seven defendants were sentenced to death. Four of the defendants were executed by the state, two had their sentences commuted. All three surviving defendants would receive full pardons given the outrageous misconduct that marred the trial and investigation.
The Socialist International chose May 1 as International Workers’ Day to commemorate the Haymarket Martyrs. To this day, unions and civil society groups continue to celebrate May Day and use it to demand greater workers’ rights. In recent years in the United States, immigrants’ rights groups have chosen May Day to hold demonstrations.
The Haymarket Massacre didn’t just spawn International Workers’ Day. The Chicago Police would go onto form one of the first “red squads” in the nation, an intelligence unit created to spy on, infiltrate, and disrupt political and social groups, and all levels of government would engage in repression of those with socialist, anarchist, communist, or other anti-capitalist political beliefs. This repression was at times closely intertwined with the violence carried out against striking workers. Those who support the right to political expression, should recall this May Day that one cannot support freedom of speech without standing in solidarity with the labor movement.