May Day, or International Workers' Day, was chosen in 1904 to memorialize the 1886 Haymarket affair, which began as a May 1st strike in Chicago in support of an eight-hour work day. On May 3, 1886, police had killed several protesting McCormick Harvesting Machine Company strikers as they confronted strikebreakers. (The exact number of fatalities was disputed.) The next day, many supporters from the public gathered at Haymarket Square to stage a peaceful rally. Unfortunately, local anarchists had distributed flyers calling for violent confrontation with the police, and their calls were answered. Someone from the crowd threw a bomb into the police lines as they gathered to disperse the crowd after sunset and the police responding by shooting into the crowd. Ultimately, eight police and four protesters were dead and up to 60 police and 70 civilians were injured.
The aftermath resulted in eight anarchists being convicted for their roles in the violence. Seven of them were sentenced to death and the final was handed a lengthy prison sentence (15 years). The notable irregularities in the trial led to the anarchists becoming international martyrs to the workers' cause.
The May Day/Haymarket Affair remembrance is recognized worldwide, but is especially revered by socialist, anarchist and communist groups and countries. In fact, May Day celebrations are one of the most important holidays in communist countries around the world: China, North Korea, the (former) Soviet Union, and Cuba. In many countries, May Day has evolved into mass anti-capitalism protests, which frequently result in violence.
Today, even Paris is engulfed in violence, as hooded anarchists torch vehicles and businesses, call for revolution and fight with police in the streets. Many labor supporters will also use this day to protest in the U.S. and, over the years, have committed violence in cities across our country.
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I have personally observed May Day celebrations in many countries, including Cuba, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Nicaragua. For example, in 1996, I went to Cuba on May Day to participate in a labor exchange with more than 60 other U.S. union officials where we met in Havana with union officials from across Cuba. The Cuban labor leaders came not to demand more from the government, but to support the "revolution" and offer concessions to support Castro. On May Day, we were invited to attend an assembly of the Central Union of Cuba Workers (CTC), where Castro addressed the CTC members and officials.
Following the assembly, I was interviewed on Radio Habana Cuba in both Spanish and English. I had heated exchanges with both the radio hosts and the CTC General Secretary, Pedro Ross Leal, concerning the openness and fairness of the Cuban government's labor system. In hindsight, it was probably not my smartest move, as critics of the revolution and Castro could (and generally are) jailed.
Many hard-left unionists have demented views on how they want to change the U.S. Labor laws to reflect communist systems, so I was not surprised at how much my fellow U.S. union officials admired the Cuban system. I have come to realize over the years that a lack of sophistication and understanding of our own labor history have lead to the fractures within the U.S. labor movement. Fortunately, we have been spared from the worst offenses other countries witness.