So it has come to this, why must I wake the sleeping? It wasn't so long ago I was asleep myself. Why must I be the one to tell you what you don't want to hear? Why must I tell you about how quickly hot red human blood congeals and turns black when mixed with cold pavement or frozen mud? Murderous armies training automatic weapons on women and children, then firing off a few rounds, just for fun.
Not Russia or China or Somalia or Chechnya but in Chicago and Kentucky and Colorado and Michigan. Hundreds died and hundreds more were wounded, but they kept coming because they were fighting for something greater than themselves. They were fighting a more personal revolution, closer to home than Valley Forge or Yorktown--they were fighting for personal liberty and personal dignity.
Sketch by C. Bunnell and Chas Upham in Leslie’s, May 15, 1886.
They were not tools, they were not raised to work sunup to sun down hauling coal or sewing shirts so that the few, far removed from the sweatshops and the coal dust, could travel to Europe on a lark or throw massive parties where the favors were precious jewels. At River Rouge firemen turned water hoses on demonstrators in sub zero temperatures. The police fired into the crowd at random, killing three and wounding thirteen. In Ludlow, the Coal Company put strikers out of company housing during a snowstorm.
They put Mother Jones in jail for the crime of speaking up. No charges, no lawyers, just iron bars and a cold cell. But the miners wouldn't give in, so they called in the state Militia that took orders from the governor who sided with the company. Just for fun they would fire shots into the strikers' camps, just for fun. They shot a nine-year-old boy in the head but the press wouldn't report it. Only after they'd set fire to a family tent and killed nine women and three small children--only then would the press begin to take notice.
In Chicago on May 4, 1886, fifteen hundred gathered to support striking railroad workers demanding -- of all things -- the outrageous notion of an eight-hour workday. It began to rain and most of the crowd was already gone when police moved in force to disperse the remaining demonstrators. Someone threw a bomb and who that person was was never determined. Police opened fire on the crowd and killed four and wounded over one hundred. Seven policemen were dead and demands for vengeance, not justice, reigned.
Eight men were arrested and tried, but it was a show trial. No evidence was presented that proved the men had anything to do with the bomb or even knew the bomber. Someone's got to die and we pick you! Four men were hanged, guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One committed suicide and the other three were given long prison terms. They were eventually pardoned, in the words of the governor, "on the grounds that the trial had been patently unjust."
A heavy price to pay for an eight-hour day isn't it? No policemen were ever charged for firing indiscriminately into the crowd. Just as no one was charged in Ludlow and no one was charged in Calumet for yelling fire into a union hall during a Christmas party. Seventy-five people, mostly children, suffocated on the stairs that Christmas Eve in the rush to get out.
In Matewan, the company responded to workers organizing by hiring private "detectives" to begin evicting the strikers from company housing. The Police Chief, Sid Hatfield, demanded the detectives produce legal writs of eviction before putting anyone out of their homes. Hatfield was later gunned down on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse by four men. No one was ever charged or arrested for his murder -- a murder that happened in broad daylight on the very steps of American justice.
The battle of Matewan killed seven detectives, two miners and the mayor. The surviving detectives vowed revenge on Sid Hatfield and apparently they had it in front of the courthouse in broad daylight.
The Molly Maguires were a secret Irish group whose goal was to organize workers in the Pennsylvania coal fields. The company owned the fields, the town and the courts, and just an inkling of a suspicion of belonging to the "Mollies" was reason good enough for a long jail term--that is if they didn't hang you. The coal trusts suspected the "Mollies" as being the heart of the resistance when the company cut the workers wages by 20%. Ungrateful wretches weren't they?
So what does May Day mean to you? Probably nothing, maybe you've got a job, maybe a real good one, and you're only concerned with your own lookout. So you don't want me jostling your bed cause you sleep good at night. I used to sleep good at night, too. Then by the moonlight I began to wonder why it is that there is always money to help big business and never enough money to help the workers? Or why health care reform means more money for big insurance companies? GM went before Congress and spelled it out: their plan to return to profitability is to eliminate as many American workers from the company payroll as possible and expand their plants in Mexico. Congress nodded, Republican and Democrat alike, and mumbled, "Good plan!"
So what does May Day mean to you? The World Bank has estimated that the United States has exported over 40% percent of its industrial base to the third world. The same report warned that in the event of an economic downturn, it would be difficult for this economy to recover because economies that produce nothing produce no wealth. A carwash, a barbershop or a Wal-Mart only exchange money and take a percentage as profit. They create only low wage jobs because profitability depends on cheap labor--that's you.
But for those who exported the plants, the times are good. Better than ever until... until they were hoisted on their own petards. Just as they profited from deregulation so did the banks--change partners allemande, right! Just who did they blame when the house of cards fell? Why, you, of course. They'll grab a handful of scapegoats and let the rest go free. No one will ask why a Freddie Mac bank president who received an $800,000 bonus just a couple of months ago is suddenly suicidal. Maybe his conscience hurt or he had thoughts of telling the truth.
Maybe this all means nothing; maybe you'll sleep well tonight. After all it's only May Day and Hallmark doesn't even send cards to commemorate nine-year-olds shot in the head or gun thugs yelling fire at a Christmas party. A few thousand people who put their lives on the line trying to make this country and this government live up to their promises.