Noel Ignatiev's Blog

My May Day Tale

By Noel Ignatiev

As many of you reading this know, the First of May as the international labor day was born in Chicago in 1886 out of a strike at McCormick Reaper Works for the eight-hour day. At a rally at Haymarket Square on May 4, held to support the strike and denounce the killing of six strikers by police, someone threw a bomb that killed seven police. Eight anarchists were convicted of conspiracy; four were sentenced to death and four others to long prison terms. The state introduced no evidence of their direct responsibility for the bombing, or even that they were at the scene; they were denounced as its authors and inspirers, and that was enough to get them hung and imprisoned. Four years later, at the International Socialist Congress, May First was declared to be the international workers’ holiday.

Among those hung was Albert Parsons, from Texas, who had been a soldier with the Confederate army and after the War switched sides and published a radical, pro-Reconstruction newspaper. Forced to leave Texas when Reconstruction was overthrown, he moved to Chicago where he and his wife, Lucy Eldine Gonzalez Parsons, became active anarchists. After his hanging, his widow continued her work as an agitator.

The McCormick Reaper Works was the flagship plant of the International Harvester Company. When the union won recognition there in 1940, Lucy Parsons spoke at a rally, saying, “Now I know my husband didn’t die in vain.” The Reaper Works was torn down sometime in the 1960s.

From 1968 to 1971 I worked at IH’s Tractor Works plant, across the street from the original reaper works. I remember two of my fellow workers who would go for their coffee break by one signaling the other by whistling: tweet—tweet—tweet, tweet—tweet—tweet. I asked them what that whistle meant and they told me, that was what they used to chant when they were on the picket line: C-I-O, C-I-O.

That story connected me back to Lucy Parsons, back to the CIO, back to Haymarket, back to Albert Parsons and Reconstruction in Texas. By telling it here, I have now connected those who read it to that past. What you will do with it no one can say, but that is how history is passed along among the oppressed class.

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