Voices silenced in 1887 heard louder than ever this May Day


CHICAGO – “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.” Those were the last words from the gallows cried out by August Spies on Nov. 11, 1887.

The execution of Spies and three of his comrades was necessary, the prosecutor had insisted, even though “they are as innocent of killing those policemen as you and me. It is their ideas,” he said, “that cannot be permitted to survive another day.”

But 123 years later, here at the memorial for Spies and the rest of the Haymarket Martyrs on Saturday, there was ample evidence that their ideas have survived and flourished. The May Day 2010 rally at Haymarket Square amounted to nothing less than a declaration by this city’s workers that they were proudly re-claiming as their own a holiday once derided as a day only “the left” celebrated.

Al Martin, field director for the Illinois AFL-CIO, chaired the rally which was sponsored by the Chicago Federation of Labor. He was cheered as he compared the struggle of the Haymarket Martyrs for the eight-hour day and for justice on the job to the struggle today for passage of immigration law reform. “This whole thing is about racism being used to divide and conquer us and we are not going to let that happen,” he declared.

Fifty Japanese workers, members of Zenroren, Japan’s national labor federation, were applauded as they joined the crowd. Komatsu Tamiko, the federation’s international representative, paid homage to those “who died in the struggle for the eight-hour day. Today,” she said, “Japanese workers and American workers share the same fight for justice against corporations that are exploiting our brothers and sisters all over the world.” Tamiko presented a plaque which will become a permanent part of the memorial.

Jorge Ramirez, secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor, reminded the crowd about the “tens of thousands of trade unionists and their supporters who marched yesterday on Wall Street and the day before on Goldman Sachs here in Chicago.”

“Labor is leading the fight for financial reform,” he said. Labor will always stay “out front” on the issues, and unions will fight to make the recently passed health care reform “better and stronger,” he declared.

Many came to the rally fresh from recent or current battles with big companies.

Clad in their yellow United Food and Commercial Workers shirts, employees of two supermarket chains, Jewel Osco and Dominick’s, talked about support they were giving to workers at Wal-Mart.

Commenting on one of his union’s biggest struggles, Moises Zavala, a member of the UFCW’s Local 881, said, “Whether they like it or not we are going to make Wal-Mart change its attitude. They will respect the right to organize.”

Joe Tessane, a young worker at the rally, was asked why he came out this May Day. Tessane, fired recently after four years as an employee at the Logan Square Chicago Starbucks, said, “I’m here because of what they did to me.”

The former Starbucks employee explained he had joined an effort to unionize Chicago Starbucks stores because “the wages they pay are not enough to make a decent living, the health benefits are not really adequate and available to everyone and there is very little democracy or respect at the workplace.”

He described how “management puts forward the idea that it is open to suggestions from both workers and customers.”

“So when Howard Schultz, the CEO, was holding a press conference in Chicago recently,” Tessane said, “I went to talk with him. I told him I was a union organizer, that I had a list of concerns, and that I wanted to talk with him afterward. He said he was busy but would try.”

He approached Schultz again after the press conference. “He was nasty and brushed me off,” Tessane said. “I asked whether he was turning his back on the legitimate concerns of many of us who worked for him. He said nothing and just kept going.”

“The very next day when I went to work my manager told me they were letting me go because there were problems with my availability.”

“I’m at this rally because I’ve made up my mind to fight this,” Tessane said. “Young people need jobs with living wages. I’m working with the union and I’m doing what I have to survive, but like those guys,” he said, pointing to the Haymarket monument behind him, “I’m not giving up.”

Photo: Joe Tessane, fired after four years at Starbucks for trying to organize workers there, at the Haymarket May Day event. (PW/Blake Deppe)




John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.