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Stepping aside

May Day organizer reflects on 30 years of telling the story

BRATTLEBORO—In every nation except the United States and Canada, May Day is observed as a holiday for workers to remember the fight for the eight-hour work day, for workplace democracy, and for the right of workers to organize.

And once Mary Alice Herbert learned the story — a story she and many other Americans never learned in school — she was determined to break the silence.

Starting in 1984, Herbert and others began celebrating May Day on the Brattleboro Town Common in an effort to reclaim the story of Haymarket for future generations.

Now 79, the retired Putney schoolteacher and occasional candidate for public office for Liberty Union and Socialist Party USA says that after 30 years of participating and helping to organize May Day in Brattleboro, she is stepping down to allow a new generation of activists to take it over.

Herbert first learned of May Day in the mid-1960s when she was traveling in the city of Matehuala in Mexico with her husband, Fred, and their two young children.

They came upon a large monument in a plaza dedicated to Los Mártires de Chicago. Erected in 1925 by local labor unions, it was inscribed with the names of eight men.

“I had no context for understanding it,” she said. “We were very puzzled.”

A little more than a decade later, Herbert was in Paris with her two youngest sons for a year abroad. One day, her sons announced that they had a long weekend off from school for a workers’ day, because of something that happened in Chicago.

She found out that May 1 was International Labor Day. Herbert eventually learned what happened in the first week of May in Chicago in 1886 — what came to be known as the Haymarket affair, the first major labor protest in the United States — and she learned about the eight men who died in the aftermath of the event that inspired the holiday.

First stirrings

On May 1, 1886, there was a huge protest in Chicago for an eight-hour workday, an event that was duplicated in other American cities. Two days later, Chicago police fired upon strikers at the McCormick Reaper plant. On May 4, a meeting to protest the police violence was held in Haymarket Square.

Labor organizers August Spies and Albert Parsons had already spoken and left the meeting. Samuel Fielden was speaking from a wagon when police charged the crowd with weapons drawn and a bomb exploded in their midst.

Policemen and workers were killed in the “Haymarket Riot” that followed.

The incident provided the government and anti-labor forces the pretext to crack down on unions and limit the rights of workers to organize.

Eight men were eventually tried, and four of them — Spies, Parsons, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer — were hanged on Nov. 11, 1887. Another man, Louis Lingg, committed suicide in his cell the day before his hanging.

Fielding, Oscar Neebe, and Michael Schwab were sentenced to life in prison. They were eventually pardoned in 1893.

The judge in the trial said that even though there was no evidence that any of the eight men threw the bomb, their words inspired the person who did.

On the gallows, Spies uttered these final words: “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!”

Two years after the hanging, the International Labor Congress met in Paris and adopted May 1 as International Workers’ Day. That same year, U.S. President Grover Cleveland designated the first Monday in September as Labor Day.

“I wondered why I had never learned any of this in high school in college, or why I had to go to France to learn about this piece of our history,” Herbert said.

“The Haymarket trial was closely followed by people around the world, and the day the four men were hanged became Martyrs’ Day in the U.S. and in Europe,” she said. “Some say that the reason why the armistice that ended World War I was signed on Nov. 11 was to take away Martyrs’ Day and turn it into Armistice Day.”

An ‘obsession’

Herbert said once she learned the story of the Haymarket martyrs, “it became like an obsession with me, that I didn’t know about them.”

In the 1980s, the impending centennial of the Haymarket affair led her and a group of like-minded activists to form the Haymarket Centennial Committee, and on May 1, 1984, the first observance was held on the Common.

“At first it was just a handful of us standing around talking about the labor movement,” she said. “But the celebrations got bigger with each year.”

Local unions — chief among them the United Nurses and Allied Professionals union, which represents workers at the Brattleboro Retreat — eventually joined in. Maypole dancing, face-painting, and ice cream were added to the schedule, and families got more involved.

“The nurses’ union was a natural to participate — they just had to walk up the hill,” said Herbert.

The Vermont Workers’ Center also started to get involved and before long started up May Day rallies of their own in Montpelier and Burlington.

Herbert said that a lot of the activist energy is now focused on the statewide rallies up north and have overshadowed the original event that kicked off May Day in Vermont.

That’s one reason why this year seems like a good time to step aside, she said. Right now, Herbert said, a group of young homeschoolers are helping to organize this year’s event.

“I feel like my work is done now,” she said. “More people now know the story about the Haymarket martyrs and the roots of the labor movement. If people want to keep May Day going, they will.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #251 (Wednesday, April 23, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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