On May 4, 1886, an unidentified protestor threw a stick of dynamite into a crowd of police. Officers were attempting to disperse labourers who had gathered at Haymarket Square in Chicago to fight for the eight-hour work day. Months later, four radicals – a fifth having already committed suicide in his cell – were hanged in relation to the event, sparking hundreds of demonstrations and provoking international outrage within the labour movement. In 1889, May 1st was declared International Worker’s Day, commemorating the Haymarket Affair.
In 1971, 35,000 activists celebrated the occasion with three days of actions in Washington, DC. After an impromptu music festival, protestors spread out across the city in an attempt to block government workers from reaching the White House, ultimately resulting in one of the largest mass arrests in labour history.
Never shying away from a good conflict, B.C. and our very own City of Gardens have their own place in the ongoing history of class struggle. “This community has been shaped by a tension between working people and employers,” says historian and Victoria Councillor Ben Isitt. Beginning with tensions between workers and the Hudson’s Bay Company, Isitt says The Capital finds its roots amongst both labourers and bosses.
“The relations within B.C.’s coal mining companies were notorious, and some of the deadliest coal mines were on Vancouver Island.” It is these relations, says Isitt, which were a financial boon to Victoria’s founding fathers.
Politician and mining baron Robert Dunsmuir – whose family home became the tourist attraction Craigdarroch Castle – built his fortune on the backs of hundreds of workers whose lives were lost in the family’s mines. “The politics of the coal economy contributed to a really radical political community in BC and to militant industrial unions, and we can see some of that legacy today,” says Isitt.
Workers in Victoria and elsewhere in B.C. continue to practice solidarity, organizing sympathy strikes despite a province-wide ban on the tactic since the ’60s. Today, May 1st, local activists and union organizers will march from Our Place to Centennial Square to commemorate International Worker’s Day. This march serves the same purpose as the thousands before it – to draw our attention from those starving at the bottom of the social ladder to those growing fat at the top. M