The American labor movement first celebrated May 1 as a day for labor solidarity in 1886. On that day, as many as a quarter to half a million workers went on strike and held rallies across the country to call for an eight-hour work day. “Eight-hour day with no cut in pay!” was their rallying cry.
The date had been set two years earlier by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which set May 1, 1886, as the target date to make the eight-hour day a standard.
But that didn’t happen. An event three days later in Chicago not only set the eight-hour-day movement back by years, but changed the course of labor history and the way that unions are viewed in this country. The May 4 Haymarket Square bombing and ensuing trial mark the labor movement to this day; more than 125 years later, we’re still dealing with its legacy.
The rally began as a peaceful protest to support the eight-hour day and protest the killing and wounding of striking workers by Chicago police the day before at the McCormick Reaper Works. The organizers gave (long) speeches, and as the gathering (already smaller thanks to the arrival of rain) was about to disperse, the police arrived to break it up anyway.
To this day no one knows for sure who threw the dynamite bomb at that moment. What is known is that nearly a dozen people — police and protesters — were killed in the ensuing gunfire on the square, and scores more were wounded. Eight socialist and anarchist labor leaders were indicted, and four of them were quickly executed despite the total absence of evidence against any of the eight. In fact, the trial was completely rigged, with not only the media and public, but the judge and jury as well, openly biased against the defendants.
On one hand, the affair was a setback for the American labor movement, for it cemented in the public’s mind the image of workers and union activists as bomb-throwing anarchists intent on destroying prosperity. In a way, that’s not far from the picture union haters and the mass media present today.
“Making unions and union members seem un-American, crazy, greedy or corrupt is standard stuff in news coverage and has been all this time. Of course, corporate media and wealthy anti-unionists are usually more subtle now,” said Bay Area labor historian Fred Glass. “The bomb in Haymarket was a seen as an opportunity by factory owners and other bosses to crush the growing labor movement of the time by painting it as violent and radical.”
“In the late nineteenth century, soon after the events of Haymarket, Wall Street financier Jay Gould boasted, ‘I can hire one half the working class to kill the other half.’ Today the new plutocrats pretend to speak on behalf of non-union workers, and say things like, ‘Public employees make too much money; no one gets pensions anymore; why should they have special privileges?’ They still seek to divide workers.”
On the other hand, the affair galvanized the labor movement and strengthened its resistance. The trial was widely recognized as the farce it was. Within a few years, the eight-hour-day movement was back on its feet, and the first international May Day celebration in 1890 was a huge success, celebrated throughout Europe and both North and South America. The “Haymarket Eight” became martyrs.
Indeed, already in 1887, President Grover Cleveland and Congress moved “Labor Day” to September to distance the celebration of working people from its strong emotional connection to Haymarket, fearing the power of that connection.
The more things change, the more they don’t
The society that gave rise to Haymarket is disturbingly familiar. In 1886, police cracked down on a peaceful rally of poor people seeking economic justice. Then as now, police and elected officials were more than eager to crush worker power to protect corporate interests. Indeed, even the eight-hour day is a fighting cause again as many workers today must work more hours just to make ends meet. “Robber barons” bought control of law and government while poverty and desperation overwhelmed the general population; in their day, Jay Gould and Andrew Carnegie seemed as powerful as the Koch brothers do now.
The media was, and is, happy to pipe their tune:
“You wouldn’t have known from the news coverage that most of the people killed at Haymarket were killed by the police, who fired wildly in a panic after the bomb was thrown,” said Glass. “Similarly, news coverage today of labor disputes usually buries central issues like addressing inequality beneath anecdotes about inconvenience to the public, or opinions that raising the minimum wage would put companies out of business.”
But if modern America is reverting to the worst extremes of economic inequality that characterized the 19th century, it’s also seeing a resurgence of labor like the one that followed Haymarket. Labor is big news again. Those on the bottom economic rungs are organizing in new ways and confronting the “titans of industry” — the Kochs and Wal-Marts, today’s robber barons — and winning. The nation-wide movement for an eight-hour day has become the nation-wide fight to raise the minimum wage.
The more things stay the same, the more they keep changing.
History Channel: Haymarket Square Riot
Chicago Historical Society: Haymarket Affair Digital Collection