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This Day in Labor History: May 4, 1886

[ 33 ] May 4, 2012 |

On March 4, 1886, during a protest march against police brutality in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, a bomb went off in the middle of a group of policemen, killing 7 officers. The aftermath of the Haymarket bombing showed the fear American capitalists had of working-class ideologies, the lack of civil liberties during the Gilded Age, and the tenuousness of labor organizations during these years of class formation.

The mid-1880s saw the native-born working class struggling to understand the new labor system of the Gilded Age. With the promises of mutually respectful employer-employee relations at the center of early Republican free labor ideology shown to be a farce and workers living increasing desperate lives in dirty and dangerous factories and condemned to poverty, the American working-class sought to even the playing field between employer and employee. The Knights of Labor promised the eight-hour day; in a period when labor looked for a single panacea to solve all problems rather than a deep class analysis of labor-employer relations, the working-class jumped to the idea. The Knights, led by Terence Powderly, grew rapidly in the mid-1880s, even though Powderly didn’t really envision the organization as a radical challenge to capitalism. Still, “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Sleep, Eight Hours for What You Will” became the slogan for a million or more Americans. But Powderly’s control over the organization was tenuous and with the Knights defined as open to all workers, it meant that anarchists and other radicals could easily join and then try to convert workers to their cause.

The center of 8-hour organizing was in Chicago, where small numbers of radicals began organizing workers to demand the 8-hour day and threaten a general strike if denied. On May 1, 1886, between 300,000 and 500,000 workers walked off their job around the nation. Probably 80,000 of those workers were in Chicago. The police responded with sadly predictable violence. On May 3, police murdered 6 strikers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine plant. The McCormick workers had been battling with their employer for a year, who had hired Pinkertons to beat them. They combined their already existing struggle with the 8-hour day to become some of the most respected working-class militants in the city. Responding to the murders, labor called a march to protest police violence the next day at Haymarket Square, which somewhere between 1000-3000 people attended.

Poster announcing the Haymarket rally

When the police moved in on the marchers, someone threw a bomb. The police responded by firing into the marchers, killing a disputed number (probably between 4 and 8) before cease-firing, fearful they would shoot each other in the darkness and confusion. Maybe 50 people on both sides were wounded. Unsure who actually threw the bomb, authorities just rounded up all the leading anarchists they could find and tried them for the murder. Despite the lack of evidence, 7 were sentenced to death and another to 15 years in prison. Of the 8, only 2 had even been at the Haymarket event and neither of the two were even suspected of throwing the bomb. But in the nation’s first Red Scare (even if we usually associated that term with post-World War I repression), thoughts mattered more than actions; leading 8-hour day actions meant you might as well be a bomb-throwing anarchist.

Famed image of the Haymarket bombing from Harper’s

Among the convicted was Albert Richard Parsons. Born in Alabama, Parsons grew up in frontier Texas in the 1850s. Although he volunteered for the Confederacy as a young man, he became a southern white Republican in the years after the war. Parsons repudiated his Confederate past and supported not only the principles of Reconstruction but voting rights for African-Americans. He then married a part-black, part-Mexican woman named Lucy Gonzalez. Gonzalez (later Lucy Parsons) had a long and amazing career of her own, including being at the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, fighting with Emma Goldman over the role sex should play in anarchist politics (she thought class was more important), leading the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, and inspiring the young Studs Terkel in the 1930s and early 1940s. Anyway, Parsons and Gonzalez were forced out of Texas due to intolerance to both their political beliefs and their interracial marriage. They moved to Chicago where they both wrapped themselves in the political malestrom of the time. Parsons became a socialist newspaper editor, attended the first convention of the National Labor Union in 1876, and in 1880, withdrew from electoral politics to immerse himself in anarchism. He became obsessed with the 8-hour day and in 1884 began an anarchist newspaper in support of the idea.

Parsons was not even at the Haymarket protest. But as a leading anarchist, one in an interracial marriage for that matter, he was suspect and hated by the forces of order. He was convicted of murder and hanged, with 3 others, on November 11, 1887.

The Haymarket Martyrs

The aftermath of Haymarket completely destroyed the Knights of Labor and the 8-hour movement. Powderly repudiated the violence but was also totally unprepared for every part of the situation, from the size of the Knights to the official repression of labor radicalism. The Knights crumbled soon after and though workers still dreamed of the 8-hour day, it would take another half-century and countless dead workers to see it become a reality.

This series has also covered such other highlights of denying civil rights to the working-class as the Centralia Massacre of 1919 and the Bisbee Deportation of 1917.

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Comments (33)

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  1. Holden Pattern says:

    You know what I’m getting from this? That by analogy, Robert Byrd was both a racist AND an anarchist, and should probably have been hung.

  2. Malaclypse says:

    You have clearly failed to adequately explain the differing extent to which Haymarket was caused by the objective economic suffering of labor, as opposed to the political responses of government. I feel the need to post endlessly about base/superstructure distinctions.

  3. Furious Jorge says:

    Great post, Erik.

  4. RhZ says:

    That’s the anarchistisch German font.

  5. mike in dc says:

    It’s almost as if there’s some sort of consistent pattern of employer hatred and contempt for those whose labors help produce/increase their prosperity. There should probably be some field of academic study created to look into this further.

  6. joel hanes says:

    The poem Carl Hamblin in Edgar Lee Masters Spoon River Anthology is a bitter response to the hanging of the Haymarket anarchists.

  7. Murc says:

    With the promises of mutually respectful employer-employee relations at the center of early Republican free labor ideology shown to be a farce and workers living increasing desperate lives in dirty and dangerous factories and condemned to poverty

    Something I always have to try and keep in mind when it comes to labor relations during the Gilded Age is how contemptuous wide swathes of society were towards the workingman.

    I know, I know, “How is that different from today?” Well, today, doing work, for wages, is considered to be honorable work, and even people who work hard to depress wages and benefits and social mobility have to profess in public a deep and abiding admiration for doing so. Some of them even believe it; a number of the craziest Republicans I know genuinely think of themselves as champions of the working class, and speak with rosy nostalgia of the days when a man by himself could support his whole family by doing line work in a factory.

    It was NOT the case in the 19th century. Doing work, for wages, made you scum in the eyes of a large part of society. You were unambitious, not that smart, and unworthy of the rights of citizenship. (There were a number of pushed to disenfranchise anyone doing work for wages because it was a thought that anyone whose livelihood was in the hands of another couldn’t be relied upon to vote in an independent fashion.)

    It didn’t even really matter how much money you were making; if you were a talented factory overseer who had self-taught himself a fair bit of engineering and who could run the whole operation damn near by himself, living a comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle, you could be less socially respectable than the dirt-poor town drunk, as long as the town drunk owned a bit of land and tried to make a go of it as a farmer. HE was a landowner, and he called no man master. YOU were just barely one step up from a servant.

    • Malaclypse says:

      It was NOT the case in the 19th century. Doing work, for wages, made you scum in the eyes of a large part of society. You were unambitious, not that smart, and unworthy of the rights of citizenship.

      It has been a long time since I’ve read anything on this topic, and much of what I’m drawing from is half-remembered Lasch, The True and Only Heaven, but what I recall of “wage-slavery” discussions involved the idea that working for wages stunted independence *, not that wage workers were scum. Much of the criticism of wage-work struck me as reasonable-but-naive **, rather than cruel and dismissive.

      * see both Adam Smith and Karl Marx as well on this topic.

      ** And if memory serves, much of it echo’s BradP’s libertarianism, although I don’t want to speak for him in this area.

      • Murc says:

        Well, the one feeds into the other.

        When this discussion first started being had seriously in American, in 1830s and 40s, a lot of the tone was as you say; it revolved around the idea that working for wages stunted independence, often roundly criticizing those who were taking advantage, and pondering ways in which people laboring for wages could be made into independent.

        That tone changed VERY quickly. The monied classes started seeing people who had worked for wages their whole lives, and who were the children and grand-children of wage earners, and often who were non-Anglo immigrants. And it quickly turned into “these people clearly don’t WANT to not work for wages even if the opportunity is offered. What’s WRONG with them?”

        And the answer to the ‘what’s wrong with them’ question could get super ugly, super fast.

  8. DrDick says:

    Ain’t capitalism grand?

  9. JoyfulA says:

    Some days I need a reminder that things are not worse than ever, that justice is not blinder, that police are not more brutal—-

  10. [...] A more comprehensive description of the events is up at Lawyers, Guns, and Money (post by Erik Loomis): [...]

  11. [...] This is the 25th post in this series which I guess is some kind of mild milestone. Other events I’ve covered include the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and the Haymarket Riot of 1886. [...]

  12. [...] April 20, 1914–Ludlow Massacre April 30, 1894–Coxey’s Army May 4, 1886–Haymarket Riot May 9, 1934–Longshoremen strike begins in San Francisco May 16, 1934–Minneapolis [...]

  13. [...] workers attracted the Knights of Labor. Although the Knights would fall into decline after the Haymarket Riot, in 1886 it was at its height and the sugar workers welcomed its organizing expertise and national [...]

  14. [...] the AFL grew out of. 1886 was notable for 2 major events in American labor history. The first was the collapse of the Knights of Labor after the Haymarket Riot. The Knights had very quickly transformed from a fraternal organization into a massive social [...]

  15. […] A more comprehensive description of the events is up at Lawyers, Guns, and Money (post by Erik Loomis): […]

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