This Day in Labor History: May 4, 1886

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

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