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This Day In Labor History: May 1, 1867

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On May 1, 1867, workers in Chicago went on strike for an 8-hour day, the first mass-scale labor action for that demand that directly challenged political power.

The 8-hour day is popularly known for its embrace by the Knights of Labor. Moreover, the May 1 workers’ holiday has its origins in Chicago, particularly around the Haymarket Square bombing and the execution of the city’s leading anarchists. Little about this makes all that much sense; the Haymarket bombing was actually May 4 and while it took place around the city’s 8-hour day strikes in 1886, the anarchists were only vaguely associated with that movement. But in any case, the 8-hour day struggle, especially in Chicago, goes back far before 1886.

The Chicago labor movement was flexing its muscles by the 1860s. In that young city, soon to be a huge dynamo of American capitalism, the battles that would dominate American labor history in the late 19th century would be defined and fought on the streets. Like everywhere else in the nation, these were hard times for workers. The work day was 12-14 hours, when you could get work. Working conditions were dangerous, the cities were cesspools of filth, nutrition was sketchy, and basically workers lived bad lives.

The Civil War north witnessed more labor strife than is usually discussed. Chicago was a very active city for labor struggle in these years and by 1864, there was a pretty solidified labor movement there. Between 1863 and 1866, Chicago workers had organized 19 new unions. They were mostly skilled workers, like other unions of the era. But they were also much more multiethnic than the normal union, reflecting the diverse Chicago working class. They had one big basic demand–the 8-hour day. This was already developing nationally into a core demand for workers. Shortly after this, the National Labor Union managed to get Congress to pass an extremely limited 8-hour day law that basically did nothing, but was a precedent of sorts at least.

Chicago workers, with some assistance from other Illinois workers, lobbied hard to get the state legislature to pass an 8-hour day. It did, in 1867. This could have been a big victory for workers. But the power of free labor ideology was incredibly strong in these years. The idea that individual employees and employers contracted out for an agreed upon wage was the fundamental labor ideology of the nation and one that, among other things, strongly shaped the very limited vision the Union had about Reconstruction. The goal there ultimately was getting black labor to sign contracts with white landowners to work on the land, not black economic emancipation. So faced with that, the Illinois legislature couldn’t imagine anything like a restrictive law on hours. After all, that would undermine the freedom of workers to labor for longer than 8 hours a day. So they created a loophole that made it effectively meaningless. Yes, there was an 8-hour day. But employers and employees could contract out for a longer workday. Of course, this completely ignored the power dynamics at play. The employer effectively set the terms of the debate. Starvation was not an expression of power by workers. So the law accomplished nothing. The political background here was that Illinois Democrats had gained support from workers during the war. Republicans sought to revive a coalition around free labor through the law, but many Republican and Democrats both were worried about a strong law. This was an attempt at appeasing both employers and workers and thus failed because that is not a coalition that can be built.

Employers were angry about even this weak law. By the time the law was to take effect–May 1, 1867–dozens of Chicago employers were already paying hourly wages instead of day wages in order to avoid the law. Chicago workers were angry that the legislature ignored the real conditions of their lives. So they decided to strike on May 1, 1867 to eliminate the loophole in the 8-hour law. Six thousand workers marched on the first day. On the second, it spread across the city. For a week, the city partially shut down. This was, however, not a general strike. Even among the skilled trades, some participated and some did not. The building and metal trades were the core groups involved. A lot of unskilled workers who were not represented by any union also came out on strike.

The response to the strike among Chicago’s elite was to call for violent suppression. The Chicago Times asked “Shall Mobs Rule Chicago?” in one article, which urged that “rioters should be swept out of existence by a wave of artillery.” The strike spread outside of Chicago and there was in fact crushed by violence. In Bridgeport, a small town in southern Illinois, the mayor declared martial law and called out the local militia, who crushed the strike in a pitched gun battle. Now, understand that these strikes were efforts to enforce a law properly, not break it. But that did not get in the way of the kneejerk decision of those in power throughout this era–very much including abolitionists–to go for violent force when workers struck. They simply had no room in their vision of the nation for class conflict, or even class development. It was always an existential threat to the nation’s core ideals, not a logical response to the oppression of their lives. The Chicago strike itself fell apart after about a week and the law remained unenforced. The 8-hour day struggle would continue to define the labor movement all the way until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Part of the material for this post came from Cedric de Leon, The Origins of Right to Work: Antilabor Democracy in Nineteenth-Century Chicago.

This is the 310th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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