Chicago in 1886 was the most advanced, cutting-edge capitalist city in the world. Industrialization, commodification, and mechanization on an unprecedented scale transformed the raw materials of the newly opened West in far more efficient ways than anyone had previously imagined.
But this new economic machine transformed workers — mainly European immigrants but also once-independent farmers and mechanics — into proletarian drudges working brutally long days. When the economy took one of its frequent dives, as it had not long before, employers slashed wages and crushed workers’ organizations.
After the nation had fought a civil war often posed as a battle for free labor over slave labor, workers increasingly saw little free about their lives and often viewed their condition, especially compared to the era before the Civil War, as little more than “wage slavery.”
But a dream had been growing amid their ranks across the country for decades, especially in the last few years, a dream of “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.”
The diverse eight-hour movement built for a general strike starting on May 1 — a traditional day of spring renewal — and continuing until workers won and enforced an eight-hour day.
Nurtured by a growing group of working-class socialists and “Chicago anarchists,” “the eight-hour strikes in Chicago were the largest, most aggressive and most successful in the nation,” according to historian James Green. But on May 3 police — whom the city increasingly trained to be willing to attack strikers and not show class sympathies — killed four workers outside the notoriously anti-union McCormick Reaper Works.
Socialists and anarchists called for a mass meeting in protest at the Haymarket the next evening. After hearing speeches denouncing “the existing order” at length, the peaceful crowd began to dissipate. But police moved with a large force into the Haymarket space, ordering the crowd to disperse.
From unknown, still-debated hands, a bomb was thrown into the ranks of police, who opened fire on the crowd. Public hysteria followed the incident, fed by an increasingly cohesive local capitalist class and the major newspapers. Eight anarchists underwent a trial that was a parody of justice. All were convicted, seven condemned to death for murder.
Capitalists and governmental authorities alike used the Haymarket incident as justification for attacking the labor movement for many years to come. But in 1890, labor and leftist groups in Europe and then around the world began to celebrate International Workers Day on May 1, prominently identifying their demonstrations with memories of the Haymarket martyrs.
In the United States, including Chicago, which is in a sense the birthplace of May Day, workers initially held May Day parades. But the country’s labor movement has had a hit or miss — mainly miss — relation to May Day for many years as a legacy of Cold War anti-communism. Gradually May Day celebrations at Haymarket — now decorated with a sculpture in tribute to the workers and speakers, not the police — revived starting around 1970, thanks to work of historians Les Orear, William Adelman and Studs Terkel.
On the 125th anniversary of Haymarket, the Chicago Federation of Labor and both the Illinois and national AFL-CIO federations are prominently sponsoring the celebration with the Illinois Labor History Society (ILHS) at what ILHS president Larry Spivack calls “the most important labor site in the world.” Among the many events ILHS is sponsoring (and lists on its website) are a full-scale re-enactment of the Haymarket tragedy on April 30 and a May 1 re-dedication of the restored statue of liberty for workers at the monument to the Haymarket Martyrs in Forest Home Cemetery.
In his compelling historical account, Death in the Haymarket, James Green describes how in the eight hour upheaval “millions of Americans questioned the moral and social legitimacy of large private companies and their owners” and the “laws of the market,” calling for abolition of the wage system.
Now the world of work is undergoing a transformation wrought not just by technology, which can be turned to help workers, but also by globalization and financialization. For most Americans, work means more time on the job, a diminishing share of value produced, more precarious conditions of life and work, and less voice than ever in changing those conditions.
Where is the 21st century counterpart to that movement 125 years ago?
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.