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The strike of 1877 and the Pullman strike

The Pinkertons

The Haymarket massacre



The Haymarket Witch Trials

We met with Bill Adelman, the author of 'Haymarket Revisited'
What were you doing on May 1 last year? Getting ready for finals, or looking for a date to the prom? While you were finishing up the school year and enjoying spring, workers around the world were uniting to honor International Worker's Day.

Although it is not an official holiday in the US (our Labor Day is observed in September) people in countries like Russia and Brazil, Mozambique and Italy march every year in support of labor rights -- they do it on May 1 in honor of the workers killed in Chicago's Haymarket Tragedy.

Funny that they're marching for something that happened in Chicago, IL and we don't even take notice, isn't it? Daphne and I braved the Chicago blizzard to meet with Les O'Rear and Bill Adelman of the Illinois Labor History Society to find out why International Worker's Day is such an important world holiday.

The events they described may surprise you.

Becky visits the Illinois Labor History office in Chicago
At the end of the 19th century, Chicago and other industrial cities were in the middle of economic disaster and depression, making "unemployment and destitution a way of life." People who did find work had to deal with horrible working conditions. Men, women and children labored in factories or mills for 10 to 16 hours a day, earning tiny wages, without breaks or weekends off. As seen by the nationwide railroad strike of 1877, workers across the country were getting fed up with these miserable conditions. But what could they do? Their salaries were being paid by millionaires who did not care to improve working conditions or shorten working hours. These men (like Carnegie and Rockefeller, McCormick and Frick) knew that there were always new immigrants streaming into America, who were desperate for work and willing to take any job offered to them. Since the government wasn't forcing them to change their ways, the company executives continued to run their factories however they pleased. So the laborers did the only thing they could.

They began to organize.

Remembering Haymarket
They discussed rights with their co-workers through peaceful speeches and rallies, calling for an 8-hour workday and an end to wage cuts. But even this wasn't easy. It turns out that while freedom of speech in America existed in theory, it did not exist in practice. The voice of united laborers frightened America's established system of a small, millionaire upper class whose wealth depended on the misery of millions. So whenever workingmen gathered they were discouraged from meeting, their lives were threatened, or the police outright attacked them. When Albert Parsons publicly encouraged 6,000 workingmen in Chicago to get out and vote to "obtain State control of transportation, communication and certain means of production," he was fired from his job at the Chicago Times newspaper the next day. He was blacklisted from journalism in Chicago entirely, and "was told to leave town or he would be hung from the nearest lamp post." Policemen and hired thugs broke up union meetings, and violence was used to scare workers from gathering again. Over and over again Chicago was faced with worker parades and gatherings that ended with police or private security guards using billy-clubs and bayonets, or shooting into the crowd to disperse the marchers.

It was during this time that Chicago's McCormick Harvesting Machine Company cut worker wages by 10-15%. The funny thing was that the company was running a huge profit, and donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to a local Presbyterian seminary at the same time they cut back worker salaries. The workers did not like this one bit, and went on strike. Things got messy in March when scabs (non-union workers who will work when the original laborers strike) came in to break the strike. The Chicago Police escorted them past the strikers. The police didn't like the gathering of strikers, "and without warning, they clubbed the men and placed them under arrest. When some of the men ran and others resisted arrest the police opened fire... at least four men were killed." Although at that time it was not unusual for the local police to be pitted against peacefully protesting citizens, this disturbing event is still considered the major reason "for the growing hatred between the police and the workers."


- I'm lost in the snow! Help! Help!

Two months later, and still upset about the attack, workers began to rally for the "Eight Hour Day Movement." They created pins and posters that read, "8 hours work, 8 hours rest, 8 hours recreation," and planned to parade for their cause throughout the streets of Chicago. On May 1, 1886, workers across the country lay down their tools on the job and 80,000 workers marched up Michigan Avenue, singing and chanting for their basic working rights.

Although the May Day parade concluded without police intervention, that brief peace did not continue. Two days later strikers at the McCormick Plant were again "greeted with clubs and a hail of bullets." The unnecessary police violence was simply too much for the strikers. They quickly planned a worker's meeting to take place the next day in Chicago's Haymarket Square. This meeting was pretty much a flop, as the speakers did not show up on time, and the crowd dwindled to only 200 people when workers got tired of waiting around and went home. But then, around 10:30 that evening, the meeting exploded. Literally. For an unknown reason, a police force of 176 officers descended on the meeting and demanded that everyone leave. At that point, someone threw a dynamite bomb. To this day, we have no idea who threw it, but we know its results were The bomb killed one policeman, and chaos followed. The police opened fire on anyone and everyone, killing at least four in the crowd and wounding many more. Several policemen were killed in the gunfire as well but probably by other policemen in the confusion of the dark night.

Les O'Rear explains labor history at the ILHS
The explosion was considered an act of terrorism, and gave Chicago the excuse it needed to bring labor organizers to trial. Bill Adelman tells us that newspapers used the bomb to "condemn the labor movement as violent and un-American." Fueled by the biased news reports, the public wanted to see "justice" done. No one could determine who threw the bomb, but the Chicago authorities wanted to assert their power and make someone pay for the crime. Martial law had been declared across the country and "labor leaders were rounded up, houses were entered without search warrants, and union newspapers were closed down."

Eventually, eight men were brought to trial that represented a cross-section of the labor movement. The public and the law seemed to accept the fact that none of the 8 were involved in the throwing of the bomb, but they wanted them dead anyway. The prosecuting attorney asserted that "they are no more guilty than the thousands who follow them," but he demanded that the jury must "convict these men, make examples of them, hang them... [to] save our institutions, our society."

8 were tried, 5 needlessly died
The trial made a mockery of justice. The jury was stacked with police sympathizers, and the judge insulted the defendants throughout. The 8 men were tried together in a "conspiracy trial," which meant that if one man was found guilty, they all were condemned. The jury quickly found all of the men guilty, with 5 sentenced to death and 3 to life in prison. Although 6 of the men were not even at Haymarket when the bomb exploded, the court system was happy to make examples out of these men, to scare other workers from organizing or joining unions.

The martyr's monument in Chicago remains an inspiration to workers everywhere
So, on November 11, 1887, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel and August Spies were hung from the gallows (Louis Lingg, the 5th man sentenced to death, had died earlier from a dynamite cap in his jail cell. It remains unknown whether this was an act of suicide, or murder.)

A former US Senator compared the irrational public opinion and the unjust trial to the tragic circumstances of "the burning of witches in New England." These men served as a scapegoat for people who were frightened that the worker movement would create a revolution against the business-class in America.

Before being hung, Spies announced to the crowd that 'There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today'
It is for these workers and others throughout history, that the International Day of the Worker is celebrated on May 1 of each year. Since we don't officially recognize the holiday here, people like Les and Bill are working to keep the history alive. They want to make sure that the tremendous obstacles laborers have had to overcome are not forgotten. This May 1, try to think about people parading through cities around the world. Take a break from your springtime studies to join them in thinking about the men and women who died fighting for the rights of workers everywhere.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - Anarchy and angry ghosts in the Battle of Homestead
Stephanie - Sweet sugar's evil, mean streak
Teddy - It's hard to say good-bye, but farewell it is
Kevin - Thanks for the memories!
Kevin - The men known as Mollie Maguire
Team - Labor Day: More than just the non-official end of summer
MAD - McNasty Mickey D's