The next time you have a break and want to go explore your city (or your adopted home), why not head from your liberal arts college in Chicago to the Bronzeville subway station. Take the green line eight stops to Clinton-Green, then walk for three minutes to Desplaines and Randolph.
When you get there, you’ll see an odd-looking statue in front of a parking lot, across the street from another parking lot. It may not look like it, but you will, in fact, be standing in the birthplace of the eight-hour workday in the western world.
Back in 1886, this was the scene of the watershed moment for the American labour movement, the Haymarket Riot which would bring workers’ rights, justice, capitalism, personal freedom and the public good to the forefront of discourse. It was as if the concepts born in the works of Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill and other thinkers whose ideas comprise any solid liberal arts education were at war on the streets of Chicago.
A Bit of Background
Beginning May 1, 1886, there were strikes and marches for an eight-hour work day in all major American cities. In Chicago, a group of strikers decided to confront strike-breakers after their shift at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company plant.
Despite calls for this to be a peaceful confrontation, things got heated and police got involved, killing between two and six workers (depending on which newspaper account you believe). August Spies, editor of the German language (quite a few people in the Chicago labour movement at the time were German immigrants) publication Arbeiter-Zeitung, was outraged and called for a major rally the next evening, May 4th, in Haymarket Square.
The Haymarket Riot
The rally was supposed to be non-violent and at first it was quite peaceful. Between 600 and 3,000 people listened to the speeches. As the last speaker was finishing, a wave of police marching in formation approached the wagon the speakers were standing on and demanded that the crowd disperse.
Then someone, whose identity remains unknown to this day, threw a makeshift bomb at the police, killing Officer Mathias J. Degan. Gunshots rang out. There are conflicting accounts on whether it was only police firing on the crowd (and in some cases accidentally hitting fellow officers) or if it was an exchange of fire between police and workers. Eight police officers and at least four workers died as a result, though more workers may had been injured fatally and didn’t go to a hospital out of fear of being arrested.
The Haymarket Affair
With the public demanding retribution and no bomber identified, authorities targeted the immigrant and labour activist communities, carrying out mass raids and arrests. Eventually, they settled on the speakers and people involved with Spies’ publication.
By Gasselin, Louis (Artist)
What followed was characterized by many as a show trial. Anyone sympathetic to organized labour was not allowed on the jury, but an open bias towards the defendants was tolerated. Four of the eight defendants were hung, one killed himself before execution, two had their sentences commuted and one got 15 years in prison.
Those executed became martyrs a few years later and marches in their honour held on May 1, 1890 across the US were huge. This lead to the implementation of the eight hour work day and May 1st, or May Day, became a workers’ holiday which is still celebrated today. Due to the international reach of this story, these advances for workers’ rights were enacted around the world.
There was a statue to the fallen policeman, but that was removed from public view. Now, there is a monument to the executed speakers in the cemetery where they were laid to rest as well as the public monument in what used to be Haymarket Square.
As someone studying at a liberal arts university in Chicago, what do you know about this piece of local history?