Steve Haycox: May Day celebrated solidarity of labor

commentMay 2, 2013 

An audience of local union members in Anchorage a few days ago was urged to remember the 1886 Haymarket riot in Chicago. It was the origin of the annual May Day celebration of working men and women across the globe.

Many Americans who came of age in the Cold War years associate May Day with the Soviet Union and long parades of missile launchers, tanks and other armament, all bristling with menace. But May Day did not come into existence to celebrate the solidarity of socialism; rather, it was to celebrate the solidarity of laborers. The cause was something now considered harmless and prosaic: the eight-hour workday.

As industrialization transformed the American economy after the Civil War, workers' wages failed to keep pace with rising consumer prices. It was common for laborers to work nine- to 14-hour days, always six days a week. Unionization proceeded apace, though the emphasis on individualism in American values led many Americans to resist collective, protective action on behalf of workers, instinctively and viscerally. Nonetheless, agitation for better wages and working conditions grew steadily, especially after a widespread, violent and failed general national railroad strike in 1877.

At a convention of unions and other trade organizations in Pittsburgh in 1884, leaders agreed to work for establishment of the eight-hour day as a countrywide standard by May 1, 1886. Factory owners resisted this idea, often violently. As the day approached, unions prepared for a national general strike. Perhaps half a million demonstrators marched in various cities that day; most demonstrations were nonviolent.

In Chicago, workers maintained the general strike for several days, and on the evening of May 3, police fired into an unruly crowd of protesting workers at the McCormick harvester plant, killing three or more. The more radical leaders of the marches in Chicago, including a number of openly declared anarchists, called for a meeting the next evening at Haymarket Square, near the center of downtown. After several hours of speeches, attended by perhaps 600 peaceful demonstrators, the police approached en masse and ordered the crowd to disperse. As the police advanced, someone rolled a homemade bomb into their path. The explosion killed seven Chicago policemen. In the aftermath, police and demonstrators exchanged gunfire.

In the weeks afterward, Chicago police effectively imposed martial law on the city and raided and destroyed union offices, halls and known meeting places. The bomber could not be identified, but eight anarchists ultimately were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder; a ninth indicted anarchist fled the country. Public opinion, encouraged by the Chicago papers, sided with the police. Reviewing the trial transcripts, historians and legal scholars have agreed that the judge in the case was fully prejudiced, and that the trial was unfair. Nonetheless, all defendants were convicted and seven sentenced to hang. The governor of Illinois eventually commuted two of the death sentences to life imprisonment; one of the condemned committed suicide on the eve of his execution. The sentences of the remaining four were carried out.

Later, in 1893, Illinois governor Peter Altgeld pardoned the three in prison on the basis of the prejudicial trial.

Worker movements across Europe watched the Haymarket trial and the executed men quickly became international martyrs. The European unions were more socialist than those in America, and in 1889, at the suggestion of Samuel Gompers, leader of the American Federation of Labor, the Second International, a congress of socialist and labor organizations meeting in Paris, called for worldwide demonstrations supporting the eight-hour day, on May 1, 1890. This was the origin of the traditional May Day as a socialist holiday.

In college U.S. history survey courses, the 1877 railway strike, the 1886 Haymarket affair, a protracted and violent strike at the Homestead works of Carnegie Steel in 1892, and a bloody strike against the Pullman sleeping railcar company in 1894 are often linked in exploring the history of the American labor movement. During the Pullman strike, again at the suggestion of the AFL, the U.S. Congress passed legislation creating the American Labor Day holiday. It was set in September to clearly dissociate it from the international socialist May Day holiday, even though that was inspired by Chicago's Haymarket riot.


Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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