Little Bits of History

May 4

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 4, 2017

1886: The Haymarket Riot takes place. After the US Civil War, there was a rapid industrial expansion in the United States. Chicago was a major industrial center and an influx of immigrants came to the area, looking for jobs. They were making about $1.50 a day and averaged a little over 60 hours per six-day workweek. Chicago became one of the leading centers for organized labor movements. Employers responded with anti-union measures. In late 1884, the unions declared May 1, 1886 as the date by which they would have helped immigrant workers achieve an eight-hour workday. The day grew near and the goal had not been met. It was decided that a general strike would take place.

On Saturday, May 1, thousands of workers went on strike demanding an eight hour day without a cut in pay. The strikes were not just in Chicago, but across the country with as many as 300,000 to 500,000 strikers. Other large cities may have had 10,000 or so taking to the streets in protest, but Chicago, the center of the movement, had between 30 and 40,000 striking and up to twice as many marching and demonstrating.  On May 3, striking workers met near the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company where workers had been locked out since early February. The workers were advised to hold together and stay strong. Police fired into the crowd and two men were killed.

Fliers went out asking for workers and supporters to show up at Haymarket Square the following day. This bustling commercial center seemed appropriate. Anarchists helped get the word out as well. The fliers were inflammatory and called for workers to show up armed and seek revenge. The rally began peacefully with union leaders speaking to a crowd numbering between 600 and 3,000 (depending on sources), there was a large police presence also in attendance. At around 10.30 AM, just as the speeches were finished, a homemade bomb was tossed into the path of oncoming police, charged with dispersing the crowd. The bomb exploded and one police officer was killed immediately.

Gunshots followed with both sides firing and there is a dispute about who actually shot first. The demonstrators fled in panic and it was verified that police shot into the fleeing crowd, reloaded, and fired again. Four demonstrators were killed and as many as 70 were wounded. In under five minutes, the square was empty. Seven police were also killed during the melee. A union crackdown followed and eight anarchists were eventually convicted of conspiracy. Although one made the bomb, it was determined none of them had actually thrown it. Seven of them were sentenced to death, one man killed himself in prison, four were hanged, two had their sentences commuted to life. The last man was sentences to 15 years in prison. In 1893, all remaining men were pardoned and the trial was criticized by the new Illinois governor, John Peter Atgeld.

The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labor. – Thomas Donahue

To be free, the workers must have choice. To have choice they must retain in their own hands the right to determine under what conditions they will work. – Samuel Gompers

With all their faults, trade-unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in man, than any other association of men. – Clarence Darrow

The unions are the first feeble effort to conquer the industrial jungle for democratic life. They may not succeed, but if they don’t their failure will be a tragedy for civilization, a loss of cooperative effort, a baulking of energy, and the fixing in American life of a class-structure. – Walter Lippmann

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