How many people died for your eight-hour day?

Discuss this article at the Economics table in the Diner

How many people died for your eight-hour day?

The first week of May is the anniversary of some of the bloodiest struggles in the history of labor, culminating in a holiday commemorated worldwide in recognition of American events, but ignored by design in the United States.

In Hampton Roads, several Occupy groups came together to plan an action whose results quill be seen on Tuesday. All of this effort in support of the Occupy call for a general strike on Tuesday.

Many of the labor conditions that we accept as our birthright came at a huge cost, generally borne by working-class people banding together to insist on better conditions for themselves and their comrades. As Americans, we take for granted the many working conditions that were won for us only by the struggle of organized workers coming together in common to work for common goals. From the vantage point of 2012, it’s easy to forget that the eight hour day was such a radical, leftist idea that police would fire into crowds of workers to stop it.The 8 hour day was actually a labor movement in the 19th century that took place over decades.

May 1 is a national holiday in more than 80 countries. International Workers’ Day (also known as May Day) is a celebration of the international labor movements. It commonly sees organized street demonstrations and marches by working people throughout most of the world. International Workers’ Day is the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago.

This 1886 engraving was the most widely reproduced image of the Haymarket affair. It inaccurately shows Fielden speaking, the bomb exploding, and the rioting beginning simultaneously.


Following the Civil War, the United States experienced a rapid expansion of industrial production. Chicago was a major industrial center and tens of thousands of German and Bohemian immigrants were employed at pauper’s wages, about $1.50 a day. Not surprisingly, the city became a center for many attempts to organize labor’s demands for better working conditions. Employers responded with repressive tactics, including acts of violence, often abetted by police.

On May 1, 1886, in support of the eight-hour day, Albert Parsons, head of the Chicago Knights of Labor, accompanied by his wife, two children, and 80,000 fellow workers, marched down Michigan Avenue, Chicago, in what is regarded as the first modern May Day Parade. Every road in Chicago stopped running, and most of the industries in Chicago were paralyzed. The stockyards were shut down. The state militia had been called out, and the police were ready. In the next few days they were joined nationwide by 350,000 workers who went on strike at 1,200 factories, including 70,000 in Chicago, 45,000 in New York, 32,000 in Cincinnati, and additional thousands in other cities. Some workers gained shorter hours (eight or nine) with no reduction in pay; others accepted pay cuts with the reduction in hours.

On May 3, 1886, August Spies, editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung (Workers Newspaper), spoke at a meeting of 6,000 workers, and afterwards many of them moved down the street to harass strikebreakers at the McCormick plant in Chicago. At a subsequent rally on May 4 to protest this violence, a bomb exploded at a rally in Haymarket Square. The bomb wounded 66 policeman, of whom 7 later died. The police fired into the crowd killing several people and wounding over 200. Hundreds of labor activists were rounded up and the prominent leaders arrested, tried, convicted, and executed giving the movement its first martyrs. Those put on trial were guilty only of their ideas. None of the accused had been at Haymarket that day except for one, who was speaking when the bomb exploded. A jury found them guilty and they were sentenced to death.


Engraving of the seven anarchists sentenced to die. An eighth defendant, Oscar Neebe, not shown here, was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

There was some evidence to suggest that the person who actually threw the bomb was an agent of the police, and agent provocateur, hired to throw the bomb enable the arrest of hundreds of people, and thus the revolutionary leadership. This was never proved. The immediate effect was to suppress the radical movement of labor. But the long-term in fact was the fan the flames of class anger in many and to inspire many others to action the revolutionary and labor causes, and effort that would bear fruit in subsequent generations. Many thousand people signed petitions and a later governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, investigated what happened and pardon the 3 remaining prisoners who had not yet been executed.

The American Federation of Labor, meeting in St Louis in December 1888, set May 1, 1890 as the day that American workers should work no more than eight hours. The International Workingmen’s Association meeting in Paris in 1889, endorsed the date for international demonstrations, thus starting the international tradition of May Day.

May 1 is known as May day and celebrated as international workers day across the world, except in the United States, where the official holiday for workers is Labor Day in September. This is because Pres. Grover Cleveland feared that commemorating Labor Day on May 1 could become an opportunity to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre and thus create martyrs. So he moved in 1887 to support Labor Day in September, and thus obscure the focus on the rights of working people. Right wing governments have traditionally sought to repress the message behind international workers day, with results that we see today.

The site of the Haymarket affair was designated as a landmark in Chicago in 1992, and the public sculpture was dedicated in 2004.

The lessons of history demonstrate that change ONLY happens when ordinary people band together to educate one another and work to achieve their common interests. This is why we occupy.


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