Part 1: Setting the Stage for the Haymaker Affair

On the Way to the 8-Hour Day--The Haymarket Affair

By David Wallechinsky

Today most people take it for granted that a work week is 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, but it was not always so. As late as 1886, most laborers worked a 10-hour day, 6 days a week. Most transportation workers put in at least 84 hours a week, and New York City bakers worked up to 120 hours a week.

The struggle for an 8-hour day led to one of the most dramatic events in U.S. history--the incident that has come to be known as the Haymarket Affair.

In 1884, a weak labor organization, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the U.S. and Canada, resolved to make May 1, 1886, the target date for a movement to win the 8-hour day. As that date approached, the federation had all but faded away, but their idea caught on, and in Chicago, which was a hotbed of worker organizing, the month of April saw huge rallies in support of the 8-hour day, despite unanimous opposition from the Chicago daily newspapers and all business leaders.

On April 30, the railroad and gas company employees, the iron mill workers, the meat-packers, and the plumbers all went on strike. The next day, May 1, 30,000 workers struck and joined in peaceful parades and demonstrations. Sunday, May 2, was quiet.

But on Monday there were strike rallies throughout the city. One such gathering, of the Lumber shovers Union, attracted 6,000 strikers, including several hundred workers from the nearby McCormick Harvester factory, which had been run by scabs since February 16 when its regular employees had been locked out over a dispute about unionization.

The main speaker at the rally was August Spies, a noted Chicago social-revolutionary. Many in the crowd objected to his being allowed to speak because he was a "socialist," but the secretary of the union spoke on his behalf and satisfied the crowd by saying that Spies had been "sent by the Central Labor Union."

Spies avoided revolutionary propaganda and spoke mainly about shorter hours, urging the workers to stand together or be defeated. Shortly before he concluded his speech, the bell at the McCormick factory 3 or 4 blocks away rang and 500 members of Spies's audience--those who were McCormick strikers--broke away and ran toward the factory. With stones and sticks they attacked the exiting scabs and drove them back into the factory. Soon 200 police with clubs and revolvers arrived to supplement the permanent police force which the city had graciously supplied to the owners to protect the factory. Shooting broke out and when the battle ended, one striker had been shot to death, 5 or 6 were seriously wounded, and 6 policemen were injured, although none had been shot.

Spies, who had urged the McCormick strikers to stay at the rally, was horrified at the sight of the blood of fellow workers splattered on the streets of Chicago and immediately ran off a poster ("To arms, we call you, to arms!") printed in English and German, which was distributed at labor meetings that night.

The Chicago papers put the blame for the violence on the anarchists and a "liquor-crazed mob." But the workers thought otherwise and Tuesday morning found them in an ugly mood. There were clashes all day including another bloody battle at the McCormick plant.

That night there were several meetings scheduled, but the biggest one was expected to be the demonstration against police brutality to be held in Haymarket Square.

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