An explosion in Chicago in 1886 helped to shift the labor movement
toward "bread-and-butter" unionism.
On May 1, 1886, thousands of people in Chicago began demonstrations
in behalf of an eight-hour workday. The marchers' slogan was,
"Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours
for what we will."
On May 4, 1886, a deadly confrontation between police and protesters
erupted at Chicago's Haymarket Square. A labor strike was in progress
at the McCormick farm equipment works, and police and Pinkerton
security guards had shot several workers.
A public demonstration had been called to protest police violence.
Eyewitnesses later described a "peaceful gathering of upwards
of 1,000 people listening to speeches and singing songs when authorities
began to move in and disperse the crowd." Suddenly a bomb
exploded, followed by pandemonium and an exchange of gunfire.
Eleven people were killed including seven police officers. More
than a hundred were injured.
The Chicago Tribune railed against "the McCormick insurrectionists."
Authorities hurriedly rounded up 31 suspects. Eventually, eight
men, "all with foreign sounding names" as one newspaper
put it, were indicted on charges of conspiracy and murder.
No evidence tied the accused to the explosion of the bomb.
Several of the suspects had not attended the rally. But all were
convicted and sentenced to death. Four were quickly hanged and
a fifth committed suicide in his cell. Then, the Illinois Governor,
Richard Ogelsby, who had privately expressed doubts "that
any of the men were guilty of the crime," commuted the remaining
men's death sentences to life in prison.
Illinois's new governor, John Peter Altgeld, pardoned the three
surviving men. A German born immigrant who had enlisted in the
Union army at the age of 15, Altgeld declared, "The deed
to sentencing the Haymarket men was wrong, a miscarriage of justice.
And the truth is that the great multitudes annually arrested are
poor, the unfortunate, the young and the neglected. In short,
our penal machinery seems to recruit its victims from among those
who are fighting an unequal fight in the struggle for existence."
After granting the pardon, he said to the famous attorney Clarence
Darrow: "Let me tell you that from this day, I am a dead
man, politically." There was an immediate outcry. The Washington
Post asked rhetorically: "What would one expect from a man
like Altgeld, who is, of course, an alien himself?" The Chicago
Tribune stated that the governor "does not reason like an
American, does not feel like one, and consequently does not behave
In 1889, the American Federation of Labor delegate to the International
Labor Congress in Paris proposed May 1 as international Labor
Day. Workers were to march for an eight-hour day, democracy, the
right of workers to organize, and to memorialize the eight "Martyrs
Copyright 2019 Digital History