How Many Had to Die for Your Eight Hour Day?

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A Doomstead Diner Archive article, reworked and republished on Labor Day, September 1, 2014

Discuss this article here in the Diner Forum.

 

“Labor was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labor, that all weather of the world was originally purchased.”      ― Adam Smith  

 

How many people died for your eight-hour day?

Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday of September in America. This tribute to the contribution and achievements of American workers  Was purchased, quite literally, in blood and tireless effort. Few today recall how the first Labor Day came about,  or what it means aside from a day off, and an opportunity to visit Walmart for “low low prices.” That could have something to do with its origins.

Many of the labor conditions that we accept as our birthright came at huge cost, 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 to work for common goals.  From the vantage point of 2014, 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 campaign for an eight hour day was actually a 19th century labor movement that unfolded over decades.

riotscene

International Workers’ Day (also known as May Day, or May 1) is a celebration of the international labor movement, and recognizes the anniversary of the bloodiest struggles in the history of labor. Commemorated worldwide on May 1 with organized street demonstrations and marches by working people (in recognition of American events!), it remains obscured by design in the United States.  International Workers’ Day is the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago.

How it got moved to September in the US merits some explanation.


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.  The Chicago Tribune even offered a bounty to the jurors if they would find the accused guilty.

HACAT_M7P51

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

The real victims of the Haymarket Affair were freedom of speech, the right to free assembly, the right to a fair and impartial trial by a jury of peers. The right of workers to organize and fight for important issues like the eight-hour day was severely compromised as a result.

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 remains celebrated as International Workers Day across the world, except in the United States, where the official holiday for workers is the first Monday 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 in 1894 Cleveland moved 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 scream form the headlines nearly every week.

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, including the lesson of International Workers Day or Labor Day, regardless of when it is celebrated, demonstrate that change ONLY happens when ordinary people band together to educate one another and work together in common purpose to achieve our common interests.

 

***

Surly1 is an administrator and contributing author to Doomstead Diner. He is the author of numerous rants, articles and spittle-flecked invective on this site, and has been active in the Occupy movement. He shares a home in Southeastern Virginia with Contrary and is as pleased as he can be about that.

 

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