This Day in Resistance History: The Haymarket Uprising
On this day in 1886, a labor rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago by workers as part of a campaign to win the 8-hour workday.
Chicago capitalist had been particularly brutal in their treatment of workers in the manufacturing and slaughterhouse sectors, but there was also a lively labor movement that was led by the International Working People’s Association (IWPA).
The rally was also a response to police brutality against workers who were on strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. The police not only beat several striking workers and their supporters, they fired into the crowd at one point wounding several and killing four.
The police brutality incensed members of the IWPA, in particular Albert Parsons and August Spies. Upon hearing the news of the police brutality against striking workers on May 3rd, Spies created a printer circular in both English and German, which read:
Revenge! Workingmen, to Arms!!……You have for years endured the most abject humiliation……you have worked yourself to death……your Children you have sacrificed to the factory lord – in short, you have been miserable and obedient slaves all these years. Why? To satisfy the insatiable greed, to fill the coffers of your lazy thieving master? When you ask them now to lessen your burdens, he sends his bloodhounds out to shoot you, kill you!……..To arms we call you, to arms!!!
About 3,000 workers showed up on May 4 to protest the police brutality called for by the capitalist class and to demand an 8-hour workday. After several speeches and a call to action, many workers then retreated to their homes. A small crowd now remained and nearly 200 police officers arrived and demanded that the workers disperse. A bomb then exploded near the police wounded dozens, which resulted in the police then firing into the crowd of workers killing several and wounding 200.
With no evidence at all of who was responsible the Chicago police arrested eight anarchist leaders connected to the IWPA, including Spies and Parsons. The local press was calling for a speedy trial that would result in executions. According to radical historian Howard Zinn, the real crime of the anarchists was their ideas and their literature. In fact, only one of the eight arrested was even present at Haymarket Square (Fielden) and he was speaking on the platform when the bomb exploded.
The trial was short and within days the 8 men were founded guilty of murder and sentenced to death. The execution, however, did not take place until the next year and by that time one of those arrested had killed himself in jail. Four of the men were eventually executed and the other three were pardoned.
According to Zinn, it was eventually discovered that the police had paid someone to infiltrate the anarchists who were part of the IWPA and act as an agent provacateur, who admitted to throwing the bomb. This action gave the police and the capitalists a pretext to not only arrest the Haymarket Martyrs, but it led to increased police harassment, the arrest of hundreds and the dismantling of the revolutionary labor leadership in Chicago.
The reaction to the initial arrests on May 4 was far reaching, with workers in London organizing solidarity protests and workers all across the US becoming radicalized. Hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike in 1886, in what Zinn documented as 1,400 separate strikes.
More importantly, workers around the US and around the world began to commemorate the Haymarket Uprising on May 1st, which is why most of the world celebrates May 1st as its worker holiday.
It’s ironic that this history has been suppressed in the US and most people end up celebrating Labor Day in early September, a holiday that marks the end of the summer and tourism more than it does the celebration of labor struggles in the US.
We commemorate this day in resistance history not only to draw attention to the sacrifices and courage of people gone before us, but to follow their example to organize for dignity, freedom and liberation!