Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Today, November 11th, marks the 121st anniversary of the execution of the Haymarket Martyrs - eight anarchists and labor organizers who took part in the struggle for the 8 hour work day and the May Day uprising in Chicago in 1886.

In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (Now the AFL) began loudly calling for a great movement to win a national 8-hour workday. The plan was to spend two years urging all American employers to adopt a standard 8-hour day, instead of the 10- to 16-hour days that were then prevalent. Beginning May 1886, all workers not yet on an 8-hour schedule were to cease work in a nation-wide strike until their employers met the demand.

Accordingly, on May 1 of that year great demonstrations erupted across the country. The largest was in Chicago, where 80,000 people marched, much to the alarm of Chicago's business leaders who saw it as a foreshadowing of "revolution," and demanded a police crackdown.

A mass meeting was called for the night of May 4, 1886 in the city haymarket. A large force of police arrived to demand that the meeting disperse, and someone, unknown to this day, threw a bomb. In their confusion, the police began firing their weapons in the dark, killing at least four in the crowd and wounding many more.

In the aftermath of the event, unions were raided all across the country. The Eight-Hour Movement was derailed and it was not until passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1935 that the 8-hour workday became the national standard, as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal.

Albert Parsons and seven others associated with radical organizations were prosecuted in a show trial. None were linked to the bomb thrower, and some were not even present at the time, but the charges against them alleged that their public criticism of corporate America, the political structure, and the use of police power against the working people, inspired the bomber.

Governor John Peter Altgeld subsequently found the trial to be grossly unfair. On June 26, 1894, Altgeld pardoned those defendants still alive and in prison; but five of the martyrs had already been hanged, on November 11, 1887, and one was dead of an apparent suicide.

In July 1889, a delegate from the AFL attending an international labor conference in Paris, urged that May 1 of each year be celebrated as a day of labor solidarity. With the notable exception of the United States, workers throughout the world now celebrate May 1 as "Labor Day."

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