-- because all around the world people remember the martyrs of Chicago!

Walter Crane  (1845–1915)  Public Domain

Industrial production in the United States grew by leaps and bounds after the Civil War in the 1860s. Chicago was one of those major industrial centers where factory hands labored a six day work week, Monday through Saturday, putting in a bit over 60 hours weekly.

Like most times throughout U.S. history, bosses nurtured immigration to keep wages low and complaints in check. Thousands of Chicago’s immigrants in those days hailed from Germany and Bohemia, responsive to unionization thanks to their backgrounds in anarchy and socialism from their home countries — some had read the recent writings of Marx and Engels, for instance.

Although unsympathetic of socialist ideals, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada (predecessor of the American Federation of Labor, AFL) held a convention in October 1884 which predicted that the eight hour day would be the standard by May 1 of 1886. During that year-and-a-half stretch, membership in the rival Knights of Labor exploded, its ranks reported to have expanded tenfold from 70,000 to 700,000. As the date approached, more and more of the Knight’s local organizations adopted resolutions for a general strike if the goal were not achieved.

On Saturday May 1, thousands struck in Chicago and across the country. Eight Hour was the most popular song in the town square rallies, brandishing a rousing chorus of “Eight Hours for work. Eight hours for rest. Eight hours for what we will.” Every one of those rallies was peaceful and legal.

Two days later, Monday May 3rd, a crowd of Chicago strikers converged on the McCormick plant to heckle scabs leaving the day shift. Without any provocation, police fired into the gathering, murdering two. Anarchist August Spies had spoken during the daytime rally there, and would later testify about the police killings, “I was very indignant. I knew from experience of the past that this butchering of people was done for the express purpose of defeating the eight-hour movement.”

The enraged movement called a rally the next day in lively, nearby Haymarket Square. Accompanying Spies on the stage on that evening of May 4th were Alabama-born editor of The Alarm Albert Parsons, along with English-born Methodist pastor Rev. Samuel Fielden. The event was so dreary that Mayor Carter Harrison Sr. left for home unimpressed. Nonetheless, as the rally wound down and most people had already left, the police force closed ranks and advanced. Then a homemade bomb flew overhead from behind its line. A police riot ensued.

It cannot be overemphasized that all witnesses concur in testifying the bomb flew from behind police lines.

At the conclusion of a trial filled with irregularities, conflicting testimonies, a hostile judge, no direct evidence, the defendants vilified by the press, and where no one was even accused of actually perpetrating the bombing, the jury found all eight defendants guilty on August 11. The judge gave seven death sentences and one for 15 years imprisonment.

Some six years later, governor of Illinois John Peter Altgeld signed pardons for three of the martyrs based on the fact that the state “has never discovered who it was that threw the bomb which killed the policeman, and the evidence does not show any connection whatsoever between the defendants and the man who threw it.”

The American Federation of Labor resolved in 1888 to renew the campaign for the eight hour day, choosing May 1 as the significant date for a strike in 1890. President of the AFL Samuel Gompers entreated the 1889 inaugural congress of the Second International to launch a worldwide fight for a universal eight hour day, and it was that convention which gave the name International Workers Day.

It was in 1894 that President Grover Cleveland signed Labor Day into law — in September so as to avert holding a labor holiday on May 1 which would commemorate the Haymarket affair.

In closing, I’ll mention that while growing up in Columbus the 1960s and 70s, I recall how the national news on May Days would broadcast images from Moscow, giving the idea it was a Soviet holiday. While not untrue, that is an excellent example of how the media lies: disseminating half-truths which are designed for the listener to draw the wrong conclusion. Because, if the audio would have been transmitted, no doubt the speeches invoked Chicago’s martyrs — there in Red Square as well as Beijing, Havana, Toronto, Mexico City, London, Paris, Buenos Aires, and every other capital in the world!

If you’d like more background info, you could do worse than to start out with these sources.