May Day

Let's talk about labor rights and the Chicago origins of the eight-hour workday


By Ted Cox

Hip-hip hooray

First of May

Our series on labor

Begins today

It’s May Day, and while that phrase might mean disaster to some, to others it’s a cause for celebration.

Around the world, May 1 is recognized as International Workers’ Day. The United States has resisted that designation, for various reasons, but co-opted the idea with its own Labor Day on the first Monday in September, made a national holiday in the 1890s.

Yet, fact is the May 1 celebration of workers and their rights grows out of Illinois and the Haymarket incident of May 4, 1886.

According to the online Encyclopedia of Chicago, the city became the center of the international movement for an eight-hour workday — imagine that — when some 35,000 workers walked off their jobs on May 1, 1886 — a Saturday, mind you. Labor unrest spread over the next few days, including police firing on strikers at the McCormick Reaper factory on May 3.

The amalgamation of unionists, socialists and anarchists pushing for reforms comprised various points of view, with some calling for outright revenge, but the meeting they convened at  Chicago’s Haymarket at Randolph and Desplaines streets the following evening was peaceful. Mayor Carter Harrison attended. But as the rally was breaking up, and police were dispersing the crowd, someone threw a bomb in their midst. Police opened fire in response. Eight officers were killed, 60 wounded, and an unknown number of those in the crowd suffered the same fates.

No one was ever convicted or even charged with actually throwing the bomb, but that didn’t keep eight labor leaders from being railroaded into convictions on conspiracy, with the judicial system urged on by Chicago Tribune Editor Joseph Medill. One was sentenced to 15 years, with the others sentenced to death. Two sought clemency and were given life sentences, one killed himself in custody, but four were hanged on Nov. 11, 1887: Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and George Engel. The other three were eventually pardoned by Gov. John Peter Altgeld in 1893.

It’s not exactly Chicago’s proudest moment.

A police statue erected in honor of the officers killed at the Haymarket was blown up a couple of times by ‘60s radicals and later moved to the training academy. A later sculpture paying homage to the activists was executed by Mary Brogger and installed on the site in 2004 in an official ceremony attended by Mayor Richard M. Daley and members of the police union. After being shifted around recently due to nearby construction, it’s back at 175 N. Desplaines St.

Mary Brogger's Haymarket memorial at 175 N. Desplaines St. (Facebook/Aimee Levitt)

Mary Brogger's Haymarket memorial at 175 N. Desplaines St. (Facebook/Aimee Levitt)

The Chicago Reader has a nice story today on how the Haymarket incident — however one wants to label it — has been all but forgotten.

Yet, on this May Day, let’s use the occasion to resolve to deal seriously with workers’ rights.

As we go forward at One Illinois, we’ll be taking a considered look at those rights on issues such as so-called right-to-work, which unions consider freeloading as employees seek to drop union dues while retaining the benefits won in collective bargaining. That figures to be news next month when the U.S. Supreme Court issues its judgment in the case of Janus V. AFSCME.

We’ll look at workers’ compensation, another bane of business interests, but one that establishes set payouts for various injuries suffered on the job, rather than force each injured worker to pursue compensation in the courts, which can be knotted up with legal proceedings by firms with deep pockets.

 We’ll look at the minimum wage and the growing movement for what’s being called “guaranteed work,” or a government job for anyone who needs one, including a set minimum wage and health care, a program recently backed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent. And we’re already looking at how much-needed infrastructure investments can put people to work on lasting improvements to the society, as in the Works Progress Administration programs during the Great Depression.

The people who gathered at Chicago’s Haymarket in 1886 advocated what they saw as a reasonable limit on labor — an eight-hour workday. It wasn’t until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (talk about the Great Depression) that the federal government imposed a 40-hour work week and the requirement to pay overtime beyond that (which, not coincidentally, is still an issue in many jobs and trades today).

All these issues are connected, because what builds a stable and vital society is when people feel secure, in their jobs and in their surroundings.

So let’s have a reasoned, considered debate on these issues — without throwing bombs at one another. That should be the lasting lesson of the Haymarket and May Day.