1886 Haymarket massacre: the tragic birth of may day

Chicago is considered the cradle of American socialism. There, the labor movement had many successes – and one of its greatest defeats.

Chicago: in the 19th century and also today a stronghold of the US-American labor movement Photo: ap

For leftists, Chicago is no city like any other. That the annual socialism conference was held there, of all places, also has historical reasons. The metropolis on Lake Michigan is the site of the greatest successes of the US labor movement – but also the scene of one of its greatest defeats – the "Haymarket Massacre". Anyone who wants to understand the city’s socialist mystique has to look far back – to the 19th century.

In the 1880s, Chicago is the most important industrial city in the United States. While the factory owners make high profits, the workers suffer hardship. The wages are low, the rents for the run-down accommodations horrendous. The workdays last twelve hours, and the working conditions are catastrophic. This is another reason why Chicago develops into a stronghold of the trade union movement in the second half of the 20th century.

Another reason is the immigrants. Especially from Germany, numerous communists and anarchists leave for the U.S. because they are politically persecuted under Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. More and more German-language socialist publications appeared in Chicago, such as the Arbeiter-Zeitung of the German-born journalist August Spies. The anarchist movement already registered several thousand members in the mid-1880s. For the first time, workers succeed in organizing collectively.

The most important political demand was for an eight-hour day. Eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, eight hours of family time – that’s what the workers want. The Chicago press is agitating against the unions’ demands. "Hand grenades should be thrown among the Union people who are demanding higher wages and shorter hours," says the local press. An atmosphere of violence ensues. Police officers beat up demonstrators almost daily in 1886, and factory owners sic thugs known as "Pinkertons" on the workers. Clashes break out constantly – even some workers arm themselves.

On May 1, 1886, one of the largest mass demonstrations the city has ever seen takes place. 80,000 workers march through the streets of the industrial metropolis, singing the Marseillaise and the Internationale. May Day is declared the first Labor Day in history. But the biggest defeat of the still young movement follows immediately.

Death sentence without evidence

On May 4, a bomb explodes during a workers’ meeting in Chicago’s Haymarket, killing twelve people, including seven policemen. The city government senses its chance to get rid of the rebels and puts the anarchist leaders on trial.

In the mid-1880s, the workers here managed to organize collectively for the first time.

Prosecutor Grinnel is quick to make clear that it is not the crime that is being tried, but the political attitudes of the defendants. "The law indicts anarchy! These men were put on trial instead of thousands, not because they are more guilty, but because they were their leaders. Hang them! This is the only way to save our social order!" he shouts in the courtroom.

Although none of the defendants can be proven to have participated in the crime, seven defendants are sentenced to death and four of them are hanged in 1887. Among them were the American Albert Parsons and August Spies. The judicial murder of the union’s leaders shattered the movement, which was subsequently able to mobilize fewer and fewer workers.

It was not until 1938 that the eight-hour day was enshrined in law in the USA. However, the memory of those murdered continues to shape the labor movement in Chicago – to this day. A memorial statue has existed at the site of the explosion since 2004. The tragic events in Chicago were one of the reasons why May Day became an international day of struggle for the labor movement.