May 4, 1886 – Chicago, Illinois, USA
Labor unions have a long and significant history in the United States of America. Over the years as the United States steadily developed the world’s largest economy in history, the union Labor Movement contributed in many substantial ways to this unprecedented expansion.
Among the many milestone achievements delivered to the American worker by unions; key contributions include the right to a safe and non-discriminatory work environment, collective bargaining power, the eight hour work day, young children working prohibitions, wage standards, political influence and much more. Such significant changes are taken for granted today.
Such important work environment contributions took time and evolved over the life of the American Republic. Moreover, in many cases, union recommended work changes came at a long and often hard fought and sometimes violent cost.
The U.S. Labor Movement History
The U.S. Labor Movement had its beginnings in the 1820s, corresponding with the continued rise of both the new American nation and the British led Industrial Revolution. However, effective union organization was ineffectual until after the American Civil War.
By the 1880s, many workers organized themselves into various unions. Thousands of workers joined the union movement and one of the early successful unions was the Knights of Labor. During the late 19th century, the union movement expanded and was met with opposition from employers and some politicians. Numerous strikes (work stoppage until demands are met) occurred throughout the United States and affected many industries.
Union work strikes disrupted manufacturing, mining, transportation, farming and other industries. Striking workers included steel and iron workers, carpenters, assembly workers, teamsters and many more. The union labor movement also included factions of communists, anarchists, socialists and other radicals who believed that the entire capitalist system was exploitive, evil and should be destroyed. Many such radicals were recent immigrants to the United States.
McCormick Harvesting Machine Company
Striking unions were often met with stiff opposition from employers that often turned violent. In the spring of 1886, union strikers stopped work at the huge farm equipment manufacturer, the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago. The workers demanded an eight hour work day. The workers were consequently locked out and the company hired replacement strike breakers to take over their jobs, further inflaming the emotions of the striking union workers.
In support of the McCormick union strikers, on May 1, 1886, a large parade was organized in Chicago. A couple of days later, a person was killed during a further protest outside of the McCormick Harvesting Machine plant. Tensions were high for everyone involved in this dispute.
Because of the death and injuries of striking workers that took place the day before at the McCormick plant, organizers called for a mass protest and rally to take place on May 4th to protest McCormick work policies and police and strikebreaker brutality.
Haymarket Square in Chicago was an open park area used for public events and markets. This site was chosen for the protest rally of May 4th. Approximately 1,500 people assembled at the rally. Among the many striking union members and leaders in attendance, the rally also included a number of labor radicals, anarchists and leftists.
The rally was largely peaceful, even during inflammatory speeches given by various radicals and anarchists, most if not entirely, German immigrant labor activists. However, the crowd became incited and confrontational when police arrived and demanded their disbursal from the area.
As the Chicago Police pushed the crowd to leave, a powerful bomb suddenly exploded, sending deadly shrapnel everywhere. Witnesses later testified that the bomb was hurled high into the air above the crowd. The bomb thrower was never identified.
The police panicked, drew their weapons on the crowd and began firing at perceived attackers. Eye witnesses claim that police shot their pistols for almost two full minutes. Chaos ensued throughout the square and at the end of the sudden violence; seven policemen and about four civilians were dead and upwards of 100 people were injured and wounded.
Haymarket Square Riot
The Haymarket Square Riot, as the incident became known, set off a national wave of xenophobia. Public outcry against immigrant radicals was substantial. The riot and deaths were blamed on the Labor Movement. The Knights of Labor was the largest union in the U.S. at the time and received enormous criticism and denunciation. The union was severely discredited and whether fair or not, never recovered its stature and influence.
Hundreds of labor organizers and foreign born radicals and leftists were arrested in Chicago and throughout the nation. A Chicago grand jury indicted 31 suspected labor radicals in connection with the bombing. In August, 1886, eight men were brought to trial.
The trial of the accused labor radicals, which lasted throughout the summer of 1886, was a huge event, followed by thousands. To this day there are allegations of unreliable evidence, blatant bias against the defendants and essential unfairness during the controversial trial. It was never established in the trial who had built and delivered the deadly bomb. However, all eight defendants were convicted of inciting the riot. Judge Joseph E. Gary sentenced seven of the defendants to death and the eighth to 15 years in prison.
On November 11, 1887, four of the men, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parson and Samuel Fielden/Engel were executed by hanging. Of the three other convicted men, one died in prison by suicide and the final two had their sentences commuted to life in prison by the Governor of Illinois, Richard Oglesby. Later, Governor John Altgeld gave a full pardon to the remaining two due to wide spread and growing public questioning about the fairness of the trial and the guilt of the condemned men.
The Haymarket Square Riot was a pivotal event in the history of the U.S. Labor Movement. The aftermath of the Riot and consequent trial produced a general public that was divided between those who condemned the Labor Movement and those who believed that the convicted men were martyrs whose deaths strengthened the emerging Labor Movement.
Over time, the Labor Movement did indeed strengthen and grow throughout the nation. Organizations such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) grew tremendously in members and political influence. Later, many other unions were formed such as the Teamsters, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of Government Employeesand many more.
Union Membership Today
Today, membership in unions has dropped substantially, especially in the private sector. Public sector union membership however remains strong and highly influential. Debate still rages about the need and cost impact of unions in the twenty first century. However, there is no denying that the U.S. Labor Movement had a profound and positive impact on the life of the American worker.