The Haymarket Riot Remembered

James Green, author of Death in the Haymarket.

hide captionAuthor James Green.

Randy H. Goodman

Scroll down to read an excerpt and hear James Green read from his book.

On May 4, 1886, a bomb went off in Chicago that ignited one of the nation's first red scares. The blast killed seven police officers and led to the hanging of four anarchists accused of plotting the attack.

Historian James Green's book Death in the Haymarket explores the tensions that led to the explosion and the panic that followed.

He talks with Debbie Elliott about a period of paranoia in American life, and the ways the violence helped to shape the modern labor movement.

Q&A: The Legacy of Haymarket

Jonathan Cutler is Associate Professor of Sociology and American Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He is the author of Labor's Time: Shorter Hours, the UAW, and the Struggle for American Unionism. Here he answers questions from NPR.org on the ramifications of the Haymarket riots. You can read more of his current affairs commentaries at profcutler.com.

What is the legacy of Haymarket? Does it still resonate today?

Haymarket resonates today more than it has at any other time in recent years. The original Haymarket affair of 1886 was part and parcel of a massive, national May Day rally and strike led, by and large, by America's immigrant workers. Today, precisely 120 years later, the May 1, 2006 Immigrant General Strike — also known as the "Day without Immigrants" and the "Great American Boycott" — looks set to inherit and reinvigorate the legacy of Haymarket. Then, as now, employers launched an aggressive drive to undermine wages and living standards. In 1886 workers from around the world responded with an aggressive campaign of their own: an international movement for less work and more pay.

What is most misunderstood about the labor movement... historically and today?

Today it is easy to misunderstand the relationship between immigration and the labor movement. The unruly nationalists of basic cable talk tough about immigration and America's "broken borders" in the name of defending working-class America. They hurl insults on the awkward coalition of Big Business interests hungry for cheap, docile labor and pro-immigrant progressives who favor free and open borders.

Today, anti-immigrant nationalists seem to speak truth to power because they insist that flooded labor markets benefit employers at the expense of employees. In the era of Haymarket, however, the May Day demand for shorter hours provided an acid test for differentiating labor's true friends from the misleaders of labor.

In the time of the Haymarket affair, anti-immigrant nationalists sowed the seeds of chauvinism through labor market exclusion; shorter-hours activists sustained a vision of solidarity without borders. Where employers expected docile immigrant bodies, immigrant activists responded with May Day militancy. Today, immigrants rights activists have broken decisively with employers and reinvigorated the tradition of May Day militancy.

What's the difference between May Day and Labor Day?

In almost every country around the world, May Day is the principal workers' holiday. It is a day of strikes, rallies and demonstrations, often linked to demands for shorter hours. Within the international labor movement, the May Day protest tradition got its start in the United States. Today, however, the United States is the great exception to the May Day tradition. Our end-of-summer Labor Day holiday was developed as an official government alternative to the labor movement's May Day rallies. One central difference: May Day has always been linked to the demand for less work and more pay; Labor Day celebrates the "dignity" of work.

How have American attitudes toward labor evolved since the Haymarket riot?

Most people in the United States seem to think of organized labor as a strictly blue-collar affair. Likewise, the Haymarket riot is viewed in nostalgic sepia tones. The labor movement, according to this viewpoint, had its place in the 19th and early 20th century when workers were exploited and abused in the furnaces of industrial capitalism but has no place in the high-tech, white collar world of the new economy.

The irony is that the issue at the heart of the Haymarket affair — the hours of labor — is now quite significant in the white collar world. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act established the 40-hour workweek as the legal norm and imposed over-time pay requirements on employers for all work in excess of 40 hours. Hourly wage workers get extra pay for extra time. Most white collar work is exempted from the law. As a result, the pressure on the white-collar work week has grown tremendously in recent decades.

If there is anyone who needs to attend to the spirit of Haymarket, it is the American white-collar professional who works 10 hour days, including many weekends, and who has fewer paid vacation days than other white-collar professionals around the world. Annual hours of work in the United States are now longer than any other industrialized country in the world.

What do the recent labor protests in France illuminate about the American labor movement?

There are some very significant parallels between recent events in France and those developing in the United States. In France, there were enormous immigrant protests in late 2005. The demands of the protesters were quite similar, in many respects, to those articulated by immigrant rights activists in the United States.

At the time of the 2005 protests, employers in France thought they might be able to use the immigrant protests as an excuse that would allow them to undermine French job security protections. The most recent labor protests were a reaction to this government initiative. The protesters succeeded in defending job security protection.

In the United States, there were similar suspicions that employers might use the immigrant rights rallies as an occasion to establish a "guest worker" program as an alternative to amnesty and full citizenship. The May Day Immigrant General Strike contradicts that notion. Like their counterparts in France, immigrant workers in the United States — through their demands for amnesty and full rights — have rejected employer efforts to use immigrant workers to undermine U.S. labor standards.

How will the labor movement factor into the ongoing immigration debate? Can the two issues be separated?

Until recently, it has been common for labor leaders to justify their failure to organize immigrant-intensive industries with the claim that low-wage undocumented workers were difficult to organize. The wave of protests that started on March 25 in Los Angeles defy that rationalization.

Some unions are quite animated by the immigration debate and have mobilized members to action, but have weighed in on the side of anti-immigrant nationalism. Other unions, especially the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), led by Andy Stern, seem interested in building bridges between immigrant communities and organized labor. Still, for some reason, many SEIU locals have shown only lukewarm interest — if not outright hostility — toward the May Day strike. Immigrant workers are proving themselves to be more militant than the official unions. Organized labor has some catching up to do.

What are the biggest challenges facing the labor movement today?

The biggest challenge is putting the "movement" back in labor. Of course, there are economic obstacles. But the real and unprecedented crisis is organizational, not economic. Back in the Haymarket era, labor activists were scrappy fighters and labor unions were nimble and responsive. Today, labor has formal rights but no soul. There is "organized labor" — a big lumbering bureaucracy with lots of large buildings in Washington — but precious little in the way of labor movement.

How do you see those challenges being resolved? What do you see as the next step for the labor movement?

There is hope on the horizon, although it may be difficult for some to recognize at first. In 2005, the labor movement split into two rival labor federations. One is the old AFL-CIO, led by John Sweeney, and the other is the new "Change to Win" federation, led by Andy Stern. Sweeney and Stern each have their defenders and detractors, but many labor activists argue that labor as a whole is injured by a divided house of labor.

It is worth recalling, however, that the great Haymarket battle occurred in the context of a long-term rivalry between the pre-cursor of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and its primary challenger, the Knights of Labor. The Knights are usually thought of as the more militant organization, but this is not entirely true. The Knights of Labor were initially hesitant to embrace strike tactics or to press for shorter hours. Fearing the loss of members to the AFL unions, however, the Knights eventually embraced both shorter hours and May Day strikes. The competition between the AFL organization and the Knights forced the two organizations to bid for the support of rank-and-file workers and led to an upward spiral of demands, centered on the idea of shorter hours.

Today, the "Change to Win" federation, like the Knights of Labor, is usually thought of as the more militant organization. However, the apparent refusal of SEIU and "Change to Win" to endorse the "Day without Immigrants" raises serious questions about that assumption. Is "Change to Win" willing to confront employers on behalf of undocumented workers? Immigrant rights activists may have to find ways to exploit the rivalry between the AFL-CIO and the "Change to Win" federation if either organization is going to play a productive role in the burgeoning immigrant workers movement.

The immigrant workers movement is leading the way by summoning the American labor movement to revisit its own May Day protest traditions.

Excerpt: 'Death in the Haymarket'

Jacket of James Green's book, Death in the Haymarket.

hide captionAuthor James Green recounts The Haymarket Riot in this gripping account of American labor history.

A sketch of the four anarchists before their public hanging. i i

hide captionFour anarchists were hanged for their involvement in the Haymarket Riot.

Michael J. Schaack, Anarchy and Anarchists
A sketch of the four anarchists before their public hanging.

Four anarchists were hanged for their involvement in the Haymarket Riot.

Michael J. Schaack, Anarchy and Anarchists

For Once in Common Front

MAY 1, 1865-MAY 1, 1867

THE FIRST OF MAY was by custom a day of hope that marked the coming of spring, a day when children danced and twirled streamers around a Maypole. But in 1865 it was the gloomiest day Chicago had ever seen. For on that occasion "the merry May pole gaily wreathed for the holiday festivities of exuberant life" yielded its place to the "funeral catafalque draped with Death's sad relics." So wrote Abraham Lincoln's friend and ally Joseph Medill in the Chicago Tribune that morning of the day when the multitudes would assemble "to do honor to the great and good King of men," severed from his people when he was "slain so ruthlessly."

In the dark hours of the early morning, crowds gathered all along the Illinois Central tracks on the lakeside. A light rain fell as the funeral train entered Chicago that morning; it hissed to a stop at Michigan Avenue and 12th Street, where 36,000 citizens had gathered to meet it. An honor guard loaded the presidential coffin onto an elaborate horse-drawn hearse, and citizens formed in military rank behind it. A group of thirty-six "maidens dressed in white" surrounded the carriage as it passed through an imposing Gothic arch dedicated to the "Martyr for Justice." After each young woman placed a red rose on the president's coffin, the carriage pulled away, followed by the column of Chicagoans who marched four abreast up Michigan Avenue toward the courthouse, where their martyred president's remains would lie in state. The procession grew to 50,000 as it moved slowly up the lakeside. Along the way twice that many people lined the streets. From all over the Northwest they came-by train, in wagons and buggies and on horseback, all united in silent grief. "In the line of march and looking on, sharing something in common," Carl Sandburg wrote, were native-born Yankees and foreign-born Catholics, blacks and whites, German Lutherans and German Jews-all "for once in common front."

Up Michigan Avenue they trod in rhythm to the sound of drums beating in solemn tribute to Lincoln's memory, expressing, as the Tribune put it, "the devotion with which all classes looked up to him." A military band led the funeral procession of five divisions: first came the Board of Education and 5,000 schoolchildren, and then military officers and enlisted men, the combat troops of the Grand Army of the Republic led by the Old Batteries of the Chicago Light Artillery, whose cannon had laid siege to Atlanta. The black-coated men of the Board of Trade headed the next division, which also featured groups from various ethnic lodges, including 200 of the Turner gymnasts dressed in white linen. Contingents of workingmen followed, paying their respects to a president who said he was not ashamed that he had once been "a hired laborer, mauling rails, on a flatboat-just what might happen to any poor man's son!" Nearly 300 members from the Journeymen Stonecutters' Association walked behind a banner with two sides, one reading in union there is strength and the other proclaiming we unite to protect not to injure.

All through that night of May 1 and well into the next day, mourners stood in the mud and drizzle waiting to file through the courthouse for a last look at the man whose storied path to the White House had so often passed through their city. On May 2, after 125,000 people had gazed upon the face of their departed president, his coffin was escorted to St. Louis Depot on Canal Street by another elaborately organized procession led by a chorus of 250 Germans singing dirges. Lincoln's corpse was placed inside its specially built car, and at 9:30 a.m. the funeral train pulled out of the depot carrying Illinois's "noblest son" to his final destination in Springfield, leaving behind a city whose people he had unified in life and, far more so, in death.

After its journey through the cornfields and little prairie towns Lincoln had visited as a lawyer and campaigner, the funeral train arrived in Springfield. The president's body was buried the next day in Oak Ridge Cemetery, where the eulogist recalled the late Civil War as a momentous "contest for human freedom . . . not for this Republic merely, not for the Union simply, but to decide whether the people, as a people, were destined . . . to be subject to tyrants or aristocrats or class rule of any kind."

Leading Illinois Republicans who gathered at Lincoln's grave on May 4, 1865, rejoiced that free labor had triumphed over the slave system in that great war now won. They believed a new nation had emerged from the bloody conflict, new because now all of its people were "wholly free." The 4 million bondsmen the "martyred emancipator" had liberated were, said the Tribune, a living epistle to Lincoln's immortality. But were all the people now wholly free?

IN THE YEARS after Lincoln's death, emancipated slaves found many compelling reasons to question the meaning of their new freedom in the face of the reign of white terror that descended upon them. At the same time, for quite different reasons, workingmen, the very mechanics who benefited most from the free labor system Lincoln had extolled, began to doubt the nature of their liberty. A few months before the war ended, the nation's most influential trade union leader, William H. Sylvis, came to Chicago and sounded an alarm that echoed in many labor newspapers in the closing months of the war. The president of the powerful Iron Molders' International Union excoriated employers who took advantage of the war emergency to fatten their profits while keeping their employees on lean wages. When union workers protested with strikes, politicians called them traitors, soldiers drove them back to work, and many loyal union men were fired and blacklisted by their bosses in retaliation. How, Sylvis asked, could a republic at war with the principle of slavery make it a felony for a workingman to exercise his right to protest, a right President Lincoln had once celebrated as the emblem of free labor? "What would it profit us, as a nation," the labor leader wondered, if the Union and its Constitution were preserved but essential republican principles were violated? If the "greasy mechanics and horny-handed sons of toil" who elected Abe Lincoln became slaves to work instead of self-educated citizens and producers, what would become of the Republic?

Sylvis told his iron molders that tyranny was based upon ignorance compounded by "long hours, low wages and few privileges," while liberty was founded on education and free association among workingmen. Only when wage earners united could they achieve individual competence and independence. Only then would they exercise a voice in determining their share of the increased wealth and the expanded freedom that would come to the nation after the war.

America had never produced a labor leader as intelligent, articulate and effective as William Sylvis. Born in western Pennsylvania to parents in humble circumstances, young William was let out as a servant to a wealthy neighbor who sent him to school and gave him the key to a good library. Later, after helping in his father's wagon shop, Sylvis apprenticed himself to a local iron foundry owner, a master craftsman who taught his young helper the ancient arts of smelting and smithing and the methods of making molten iron flow into wooden molds to shape the iron products he had designed. After he married, the young molder moved to Philadelphia to ply his trade, but he found it a struggle working long hours every day to provide for his family and failing to rise above the level of manual laborer.

William Sylvis found another way to raise himself up. He became secretary of his local union in 1859, and then two years later secretary of the new National Union of Iron Molders. By this time Sylvis had decided that mechanics were losing their independence and respectability because certain owners monopolized branches of industry and used their power to reduce wages. The rugged individualist was no match against these men who used money and political clout to advance themselves at the expense of their employees. "Single-handed, we can accomplish nothing," he wrote, "but united there is no power of wrong we may not openly defy."

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Excerpted from Death in the Haymarket byJames Green Copyright © 2006 by James Green. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Books Featured In This Story

Death in the Haymarket
Death in the Haymarket

A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, And the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America

by James R. Green

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