By Sean Lundergan, Fr. Boyle Fellow
In a 1929 issue, Time magazine felt the need to clarify to its readers: “To old-fashioned people, May Day means flowers, grass, picnics, children, clean frocks. To up-and-doing Socialists and Communists it means speechmaking, parading, bombs, brickbats, conscientious violence. This connotation dates back to May Day, 1886, when some 200,000 U. S. workmen engineered a nationwide strike for an eight-hour day.”
On May 1, 1886, workers in cities across the United States struck in support of an eight-hour workday. It was the culmination of years of mounting pressure and a dramatic growth in labor organizations in the 1880s. The Knights of Labor, which was becoming the era’s most important national labor group, increased membership more than tenfold—from just over 71,000 to nearly 730,000—between 1884 and 1886. Strike activity in 1886 was nearly triple the previous five years’ average, and in 1886 just under 500,000 workers participated in actions against nearly 10,000 establishments. But in an irony of history, the organization that proposed the May Day general strike for an eight-hour day, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, had only a few thousand active voting members at the time.
For years, discontent had built up among the working classes across the country; after the violent suppression of 1877’s Great Upheaval, a wave of organizing had built up through the economic recovery of the 1870s and ‘80s crested in 1886. The recovery that followed the depression of 1873 took place during the Gilded Age, a period of extreme inequality in which a handful of capitalists profited off of industrial expansion while most workers suffered from poor working conditions, low wages, and long hours.
These factors combined with a massive increase in localized labor organizing to create the potential for a powerful workers’ movement, and momentum for a general strike demanding an eight-hour day picked up quickly. Although the national head of the Knights of Labor, Terrence Powderly, opposed the idea of a general strike (and privately circulated a letter in December 1885 asking members to instead write short essays in support of an eight-hour day), the local membership was so overwhelmingly for it that by the spring he couldn’t stop his 700,000-odd members from participating in the May Day strike. The mass desire for change wasn’t coming from workers who were really itching to sit down and write an essay; it came from a growing contingent of workers who understood their power and wanted to assert it forcefully and unequivocally. (And the growth really was rapid—the Boston area’s KOL membership increased by 300% just between January and April of 1886.)
Terrence Powderly wasn’t the only leading voice of labor who opposed the general strike. Many anarchists saw the movement for an eight-hour day as a distraction from the real task of ending and replacing capitalism and the wage system, and they either opposed the strike outright or jumped on the bandwagon once it seemed that a massive, nationwide action was inevitable.
Despite the admonitions of anarchist writers and outright attempts at sabotage by Powderly, the eight-hour movement picked up steam throughout April leading up to May 1. When May began, the largest demonstrations took place in the industrial cities of the midwest, especially Milwaukee, where the governor called in the Wisconsin National Guard, and Chicago, which was the heart of the movement and would come to be remembered as the epicenter of the May Day strikes.
Chicago was home to some of the most effective anarchist organizers of the time. As the national eight-hour movement grew in the winter and spring of 1886, organizing efforts brought tens of thousands of unskilled workers, many of whom were immigrants, into unions that were taking on an increasingly radical worldview. Although anarchist intellectuals saw the eight-hour demand as too gradual, and Terrence Powderly opposed the class conflict the strike represented, anarchist-influenced workers and Knights of Labor locals became prominent participants in the May Day strikes. Success seemed a virtual certainty, to the extent that Albert Parsons, one of the city’s most prominent anarchist agitators, predicted just before May 1 that the strike could proceed without the violence that had marked the Great Upheaval nine years earlier.
But Parsons’s optimistic forecast didn’t pan out. Monday, May 3, began with the same positive outlook that characterized most of the other strikes across the US—the socialist writer Oscar Ameringer, who was then a union woodworker in Cincinnati, described it as a “jolly strike.” But the tenor of the Chicago demonstrations changed when strikers at the McCormick Reaper Works, an agricultural product manufacturing plant with a history of violence between strikers and capital’s defenders, confronted scabs leaving the plant. As the crowd that was assembled outside the plant to picket and listen to speakers—including August Spies, another prominent anarchist organizer and editor of the German-language radical newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung—rushed the gates of the factory, the well-armed Chicago police opened fire on the strikers. As the crowd retreaded to safety, officers beat whoever they could catch up to with clubs and shot those who were running away. Spies, who had become a loyal supporter of the eight-hour movement as a compromise, out of solidarity with his union brothers, now took a different tone in an emergency publication of the Arbeiter-Zeitung: “If you are men, if you are the sons of grand sires who have shed their blood to free you, then you will rise in your might, Hercules, and destroy the hideous monster that seeks to destroy you. To arms, we call you. To arms!”
The next morning, May 4, the strikes continued as normal in Chicago, but with an air of tension that had been absent in previous days. Spies’s call to arms had been distributed across the city in both English and German the night before, exciting both anarchists who were skeptical of the eight-hour demand and police leaders who were confident in their forces’ ability to suppress any violence. A demonstration was advertised for that night at the Haymarket, where “Good speakers will be present to denounce the latest atrocious act of the police”—though a more militant leaflet advertising the event advised workers to “arm yourselves and appear in full force.” Even Spies was uneasy about such overt militancy, and Parsons, who was advertised as a speaker despite not being told beforehand, worried that an outdoor rally would only bring more violence.
But both men ended up speaking at the rally, and as rain began to fall much of the crowd thinned to the point that by ten o’clock only a few hundred people remained. As the final speaker, a British socialist named Samuel Fielden, was ending his speech, 180 police officers arrived and ordered the crowd to disperse. Then a bomb flew through the air, landed in the middle of the group of police, and exploded, killing one officer and wounding dozens. The uninjured police responded by doing the exact thing speakers at this rally were denouncing them for: they started indiscriminately shooting into the crowd, leaving one dead and many others wounded.
As news spread first through Chicago and then nationally, it was clear that the momentum of the general strike would not continue. Public sentiment—nudged by owner-friendly newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times—turned sharply against not only anarchist agitators but socialists and trade unionists as well. Yellow-dog contracts, which required a pledge not to unionize as a condition of employment, proliferated across the country. In Chicago, the police began to break up any large gatherings and to raid buildings purported to be associated with anarchism. Seven anarchists—including Parsons, Spies, and Fielden—were apprehended, tried, and sentenced to death, although there was no evidence connecting any of them to the bombing.
The Haymarket Affair was the tragic end to what had looked just days earlier like a massively successful general strike. Though the labor movement in the US was temporarily hobbled by the bombing, May Day became associated with workers’ parties, unionism, and leftism on an international scale. The International Socialist Conference designated May 1 as International Workers’ Day, which is still celebrated worldwide. In the US, President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a national holiday in 1896, but he intentionally placed it in September to avoid any association with Haymarket and the international socialist movement. In 1958, President Dwight D Eisenhower declared May 1 “Loyalty Day” to further remove the day from the socialist left during the Cold War. But May Day is still an important date for unions in the United States, and this year workers from Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, and Target are participating in large-scale strikes.
May Day is an ancient European festival welcoming the coming of spring, and, since the end of the 19th century, it’s also been known around the world as International Workers’ Day. The flowers and maypoles familiar to roaring-twenties-era Time readers have been paired with demonstrations by labor groups and leftist activists, a tradition that dates back to a chaotic and consequential week in May 1886.
Strike! Brecher, Jeremy. pp 33–59. Oakland, PM Press, 2014.
Death in the Haymarket. Green, James. pp 160–199. New York, Anchor Books, 2007.
May Day History: How May 1 Became a Holiday for Workers”. Rothman, Lily. Time. 2018. https://time.com/3836834/may-day-labor-history/