The Movement for the Eight Hour Day and the Origins of the Haymarket Affair

By Richard Schneirov, Indiana State University

The revolutionary millennium seemed to be at hand when in 1885-1887 the great eight-hour day movement seized the imaginations of Chicago's workers. Expecting the eight-hour day to be inaugurated on May 1, 1886, tens of thousands of workers streamed into unions and mounted strikes for shorter hours, higher pay, and union recognition. Some were part of the anarchist-led Central Labor Union (CLU). Others joined unions affiliated with the Trades and Labor Assembly or the Knights of Labor. The Knights alone rose from less than two thousand members to twenty-seven thousand within a year. Another thirty thousand had joined unions affiliated with the Trades and Labor Assembly, while between ten and sixteen thousand were affiliated with the CLU. The large majority was united on boycotting and sympathy striking for union recognition and the eight-hour day.

A major factor in the new unity of Chicago workers was the reversal of the policy of police moderation introduced by Mayor Harrison. Facing the need to reduce wages in the wake of another depression, employers pressured Harrison to appoint the anti-labor John Bonfield as police inspector. He demonstrated his new policy in his brutal suppression of the 1885 streetcar workers strike. No longer able to count on police neutrality during strikes, organized skilled workers streamed into the Knights of Labor in order to benefit from the support of less skilled workers in their boycotts. But soon they, along with much of the rest of the city's working-class, were swept up in the eight-hour enthusiasm.1

Even though the shorter workday seemed to be a "palliative" that might reconcile workers with "wage-slavery," most anarchists, led by Parsons and the German-born August Spies, threw themselves into organizing for the demand. But, there was an important difference from other eight-hour advocates. The anarchists demanded ten hours of pay for eight hours of work, rather than accepting eight hours of pay for eight hours of work (favored by organized, skilled workers). By making a demand unlikely to be accepted by employers, the anarchists thought they could generate the conflict necessary to impel workers toward revolution. In that vein, the anarchist-led CLU called for an armed general strike for the eight-hour day. The anarchists also intensified their revolutionary agitation holding weekly mass meetings at the lakefront during which they denounced the "beast of property," encouraged the use of dynamite bombs to repel the police, and spoke confidently of the coming revolution.

On May 1, with the city in a state of nervous anticipation, between 30,000 and 60,000 workers left their jobs. Throughout the nation between 200,000 and 340,000 workers struck. Already, employers had granted over 47,000 workers in the city a shorter workday. With Chicago awaiting the storm, 80,000 workers, led by Albert and Lucy Parsons and IWPA leaders marched up Michigan Avenue.2

One of the many strikes then in progress was that of the McCormick Reaper workers. When McCormick declared his intention of reopening his plant with non-union labor, Inspector Bonfield assembled a specially picked squad of 350 police to prevent crowds of strikers from intimidating scab (replacement) workers. On May 3, while Spies addressed workers nearby, Bonfield's police assaulted strikers and fatally wounded two of them. Spies rushed back to the office of the IWPA paper Arbeiter-Zeitung to draft a leaflet headed by the words "Revenge! Workingmen to Arms!!!" Despite the fact that Spies deleted the word "revenge" in almost all of the 25,000 flyers distributed, it was clearly inflammatory. In the German text it called on workers to "avenge the atrocious murder that has been committed" and to "annihilate the beasts in human form who call themselves rulers!"3

That same night one of the anarchist autonomous groups assembled in Grief's Hall. The group, which rejected trade union methods and was dedicated to uncompromising insurrectionary action, read Spies' leaflet and called for a mass meeting the next evening, May 4, at Haymarket Square. Before calling for the meeting they also had endorsed a plan -- of which Spies, Parsons, and other leaders knew nothing -- to respond to a future police attack by bringing down telegraph lines, storming and bombing arsenals and police stations, and shooting policemen. This would be the insurrection Johann Most had laid out in his handbook. But, was the Haymarket meeting meant to be the trigger? The fact that the plan was approved before the call for the May 4 meeting suggests not.

1. Schneirov,Labor and Urban Politics, 162-73.

2. Detailed accounts and different interpretations of the 1886 eight-hour day movement are available in Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics, 183-205 and Green, Death in the Haymarket, 145-73.

3.Quoted in Avrich, Haymarket Tragedy, 190.