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by William H. Benson

September 9, 1999 

     By May of 1886 conditions in Chicago were tense and volatile.  The previous winter had been extremely cold, and thousands were without work.  The bread lines were long, and the soup kitchens could not handle all the applicants.  What jobs that existed meant long hours, poor pay, and horrible conditions.  The laborers had struck repeatedly the previous year, albeit unsuccessfully;  each time they had struck, the Chief of Police of Chicago John Bonfield had broke up the strikers.

     Finally, on May 1 30,000 men struck, and the police, as promised, struck back.  Three days later on the 4th a crowd gathered late in the evening in Haymarket Square to protest the police’s brutality.  At 10:00 p.m. in the midst of a wind and a light rain, a company of 180 police officers entered the square and headed for the wagon  that had served as a speaker’s platform.  The police ordered the crowd to disperse immediately.

     Someone–an anonymous person who was never identified–tossed in a bomb.  The dazed police opened fire on the 300-400 remaining people who ran for their lives.  The bomb had killed one policeman and injured more than 60 others, and of those, 6 more died during the next few weeks.  One crowd member was killed by the police fire.

     An outrage against the labor movement erupted across the nation.  Everywhere editorial writers fulminated against communists, anarchists, and radicals in general.  The Albany Law Journal deplored the fact that “the lives of good and brave men [are] . . . at the mercy of a few long-haired, wild-eyed, bad-smelling, atheistic, reckless, foreign wretches, who never did an honest day’s work in their lives.”  In Chicago the air was charged with anger, fear, and hatred.

     The police rounded up the leaders of the crowd that night, and the resulting trial was not a search for justice but an outlash against the labor leaders.  No evidence was ever found or presented that linked the accused with the making or throwing of that bomb.  Eight men were convicted and sentenced, and on November 11, 1887 4 of those men swung from the gallows.  Their names were Fischer, Engel, Spies, and Parson.

     The labor movement was held in traction for those 18 months, and the country was deeply divided over what had happened.  Labor issues still today drag up bitter emotional outcrys.

     What did the labor leaders want?  Why did they strike?  Better wages, an eight-hour day, and better working conditions.  Clarence Darrow, the famous Chicago lawyer, said, “This demand for 8 hours is not a demand to shirk work, as is claimed in this case.  It is a demand for the individual to have a better life, a fuller life, a completer life. . . . The laborer who asks for shorter hours asks for a breath of life;  he asks for a chance to develop the best that is in him.”

     Eventually, over the years, labor did get the 8 hour day, and to no one’s astonishment, civilization was not destroyed, nor did American society collapse.

     Egypt’s pyramids, China’s Great Wall, and Stalin’s Gulag Archipelago all were built with men and women who worked constantly and could only could dream of an eight hour day.  Finally, in America it did come true.

     Studs Terkel, the American writer, once wrote, “You know why you work 8 and not 18 hours?  Because 4 guys got hanged 100 years ago.  It’s the Haymarket Affair in Chicago when guys got hanged fighting for the 8 hour day.  It’s true.”

     Last Monday we paused for a day from work and from our jobs, and now today we have reflected on labor’s gigantic strides across the years.  In so doing perhaps we can better appreciate the American work force, arguably the best.