Monday, May 20, 2013

Germain: Haymarket Square Riot Affair

Dahyanelle Germain
Haymarket Square Riot Affair
On May 4, 1886 a riot took place in the city of Chicago, Illinois at Haymarket Square. As a result, many people died and many more were injured. It was reported that seven policemen and four workers died. This event is remembered in the history books because it is an event that changed the history of Chicago, had an impact on the American labor and the United States overall. It affected the working class of Chicago in many different levels.

To fully understand this event we need to go back to the reasons why it was happening. At this period of time in U.S. many labor unions and organizations, including the Knights of Labor, existed to represent workers in industrial factories. Working conditions are abhorrent at this time. There was little or often no concerns for safety in most factories in the Chicago and the U.S. overall. Workers’ wages were very low and the average work day and week was at least 10 hours, six days a week. The focal point of many worker advocacy organizations including the Knights of Labor was to institute the eight hour workday. In 1866 the National Labor Union wanted to pass an eight hour work day law. The following year the country’s first eight hour law was passed.
However the battle had just begun, because employers refused to abide. Employers forced workers to sign waivers so they would not get in trouble and be blamed.1 In essence nothing changed because workers were still working 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week. On May 1, 1886 many strikes were held to demand the eight hour work day. This labor movement had reportedly eighty thousand workers, marching on Michigan Avenue in Chicago with their banners.2 Songs like the “Eight Hour Day” were sung. The unification of so many workers pushed the employers in Chicago to sign agreements for less hours with no reduced pay.
Two days later, however, strikers from Chicago’s McCormick Harvester Works factory collided with the police. Police attacked picketing workers. This provoked a rally on the next day May 4. Again, as the meeting was coming to an end, the police tried to disperse the group. A person, still unknown today, threw a bomb. It was the first dynamite bomb to be used in the United States during a non-war era. The police responded with shots fired. Seven policemen died and one of them died due to the impact of the bomb itself. Four strikers were also killed during this violent outbreak. Outrage and shock shook the city of Chicago to its core during this tragedy. Over the next few days the police arrested anarchists and labor activists, with thirty-one individuals indicted by the grand jury and charged for being accessories to the murder of the policeman names Mathias J. Degan .3
Later on, eight “radicals” or “anarchists” as they called the protesters, were tried. They were August Spies, Adolph Fisher, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, Albert Parsons, Oscar Neebe, George Engel, and Samuel Fielden. Four of them were sentenced to death by hanging for their actions and one of them, Lingg, committed suicide in prison. Neebe was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. However their trial has been criticized by many. Some, especially labor organizers, viewed the dead protesters as victims. Adolph Fischer said to the judge: “Your Honor, you ask me why sentence of death should not be passed upon me. I will not talk much. I will only say that I protest against my being sentenced to death, because I have committed no crime. I was tried here in this room for murder, and I was convicted of Anarchy. I protest against being sentenced to death, because I have not been found guilty of murder. But, however, if I am to die on account of being an Anarchist, on account of my love for liberty, fraternity and equality, then I will not remonstrate. If death is the penalty for our love of the freedom of the human race, then I say openly I have forfeited my life; but a murderer I am not”.4 (4). However, a part of the public became even more anti-labor. This quote is because it shows how much the workers believed in what they were fighting for. They believed they had a right to better working conditions and equality.
The event at the Haymarket Square was unfortunate and many demanded punishment. Many started to view labor unions or labor movements in a bad vile way. However, the public’s opinion was divided nationwide and many were questioning the whole trial . Some people agreed that workers needed to unionize but others saw it as a bother. In June 26, 1893 the governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, pardoned Schwab, Neebe, and Fielden due to the pressure of the public and their many questions about who was really responsible and if the trial had been fair. According to William J. Adelman no single event has influence the history of labor in Illinois more than the Haymarket affair.
The Haymarket Affair also had an impact on the American labor.American working class. The union called Knights of Labor no longer existed due to the chaos brought by the Haymarket riot. This opened the door for something new. The American Federation of Labor is a union that soon became really popular after the end of the Knights of Labor. The AFL, unlike the Knights of Labor was not open to all workers. It was racially restrictive. For example African Americans were not welcomed. . It was however powerful and strived to secure better working conditions for all members. America was becoming even more industrialized and. And in a time where workers needed unions more than ever the AFL was successful in improving the public’s view on unions.
The Haymarket Affair also influenced the United States. It is at the origin of what we call today May Day. In a lot of countries in different parts of the world, May Day is the principal workers' holiday. It commemorates the tragedy of May 4, 1886. Nowadays May Day is important to many individuals in the United States. Many events are celebrated around this day. For example, at Stony Brook University, The Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU) organized a Free University on May Day. There was a rally to celebrate campus labor unions. May Day was institutionalized as an international holiday in 1891 in Paris. Today, May Day is a day for people to rally, march and hold demonstrations in the streets. This day is a reminder that America has changed and has come a long way again. Today, for example unions are common practice and no one judges you for being in a union. since the nineteenth century.

1 Illinois Labor History Society.

2 Illinois Labor History Society.

3 . The Haymarket Affair Digital Collection, Haymarket Affair Chronology.

4 Chicago Historical Society, Haymarket Digital Affair Collection, Speech of Adolph Fischer.

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