[On May 4th, 1886, a labor protest and rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square in support of a nationwide strike turned into a confusing, bloody mess. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for the Haymarket Affair, leading up to a special weekend post on one of our most important current scholarly voices on labor.]
On a motivation, a debate, and an effect of one of the earliest nationwide strikes.
One of the scholarly works I read as an undergraduate that left a lasting impression on me was historian Roy Rosenzweig’s Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920 (1983). It wasn’t just the depth and detail with which Rosenzweig narrated and analyzed new leisure possibilities and spaces in the late 19th century, although that certainly impressed me. Instead, it was the overall paradigm shift that Rosenzweig’s book effected in my perspective, as I really considered what the absence of work-hour regulations (and thus the push for an eight-hour workday) meant for 19th century American workers. The issue isn’t as blatant or horrifying as child labor practices or the absence of safety regulations or the like, but it was a vital cause through which workers and the labor movement could take a bit more control over their own lives. So vital, in fact, that the May 1st, 1886 nationwide strike of more than 350,000 industrial workers was undertaken specifically to agitate for the creation of an eight-hour workday.
Not every labor leader and organization supported the use of a nationwide strike for that purpose, however. Terence Powderly, leader of the influential national union The Knights of Labor (which had a membership of more than 700,000 in 1886), opposed the strike and forbid Knights of Labor members from taking part in it. Powderly preferred other tactics, from negotiation with management to boycotts, to strikes, a sharp divide from the perspective of the nation’s other most prominent labor union, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (an immediate predecessor to the American Federation of Labor, which was founded later in the year). The debate reflects the widely divergent views and tactics that characterized the labor movement at this still early stage, and reminds us that the May Day strike, significant (indeed, unprecedented) in scale and scope as it was, nonetheless represented only a subset of American workers (again, the Knights of Labor had a membership more than twice the size of the number of workers who struck on May 1st).
Despite those divergences the May 1st strike was an important labor milestone, and (despite the Haymarket catastrophe and the negative press and narratives it engendered) had a number of both immediate and long-term positive effects. Some employers did institute an eight-hour workday, while others offered higher wages or other benefits. Yet it was a pair of commemorations that proved the most enduring, if partly ironic, legacies of the strike: in 1889 the Paris Second International designated May 1st as International Workers’ Day in remembrance of the strike; and when President Grover Cleveland designated the first official federal Labor Day in September 1887, he did so in large part to commemorate organized labor separately from lingering May associations with the Haymarket Affair. Those might seem to be distinct and even opposed effects and commemorations, but both represent the power of organized labor and of events like the May 1st, 1886 strike to affect and change national narratives and collective memories.
Next Haymarket history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Haymarket histories or contexts you’d highlight?
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