In perspective, then, it's easy to see the attraction socialism and anarchy held to workers of the day. With low levels of education and little modern technology, labor productivity was low and the going wage rates reflected this low productivity. Thus, a laborer typically needed to work many hours in order to earn enough to feed himself and his family.
This work truly was miserable, protracted, and repetitive, and with the government providing few of the "social safety net" benefits that the New Deal and Great Society would bring during the 20th century, many workers felt trapped in a life of hopeless tedium, unable to consider quitting for fear of literally starving themselves and their families to death. That phrase, "wage slavery," so key to socialist rhetoric, seems offensive to the modern ear in its analogy between freely entered employment contracts and the violence of whip and chain, but would not have fallen on such deaf ears in the 1880s.
Organized labor, as a movement, was in its infancy, but May of 1886 was a turning point. Like all cartels, workers' groups of that day and today sought to lower production levels (hours worked) in order to raise pries (wages). Naturally, such actions benefit workers with jobs, who receive higher wages, but at the expense of the unemployed, who find it harder to get work at the higher rates. A regulated and enforced eight hour workday was seen as a solution to this tradeoff, as it would in theory share wage gains more broadly across workers, rather than enriching some and punishing others.
Legislation in some states had enforced maximum ten hour workdays for several decades, although there were generally relaxed rules for cases where both employer and employee mutually desired longer days. With productivity (and wages) at such low levels, many workers wanted to work longer hours in order to earn more.
In order to force the question of the eight-hour day, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, an early labor organization, designated May 1, 1886 ("May Day") as the day when workers would simply walk off the job after eight hours. However, the lack of solidarity among workers and the desire of many to work more than eight hours, doomed the effort. The radicalism at the fringes of the labor movement, displayed in the Haymarket Affair, also turned public opinion against legislation that would enforce shorter workdays.
These events filled the early days of May, 1886 in Chicago with clashes between groups with varying interests: workers seeking to fulfill the promise of the eight hour day, workers who wanted to work more than eight hours, employers who wanted to hire workers for more than eight hours, the unemployed who wanted to work any hours they could, and the police. On May 3, a walk-off at McCormick's Reaper Works on the Southwest side led to a clash with police in which two workers died.
August Spies, the editor of the radical daily Arbeiter-Zeitung, witnessed the bloodshed (though he mistakenly believed six, not two, were killed), and returned to his Wells St. office where he penned a passionate leaflet calling for retribution. The English version of Spies' copy (which was also printed in German) read:
A copy editor at the newspaper added the word "Revenge!" in bold face at the top of the leaflet, thus giving it the name it became known later at the trial, the "Revenge Circular." 2,500 copies of the Revenge Circular went out, including to a Westside meeting of radical anarchists run by Adolph Fischer, a printer at the Arbeiter-Zeitung, and George Engel. At that meeting, a protest was planned for the following evening at Haymarket Square. Haymarket was chosen because it was large enough that the planners felt escape would be possible if a clash with police occurred. Fischer printed up 25,000 handbills, which included the phrase:
Workingmen to Arms!!! Your masters sent out their bloodhounds -- the police; they killed six of your brothers at McCormick's this afternoon. They killed the poor wretches, because they, like you, had the courage to disobey the supreme will of your bosses. They killed them, because they dared ask for the shortening of the hours of toil. They killed them to show you, "Free American Citizens," that you must be satisfied and contented with whatever your bosses condescend to allow you, or you will get killed!
You have for years endured the most abject humiliations; you have for years suffered unmeasurable iniquities; you have worked yourself to death; you have endured the pangs of want and hunger; your children you have sacrificed to the factory-lords -- in short: you have been miserable and obedient slaves all these years. Why? To satisfy the insatiable greed, to fill the coffers of your lazy thieving master? When you ask them now to lessen your burden, he sends his bloodhounds out to shoot you, kill you!
If you are men, if you are the sons of your 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!
Workingmen arm yourselves and appear in full force!Fischer then went to his job at the Arbeiter-Zeitung, and convinced Spies to speak at the meeting and to print the handbill in the next day's newspaper. Spies objected to the handbill's violent tone, and printed the bill without the offensive "arm yourselves" line. Also in the same issue of the paper mysteriously appeared the word "Ruhe" (rest) in a prominent position, a signal previously determined to designate the start of outright revolution.
The evening of the protest, May 4, was rainy and cold. Albert Parsons, a major anarchist leader in the city, and alone among the Haymarket defendants, a native-born American, was supposed to open the meeting in English, but he had been delayed, and at 8:15 the meeting had still not begun. The weather -- and possibly the whiff of violence -- had kept many potential attendees at home, and the late start led others to assume the meeting was canceled.
When Spies arrived to begin his speech at 8:15, he noted the poor attendance and decided to move the group around the corner on to Desplaines Street, where he found an empty wagon, which he appropriated as a podium. Standing on the podium, he began addressing the crowd. The speakers' wagon from which Spies spoke has been commemorated by the sculpture which stands today on the location of the real wagon, pictured above.
After Spies finished speaking, Parsons arrived and spoke for another hour to a rapidly thinning crowd. Those who were left, however, were among the most radical, and they repeatedly shouted slogans and affirmations to what they heard from the wagon. One attendee waved a pistol above his head in defiance.
As the weather worsened, Parsons told the attendees that a final speaker, Samuel Fielden, would be the final speaker, and those who wished could then continue the discussion at Zepf's tavern, just north of the Haymarket. Fielden concluded his talk, which included some incendiary, though circumspect, language:
At this moment, a police force arrived to break up the meeting. Fielden began stepping down from the platform, as his speech was essentially finished at the point anyway. Spies, who was sitting at the edge of the wagon, was about to remind everyone about the post-protest meeting at Zepf's.
He that has to obey the will of another is a slave. Can we do anything except by the strong arm of resistance?...I have some resistance in me; I know that you have, too; you have been robbed and you will be starved into a worse condition."
At this point that the fatal bomb was thrown, and the riot begun. The police began firing randomly into the crowd, though they primarily shot each other. Men and women ran in all directions, trampling each other in a mad attempt to escape. The air was clouded with smoke from gunshot and cries from those shot and wounded. Ten men, including seven police, lie dead on the street. Probably over a hundred were wounded.
Eight men, including Fischer, Parsons, Engel, Fielden, and Spies, were tried and convicted on murder charges, though six of them were demonstrably not even in attendance at the Haymarket meeting at the time of the bomb (including Fischer and Parsons, who had already retired to Zepf's), and the two who were in attendance, Fielden and Spies, were both on the speakers' wagon in full sight of all when the bomb was thrown.
Nevertheless, their history of radical behavior and incendiary rhetoric had turned public opinion strongly against the anarchists, and a fair trial was an impossibility. Spies, Parsons, Engel, and Fischer were executed in November, 1887. A fifth convict committed suicide in prison, and the remaining three were pardoned after serving seven years in prison.
While a statue to the fallen police was erected in Haymarket Square soon after the incident, over time, the cause of workers' rights led to a more sympathetic view of the anarchist "conspirators". In 1992, a bronze plaque was sunk into the sidewalk at the location of the speakers' wagon, and in 2004 the pictured sculpture was unveiled.
While the eight-hour day is a reality today for most workers, there is little evidence that the Haymarket Riot, or labor organization and agitation generally, had much to do with it. Improvements in education and labor-saving technology, which vastly increased labor productivity, led to higher wages. Workers then were able to to cut their hours of work without reducing their standard of living.