Tuesday, May 1, 2012
The Chicago Strike and Haymarket The May First strike was most aggressive in Chicago, which was at that time the center of a militant Left-wing labor movement. Although insufficiently clear politically on a number of the problems of the labor movement, it was nevertheless a fighting movement, always ready to call the workers to action, develop their fighting spirit and set as their goal not only the immediate improvement of their living and working conditions, but the abolition of the capitalist system as well. With the aid of the revolutionary labor groups the strike in Chicago assumed the largest proportions. An 8-hour Association was formed long in advance of the strike to prepare for it. The Central Labor Union, composed of the Left-wing labor unions, gave full support to the 8-hour Association, which was a united front organization, including the unions affiliated to the Federation, the K. of L., and the Socialist Labor Party. On the Sunday before May First the Central Labor Union organized a mobilization demonstration which was attended by 25,000 workers. On May First Chicago witnessed a great outpouring of workers, who laid down tools at the call of the organized labor movement of the city. It was the most effective demonstration of class solidarity yet experienced by the labor movement itself. The importance at that time of the demand – the 8-hour day – and the extent and character of the strike gave the movement significant political meaning. This significance was deepened by the developments of the next few days. The 8-hour movement, culminating in the strike on May First, 1886, forms by itself a glorious chapter in the fighting history of the American working class. But revolutions have their counter-revolutions until the revolutionary class finally establishes its complete control. The victorious march of the Chicago workers was arrested by the then superior combined force of the employers and the capitalist state, determined to destroy the militant leaders, hoping thereby to deal a deadly blow to the entire labor movement of Chicago. The events of May 3 and 4, which led to what is known as the Haymarket Affair, were a direct outgrowth of the May First strike. The demonstration held on May 4 at Haymarket Square was called to protest against the brutal attack of the police upon a meeting of striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works on May 3, where six workers were killed and many wounded. The meeting was peaceful and about to be adjourned when the police again launched an attack upon the assembled workers. A bomb was thrown into the crowd, killing a sergeant. A battle ensued with the result that seven policemen and four workers were dead. The blood bath at Haymarket Square, the railroading to the gallows of Parsons, Spies, Fischer, and Engel, and the imprisonment of the other militant Chicago leaders, was the counterrevolutionary answer of the Chicago bosses. It was the signal for action to the bosses all over the country. The second half of 1886 was marked by a concentrated offensive of the employers, determined to regain the position lost during the strike movement of 1885-1886. One year after the hanging of the Chicago labor leaders, the Federation, now known as the American Federation of Labor, at its convention in St. Louis in 1888, voted to rejuvenate the movement for the 8-hour day. May First, which was already a tradition, having served two years before as the concentration point of the powerful movement of the workers based upon a political class issue, was again chosen as the day upon which to re-inaugurate the struggle for the 8-hour day. May First, 1890, was to witness a nation-wide strike for the shorter workday. At the convention in 1889, the leaders of the A. F. of L., headed by Samuel Gompers, succeeded in limiting the strike movement. It was decided that the Carpenters' Union, which was considered best prepared for the strike, should lead off with the strike, and if it proved successful, other unions were to fall in line. In his autobiography Gompers tells how the A. F. of L. contributed to making May Day an international labor holiday: "As plans for the 8-hour movement developed, we were constantly realizing how we could widen our purpose. As the time of the meeting of the International Workingmen's Congress in Paris approached, it occurred to me that we could aid our movement by an expression of world-wide sympathy from that congress." Gompers, who had already exhibited all the attributes of reformism and opportunism which later came to full bloom in his class collaborationist policy, was ready to get the support of a movement among the workers, the influence of which he strongly combated.