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The Haymarket Affair

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Haymarket People’s Fund takes our name from a worker’s uprising in Chicago on May 1, 1886,  which became known as the Haymarket Affair. The events of May, 1886 are remembered as  “the year of the great uprising of labor.” We are very proud of our name. The events leading up to and following the Haymarket Affair are described here. 

In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, great movements of workers and farmers swept across the United States. Immigrants from Europe -- Italian, Russian, Jewish, Greek -- poured into the country by the millions, joining the Germans and Irish already here. Seventy-five thousand Chinese, almost a tenth of the US population, were imported en masse by contractors to do the hardest of the work in building railroads. 

The immigrant workers, part of the labor surplus that kept wages down, were often set against each other and “native” workers. It was not uncommon for workers -- even children -- to toil in a factory or mine for ten, twelve, or even fourteen hours a day. A healthy man might earn $2 a  day; a child was lucky to bring home $.70.

This atmosphere nourished trade unions and labor movements. Women immigrants, another segment of this fragmented, underpaid, and overworked labor force, were beginning to organize. One organization of women won a six-month strike at the carpet mills in Yonkers,  New York. In Chicago, the New International Working People’s Association, 5,000 strong,  published newspapers in five languages, organized mass demonstrations and had a powerful influence on the 22 unions of the City’s Central Labor Union. 

Practical needs brought workers together, but none was as potent as the issue of the eight-hour work day. On May 1, 1886, 350,000 workers in more than 11,500 workplaces throughout the nation went on strike for the eight-hour work day. 

Saturday, May 1, 1886 

Saturday, May 1, 1886 was a beautiful day for a parade in Chicago. Forty thousand workers  were on strike; 45,000 more had been granted a shorter work day to prevent them from  striking. The railroads in the city had stopped running and most industries, including the  stockyards, were shut down. Albert Parsons, a printer, and August Spies, an upholsterer,  anarchist leaders of the International Working People’s Association, whom the Chicago  “Citizen’s Committee” of business men had targeted to be “personally responsible for any  trouble that occurs,” were at the head of the parade. State militia and the police were geared  for action. But the day ended as peacefully as it had begun. 

On Monday, May 3, at the McCormick Harvester Works, locked-out workers and their  sympathizers resisted an incoming tide of 300 strikebreakers. Firing into a crowd of strikers  retreating from the scene, police killed four men and wounded many more. 
A meeting to protest police violence was called for the evening of May 4. Three thousand  people gathered at Haymarket Square under a stormy sky. The mood was sober and hushed. By  ten o’clock, as a cold wind whipped in off the lake, the last speaker, Sam Fielden, was  addressing a dwindled crowd when a detachment of 180 policemen advanced on the speaker’s  platform. Captain John “Clubber” Bonfield ordered the people to disperse. Fielden, stating the  meeting was obviously peaceful and almost finished, scarcely had time to consider this  unexpected command when a bomb exploded in the midst of the police. Sixty-six officers were  wounded, of whom 7 later died. The police fired into the crowd, killing several people and  wounding over 200. 

With no evidence at all on who threw the bomb, the police arrested eight anarchist leaders in  Chicago: Parsons, Spies, Fielden, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, and Oscar Neebe. None of them had been at Haymarket at that time except Fielden, who was speaking when the  bomb exploded. The only evidence against the defendants was their ideas. 

A jury of businessmen and their clerks, at least one of whom was related to a slain policeman,  found them guilty. The judge sentenced all but Neebe to death. After their state appeals were  denied, the US Supreme Court refused jurisdiction over the case. The day before the execution,  the governor commuted Fielden’s and Schwab’s sentences to life imprisonment even as Louis  Lingg, a 21-year old carpenter who spoke no English, blew himself up in his prison cell. Despite  massive protests here and in France, Holland, Italy, Russia, Spain and England, four of the men - - Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel -- were hanged on November  11, 1886. 

Eventually the new governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, denounced the trial and executions. On June 26, 1893 he pardoned the three remaining prisoners. Since then, year after year  throughout the nation memorial meetings have been held for the Haymarket martyrs. 

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