The Haymarket Affair: The Surprising History of the Fight for the Eight-Hour Workday

The first dynamite bomb thrown in America

An important anniversary in law and labor history is coming up! On May 4, 1886, workers gathered at the intersection of Desplaines and Randolph streets (a nine-minute walk from the present location of Chicago-Kent), known as Haymarket Square.

It was the fourth day of strikes in favor of an eight-hour workday. The police arrived at Haymarket late in the evening, when the demonstrators were already heading home on account of the rainy weather. A bomb was thrown at the ranks of police, killing an officer and touching off a panic that left another six officers and at least four workers dead. The state of Illinois put eight anarchists – mostly German immigrants – on trial for conspiracy.

Professor César Rosado Marzán, co-director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at Chicago-Kent, says: “The trial wouldn’t meet most people’s definition of ‘fair’: suspicion of immigrants and working-class people was widespread, and both the judge and press were fervently pro-prosecution.”

(Note: The contemporary print reproduced above, with its heroic depiction of the police captain, was typical.)

The eight defendants were convicted; four were hanged, one (also sentenced to death) committed suicide in prison, and three served prison terms. What they were fighting for – the eight-hour workday – became a reality for many, and May 1 is now International Workers Day.

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