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May Day and the Fight for an 8 Hour Work Day


In America, prior to 1884, there had been numerous small advances for the eight-hour-work-day. It was in that year, however, at the national convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which was to become the American Federation of Labor, AFofL, in 1886) that a resolution was passed which read, “…eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1st 1886…” The delegates to that convention brought this proposal back to their rank and file members, where it was met with great enthusiasm. It was on this enthusiasm that returning delegates to the 1885 convention directed the Legislative Committee to “put the eight-hour-work-day into practical operation”, and empowered them to appeal for financial aid from all trade and labor unions.

The movement for the eight-hour day was most aggressive in New York, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Chicago which, at that time, was the center of a militant left-wing labor movement. By mid-April, 1886 the movement was in full swing in these cities and across the nation, and about 30,000 workers had already successfully bargained for the shorter day. Enthusiasm was high for what was to come on May 1st, as was summed up in the “Eight-Hour Song”:

We mean to make things over;

we’re tired of toil for naught

But bare enough to live on: never

an hour for thought.

We want to feel the sunshine; we

want to smell the flowers;

We’re sure that God has willed it,

and we mean to have eight hours.

We’re summoning our forces from

shipyard, shop, and mill:

Eight hours for work, eight hours

for rest, eight hours for what we will!

When the day arrived, approximately 350,000 workers in 11,562 places of employment went out on strike. In Chicago, 40,000 laid down their tools and took to the streets, and more than 45,000 were granted a shorter workday without resorting to the strike. The Chicago strike was mostly peaceful, until violence broke out on May 3rd at the McCormick Harvester Factory. Roughly 300 strike-breakers, escorted by at least as many police officers were led into the factory to resume production. When the 1400 locked-out workers assembled to demonstrate against the strike-breakers, the police clubbed and fired into the unarmed crowd. At least four strikers were killed and many were injured. Immediately a call went out for a meeting in Haymarket Square for the next day, May 4th, to protest the brutality of the police. The meeting was peaceful and permitted by the Mayor, who attended the meeting from its opening until impending weather forced him to leave. At that time, the last speaker was at the podium and two-thirds of the crowd had dispersed.

Within fifteen minutes of the Mayor’s departure, a police force 180 strong began to march on the remaining protesters. As the officers closed in on the crowd, a dynamite bomb was thrown into the ranks of officers, killing at least five and wounding many more. Chaos ensued, the police pursued the protesters with clubs and bullets, killing several and wounding more than 200. In the aftermath that followed the events at Haymarket, police, unable to identify the culprit (many speculate it was an agent provocateur), laid the blame upon the organizers of the rally. Albert R. Parsons, August Spies, Samuel J. Fielden, Eugene Schwab, Adolph Fischer, George Engle, Louis Lingg, and Oscar Neebe, all well known leftists, were charged and selected for trial. Only Fielden was at the rally at the time of the bombing. He was the last speaker at the podium. All eight were convicted and seven were sentenced to death. A nationwide defense movement was able to convince Illinois Governor Oglesby to commute the sentences of Fielden and Schwab to life imprisonment. On November 11th, 1887, Parsons, Spies, Engel, and Fischer were hanged. Louis Lingg had committed suicide while in custody. Fielden, Schwab, and Neebe were eventually pardoned, in 1893, by then Illinois Governor Altgeld. 

In Europe, at the 1889 meeting of the International Workingmen’s Association in Paris, in honor of the Haymarket Martyrs and in support of the struggle for the eight-hour day, May 1st was declared to be International Worker’s Day. 

The events at Haymarket dealt a blow to Samuel Gompers, who feared that his young labor federation (the AFofL), would be crushed by powerful business interests and their political allies if it did not distance itself from the radical elements of the day. The AFofL all but dropped the fight for the eight-hour day and it was not until the convention of 1888, that a new date of May 1st, 1890 was set to resume the struggle.

While May 1st continued to play an important role in the American struggle for an eight-hour-work-day, the AFofL chose to focus on its day in September, established in 1884, to honor American Labor. The shorter workday was a common theme in the vast majority of strikes from the late 19th and into the early 20th centuries, but it was not until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (13 years after the death of Gompers) that an 8-hour work day and a 44-hour (8 hours M-F + 4 on Saturday) work week was made standard for all workers. 

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