May Day in the Haymarket 2019

May 1st — May Day — is Labor’s holiday around most of the world, a notable exception being the United States, even though the holiday commemorates the Haymarket Affair (aka Haymarket massacre, aka Haymarket Square riot) here in Chicago that happened on May 4, 1886, as part of a nationwide strike demanding an 8 hour work day. As a result of the police riot, 8 activists were tried in a show trial. 7 were sentenced to death. Of the 7, 2 had their sentence commuted, 1 committed suicide (probably), and 4 were hung.

Why we celebrate the labor movement in September instead of May is another story, though you wouldn’t be far off simply assuming that it is an ideological statement. After all, May 1 is officially Law Day in the United States.

Even so, union activists and lefties have insisted on observing May 1 with rallies, demonstrations and educational programs. In Chicago, the Illinois Labor History Society served as the point organization for most years since the 1970s. Some years have been bigger than others.

While there is monument to the Haymarket martyrs in the Waldheim Cemetery in suburban Forest Park (administered by the Illinois Labor History Society), in recent years most of the Illinois Labor History Society commemorations have been taking place at what was the old Haymarket. Chicago has erected its own monument to the event. Strictly speaking, its subject is freedom of speech and assembly, so it covers “Law Day” as well.

Click on any image to enlarge it.

This year’s event was not the smallest I’ve been to but it was nowhere near the largest — try a half million people in the streets. My guess is the crowd at its largest was around 200. If you were much further than two dozen feet or so, the speakers were nearly impossible to hear. Consequently, I can’t tell you much about the program.

Click on any image to enlarge it.

This wasn’t the only May Day related event in Chicago. There was a labor march of some sort in Hyde Park. There was also a celebration of Mother Jones’ birthday. But I’m sure there were other events as well.

 

 

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End the Shut-Down

Unions representing employees of the Federal government rallied at the Federal Plaza, Dearborn & Adams in downtown Chicago at Noon on Thursday. This was part of a nation-wide series of demonstrations protesting the budget stalemate that has shut down portions of the government, leaving some workers at home and others still at work but all without pay.

The event was probably better characterized as a press conference on steroids. The crowd was not large, considering the number of workers affected in the Chicago metropolitan area, considering, indeed, the number of Federal employees based in the immediate vicinity of the demonstration: say about 150 attendees, give or take a few dozen. As a press conference, it was highly successful with a large turnout from TV, radio and print. Better still was the opportunity for journalists to interview affected workers as nothing makes a story like putting an individual face on it.

There will be a protest at Noon in Federal Plaza (Dearborn & Adams) every Thursday in Chicago as long as the shut-down continues.

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A sampling of some of the signs at the demonstration, shortly before the event. Photo by Roman.
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Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., who also spoke. Photo by Roman.
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Photo by Roman.
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Susan Hurley of Chicago Jobs with Justice. Photo by Roman.
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It was good to see Jorge Mujica: well met! Photo by Roman.
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Charles Paidock, representing the Machinists’ Federal employees. Photo by Roman.
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It could happen. Photo by Roman
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I seriously love the hat. Photo by Roman.

 

November 11, 1887

was a Friday and four of the eight defendants convicted in connection with the Haymarket Affair were executed — hung — in the alley behind Chicago’s old City Hall: George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parsons and August Spies. The evening before, another of the convicted, Louis Lingg, had committed suicide by biting down on a blasting cap while in his cell. Two others, Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab, had their sentences commuted to life in prison by Illinois Governor Richard James Oglesby. Oscar Neebe had been sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. In 1893, Illinois Governor John Altgeld pardoned Fielden, Schwab and Neebe.

The Haymarket Affair grew out of the struggle for an 8 hour work day. A predecessor organization to the AFL-CIO, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, had proclaimed that as of May 1, 1886, the 8 hour day would be “the law” and a series of strikes and demonstrations were organized to enforce the proclamation or it was included as a part of ongoing disputes, such as the strike at the McCormick harvester plant in Chicago that had been ongoing since February. On May 3, 1886, a rally at the McCormick plant was violently suppressed by police, killing at least two of the striking workers.

A protest rally was hastily organized for the next evening at Chicago’s Haymarket on the near west side. It was poorly attended, about a tenth the size organizers had hoped. As the rally sputtered to an end in the face of oncoming rain, Inspector John “Black Jack” Bonfield arrived with a large contingent of police, despite having been instructed by Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr., to stand down. A bomb was thrown at the police, killing several and severely wounding many others. The police responded by shooting indiscriminately, hitting several of their own and many of the crowd. It’s not known how many of the demonstrators were killed or injured.

If you work a 40 hour week, you can thank the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions and the Chicago anarchists for your leisure time. If you live anywhere but in the United States, you can thank the Haymarket Affair for making May 1st your Labor Day.

There are three points that I think are worth making this year.

First, present day histories of the Affair tend to downplay a simple fact: Most of the Haymarket defendants were revolutionaries. They would have been seriously disappointed to be presented as anything else. They generally came to that position as much through experience as anything else. I don’t mean this as an endorsement of insurrection, but whatever you might think of it in the present, they were making a reasonable assessment of their own times and of the immediate possibilities for change. It shouldn’t be downplayed.

Second, the case against the defendants had scarce physical evidence. The suicide, Louis Lingg, was apparently a bomb-maker and the physical remains of the thrown bomb were consistent with his product. How much you want to trust this is up to you. The law was not well respected by much of Chicago, not just by the anarchists. And there is some doubt, of course, about whether or not Lingg’s death was actually suicide.

Most of the case against the Haymarket defendants was their own rhetoric. For example, Samuel Fielden, the last speaker at the rally, was winding up his speech with:

“A million men hold all the property in this country. The law has no use for the other fifty-four millions. You have nothing more to do with the law except to lay hands on it and throttle it until it makes its last kick… Keep your eye upon it, throttle it, kill it, stab it, do everything you can to wound it — to impede its progress.”

Incendiary language, certainly. Worthy of the death penalty? Yes? No? Now tell me: What should be done about Donald Trump’s rhetoric?

Ah well, that was then and they were poor. This is now and Trump is rich.

Finally, Inspector John Bonfield is a bigger player in this story than most accounts provide. While he was not in charge of the earlier police action at the McCormick harvester plant, he was a participant. He got the nickname “Black Jack” through his liberal use of the same in putting down other labor strikes in Chicago. He was later accused of stealing Louis Lingg’s clothing and property to sell. This accusation led to his resignation from the Chicago Police. Perhaps he had supplied the blasting cap as well?

For all that the left and labor justifiably hated him, Bonfield is an interesting character. You can find a good summary of his life and misadventures HERE, but there’s a good deal more available on the web, including his testimony at the Haymarket Affair trial. He’s buried under a modest stone in Oakwood Cemetery on Chicago’s southeast side.

Happy Birthday, Debs!

On this day in 1855, Eugene Victor Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. He is notable as having been a leader in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, an Indiana state legislator, a founder and President of the American Railway Union, a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, and a founder and five time Presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America.

The Eugene V. Debs Foundation maintains his home in Terre Haute, Indiana, as a museum.

Debs saw himself, and the Socialist Party, more as a catalyst than as a vehicle. My currently favorite quote from Debs illustrates this nicely:

“I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now, the capitalists use your heads and your hands.”