The Contested Haymarket Affair: 130 Years Later

Allen Ruff

ON MAY 4th, 1886 someone threw a bomb into a file of Chicago police dispatched to break up a workers’ protest rally at the city’s Haymarket Square. The blast and ensuing gunfire killed seven cops and at least four civilians, and wounded many more.

The entire workers’ movement immediately came under attack, and eight anarchist labor activists were charged with conspiracy for the act. Following a speedy and controversial trial, the men were found guilty. Four were hanged the following November, while one mysteriously died in his cell the night before. Three others were imprisoned.

Chicago in the post-Civil War decades became a major railroad hub, center of industrial production and heartland engine of unrestrained capitalist development. That rapid expansion was built on the exploitation of a primarily immigrant working class subjected to incredibly long hours, poor pay, and horrific working and living conditions.

The city, through the mid-1870s, was convulsed by a severe economic depression resulting in mass unemployment and wage cuts, working class upheaval and attempts to organize that were met, in turn, with “industrial titan” countermeasures often involving violence and state repression.

By the early 1880s, a loose coalition of local labor organizations led by the reformist Knights of Labor but including the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor and more radical anarcho-communists joined in a call for a nationwide general strike on May 1, 1886 to demand an eight hour day.

Some 80,000 Chicago workers marched through the downtown that day and strikes continued afterward. On May 3rd, police fired upon strikers killing three at the city’s McCormick Reaper Plant. In response, local anarchist federation leaders called for the emergency protest at the Haymarket, at which the bombing occurred.

The “Haymarket Affair” — the bombing, subsequent repression, trial and execution of the “Haymarket martyrs” — had huge ramifications. It influenced the thinking of generations of labor and left activists of every persuasion, and directly shaped the contours of radical and reform strategy and tactics in regard to political action and labor organization for decades.

As such its legacies, still contested and debated, remain a part of our living history.

May/June 2016, ATC 182