Haymarket Affair -Its Influence to Chicago’s Labor Movements Today-
Author: Kosuke Sato
Program of Study: Master of Public Policy (MPP), Harris School of Public Policy (HAR)
Description: Do you know about the labor movement tragedy that occurred 130 years ago in Chicago? This podcast will provide you with information about the Haymarket Affair in Chicago in 1896 and the impact it has on the modern Chicago labor movement.
Transcript (provided by author):
Introduction + Music
Welcome to the ELI’s Finding Chicago Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2022. I’m your host, Kosuke Sato, and I’m currently enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Harris school. Today we will be exploring the topic of Haymarket affair in Chicago and its influence to Chicago’s labor movements.
As I majored in History of Science in college, I love to learn history, because learning history is the only way to connect those who lived in the past with those who live in the present, us.
So in early September, I visited the Chicago History Museum in Lincoln Park. It was a very interesting place. There I was able to see various exhibits that I have been interested in since I was in Japan, such as the history of the Great Chicago Fire.
However, one exhibit in particular caught my attention. It showed a picture of a prisoner being hanged and the following explanation: “The Haymarket Affair”, “An event of great importance to the world labor movement”, and “the origin of the international “May Day” on May 1″.
I didn’t know anything about it. But one thing caught my attention.
“Come to think of it, why Labor Day holiday in US is in September and not in May?”
This is what got me interested in this affair. But this Haymarket Affair was not merely the origin for an international Labor Day; it was also beginning of labor movements in Chicago.
The post-industrial world of the 19th century may have been the worst possible environment for workers.
In that era, workers were simply machines, and the longer they worked, the better for factories. Working 10 to 16 hours a day was normal for American workers in those days.
However, beginning in the 1880s, there gradually emerged a movement to assert workers’ rights throughout the U.S., which was then widespread. The right to an eight-hour workday. Chicago became the center of this movement because of its large numbers of workers, mostly European immigrants, and the size of its economy.
The movement’s goal was to win the right to an eight-hour workday in May 1886, so they planed to do a big labor demonstration in Chicago. This was the beginning of this affair.
On May 4, 1886, during a demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket, someone threw dynamite that exploded, killing people, including both workers and police officers.
Soon after the Chicago police used this incident as an opportunity to begin a harsh crackdown on the labor movement, eventually arresting eight labor activists without any clear evidence.
The trial was conducted by a judge and jury with a bias against workers and immigrants, and as a result, four of them were executed.
This event attracted attention not only throughout the United States but also around the world.
As a result, it served as an opportunity to unite workers across the United States who had previously been divided by race and other political ideologies.
In 1890, at the suggestion of the American Federation of Labor, international labor organizations set a date for an international workers’ demonstration on May 1, to remember the Haymarket Affair.
This is the beginning of May Day.
Around the same time as this event, an organization that would become the center of the modern day labor movement in Chicago was born. It is the Chicago Federation of Labor.
For two decades before the organization’s formation in October of 1886, Chicago’s labor unions existed in a number of separate unions. In those smaller unions, corruption was also a problem.
But as the memory of Haymarket affair became more deeply embedded in the minds of Chicago workers, they realized that it was important to have a strong labor voice as one unified organization at the heart of the labor movement here in Chicago.
Now, the Chicago Federation of Labor represents a membership of 500,000 workers in Cook Country and is one of the major organizations influencing contemporary Chicago politics.
CFL, Chicago Federation of Labor, has accomplished many things in the past 130 years. Of particular significance in recent years was the CFL’s work in the 1980s to give collective bargaining rights to the City of Chicago’s public employees.
If you or your family is a Chicago public employee, you should remember that it is in part due to their efforts that the status of public employees has been preserved during the various recessions that have occurred over the past 30 years.
In addition, perhaps the most famous aspect of the Chicago labor movement is the teachers’ strike.
The Chicago Teachers Union, CTU, which is a separate organization from the CFL, carried out this strike, but the Chicago Federation of Teachers, the predecessor of the CTU, was also born in the 1890s.
It is no coincidence that the famous modern labor movement in Chicago has its origins in the Haymarket Affair, which took place in the same place, Chicago.
It is true that the labor movement is not as active in the United States today as it is in other countries.
However, in recent years, unions have begun to form in the United States, even in large companies such as Amazon and Apple.
In June 2022, a conference by an organization named “Labor notes” was held in Chicago. Chicago, the site of the Haymarket affair, was chosen as the site for the resumption of in-person meetings after a period of Covid 19.
At the conference, Amazon union president Smalls declared that this summer would be “the summer of hot labor movements.”
I encourage all Chicago residents to consider the American labor movement and Chicago’s role in it.
Thank you for listening to my podcast until the end.
I hope these 7 minutes have been beneficial to you.
Finally, if you ever have the opportunity to visit Chicago’s West Loop, I encourage you to visit Haymarket Square on Randolph Street.
There you will not see anything that shows the sad incident, but you will see a monument that was created in 2004. At the same time, you may be able to feel the breath of the labor movement that is still alive in Chicago.
Oops, I forgot one thing.
Why is Labor Day in the US in September instead of May?
In 1894, the president at the time came up with the idea of establishing Labor Day as a national holiday to calm the labor movement.
However, the president feared that setting it in May would evoke memories of the Haymarket Affair in the public, so he chose September, which was the date of another labor parade.
You can use this trivia tomorrow!
 Exhibition about The Haymarket Affair in Chicago History Museum. Visited 3 Sept. 2022.
 2022 Labor Notes Conference: June 17-19, Chicago. https://labornotes.org/2022. Accessed 16 Sept. 2022.
 History – Chicago Federation of Labor. https://chicagolabor.org/about/history/. Accessed 16 Sept. 2022.
 CTU History – Chicago Teachers Union. https://www.ctulocal1.org/about/history/. Accessed 16 Sept. 2022.