May Day in Chicago: Labor to commemorate Haymarket martyrs

CHICAGO (PAI) – It’s just one word in labor history with a lot of associations: Haymarket.

It’s the chaos on a square on Chicago’s near West Side: During a meeting on May 4, 1886 to campaign for an 8-hour day, and to protest police brutality against strikers, an unknown person threw a bomb as the crowd of 2,500 was breaking up due to a rainstorm. Then 176 police, with repeating rifles, charged against 200 workers.

Four workers and seven police were killed, and the resulting arrest and skewed trial of eight labor activists – dubbed “anarchists” by the frenzied popular press – set off a mass hysteria against unions that persisted for years, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Eight workers’ advocates were convicted. Seven got death sentences. Three were hanged. Another had his head blown off by a dynamite cap, in his cell, on the morning of the execution. A courageous Illinois Governor, John Peter Altgeld, pardoned the others seven years later. After reading the trial transcript and the surrounding commentaries, Altgeld denounced the proceedings as a travesty of justice, and worse.

Altgeld issued the pardons on the day – one source says at the site – of the dedication of the monument to the Haymarket martyrs in Waldheim Cemetery, in forest Park, just west of Chicago.

Now, 125 years later, on May 1, the cemetery, not the square, will be jammed: Workers and their allies plan a mass commemoration of the Haymarket martyrs and rededication of the monument in the cemetery, now officially known as Forest Home.

The Illinois Labor History Society, owner of the deed to the monument – the only cemetery monument cited as a National Historic Landmark – calls it “the statue of liberty for workers around the world.

“As a symbol of international labor solidarity, come together to honor our history and remember the only way to stop the worldwide assault on working people by corporate greed is to stand together,” the society says.

Labor groups planning the rededication are not only focusing on the past, however. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler will deliver the keynote address at the rededication, discussing labor’s struggles now.

The event is sponsored by the Illinois Labor History Society, in conjunction with the Chicago Federation of Labor  and the Illinois AFL-CIO.

Photo: We Are One Chicago. April 9. Teresa Albano/PW




Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.