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Labor and Capital in the 21st Century: Legacy of the Haymarket Affair

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May 1, 2011 marks the 125th anniversary of nationwide series of strikes that forced employers to begin to capitulate on the issue of the eight-hour workday. Sadly, over a century later, the blood-soaked gains made by America's labor movement are being relentlessly eroded by stealthy corporations and pliant politicians.

The globalization of labor and the increasing financialization of America's economy have disempowered American workers. The once thriving middle class, which worked primarily in manufacturing, has all but vanished as America has transformed from the largest importer of raw materials to the largest exporter of raw materials. Today's professionalized middle class works in healthcare, education, technology, transportation, and retail. Daily, their jobs are eliminated, benefits reduced, and wages slashed. Perhaps more than ever, Americans need to remember the lessons of the labor movement and, once again, unionize.

This is the first post in a series of articles surveying the methods by which the labor movement has been delegitimized at a terrible cost to the American worker.

The Haymarket Affair
No singular event did more damage to the American labor movement than Chicago's Haymarket Affair of May 4, 1886. Decades of progress and public sympathy for the rights of workers crumbled in the face of this singular act of domestic terrorism.

Citizens gathered near Haymarket Square to show solidarity for the striking workers of the McCormick Reaper Works who had been on strike since May 1st. The McCormick workers had been brutally attacked, and some murdered, by overzealous Chicago police on the afternoon of May 3rd. The McCormick Strike was part of a broader general strike in support of the eight-hour workday that had silenced factories and nearly halted Chicago commerce.

August Spies, editor of the German pro-labor newspaper the Arbeiter-Zeitung, had witnessed the attack on the striking workers first hand and was incensed that the police had fired indiscriminately into a crowd that included women and children. In response, he printed and distributed materials announcing a meeting to denounce police violence against the striking workers.

The meeting drew about 2000 attendees at its peak. Among these was Mayor Carter Harrison who stayed until late in the evening. As the meeting drew to a close, the crowd of 2000 had dwindled to around 400 when, without warning, nearly 200 Chicago police officers descended to disperse the lawful gathering. As the police captain insisted that the crowd disperse, a bomb was thrown into the ranks of the officers. It detonated, killing one officer instantly and injuring many bystanders. In the confusion the officers began firing into the crowd and inadvertently at each other. Ultimately, upwards of 200 people were wounded and eight police officers died. The identity of the bomb thrower was never uncovered.

The aftermath of this event can only be described as public hysteria: Anti-immigrant sentiment, which was already strong, grew fevered. The tide of public sentiment turned away from the workers and towards the police and government when public safety was threatened. The labor movement became inextricably conflated in the public imagination with anarchy and revolution. Police raids overstepped all legal authority and stifled the immigrant press. The cry for vengeance from the public led to a swift and unjust trial that resulted in the public hanging of four men, including August Spies.

The Legacy of Haymarket
Apart from introducing confounding issues regarding free speech and justice in America, the Haymarket Affair's aftermath left an indelible impression on the public's attitudes towards labor that persist today.

First, the negativity towards labor produced by the bombing helped advance corporations' claims that workers' demands were unreasonable and economically destructive. This same claim pervades today's discourse about both private and public sector unions. Corporations lament that the burdens imposed by union demands will bankrupt them while, using the same excuse, Governor Scott Walker strips the collective bargaining rights from public sector employees in Wisconsin. Likewise, commentator Glenn Beck has exclaimed that "[t]he real ticking time bomb in this country is not the national debt, it's the debt to unions and union workers: pensions." Sean Hannity echoes Beck when he claims that unions "get sweetheart deals that have to be paid for down the road."

Second, the Haymarket bombing exposed the means by which American corporations capitalize on immigrant labor. As they pushed wages lower and lower, corporations reaped vast profits from the toil of a massive wave of immigrant labor in the late nineteenth-century. Simultaneously, as the labor scholar Samuel Yellen has described, they fueled anti-immigrant sentiment by branding these same individuals--who were responsible for the bulk of their corporate profits--a savage "rabble . . . [who] are the offscourings of Europe." This anti-immigrant sentiment was employed to drive a wedge between native born workers and the immigrant population for the benefit of corporations. That is, by dividing the working class into subfactions, corporations were able to splinter the labor movement. Today, corporations, knowingly and "unknowingly," continue to capitalize on the labor of legal and illegal immigrants while the working class continues to make enemies of each other rather than the corporations by whom they are exploited.

Third, the trauma of the Haymarket bombing engrained the notion that labor agitation is fundamentally un-American and anti-capitalist. The unparalleled publicity about the socialist and anarchist views espoused by those implicated in the Haymarket bombing tarnished every facet of the labor movement. This association only grew stronger as the twentieth century arrived and it is still echoed in today's media. Glenn Beck has "exposed" the "long history" of unions' deep "communist and racist" roots. Pundits like Rush Limbaugh are quick to point out that collective bargaining threatens individual liberty and interferes with the functioning of free market principles.

Those who vituperously object to labor unions ask workers to submit themselves and their families to the whims of the free market. The landscape confronting today's workers is one dominated by legislatively empowered corporations that operate with little concern or accountability for the wellbeing of their workers. Are unions still relevant in this twenty-first century landscape?

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