Remembering Haymarket: May Day and the Fight for Eight-Hours
April 28, 2014
This is an interview conducted by Adam Turl with University of Massachusetts-Boston professor and historian James Green on his book Death in the Haymarket. It was originally published in the International Socialist Review in 2007—about eighteen months before the 2008 financial crisis.
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Original Editor’s Note:
On May 1, 1886, 340,000 workers were involved in strikes and protests across the country for the eight-hour day. Chicago was the hub—65,000 workers struck there. The employers counter-attacked. On May 3, 200 police attacked a group of strikers at Chicago’s McCormick Reaper works, killing four. In protest, 3,000 workers gathered in Haymarket Square the following day. As the protest was breaking up, someone, a police agent or an angry individual, tossed a bomb into the police ranks, killing one (several more were later killed by their own cross-fire).
Police then went on another rampage, killing four workers and injuring hundreds. Eight working-class radicals were arrested and tried. All but one (Oscar Neebe) were sentenced to death. One, Louis Lingg, committed suicide in his cell, one served some prison time, and three (Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, and Oscar Neebe) were later pardoned. Four—August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel—were executed in 1887, even though there was no evidence connecting them to it, and only Spies and Fielden attended the event.
But that didn’t matter to the employers, politicians, and their press. As leaders in the labor movement, anarchists and socialists all, an example had to be made of them. “Anarchy is on trial,” declared prosecutor Julius Grinnell. “These men have been selected, picked out…and indicted because they are the leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousands who follow them. Convict these men, make examples of them, hang them, and you save our institutions, our society.”
August Spies’ last words before his hanging still ring powerfully today: “If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement…then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there and there, behind you and in front of you and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.”
James Green is author of the acclaimed book on the Haymarket tragedy and the struggle for the eight-hour day in Chicago, Death in the Haymarket (Pantheon, 2006)—just released in paperback. He spoke to the ISR’s Adam Turl.
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IN YOUR book, you go over the different social, political, and economic dynamics that fed the struggle for an eight-hour day, both in Chicago and nationally. You quote Karl Marx on the impact of the Civil War, that “the first fruit” of the war “was the eight-hours agitation.” Why did the Civil War have this impact? Why did the initial eight-hours movement in the 1860s eventually decline? And what was the role of the Radical Republicans—the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party at the time—in the initial success and defeat of the eight-hours struggle?
THE CIVIL War aroused mixed feelings among Northern white workingmen. Many immigrants who served in the place of rich young men—who had bought their way out—were unwilling conscripts. But a lot of Northern white workingmen were, and they were a key element of the Union Army. Once the Emancipation Proclamation was declared—making it clear the war aim would affect slavery—workingmen started to think about their own freedom, and felt as though they had an opportunity to end what they called the “slavery of the twelve- or thirteen-hour day.” They made many references to “wage slavery.”
Workers also believed that if the U.S. Congress could amend the Constitution to abolish slavery and create voting rights for Black men, then certainly Congress could create an eight-hour day. Workers invested great hope that this could be the first step towards ending the wage-system and creating some sort of cooperative economy. As a result, in 1866, the first great wave of a national labor movement appeared around the “eight-hour leagues”—beginning in Boston—and becoming popular in cities across the United States. However, this first movement ends badly. A few legislatures pass eight-hour laws, but employers and the courts refuse to obey them. By 1869, the focus is entirely on getting a law passed in Congress for federal employees. The law was enacted, but it is a very small victory compared to the hopes raised in 1866.
There was a great deal of optimism in 1866. It seemed as though the Republican Party was headed by Radical Republicans, who believed in the reconstruction of the South and in depriving the slave-owners of their “property” and franchise in order to empower Black citizens. At the same time, these Radical Republicans were very indebted to the labor vote and seemed supportive of the eight-hour day movement. One of these Republicans was Governor Richard Oglesby of Illinois—who signed the first eight-hour law, which was supposed to go into effect on May 1, 1867. This date marks the first real May Day demonstration by workers.
When employers refused to enact the law—workers in Chicago went on a huge strike which resulted in violence and rioting. Workers never got the eight-hour law enforced. even though Oglesby had signed it. There were some underlying problems, of course, because the Republican Party was the party of manufacturers as well as workers. Ultimately the idea of the eight-hour day conflicted with a fundamental Republican Party principle that there should be no laws that would interfere with “property rights.” The Republicans also considered the “right” of employers to manage employees sacred.
YOU DESCRIBE Chicago as a dynamic city growing up almost overnight—with amazing wealth and grinding poverty, with slums like those that were destroyed in the Great Fire. How did the economic growth—and crisis—in Chicago feed into the eventual resurrection of the movement for the eight-hour day?
CHICAGO WAS caught in the midst of the huge depression that swept America in the 1870s. Before the depression there was the trauma of the Chicago Fire  and anxieties that the crowds displaced by the fire would become mobs—and engage in the sort of things that the people of Paris did during the Paris Commune. There was a fear of communism. That fear heightened during the Great Depression along with huge demonstrations of the unemployed demanding work and bread. This is what radicalizes Albert Parsons and August Spies—who would later become anarchists. In the aftermath of the depression—which gradually comes to an end in 1879—a very strong socialist movement emerges in Chicago. The movement was led by German socialists—young immigrants like Spies, some of whom had followed Marx in Germany—and young Americans like Parsons.
Albert Parsons believed a strong socialist movement needed to follow the prescription put forward by Karl Marx: that is, such a movement needed a mass working-class following. Parsons thought that reviving the eight-hours movement was a way to do that. He began the eight-hours agitation in 1879—though it doesn’t go anywhere for quite a while. The federated trades met in 1884 and declared that on May 1, 1886, there would be a general strike for the eight-hour day. But no one did anything about this until late in 1885—when labor won a big strike. People were emboldened, when the Knights of Labor struck against the mighty Jay Gould Empire. Workers said, “if we can beat Jay Gould—who is the most powerful capitalist in America—maybe we can get the eight-hour day.”
This revived the “eight-hour leagues,” and built into a great movement that swept the United States in the spring of 1886, which culminated in the May 1 walkout. The trades were very much behind a strike for the eight-hour day, as were the revolutionaries, socialists, and anarchists. Parsons, Spies, and the revolutionaries gained quite a working-class following having organized this. In fact, they created their own separate Central Labor Union (CLU) and led some strikes that resulted in achieving the eight-hour day—without any loss of pay. This was a big breakthrough for them.
YOU CITE the Chicago Tribune heralding the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871, and the city elites comforting themselves that nothing like the Commune could happen here. At the same time, as you’ve said, many of the immigrant workers streaming into the city were supporters of the Communards—some were influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx—including August Spies. It is almost as if there were two political worlds developing in opposition to one another in the same city. How did such a divergence develop?
IN THE late 1870s the socialist movement in Chicago was quite strong. In fact, the socialist candidate for mayor made a pretty significant showing in 1879—preventing the Republican mayor from winning re-election. The socialists were very excited about this. Soon, however, they fought it out amongst each other. The militant faction favored direct action and advocated armed struggle, while the smaller, more conservative or conventional faction wanted to keep running socialist candiadates for office. So, by the early 1880s the socialist movement was really reduced to a small warring group of factions. But it revived. The old wing that favored electoral politics faded from the scene and a new militant movement developed that called itself “Social Revolutionary” or “Social Revolutionaries”—led by August Spies, Albert Parsons, and others. They formed an organization called the International Working People’s Association (IWPA).
By 1886, the IWPA established a significant base in immigrant working-class neighborhoods—more so than any other socialist or leftist group had ever achieved in the United States up to that point. They saw themselves as social revolutionaries, or socialists of an anarchist type. They did not believe in a strong central government or state. They rejected the whole idea of a central government with an army, police, and court system, because they believed the capitalists controlled all this state apparatus. By the spring of 1886, the IWPA—energized by the eight-hours movement—appeared as a fairly formidable political force. The rich and powerful of the city were very worried about what this meant. Was it the tip of an iceberg? It was a fairly big tip. There was a daily German anarchist newspaper that reached 20,000 people.
There was a sense that there were two cities developing. The rich were more and more segregated off, and people where living in huge working-class ghettos were the socialists and anarchists were quite active. There was a large middling element of working people—many Irish Catholics and so on—who were not socialists or revolutionary. But they too were swept up into the eight-hours movement. The city was quite polarized by the spring of 1886. The Haymarket bombing then made that division even more serious and traumatic.
ONE OF the striking things about the book is how you present the dynamism of class struggle at the time. One of the key things for the political development of August Spies, Albert Parsons, Lucy Parsons, and the Haymarket martyrs appears to be the repression of the 1877 strikes. Albert Parsons runs for office—and believes the election was stolen from him—then turns to more radical positions and begins to call himself an anarchist. How did the 1870s struggles change the leaders of the 1886 fight for the eight-hour day?
IF YOU were a worker in Chicago in 1873—at the beginning of the depression—you were caught up in the unemployment movement and most likely the demonstrations for relief, which were strongly discouraged by the city authorities. Then, in 1877, something more serious occurred: an insurrection—or uprising—against the effects of the depression, which was put down very brutally by the police. People were killed. This had a profound effect on these young radicals. At first, they said, we have to take over the government and run our own police force. They made very aggressive attempts to get elected to office as socialists—through the Workingman’s Party. They achieved a certain amount of success. They even elected some aldermen.
But by 1880, they began to feel as if the deck was stacked against them—that they had been cheated out of office. So that radicalized them. Acting under the right they believed they had under the Second Amendment to form a “well-regulated militia and bear arms,” they formed a workers’ militia. They did this because of what happened in 1877, and because they believed the police and militia were being used against workers and strikers. They formed what they believed was a legal entity.
However, this was outlawed by the state legislature. Parsons and Spies believed the Second Amendment had been violated and abrogated for workers—but that business could have their own militia. That put them on a revolutionary road—that what was developing was not some election they could win, but a direct confrontation with the police, militia—with what was a new element in the picture, the Pinkertons, or privately employed guards.
These socialists began to advocate armed self-defense, armed struggle and they increasingly looked to anarchist thinkers—like Bakunin and Johann Most. They adopted an ultra-revolutionary position, and, at the same time, they were busy organizing their own unions. In that sense, they didn’t stop being Marxists. They didn’t believe that acts of violence in themselves would create a revolution. They believed there had to be a strong organization of working people. What they had in mind was the Paris Commune—the model where the workers, shopkeepers, and artisans of Paris took over the city, ran it, and had their own national guard. The Parisian National Guard in 1871 was the armed force of the workers and people of Paris. It managed to defend the city and the new Commune for a month against the French army. I think that is what Parsons and Spies had in mind—creating a Chicago Commune.
There were enough workers in Chicago who shared that feeling that the situation was quite desperate and was leading toward a violent confrontation. Out of this confrontation the socialists and anarchists believed a new society would come. Their enemies were always claiming that the anarchists were trying to create chaos and violence, but they were not terrorists or assassins. They believed they had to have a mass uprising behind them to take power.
THERE SEEMS to be overlap between the anarchism of several of the Haymarket martyrs and their socialist and Marxist ideas. You’ve described Chicago as something of a center for radical politics. How did the different ideas mix in the city among activists like Parsons? For example, some of the radicals seemed to think that trying to resurrect the eight-hours movement wasn’t radical enough, but Parsons and Spies threw themselves into a renewed eight-hours struggle.
BOTH PARSONS and Spies—and the other anarchists—were skeptical that the eight-hour victory could ever be achieved. They believed that the employers wouldn’t agree to it without a violent attack to defend their “rights” as property owners. But they believed in the eight-hour movement as a great rallying cry and ideal that would mobilize people—and indeed it did.
The anarchists believed that the state would be used against them—that they could never gain state power peacefully through an election. Furthermore, they came to believe that the state itself was the problem: that it wasn’t simply a matter of overthrowing capitalism but of getting rid of the state apparatus that sustained it. In modern terms, they were some of the first people to talk about something called “state capitalism.”
That was another reason they broke with the older German socialists who really worshipped the state—the question of a Hegelian ideal of the state being the perfection of human endeavor—and all workers had to do was “take it over.” The anarchists didn’t believe that and they thought the state would always work against the working class. They believed the working class had to have its own institutions and its own militia, its own communal forms of decision-making.
YOU DESCRIBE how Mayor Carter Harrison tried to do a balancing act throughout the period, relying on both the graces of the wealthy and the votes of the city’s workers. But in 1885, there was an incident at the Reaper Works, and the police brutally repressed a group of striking workers. That seems to be the end of the balancing act. You write, “By the end of 1885, Chicago’s working-class districts were seething with discontent.” There is also the rapid growth in the IWPA in Chicago. How widespread were radical, socialist, and anarchist ideas among Chicago’s workers at that point? Is it fair to say that the increasingly radical rhetoric of the internationalists was striking a chord among larger groups of workers?
HARRISON WAS trying to restrain the police. In certain strikes in 1883 and 1884, employers complained quite bitterly that police were not being used to protect strikebreakers. Then, in the summer of 1885, the mayor decided he had to let the police do what the employers wanted, so they broke a strike and brutally beat scores of workers. The police came in as a garrison into the McCormick Harvester Works. At this point, the mayor was no longer completely in control of the police.
On the night of May 3, 1886, the police killed two strikers in a struggle at the McCormick Works, which led the anarchists to call for the Haymarket protest rally. Without those police killings, there probably would not have been a demonstration in the Haymarket that night—maybe not even a bombing.
Police brutality became a principal point of provocation and a rallying point for the IWPA. I think this really helped them make their case.
Take a more contemporary analogy: the Black Panthers in 1969 and 1970—where young Black men had been shot, there were race riots in 1968 and there seemed to be a war that police were launching against Black youth and young Black men in the ghettos. The Black Panthers built a political party and movement around armed self-defense—around fighting the police. Something like that was going on in Chicago in 1885 and 1886.
In a positive way there was also the enormous enthusiasm for the eight-hour day and the key nonviolent role the anarchists were playing in it—which gave [the IWPA] a hearing and created a following for them, particularly among Germans and Czechs in the city of Chicago. I don’t know how you would exactly “rank” the size of the movement. Their paper had 20,000 subscribers—there were a lot of people reading it—and they had a thousand or so hard-core members, and many more were in their union, the Central Labor Union. The CLU had more members in the spring of 1886 than the mainstream trade union that would soon become a part of the American Federation of Labor.
Nowhere else in the world did revolutionaries have the kind of following among workers on the scale of what they had in Chicago. Not in London or Paris, and certainly not in Germany, where Bismarck had outlawed the socialist movement. European workers viewed Chicago as the world’s premiere “red city”—even though it was by no means a majority of the working class. It was a significant minority—a militant minority that was certainly moving very much to the left.
YOU REFER to the 1886 struggle as “The Great Upheaval,” and discuss Chicago as the center of a massive wave of protests and strikes that swept the nation, with some 610,000 workers going out by the end of the year. What were the dynamics in the course of the struggle leading up to the events in the Haymarket?
THE LEADERS of the eight-hour movement—including Albert Parsons—hoped that the movement could be peaceful. They did not want a violent outcome. They knew that everything would be lost. Parsons even thought that if it worked, it might be a peaceful solution to the conflict between capital and labor, and it was a peaceful movement until the night of May 3.
It is true that the eight-hour movement and the enormous strike created a lot of tension. The police were going to move at some point. Maybe they didn’t have to kill people, but they did—and that is what turned it from a peaceful mass protest into a smaller protest of the Left against police brutality.
ON MAY 4, a mass meeting is called for Haymarket Square to “denounce the latest atrocious act of the police, the shooting of our fellow-workmen yesterday afternoon” at the Reaper Works. Very few people arrive at the meeting, and even though the mayor was there and believed things were winding down, the police ordered the crowd to disperse, and somebody threw a bomb into their ranks. August Spies spoke that night in Haymarket Square. But very few of those who would later be charged in the bombing were present. What do we know happened and didn’t happen in the Haymarket that night?
IT REMAINS a mystery in some ways. Spies was charged with lighting the bomb and giving it to another anarchist who threw it. But there was plenty of contradictory testimony against that. The other anarchist who was present [in the Haymarket] was Sam Fielden. He was charged with shooting at the police when they arrived—which he didn’t do. So it is not quite clear who did throw the bomb at the police. But it clearly was not one of the men who were charged or later executed. In fact, the state charged them with being conspirators based on circumstantial evidence. They were convicted for what they said about armed struggle and the use of dynamite rather than what they did.
There is a lot of speculation about who did throw the bomb. The anarchists themselves and their defense lawyers—and some people in the labor movement—always believed it was an agent provocateur, a Pinkerton, or an off duty policeman who knew that it would create chaos, a red scare, and reaction—all of which it did. The historian who studied this most deeply, Paul Avrich believed that it probably was an unidentified anarchist. There were plenty of bombs being made. One of the men who was charged and convicted for the death of seven policemen was Louis Lingg. He confessed to making bombs. His defense attorney argued there was nothing illegal about making a bomb, that it was a form of self-defense. These bombs were distributed in various parts of the city. So someone, maybe an angry worker who had been at McCormick’s the night before, may have said, “here’s another case where the police are about to shoot us, let’s break their ranks up before they kill us.”
It is impossible to prove either scenario—but we do know that the men who were charged were not the actual perpetrators.
YOU DESCRIBE a frenzy that was whipped up by the press about bomb-throwing anarchists and the “dangerous class.” The press described the anarchists in racist terms, “Slavic wolves” and “incendiary vermin.” In the trial “every man on the jury” was native born, and mainly middle class, even though the martyrs were almost all immigrants and from working-class backgrounds. How much of a factor was racism in whipping up public opinion against the anarchists? Did the backlash break down at all, as more and more people became interested in the events surrounding what amounted to a show trial?
IT IS difficult today to think of racism directed by Americans against Germans—who after all, were Caucasians themselves—but the language that was being used, “Slavic wolves” and “incendiary vermin” was clearly meant to say these people were sub-human and demonic characters. This was somewhat like the way white Americans were describing the Chinese
or African Americans. It wasn’t strictly speaking “racism,” but xenophobia, and it was a kind of racism because some immigrants were seen as being from “inferior racial stock.”
When some WASPs saw another group of people who were “dangerous,” the charges against “aliens” became even more hysterical and lethal: these are people who need to be “exterminated.” Of course they were really exterminating the Indians on the frontier. But in this case they meant the leaders—the leaders “needed” to be put to death. They figured that if they cut the head “the head off the anarchist snake,” the rest of these immigrants would be safe from these “evil influences.”
Once Spies and Parsons and six other anarchists went to court, an enormous amount of attention was given to the trial by the press in Chicago—and across the country and even abroad. The press began to describe that these men appeared to be quite normal, sane, civilized, and even somewhat charming characters. They did not appear to be the demonic crazed terrorists the press had made them out to be. By the time their appeals had failed and their sentences were to be carried out there was broad sympathy, even in Chicago for clemency: for commuting their sentences.
There was a growing feeling that these men did not really commit the bombing. It was hard to believe that they should be charged with murder and executed, but of course, they were. That made them martyrs. Workers all around the world, particularly in South America, Spain, and Italy, believed them to be innocent victims of the struggle for workers’ emancipation. That is how their memory survived for so long.
IN 2006 there were mass protests on May Day in Chicago for the first time since the 1940s—in demonstrations against the anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner legislation. The 2006 protests in many areas included strikes, or boycotts of work that day. I was struck reading your book that the 2006 protests were organized in some of the same neighborhoods—such as Pilsen—as the 1886 demonstrations. What was the dynamic between the immigrant organizations and clubs and social class in the 1886 struggle? For example, the Lehr und Wehr Verein appears to be both an organization of German immigrants and a workers’ militia.
I WAS on the show, Democracy Now on May Day of 2006, discussing my book with Amy Goodman. It was really quite remarkable to look at the footage that was coming in from Chicago and Los Angeles, seeing immigrants on the streets exactly 120 years later. You could not help but notice some of the similarities. This was a demonstration against anti-immigrant legislation. It wasn’t a labor demonstration, per se—except that these immigrants seemed to be saying, “we’re not just on the streets because we are immigrants, but because we are workers, too—and we want the rights that native-born citizen workers have.” In that sense, there were stunning similarities. The fact these protesters chose May 1 as the day to culminate their protests was certainly symbolic and resonant with the past and tradition.
Furthermore, the way these demonstrations were organized were similar in some respects to the way the 1886 demonstrations were organized—not just by trade unions and craft unions but by community-based organizations, workers’ centers, groups that were functioning in immigrant neighborhoods today—in some ways very much like the way the IWPA was functioning in Pilsen, Bridgeport, and other immigrant neighborhoods in Chicago 120 years ago. So, maybe, when it comes to globalization, what comes around goes around.
DURING THE campaign to free the martyrs, the leader of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, wrote a letter to the governor, arguing that he stop the executions lest it make martyrs of the anarchists. In the execution courtyard—which is still a part of the Cook County jail—Spies made his famous speech that “the time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” Do you think that Gompers and Spies’ predictions—coming from different political ends of the labor movement—have proven true?
THE HAYMARKET anarchists were remembered for much longer than anyone would have thought. In the U.S., their memory was suppressed for a while—except among a small group of anarchists— but when the celebration of May Day revived in 1907 their memory was restored. People like Emma Goldman, Bill Haywood, and Eugene Debs became mainstream figures. For all of them the Haymarket case was the critical event of their youth. By the time they became mature radicals during the Progressive Era they were talking about the Haymarket martyrs. They became a group that was also remembered by civil libertarians. When the Sacco and Vanzetti case arose, people remembered what happened in Chicago in 1887.
Gompers was right about them becoming known as martyrs around the world. It was quite remarkable how powerful their memory was created in Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay. The memory was reproduced by anarchists particularly, but by socialists as well, who organized the first labor unions in South America and Mexico. The Leftists who organized almost all these early unions thought of the Chicago martyrs as the founding figures in the modern labor movement.
Mother Jones, near the end of her life in the 1920s, recalled Chicago (she was there too) in 1886 and 1887: “Labor leaders don’t have any courage anymore. They are dining with, and cooperating with the employers. But in those days, people really knew what the cause of labor meant, those were the days of the martyrs and the saints.” The idea was that these men were somehow both the saints and martyrs of the labor movement. Their lives and deaths took on an almost religious significance in parts of the world. That lasted for a long time. When I go to Europe now, there is still knowledge of this. In fact, my book is being translated into Greek and maybe Italian. This is still an important story of America around the world.
Even, to some extent, in the United States, the story was revived in 1986 when Studs Terkel went on National Public Radio and talked about it. It came up after 9/11 with Molly Ivins writing in her column on the USA Patriot Act, that we’ve been through this before with the mistakes made after Haymarket. From my perspective as an author, I have been quite amazed at the response to my book from mainstream readers. If you look it up on Amazon.com there are about ten reviews. None of the reviews are by academics—a couple of them are by leftists—but otherwise they are by very mainstream people who see this as an important American story that has been covered up and forgotten.
I would like to see this as a timeless story, like Sacco and Vanzetti, a case that will never really die as long as there are immigrants and workers and struggles for social justice, these men will be recalled from history.
LUCY PARSONS also figures throughout that story of Haymarket as a major organizer. What was her role in the struggle for the eight-hour day, and what spared her the same fate as her husband? What role did she play in keeping alive the memory of the eight-hour struggle, her husband, and other comrades?
LUCY PARSONS was very much a part of the movement and the IWPA. In fact, she was a quite outstanding figure, because, along with her husband Albert, everyone else in the movement—except for William and Lizzie Holmes—were German, English, or Czech immigrants. So she really stood out. As she was a woman of color, it was even more extraordinary, because Black women were not to be seen in public. They did not go out and give speeches. They certainly did not call for the revolution. She was a very notorious character. After the bombing, one of the leading Chicago newspapers called for here arrest, sentencing, and execution. In one of his last parting shots at the authorities, Albert Parsons wrote the governor, that he should delay his execution so that his wife could be executed with him, as she was there too: “So if I am guilty, we are all guilty.”
Lucy Parsons was so traumatized by her husband’s execution that it became an obsessions with her. She dedicated her life to preserving her husband’s memory. She suffered greatly for it and was arrested many times, being viewed all the way through the 1920s as “a dangerous woman.” Like Emma Goldman or Mother Jones, she would come to a town and the police would not let her speak. They would arrest her.
But she never gave up. She moved on to other cases, Tom Mooney, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys. She moved away from anarchism and the “propaganda of the deed” and into the orbit of the Communist Party—partly I think because the Communist Party was organizing all these defense campaigns very much like the ones she had participated in for her husband.
After the execution of the anarchists in 1887, Parsons became well known in some European radical circles, and then became something of a forgotten figure. When she died, many thought of her as an eccentric old woman who continued to carry a torch. But then she was rediscovered in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s by young socialists, feminists and Black militants and has become quite famous again.
THE EIGHT-hour day has become more and more of a memory for workers in the United States. Human Rights Watch has reported many migrant workers are forced to work up to fourteen hours a day What do you think of the prospects for a new eight-hour day movement in the United States?
IT IS always difficult for history to repeat itself. The phenomenon that we have now, in the early twenty-first century is the compulsion to work more hours. Overtime pay is a very strong motive. A lot of people are working two jobs.
There was a logic to the eight-hour day movement a hundred years ago that was very compelling. People were working for one employer and there was no overtime. People weren’t getting any extra money for working extra hours. The context has changed. I don’t know how today’s workers would respond. First of all, the forty hour week is supposed to have been achieved by a federal law. You are not supposed to be forced to work for more than eight hours. You could say that we should make sure the law is enforced.
A century ago the eight-hour movement was a rallying point, a universal demand, that became associated with May Day—which was an internationalist celebration. Eduardo Galeano calls it the only really universal day in humanity. It isn’t religious or nationalist—it’s internationalist. This is what is missing today. If there were a revival of the labor movement in this country and all over this hemisphere it would probably be the result of workers grabbing onto something like that again. Maybe it would be the six-hour day. The problem with wage demands is that people are paid in such different ways. Some people get salaries, some get hourly wages. What the shorter workday does is really unify everyone.
Would American workers say, “we want more paid family leave?” “We want more early retirement?” I think what’s problematic is the state of the engines for creating that kind of movement. We love to say that national health care would rally people around. It should. Why hasn’t it? That is what we are looking for right now: something like the eight-hour day to really give people the sense that everybody would gain.
Furthermore, it should be a step to something more. The eight-hour day movement wasn’t just an end in itself. It was the first step towards creating a new society where workers would have more time to be citizens, to be socialists, to be whatever they wanted to be—and therefore would engage much more in politics.
I think that’s the part of the eight-hour demand that people have forgotten. It wasn’t just two to three extra hours a day to spend in a saloon—although some people wanted to use it that way. The fathers of the eight-hour day felt that if workers were working all day they could never become political people. You could say that about today’s immigrants. Where are they to find the time to get involved in social struggle? The fact is this past May 1, people had to not show up for work just so they could go on the demonstration.
I hope people look back on that, read Death in the Haymarket, and feel like something like this—something like the eight-hour day—is the kind of universal demand that workers need once again. A few years ago I thought it was the “living wage”—and maybe that might be the right demand. But workers have to grab onto it themselves. It isn’t just something that activists can be talking about. That is what happened in 1886: the workers took up the demand, made it their own, and acted on it.
Adam Turl will graduate from SIU in May 2014 and will begin working on an MFA at Washington University in St. Louis in the fall. He is on the editorial board of RedWedgeMagazne.com.