The story of the Haymarket Riot of 1886 actually begins 20 years earlier. After the Civil War, Chicago’s labor unions had been pushing for an eight-hour workday instead of the usual 12 to 14. In response, Illinois passed an eight-hour law, but it had loopholes that allowed employers to ignore it. So on Saturday, May 1, 1867, unions called for a city-wide strike to protest the flawed law. Six thousand workers flooded into the streets, and the protest spread from there. The strike crippled the city’s economy for almost a week, but the movement eventually fell apart, and the ineffectual law went unchanged.
Into the 1880s, the fight for an eight-hour workday was still ongoing. Chicago had become the movement’s epicenter. Thousands of skilled and unskilled workers, most of them immigrants, believed in the popular slogan, “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What You Will.”
On May 1, 1886, labor leaders called for another strike. Believing that legislation was a lost cause, unions tried to force their demands on the city’s elite through peaceful protest. That day nearly 35,000 Chicago workers walked off their jobs. They were joined in the streets by thousands more. The protest remained peaceful until May 3, when a riot broke out between strikers and police that left two strikers dead.
On May 4, three thousand people gathered in Haymarket Square to protest the police violence. After a full day of peaceful protesting, a swarm of policemen moved in to disperse the crowd. Someone threw a homemade bomb into the police line, killing seven police officers. The officers opened fire on the crowd, killing four workers.
No one claimed responsibility for the bomb, and to this day, no one knows who threw it, but eight anarchists who had participated in the protest were arrested and charged with conspiracy. After a sensational trial, seven were convicted and sentenced to death. One killed himself in prison, four were hanged and two had their sentences commuted to life in prison. They were later pardoned.
The Haymarket Riot ushered in an era of anti-unionism and distrust of immigrants, but it also inspired the creation of International Workers Day (also known as May Day), held every May 1 to honor the working class. It is celebrated worldwide, but not in the United States, where it was suppressed in the 1940s as part of the red scare.
The eight-hour workday trickled into different industries in the early 1900s before it was finally standardized by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.