As industrialization escalated following the American Civil War (1861–1865) many corporations gained substantial power. Working conditions in many factories became increasingly dismal, leading workers to organize into unions seeking better conditions and higher pay. While the United States wrestled with the slavery issue, socialism influenced by the writings of Karl Marx (1818–1883) and others gained strength in Europe. Immigrants to the United States from Europe brought these political and economic ideals with them, leading to the creation of socialist labor organizations such as the National Labor Union in 1866. Though short-lived, the union gained eight-hour workdays for federal workers and established a tie between socialism and labor in the United States.
The first national influential labor union in the United States was the Knights of Labor, established in 1869 in Philadelphia. Before long the Knights grew into a large diverse membership including skilled and unskilled workers, African Americans, immigrants, and women. Given this diversity of membership, disagreements over labor tactics deepened, especially with respect to the use of strikes. The union leadership preached nonviolence and gradual reform through education. However in the 1870s unrest escalated, highlighted by violent clashes between hostile police and some of the more militant union members. Labor achieved some successes through strikes against railroads, which substantially increased the Knights' membership to 700,000 by 1886. As with other labor organizations key issues for the Knights included eight-hour work days and government restriction of the growing number of powerful business trusts or monopolies. But the organization's effectiveness declined as the Knights' size reached beyond the number that could be effectively controlled.
By the 1880s labor unions were not well respected by the general public and were feared by management. To gain a more effective voice, skilled workers in various occupations organized into the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which was founded in 1886.
The organization, adopting a conservative policy seeking gradual improvements, pursued issues including shorter hours, improved wages, and safer working conditions. Unskilled laborers had no strong unions representing their interests. Discontent and the struggle for recognition led to radical actions by some labor organizers as thousands of workers were periodically involved in localized strikes across the country.
In 1886 a broad labor movement brought the campaign for eight-hour workdays to the forefront. In Chicago labor leaders and militant anarchists called a strike against the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. The company hired strikebreakers to replace striking workers. On May 3 Chicago police were brought in to protect the strikebreakers from the strikers. With tensions high, four strikers were killed in the violence that erupted. In reaction to the killings, radicals and union leaders called for a rally the following day at nearby Haymarket Square. The gathering remained peaceful during the speeches, but when police moved in to break up the rally, an unidentified person tossed a dynamite bomb into the crowd, which killed seven policemen and injured 60 others. In the mayhem that ensued police fired their pistols into the crowd— ten people were killed and approximately 50 wounded.
Numerous arrests followed as police targeted hundreds of known radicals. Eight anarchist labor leaders, including August Spies and Albert Parsons, were indicted for the death of one of the policemen killed at the Square. Seven of the eight were foreign born. Their trial began on June 21, 1886. They were found guilty of conspiracy against police authorities despite the fact that authorities never identified the actual bomber or their connection to the unknown person. Seven of the eight were sentenced to death and the eighth to fifteen years in prison. In September 1887, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld their convictions on appeal; two months later authorities hanged Spies, Parsons, and two others. Another committed suicide shortly before his execution date. In 1893 the Illinois governor pardoned the three surviving convicted union members on grounds of insufficient evidence—a decision that was applauded by members of organized labor.
The Haymarket bombing incident increased anti-union sentiments in the United States. Radical elements lost power as more conservative labor strategies were adopted. Much of the blame for the violent incident was inappropriately directed toward the Knights of Labor, which led thousands of workers to resign. Public disdain for unions was compounded in the 1890s by government application of the Sherman Anti-trust Act toward union activities allegedly inhibiting business competition rather than at endemic business consolidations. When the socialists attempted to establish various company unions and the Socialist Labor political party, they met stiff resistance and were largely unsuccessful.
See also: Knights of Labor, Cyrus McCormick, Sherman Anti-Trust Act, American Federation of Labor
Through the mid-1870s both union and radical activity, and the level of rhetorical and physical violence on all sides, rose sharply in response to layoffs and wage reductions. Labor advocates and agitators . . . predicted class uprisings against "arrogant capitalism," while the major dailies, influential periodicals, and business and political leaders became more shrill in throwing immigrants, tramps, union organizers, and communism together as enemies of public order whose activities must be answered with force.
carl s. smith, urban disorder and the shape of belief: the great chicago fire, the haymarket bomb, and the model town of pullman, 1995
Avrich, Paul. The Haymarket Tragedy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Dubofsky, Melvyn. Industrialism and the American Worker, 1865–1920, 2nd ed. Arlington Heights, IL: H. Davidson, 1985.
Jacoby, Daniel. Laboring for Freedom: A New Look at the History of Labor in America. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998.