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[Detail] The anarchist riot in Chicago

The Eight-Hour Workday Movement

One of the largest labor campaigns was the demand for an eight-hour workday. In 1869, Congress enacted legislation and President Ulysses Grant issued a proclamation guaranteeing a stable wage and an eight-hour workday for government workers throughout the nation. This encouraged laborers in private industries to obtain a similar agreement.

Corporate America, however, was not easily pressured into granting an eight-hour day and only a few workers in the shoemaking and tobacco industries had achieved it by the mid-1880s. The press referred to the movement for a shorter workday as un-American and the result of radical foreign agitators.

  • What does this illustration from Harper's Weekly suggest about the press' representation of the labor movement?

Nevertheless, labor organizations persisted and in 1886 called for a national strike on May 1 to demand the shorter workday. Search on eight-hour for a variety of materials related to this movement, including discussions in Chicago's English language anarchist newspaper The Alarm, and its German language socialist newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung about the eight-hour movement and the protest planned for May 1, 1886. One reader shared his opinions in a letter to the editor of Arbeiter-Zeitung:

"The eight hour question is not, or at least should not be, the final end of the present organization, but in comparison to the present state of things, a progress not to be underrated. But, now let us consider the question in itself, How is the eight day to be brought about. Why, the thinking, working man must see himself, under the present power of capital in comparsion to labor, it is impossible to inforce the eight hour day in all branches of business otherwise than armed force. With empty hands the working man will hardly be able to cope with the representatives of the club in case after the first of May of this year, there should be a general strike. Then the bosses will simply employ other men, so called 'scabs', such will always be found.

The whole movement then would be nothing but filling the places with new men, but if the working men are prepared to eventually stop the working of the factories to defend himself with the aid of dynamite and bombs against the militia, which will of course be employed; then and only then you can expect a thorough success of the eight hour movement. Therefore, working men, I call upon you, arm yourselves."

People's Exhibit 85, Arbeiter-Zeitung (Newspaper) article, "Letter signed R. B.," 1886 Jan. 22.

Another writer, in an article published September 5, 1885, took the position that "Shortening the hours of labor is no real remedy. It still leaves people in the condition of masters and servants . . . But suppose you succeed, will not increasing machinery soon reduce your situation and leave you to fight the battle all over?"

A month later, August Spies, manager of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, gave a speech articulating his support of the national protest in spite of his own skepticism about the eight-hour movement, as reported in the Alarm:

"Whereas a general move has been started among the 'Organized Wage-workers' of this country for the establishment of an eight-hour work day, to begin on May 1st, 1886; and

Whereas, it is to be expected that the class of professional idlers, the governing class, who prey upon the bones and marrow of useful society, will resist this attempt by calling to their assistance the Pinkertons, the Police and State Militia; therefore be it

Resolved, that we urge upon all wage-workers the necessity of procuring arms before the inauguration of the proposed eight-hour strike in order to be in a position of meeting our foe with his own argument, force.

Resolved, that while we are skeptical in regard to the benefits that will accrue to the wage-workers from the introduction of an eight-hour work-day, we nevertheless pledge ourselves to aid and assist our brethren in this class struggle with all that lies in our power as long as they show an open and defiant front to our common enemy, the labor devouring class of aristocratic vagabonds, the brutal murderers of our comrades in St.Louis, Lemont, Chicago, Philadelphia and other places. Our war cry may be 'death to the enemy of the human race, our despoilers.'"

People's Exhibit 51, The Alarm (Newspaper) article, "Eight Hours," 1885 Oct. 17 (page 3).

  • What reasons did working people have for wanting to limit the workday to a maximum of eight hours?
  • What did writers in The Alarm and Arbeiter-Zeitung suggest was necessary to make the national strike on May 1, 1886, effective?
  • What criticisms did anarchists and socialists writing in The Alarm and Arbeiter-Zeitung have of the eight-hour movement?
  • To what degree did these labor radicals support the movement in spite of their concerns and why?

Chicago was tense in the weeks leading up to May 1, 1886. Newspapers reported inflammatory stories on labor warfare, and the police and Pinkertons (a private security company) were on constant alert. A few employers negotiated agreements with their workers at this time, but on May 1, tens of thousands of workers in Chicago, and hundreds of thousands of workers across the nation walked out for the day. Although the Chicago protest remained nonviolent, the Chicago Mail singled out the leaders of the demonstrations as dangerous agitators, advising, "Hold them responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if trouble does occur."

  • Why did the anticipation of the national eight-hour strike cause so much tension in Chicago?