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Labour Day history: How a bomb at Haymarket Square led to a worker's movement

Despite recent controversies about the events of 4 May 1886 in Chicago, it's important to remember what the gathered migrant labourers were fighting for

Over 2000 migrant labourers had gathered at Chicago's Haymarket Square in May 1886 to stage a protest
Over 2000 migrant labourers had gathered at Chicago's Haymarket Square in May 1886 to stage a protest

As we get used to working from home and try to come up with a routine to reinvent our 9 to 5 jobs, ever wondered what German migrants and a violent clash on the streets of Chicago have to do with us celebrating Labour Day today and your working eight hours a day?

134 years ago, on the 4th of May 1886, in Chicago, a leaflet written in English and German went around amongst the workers calling “Workingmen, To Arms". It was to stage a protest for the killings by the police of workers at the McCormick Reapers factory, the previous day. A German immigrant labour leader, August Spies, who also ran a German newspaper, saw the killings from a distance and ran to his office and printed up the leaflet. It was written in big, bold, dark lettering. The news of the killings, and the leaflet, spread fast. It asked the workers to gather for a rally in the Haymarket Square in Chicago, which was then a busy part of town with shops with stretched awnings and carts and factories close by. Over 2000 people gathered around 8.30 pm in the evening. It was a cold day with temperatures around 10 degrees Celsius. But the crowd held strong as rousing speeches filled the air. August Spies stood high on a hay wagon and spoke mostly in German. Most of the labour force in the US in those days were “foreign born" migrants. Many being German.

Late into the evening, a group of policemen arrived. As the folklore goes, some unidentified person threw a bomb. The led to commotion and panic. Both sides opened fire and at least one policeman died. This further led to a wave of xenophobia over the next few days and many were rounded up and jailed and convicted without any real patience for criminal evidence or human rights. Most of those who were arrested were migrant labourers. The incident at Haymarket resulted in a “sham trial" and eight people were convicted. The trial went on for six weeks. The jury was considered to be biased and no solid evidence was presented. Four were hanged and one of them, Louis Lingg, committed suicide before the sentence was carried out. The Haymarket Affair since then has become a pivotal chapter in the history of the labour movement and workers’ rights. And it is for this reason we celebrate Labour Day in most parts of the world on the 1st of May.

Some called them anarchists, some said one of the protesters threw the bomb and fired at the police. Some call them martyrs. Some said that the police arranged for one of their agents to throw the bomb. Decades later, an official of the Illinois State Council of Carpenters, Dick Ladzinski (probably born of Polish migrants) said in an interview: “Some people would call them radicals, but not me, I'd call them you and me. You and I want a good standard of living. We want jobs. We want to work. But we want to do it for decent wages, and we want a share of the profits."

There is a twist to this tale that has emerged in the last 10 years. A labour historian, Timothy Messer-Kruse published a book in 2011 after studying the actual transcripts of the trial that were available in the Library of Congress and the Chicago Historical Society and came to the painful and somewhat controversial conclusion that it was Lingg who had actually made the bomb and another close confederate of the convicted, a man called Rudolph Schnaubelt is the one who threw the bomb. Schnaubelt vanished. Messer-Kruse argues that he escaped to Argentina where he spent the rest of his life as a farm-equipment salesman in Buenos-Aires.

As you can imagine, this assertion hasn't gone down well as it casts a shadow on the romantic, David versus Goliath version of the story we had hear so far. In the 1960s, one radical labour leader, Bill Ayers, wrote “This is too good - it's us against the pigs, a medieval contest of good and evil." But even in the face of criticism, Messer-Kruse writes that its not to prove whether the policemen were right and the workers are wrong. And I agree. We usually write and judge history in the way it suits us. And it is re-written and revised with new perspectives as we come across new information and with changing biases. After all, even in India, we have had our own share of violent revolutionaries, who are discarded or ignored or praised, depending on who you speak to.

Therefore, what is more important to remember is what they were fighting for. Labour Day also marks the celebration of the “eight-hour-day-movement" or the “short time movement" which traces its origins even further back to the early 19th century when Robert Owen, in 1817, coined the slogan “Eight hours’ labour; Eight hours’ recreation, Eight Hours’ rest". This was at a time, when 15 to 16 hour work days in horrible factory conditions with child labour was the norm. The eight-hour day was the first topic to be discussed by the newly formed International Labour Organisation. And that’s the genesis of your 9 to 5, eight hour work day.

As I have grown up, I have heard many people around me, especially my generation who, like me, are products of the liberalisation of India in the early 1990s and even youngsters, talk of labour movements and trade unions as the incarnation of pure evil. It's taboo to now speak of labour rights and trade unions and fashionable to discard them as words associated only with locked down factories and black and white images of an India we are trying hard to put behind us.

So, as we shed the black and white and grey of our past, and dive into the constantly streaming colourful images of today's challenging lockdown in full HD, we probably need to remember that even today, just like over a 130 years ago, tens of millions are still looking for Work, Jobs, Decent wages and a Good Standard of Living!

Aditya Ghosh is the founder of Homage Ventures and board member of OYO, and former president and board member of IndiGo.

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