The 8 Hour Day, the Anarchists and the IWPA: Haymarket and the Radicalization of Labour Demands in the 1880s

May Day has long been a holiday where social democrats and establishment unions show themselves and remember the struggle for the 8-hour day. On this occasion, it is perhaps interesting to look back at some of the differences in the labor movement in the US in the 1880s. It can help us to understand that what the Haymarket anarchists had in mind was nothing like the social democracy that current labor leaders espouse.

Demands for an 8-hour day had been made since the beginning of the 19th century. In the United States, the 8-hour day became a regular demand after a general strike in Philadelphia in 1835, calling for 10 hours a day, minus 2 hours for meals. Different sectors of workers achieved the 8-hour day through strike action and agitation. Some legislation even passed for some states or categories of workers. It is interesting that the main battle for the 8-hour day became Chicago. The state of Illinois had passed legislation for the 8-hour day in 1867, but it had many loopholes and was ineffective.

The 8-hour day was a demand that was taken up by unions of different political leanings. The IWMA (First International) at its Congress in 1866, put forward this demand. The IWMA had influence amongst the German-speaking immigrant anarchist and socialist workers of Chicago, who later became a driving force in the labor movement. After the IWMA disbanded, the International Working People's Association was founded in 1881 by anarchists and a large and influential group appeared in Chicago.

What is important to know is that the IWPA was truly a revolutionary organization. When it first starting acting, it considered the struggle for the 8-hour day to be something of a liberal demand to the capitalists. There were in fact many debates in the IWPA whether the 8-hour day should be among their demands, as they wished to abolish wage labour and have collective means of production. Some of the leading names of the IWPA were strongly against this demand. Others had a different perspective. One of them was a Haymarket martyr, Albert Parsons. He saw that the struggle for the 8-hour day was a way for producers (workers) to keep more of the product of their labor and cut the profits of the capitalists – provided of course that the workers would receive the same remuneration for 8 hours as for 10 or 12. Parsons had been a member of the 8-hour Committee prior to the founding of the IWPA. Eventually, the IWPA reconsidered their position and became the leading force in the struggle for the 8-hour day, through the Central Labour Union, which it was the dominant part of.

What is also interesting is how the different unions calling for the 8-hour day struggled and made their demands. Publications in the anarchist press of the time, among other sources, show how the IWPA strongly radicalized and popularized these demands.

Some of the other labor union federations and associations at the time figure in the history of May Day, but a closer look at them show how much they differed in approach from the IWPA. In 1881, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada (FOTLU)  was formed. (It would later transform into the AFL.) It was actually the FOTLU that suggested that May 1, 1886 be a target date for the start of the 8-hour day – or that a general strike would be held. However, anarchist newspapers of the time suggest that after making this suggestion, the FOTLU ”went to sleep” and did hardly anything about this campaign.

FOTLU was in fact floundering at that time, losing members to the Knights of Labor and struggling for influence.

The IWPA, which eventually adopted the struggle for the 8-hour day, and wound up leading it in Chicago, was very different in approach from the other unions at the times. There was at times a strong Marxist and socialist influence in some organizations of the Knights of Labor. Some unionists were anti-socialist and tried to start new associations which would be free of the political elements of the radical unions. At the end of the 1870s, Samuel Gompers and Adolf Strasser tried to radically restructure the Cigar Makers' International Union . As a result of these attempts, Gompers was not re-elected as union president and socialists were elected instead. Gompers threw a fit, claiming that socialists should not be allowed to run unions. He was opposed to the socialists' calls for militancy to make gains for workers. Soon, the FOTLU was born and it was meant to bring unionists in a different direction, away from the influence of the socialists.

Besides the facts that unions were divided on their stance towards socialism, they also had different ideas about who the unions should be for. Gompers wanted to limit union membership to skilled laborers.

While most of the unions of the day argued about whether to unionize unskilled labor, women or foreigners, the IWPA came onto the scene with a radically different approach. It was in part due to their tiredless activism and work amongst large parts of the working class which were ignored by the others that the IWPA quickly became the leading force in the struggle for the 8-hour day.

The differences in the organizations can be seen in what they were doing before May Day in 1886. Two large events were held in April 1886 in Chicago. The Knights of Labour organized an event on April 10 and the IWPA (with the CLU) on April 25. Although one can say that these 2 events were ”fighting for the same thing” they, in fact looked very different.

One difference was that the Knights of Labor did not support the IWPA's calls for an 8-hour day keeping the wages that were earned on the longer day. While the IWPA shouted ”8 Hour Day for 10 Hours Pay!” at their demonstration, the Knights of Labor thought that the workers would have to accept 8 hours pay – in other words, less money for less work. The IWPA's demands were considered too radical by the Knights of Labor and just about all other labor organizations.

Another thing was how these different events looked. The Knights of Labor held an indoor event, with the Trades Assembly. About 7000 people attended. They sat and listened politely to speakers. The overwhelming majority of them were of English or Irish origin and the meeting was held in English. However, at the time, about 80% of labor in Chicago was immigrant in origin. Women and people of color were mostly absent.

By contrast, the IWPA made great steps to organize among immigrant workers. They started a couple of years earlier making weekly meetings and then making daily meetings about the 8-hour issue. Meetings were held in German, Czech, Polish, Yiddish, Norweigan, Danish and Swedish. On April 25, 1886, 25,000 workers demonstrated in Chicago, at a demonstration called by the IWPA and CLU. It couldn't have looked more different than the event which had taken place two weeks earlier. It was Easter Sunday. The fact that workers would demonstrate on this day irritated some of the other unions, which were used to having religious leaders at their events. The demonstration had radical slogans, not only about the 8-hour day. There even were a number of atheist banners and the slogan “No god, no masters!” also appeared. The newspapers denounced the marchers as a bunch of communists and complained that were were no Anglo-American faces in sight. That was an exaggeration, but it is true that the majority of the workers were foreign-born and the demonstration had speeches in different languages.

On April 25, while the radicals were marching, the FOTLU was busy trying to make a new confederation with the Knights of Labor. Samuel Gompers was absolutely convinced that they needed to steer clear of radicalism.

In May 1886, two weeks after the Haymarket police riot, the two organizations met to negotiate. There were many factors that brought them together, but no doubt what had happened on May 4 was rather important for the development of events. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was born.

As for the IWPA, the strong repression of the Haymarket martyrs and anarchists after the May 4 events led to its demise.

All these years later, we can really appreciate the things that the IWPA were struggling for and how they went about it. Organizing amongst all categories of workers, including those who were not included in the other unions and keeping their vision of a social revolution in the forefront at all times. And all these years later, when we go out on May Day and some social democratic unions try to convince us that we really are “fighting for the same thing”, we can see easily how they look and what they indeed support and still feel the difference.


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