The Haymarket Riot and Conspiracy of 1886 is a landmark in American social and political history. On May 4, 1886, during an open-air meeting near Haymarket Square in Chicago, someone threw a dynamite bomb into a squad of police, sparking a riot that resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four rioters. Eight anarchists were brought to trial. Though the bomb-thrower was never apprehended, the eight radical leaders were charged as accessories before the fact for conspiring to murder the police. After the longest criminal trial in Illinois history up to that time, seven men were convicted and condemned to death and one to a long prison term. After all appeals were exhausted, four were executed, one cheated the hangman with a jail cell suicide, and the death sentences of two others were commuted to life imprisonment (all three incarcerated men were later pardoned by Governor John Peter Altgeld in 1892). The Haymarket bombing and trial marked a pivotal moment in the history of American social movements. It sparked the nation’s first red scare whose fury disrupted even moderately leftist movements for a generation. It drove the nation’s labor unions onto a more conservative path than they had been heading before the bombing. The worldwide labor campaign for clemency for the convicted men became the foundation for the institution of International Workers’ Day on May 1, a holiday ironically observed in most countries except for the United States. It also began a tradition within the American left of memorializing the Haymarket defendants as the first martyrs to their cause.
American workers have often been characterized by the press, scholars, and policy-makers as apathetic and ill-informed about foreign policy issues. To highlight this point, scholars have frequently used an anecdote about a blue-collar worker who responded to an interviewer’s questions regarding international issues in the 1940s by exclaiming “Foreign Affairs! That’s for people who don’t have to work for a living.” Yet missing from many such appraisals is a consideration of the long history of efforts by both informal groups of workers and labor unions to articulate and defend the perceived international interests of American workers. During the early years of the American Republic, groups of workers used crowd actions, boycotts, and protests to make their views on important foreign policy issues known. In the late 19th century, emerging national labor unions experimented with interest group lobbying as well as forms of collective action championed by the international labor movement to promote working-class foreign policy interests. Many 20th- and 21st-century US labor groups shared in common a belief that government leaders failed to adequately understand the international concerns and perspectives of workers. Yet such groups often pursued different types of foreign policy influence. Some dominant labor organizations, such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), participated in federal bureaucracies, advisory councils, and diplomatic missions and programs designed to encourage collaboration among business, state, and labor leaders in formulating and promoting US foreign policy. Yet other labor groups, as well as dissidents within the AFL and CIO, argued that these power-sharing arrangements compromised labor’s independence and led some trade union leaders to support policies that actually hurt both American and foreign workers. Particularly important in fueling internal opposition to AFL-CIO foreign policies were immigrant workers and those with specific ethno-racial concerns. Some dissenting groups and activists participated in traditional forms of interest group lobbying in order to promote an independent international agenda for labor; others committed themselves to the foreign policy programs of socialist, labor, or communist parties. Still others, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, advocated strike and international economic actions by workers to influence US foreign policy or to oppose US business activities abroad.
The American labor movement has declined significantly since 1960. Once a powerful part of American life, bringing economic democracy to the nation, organized labor has become a shell of itself, with numbers far lower than a half-century ago. The 1960s began with a powerful movement divided on race but also deeply influenced by the civil rights movement. Deindustrialization and capital mobility cut into labor’s power after 1965 as factories closed. The rise of public sector unionism in the 1970s briefly gave labor new power, but private sector unions faced enormous internal dissension throughout that decade. The Reagan administration ushered in a new era of warfare against organized labor when the president fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Soon, private sector employers engaged in brutal anti-union campaigns. Reforms within labor in the 1990s sought to renew the movement’s long tradition of organizing, but with mixed success at best. Since the 1980s, we have seen more attacks on organized labor, especially Republican-led campaigns against public sector union rights beginning in 2011 that culminated in the 2019 Supreme Court ruling that declared required dues for non-union members unconstitutional. Labor’s decline has led to a new era of income inequality but also brought a stronger class-centric politics back into American life as everyday people seek new answers to the tenuousness of their economic lives.