The Myth of Labor Union Victimhood

"The prevailing narrative is deeply entrenched. In 1893, Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld, a Progressive activist who later practiced law with Clarence Darrow, pardoned the three surviving Haymarket bombing convicts. In 1972, the city of Chicago removed a statue of a policeman from Haymarket Square, where it had stood for over 80 years as a monument to the fallen officers. In 1998, National Park Service declared the convicted anarchists’ gravesites and the “Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument” to be a National Historic Landmark. In 2004, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley dedicated a state-funded sculpture in Haymarket Square—in the image of the wagon from which the agitators were speaking prior to the bombing—as a memorial to the 1886 bombing. The unmistakable symbolism is that the anarchists were innocent—the victims of capitalist oppression.

The historical record, if reviewed objectively, tells quite a different story. Timothy Messer-Kruse’s scrupulously-balanced account, The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists (2011) offers an alternative version, based on a review of the actual trial transcript—previously unexamined by historians. His assessment: The investigation was thorough, the lengthy trial was fair, the evidence was overwhelming, the jury verdict was sound, and the appeals were properly denied. Messer-Kruse’s book, subtitled Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age, has not received the scholarly attention it deserves because it runs counter to the pro-union mythology that union leaders and labor historians have worked hard to create."