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May 2022

Chicago's Long and Extraordinary Labor History
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When the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers chose Chicago for its second convention in 1892, it was coming to a city that already had a rich and singular history as a fierce union town. Battles for workers' rights and dignity had been going on for decades, but it wasn't until the end of the Civil War that the modern labor movement was possible.

With the end of slavery, a new economic order was established in the United States. It still wildly favored the owners of capital, but permanent gains for workers were at least plausible. But nothing was given, all was won, and many of the most pivotal moments in U.S. labor history happened on the streets of Chicago.

Trades and the Birth of the Modern Labor Movement

In the 20 years from 1860 to 1880, Chicago's population grew from slightly over 100,000 to more than half a million.

This astonishing growth happened even after one of the great calamities of the latter half of the 19th century, the Great Fire of 1871.

Three and one-half square miles of the city turned to ash, leaving at least 300 dead and almost a quarter of the city homeless.

But Chicago's confluence of sea and rail, agriculture and industry, was simply too powerful for the city to stand idly by. From the Great Fire came the great expansion that took the city from 10,000 structures in 1854 to more than 100,000 by the end of the 1880s, the largest building boom in the history of the nation.

By the 1890s, the Chicago Building Trades Council included about 30,000 workers in 31 separate trade unions, including IBEW Local 9.

This period also saw the rise of the great industries that would make Chicago famous, including the Union Stock Yard and the mills and factories of the Southside.

But it was the railways, and the monopolistic power wielded by the men who ran them, that generated the most labor unrest, organizing and ultimately violence.

Between 1880 and 1905, there were an estimated 37,000 strikes in the U.S., and the worst violence was often in Chicago.

The Great Railway Strike of 1877, for example, was honored nationwide. In some places, it was effectively a general strike. Of the more than 140 workers and their supporters killed in clashes with federal troops that year, at least 30 were killed in Chicago on a single day at the so-called Battle of the Viaduct.

Seven years later, workers met in Chicago at the 1884 convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions — renamed the American Federation of Labor two years later — and set May 1, 1886, as the date by which the eight-hour workday would become standard.

On that date, hundreds of thousands struck in cities across the U.S. Tens of thousands struck in Chicago, and thousands more joined them in daily marches. Workers locked out of the McCormick Reaper Plant clashed with strikebreakers, leaving two dead. The next night, a demonstration was called for Haymarket Square. As the crowd was dispersing, hundreds of police, armed and marching in formation, began pushing the crowd down the street.

Someone threw a bomb, killing policeman Mathias J. Degan.

The police fired on the fleeing demonstrators, reloaded, and then fired again, killing a wildly disputed number in the crowd — at least four, likely more — and wounding upwards of 70. Seven more officers were also killed, many by bullets fired by other police.

Though no one would ever know who threw the bomb, eight anarchist organizers were convicted in a trial that became infamous for its corruption. Four of them were hanged a year later. A fifth committed suicide in his cell the night before. The three remaining defendants were pardoned in 1893.

Haymarket was notable for the massive outpouring of community and business support for the police. In the following days, hundreds of labor leaders were arrested and the movement for the 8-hour day died.

The story of the massacre and hangings spread widely and became a symbol for labor organizers around the world. In honor of the Haymarket dead, May 1, later dubbed May Day, was established as the global day to honor fallen workers and demand better for the ones who still live.

In 1880, George Pullman, founder of the Pullman Palace Car Company, maker of the famous sleeper cars, incorporated a town, named it after himself, and centered it around the factory he owned. He built houses, a church, and stores, all of which he owned and rented out.

By the economic crisis of 1893, more than 12,000 people lived in his town, and since the company gave employment preference to Pullman residents, most worked in his factory.

The recession killed rail travel and orders for sleeper cars plummeted. Pullman started laying off workers and announced wage cuts averaging 25% for the hourly workers that were left. Management pay and rents did not fall a penny.

The squeeze bit hard. Members of the American Railway Union struck nationwide, refusing to work on trains with Pullman cars.

President Grover Cleveland deployed 12,000 federal troops (approximately half the U.S. army at the time) supposedly to keep the peace, but primarily to break the strike.

In Chicago alone, 13 were killed and at least 57 wounded.

Once again, the strike was broken.

The IBEW and an End to a Violent Era in the Trades

While most of the violence and repression of Chicago workers was centered in the industrial sector, the trades were not immune.

By the turn of the century, trades unions in Chicago were organized and coordinated. Through sympathy strikes, production limits and restriction of labor-saving equipment, the skilled trades were able to force a general agreement that raised wages and standards.

But in 1900, the year of Local 134's founding, the general agreement expired. The Building Contractors Council refused to sign a new contract and locked out 40,000 trades workers.

The craft unions refused to recognize the BCC and when 6,000 scabs were brought in, violence again erupted across the city. Police were called in, union organizers were beaten and arrested and within a year membership in the trades unions plummeted.

But as bad times cause hardship, good times often make them disappear. As the new century dawned, construction demand rose, the BCC dropped their wage cuts and blacklists and rehired union tradesmen.

Two decades later, the cycle repeated. A deep slump in 1921 led to wage cuts, unions refused to accept them, and employers locked them out.

Chicago business leaders formed a so-called "Citizen's Committee" of armed vigilantes and strikebreakers and another vicious era of conflict followed.

By mid-decade, after at least two deaths, demand soared once again. Contractors abandoned the cuts and hired union tradesmen for most tasks.

However, this time the cycle was finally broken. The 1921 labor battles marked the last large-scale outbreak of violence in the Chicago construction industry even during the depths of the Great Depression.

The building boom of the 1920s was at least as big as the skyscraper boom 30 years prior, but this time the beauty of the buildings became a global phenomenon.

New zoning laws raised heights for unoccupied upper floors and Art Deco masterpieces collectively known as brownstones rose around the city, often topped by decorative towers that brought them to then unheard of heights approaching 400 feet.

The most ornate and celebrated — the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley, Carbide and Carbon, London Guarantee and Chicago Temple buildings — became engineering and architectural icons.

Buildings weren't just beautiful, they were massive. The Merchandise Mart, built in 1931, was once the largest building in the world and even had its own zip code until 2008.

This period also saw other groundbreakings.

Mike Boyle was one of the founders of Local 134. He was elected business manager in 1919, a position he held until 1958.

In his first year as business manager, Doyle organized Sam Taylor into the union, the first confirmed African American member of the IBEW. In 1943, Boyle appointed Herman Washington as a business representative making him not only the first Black business representative in Local 134, but also the first in all the building trades in Cook County.

1937 Memorial Day Massacre and WWII Reforms

While there was relative peace in construction, the same could not be said in the factories, where violence reminiscent of a half century before came back with a fury in the coldest days of the Great Depression.

By 1933 more than 50% of industrial jobs in the city had been lost, and unemployment rates amongst Black and Mexican workers was over 40%.

In 1937, several smaller steelmakers, including Republic Steel, refused to follow the lead of U.S. Steel and sign a contract that included a standard pay scale, an 8-hour workday, and time-and-a-half for overtime

The 67,000-member Steel Workers Organizing Committee of the Congress of Industrial Organizations called for a national strike in May 1937. Over the next five months, thousands of strikers were arrested, hundreds were injured and 18 killed.

The worst violence, again, was in Chicago. On Sunday, May 30, thousands of strikers and supporters set out to form a picket at Republic Steel. The police first fired tear gas and then their revolvers into the crowd.

When the sun rose, 10 lay dead, 30 more had been shot, 28 were hospitalized with eight suffering permanent disability.

Virtually all those shot had wounds in the back or side.

By September, the strike broken, the little steel mills were open and union organizers were blacklisted.

It wasn't until 1942 — under the eye of the National War Labor Board — that Little Steel agreed to a union and paid $20 million of back pay to those blacklisted in 1937.

Little Steel's agreement was a marker of the new era for American Labor coming out of the New Deal, from strike, death, gains, and losses to something new.

The transformation was symbolized by the rise of a Chicago labor giant, Joseph Keenan. Keenan joined Local 134's apprenticeship in 1914 at the age of 18 and rose through Chicago labor's ranks.

In 1937, then-International President Daniel Tracy nominated him to be one of seven people on the National Defense Advisory Commission tasked with mobilizing national defense. Then, from 1943 to 1945, he was the Vice Chairman for Labor of the War Production Board, where he worked to stabilize industrial relations in the construction field and to halt strikes and work stoppages while arbitration agreements were conducted.

Organized labor was finally seen as an asset and its voice was brought into the very heart of the U.S. government.

He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the nation can bestow on a civilian, in 1946 by President Harry S. Truman for his work during the war.

Keenan was later the first Secretary of the American Federation of Labor's Building and Construction Trades Department and then the International Secretary of the IBEW from 1954 to 1976.

Labor peace unleashed the industrial might of Chicago which, alone, produced more steel than the United Kingdom every year from 1939 to 1945, and more than Nazi Germany from 1943 to 1945.

It also hinted at what was possible when unions were allowed to be partners and workplace democracy was given a chance to flourish.

The City with Broad Shoulders 1945-1980

Once the war in Europe ended, a new era began in U.S. and Chicago labor.

Up until the war, the Chicago Federation of Labor had been dominated by the craft unions and was led for decades by John Fitzpatrick, who came from the Horseshoers.

The new face of Chicago labor came from the huge and growing factories in a belt from Chicago to Gary, Ind.

After a series of strikes in 1947 across the nation, a new period dawned as wages rose year on year and union membership reached its peak. In Chicago nearly half of all workers were in a union.

Even the construction trades made their way outside the Loop. Until the 1960s and early '70s, the mills on the Southside were fully half of Local 134's work.

Downtown, a building boom in the late 1950s through the 1960s rivaled those of the 1880s and 1920s.

Major construction projects started seemingly all over the Loop, culminating in the Sears Tower (now known as the Willis Tower) which, in 1974, became the world's tallest building.

Of equal ambition and size, if not height, was McCormick Place. With its four interconnected buildings, it is the largest convention center in the nation and third largest in the world and a huge source of work for the IBEW. To this day, more than 10% of the manhours at Local 134 are trade shows.

The Decline of Industry and the Closure of the Stockyards

At its peak during the 1960s, some 250,000 workers were employed in the steel industry in Chicago and the stockyards were the meat locker of the nation.

But the decline was steep in the 1980s and only 28,000 jobs were left by 2015. The 475-acre stockyards withered in the 1960s and were ultimately shuttered in 1971. All that remains is the granite arch that used to be the front gate.

Still Chicago's economy was never driven by just one thing. Industry may have declined, but the city was also a financial powerhouse, a medical hub for the Midwest and the home of many universities.

For visitors, Chicago may be its towering skyline, but for the blue- and white-collar workers that call it home, the building that defines Chicago is the humble bungalow.

New York is the city that never sleeps, but Chicago is the city that never ends. More than 80,000 make up "The Bungalow Belt," stretching along the outskirts of Chicago in a crescent shape outside the Loop. And just like those skyscrapers, nearly every one was built by the union trades.

The Service Economy Rises 1980-Present

By the 1980s the conversion of Chicago into primarily a white-collar city was reflected in the make-up of the unions there.

For the last 40 years, the most common workplace for a Chicago union member isn't a factory or a construction site, it's been a classroom, government office or a hospital.

For decades, organizing a teachers' union was illegal, but it happened anyway. In 1897 Chicago teachers organized into the Chicago Teachers' Federation. But it wasn't until 1967 that the Chicago Teachers' Union was recognized by the Chicago Board of Education.

Today, the Illinois Education Association has 137,000 members — the most in Chicago — and few unions have more public support or influence, with the possible exception of the state and municipal workers.

State public workers didn't get the right to organize until 1974; city workers didn't follow until 1983, adding hundreds of thousands of new union members in Illinois.

The growth of public sector unions was matched by the growth of the unionized service sector. The end of WWII launched the second Great Migration of African Americans coming up from the south. Some got the last jobs at the stockyards and were crucially important in the unions there.

Many others went into the service industry, and unlike most cities in the U.S. where janitors and cleaning ladies were little more than an exploited underclass, in Chicago they found powerful unions with deep roots in the early 20th century.

In 1902, janitors, elevator operators, and window washers organized the Chicago Flat Janitor's Union, the nation's first union of building employees. In the winter of 1917, following strikes that left some Chicago buildings without heat, the union's 6,000 members (roughly 20% of them African American) and Chicago's Real-Estate Board agreed to a citywide contract that included a closed shop, arbitration of disputes, and a ban on forcing wives of janitors to do janitorial work.

In 1921, the Chicago Flat Janitor's Union became Local 1 of the new Building Service Employees' International Union, the forerunner of the Service Employees International Union, which had its international headquarters in the city until 1990.

Today, Chicago is home to the second-largest central business district in the United States, the third-largest inter-modal port in the world after Hong Kong and Singapore. It is one of the most economically diverse and union dense cities in the country.

Across all the transformation of the city and organized labor, one thing has remained true: the IBEW dominates the market for electrical work, winning a true 70% market share across all parts of the vast city.

Construction methods have changed radically over the decades, but the organization of work in the building trades has been remarkably stable, with a kind of peace and prosperity across the decades that was unimaginable a century ago.

At least part of that came out of the 1972 agreement, called the Chicago Plan, negotiated between the U.S. Department of Labor, area building contractors and nine Chicago-area building trades unions to address the woeful lack of Black and Latino members.

The Fourth Wave of American Labor

The future of the labor movement is being written now in cities like Chicago.

Union membership in the private sector has never been lower, and yet it has never looked better to nearly all working men and women.

For the first time in their lives, many people are looking at jobs they thought were a reliable route to the middle class, dignity and security, and instead, they see themselves eternally on the edge of crisis.

It's hard to look at the nation's financial and industrial oligarchs and not see echoes of Rockefeller, Gould and Vanderbilt.

Whatever organized labor looks like in the rest of the 21st century, Chicago will be at its center, and the IBEW, one of the oldest and grandest of North America's labor unions, will be an engine transforming lives and skylines.


The "Battle of the Viaduct" took place as part of the much larger Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Dozens of workers were killed by police and federal troops on Chicago's South Side.


Chicago's Union Stockyards, pictured here in 1880, grew from a small collection of animal pens to be the largest meat producer in the world from the Civil War until the 1920s. The yards earned Chicago the title "Hog butcher for the world."


The Electricity Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago showcased George Westinghouse's alternating current system and featured an appearance by Nikola Tesla himself.


The 1894 Haymarket Affair in Chicago began as a peaceful demonstration in support of the 8-hour workday. It ended with a bombing that killed people on both sides and became the origin of International Workers' Day on May 1 each year.


An 1893 recession and subsequent layoffs pushed workers at the Pullman railroad car company to strike. Violence erupted and the strike was broken, but their legacy lives on in the federal Labor Day holiday.


IBEW International Secretary, Presidential Medal of Freedom winner and Local 134 member Joseph Keenan meets with President John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1962.