2.01 Industrialization Changes America Assignment Of Mortgage

Preferred Citation: Hirsch, Eric L. Urban Revolt: Ethnic Politics in the Nineteenth-Century Chicago Labor Movement. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft40000586/

Urban Revolt

Ethnic Politics in the Nineteenth-Century Chicago Labor Movement

Eric L. Hirsch

Berkeley · Los Angeles · Oxford
© 1990 The Regents of the University of California

This book is dedicated with all my love to
Alex and Liza

Preferred Citation: Hirsch, Eric L. Urban Revolt: Ethnic Politics in the Nineteenth-Century Chicago Labor Movement. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft40000586/

This book is dedicated with all my love to
Alex and Liza


I became interested in nineteenth-century Chicago labor history in an indirect way. I had begun a study of political mobilization in Chicago community organizing and felt that I could not understand the political process that led to such mobilization without also understanding the underlying political and economic forces that created issues for community groups. I undertook a study of disinvestment in an aging industrial city—investigating Chicago's loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs, the denial of mortgages and loans to black inner-city neighborhoods, and the flight of many middle-class residents to the suburbs. The political and economic consequences of these underlying trends resulted in the mobilization of community groups to fight job loss, crime, redlining, and housing abandonment.

I also became fascinated with the idea of comparing movements that arose as a result of decline and disinvestment with movements that responded to growth and investment in Chicago in its early history. I wanted to be able to answer the question how movements reacting to industrialization and urbanization in nineteenth-century Chicago differed from movements responding to deindustrialization and population loss. I also wanted to understand why the protest movements in the nineteenth century were generally labor oriented, but post-World War II, twentieth-century protests were more likely to be carried out by community organizations.

This interest led me to study the Chicago labor movement in the 1870s and 1880s, a period of industrialization and urban growth. I found an incredibly active movement that included strong craft

― xiv ―

unions, militant strikes by the less skilled, and highly mobilized, revolutionary socialist and anarchist tendencies. There was great diversity in political choice within the movement; it varied from passivity to mild reformism to anarchism.

The revolutionary tendency in Chicago in this period was not a marginal political sect; it may have been the most highly mobilized urban revolutionary movement in American history. Many workers believed that the economic and political system was the real source of their problems, and thousands participated in strikes, rallies, marches, and boycotts to try to change that system. Worker political actions in the 1870s included marches by tens of thousands of unemployed to protest an unfair and corrupt relief system; the formation of a political party—the Workingmen's Party of Illinois, which included in its platform such demands as an end to monopolies and the establishment of government ownership of several industries; a week-long general strike in 1877; and the formation of a socialist party that elected a number of legislators to city and state office.

In the 1880s, the revolutionary anarchist movement was founded. At its peak in the mid 1880s, the Chicago anarchist movement was the most highly mobilized in the country; it had seventeen political clubs with a total of one thousand members and five or six thousand sympathizers. A coalition of anarchist labor unions—the Central Labor Union—contained twenty-two unions, including the eleven largest in the city.

The platform at the anarchists' founding convention rejected the electoral system, argued that political institutions were agencies of the propertied class, and proposed that the only recourse was force. They advocated using whatever means necessary to destroy existing class rule, to establish a free society based on the cooperative organization of production, and to replace government with a system of contracts between autonomous communes and associations. The anarchists demanded total transformation of the economic and political systems, and they suggested guns and bombs to accomplish that aim.

But the movement was soon crushed. On May 4, 1886, several hundred Chicago workers gathered near Haymarket Square to hear speeches protesting the police killing of a striker the day before. When hundreds of police arrived to break up the peaceful meeting,

― xv ―

someone threw a bomb into their ranks; the blast itself and the subsequent shooting by the police killed seven and wounded dozens of workers and officers. In the aftermath of the bombing, the authorities arrested hundreds of labor movement activists, shut down many labor-oriented newspapers, and banned all political meetings. There was little outcry a year and a half later when four anarchists blamed for the bombing—the Haymarket martyrs—were hanged, and one committed suicide to escape the hangman's noose.

In the following pages, I present an analysis of which workers joined various political segments of the Chicago labor movement and why. The time period covered is one of intensive industrialization and urban growth from the end of the Civil War until the Haymarket affair. The beginning point coincides with the onset of industrialization in the city; the end point was chosen because of the decline of the revolutionary anarchist movement following Haymarket.

At first I believed that a Marxist perspective would be best for interpreting the mobilization pattern in the Chicago labor movement. I expected to find that the periodic depressions and the constant tendency toward skill degradation in the crafts had created a politically united, class-conscious working class that had challenged the city's economic and political systems. Such was not the case. Instead I discovered a politically divided working class. Some workers were politically inactive, some worked to reform the existing system, and others worked actively to overthrow the economic and political order of the city. Recruitment to these various segments was based primarily on the workers' ethnic origins. The primary task then became to explain the reasons for these ethnically based political splits within the Chicago labor movement.

I also found that the existing theories of urban social and political movements could not adequately explain the mobilization pattern in the Chicago labor movement. Marxist theory overemphasizes the importance of economic class; ethnically based movements not built on the growth of working-class consciousness cannot be adequately analyzed within this tradition. The theory pays too much attention to analysis of macro-level, abstract class issues and neglects to adequately consider cultural factors and the importance of social networks in political mobilization efforts. Even revisionist Marxists, who have attempted to deal with the importance of cul-

― xvi ―

tural and social structural factors, often assume the development of working-class consciousness and movements based on such consciousness; this assumption is not always correct.

Classical urban social movement theory , growing out of the Chicago School of Sociology, considers important social and cultural factors. One might expect it to do a better job of analyzing ethnically based fragmentation in a labor movement; but its key propositions—that movements are a product of social disorganization and their participants are generally the socially marginal—are incorrect. In fact, movements are often built using social networks and cultural traditions found in close-knit urban communities, and participants in those movements are socially and culturally integrated.

Resource mobilization theory suggests that modern urban movements are likely to be bureaucratic, centralized, and hierarchical and to involve rationally calculating individuals who assess the costs and benefits of movement participation. This theory can explain some of the tendencies within the Chicago labor movement—notably the largely Anglo-American reform union tendency; but it cannot explain the revolutionary tendencies in the movement, tendencies that were nonbureaucratic and decentralized and that convinced participants to sacrifice their own self-interest to a group cause.

A fourth theoretical alternative, solidarity theory , better explains the mobilization of these revolutionary movements. The strengths and weaknesses of each of these theories are detailed in Chapter 6. However, the research concerns addressed here—especially the importance of class versus ethnicity in urban political mobilization and the reasons for reformist versus revolutionary responses to industrialization and urbanization—have grown out of the historical analysis. They have not been predetermined by allegiance to any of these theoretical traditions.

Although I try to explain the mobilization pattern in the Chicago labor movement for this period, the relevance of the findings for American workers in general or for theories of mobilization or revolution are subject to the reader's interpretation. Chicago was unusual in many ways, especially in the rapidity of its growth and industrialization and in its incredible ethnic diversity. An adequate explanation for the mobilization pattern in the Chicago labor move-

― xvii ―

ment in this period will not automatically be relevant to other movements in other places under different historical circumstances.

Chapter 1 describes the labor movement in Chicago from the end of the Civil War through the 1870s. Chapter 2 continues the history through 1886, the year of the Haymarket bombing. These first chapters give a historical account of events, but both also consider the ideologies, tactical choices, and social composition of the various reformist and revolutionary tendencies within the labor movement. I consider whether each tendency recruited different class sectors, trades, skill levels, ethnic groups, and genders. The evidence shows that the worker's ethnic origin was the best predictor of which tendency was chosen. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 discuss the reasons for these particular political choices for the three most important ethnic groups in the city—Anglo-Americans, Irish, and Germans. Chapter 6, which concludes the book, details theories of urban social and political movements.

A number of people were important in the completion of this book. I would especially like to thank certain authors whose work gave me important insights: Craig Calhoun, Manuel Castells, Sara Evans, John Foster, Jo Freeman, William Gamson, Bert Klandermans, Doug McAdam, John Mollenkopf, and E. P. Thompson. The work of two great Chicago historians—Bessie Pierce and Richard Schneirov—was simply indispensable, as was the assistance of the staff of the Chicago Historical Society, especially Archie Motley. The hard work of Naomi Schneider, Steve Rice, Amy Klatzkin, and Sylvia Stein at the University of California Press made this a much better book. A number of people read the manuscript at various stages of completion and made helpful suggestions. These include Sig Diamond, Roberta Garner, Ira Katznelson, Richard Taub, Bill Wilson, and three anonymous reviewers for the Press. Finally, I thank Andrea, Ann, Carol, Deborah, Don, Jane, Jeff, Lexi, Peg, and my father. Each was able to give me a different kind of support, all of which I appreciated.

― 1 ―

Chapter One
Ethnic Segmentation in the Early Chicago Labor Movement

The setting for the rise of the Chicago labor movement was a rapidly growing industrial city. Although Chicago was founded in the mid nineteenth century as a commercial city, much of its economic growth in the post-Civil War period came in manufacturing. As the United States grew to the west, Chicago became the largest, most accessible city capable of transforming raw materials into finished manufactured goods and distributing them to consumers. The number of manufacturing establishments increased from 129 in 1860 to 730 in 1873 (Schoff 1873, 198). Those 730 establishments employed over fifty thousand workers, had over $50 million in invested capital, paid nearly $30 million in wages to employees, and created nearly $130 million in production value. By 1880, Chicago was the third most important manufacturing city in the country (Pierce 1957, 2: 147-75), with nearly four thousand manufacturing establishments, over eighty thousand employees, $85 million in invested capital, $40 million in payrolls, and $269 million in production value (Andreas 1884, 3:715). Many of these manufacturing establishments clustered around the three branches of the Chicago River and the many railroad lines that met in the city's center (Hoyt 1933, 95-96; Schneirov 1975, 3-4).

But the industrialization of Chicago did not affect all city residents in the same way. Upper-class capitalists, such as Cyrus McCormick, George Pullman, and Philip Armour, realized huge profits and amassed large fortunes. Middle-class professionals and small

― 2 ―

businessmen cashed in on the need for services and the expansion of local markets. But the working class was not treated as kindly. Problems arose for the workers because of uneven economic growth and employers' incentives to reduce wages to the lowest possible level through mechanization.

Even in the most rapidly growing cities like Chicago, the business cycle—periodic booms followed by devastating busts—meant workers experienced long periods of unemployment and low wages. The business cycle was not the only problem. Mechanization introduced labor-saving devices into a variety of trades, reducing the skill level of many craft jobs. The use of labor-saving devices to degrade skills increased the number of potential workers available to perform particular jobs, thus allowing employers to reduce wages, resist union organizing, break strikes, and force workers to accept long hours and poor working conditions. Many craft workers consequently faced the prospect of higher unemployment, lower wages, and more alienating working conditions in this period; some of them fought back with the most powerful economic weapon at their disposal: the craft union.

The Craft Union Model of Economic Action

The ability of skilled workers in a particular trade to enjoy relative economic comfort was due largely to the ability or inability of those in the craft to organize a strong union. Some workers established unions that successfully fought both aggressive employers and the effects of the business cycle and mechanization. One of the most powerful unions and the first in the city was the Chicago Typographical Union no. 16 (Chicago Typographical Union, 1864-1887, 1880), founded in the early 1850s by fifty-four printers. Printers historically have been able to organize strong unions because their literacy and ability to print trade papers and newsletters allows for better communication between members of the trade.

The printers union was dramatically successful in its attempt to control the effects of the introduction of technology in the trade. The most important machine introduced into the printing trade in this period was the linotype, which allowed typesetting by keyboard rather than by hand. Even though a linotype machine is not much more difficult to operate than a typewriter, printers unions

― 3 ―

throughout the country were able to insist that linotype operators have three- or four-year apprenticeships and belong to the union (Barnett 1909). Their use of strikes, boycotts, and threats of mob actions allowed them to preserve a high degree of control over the labor supply in the trade, which in turn preserved high wages and employment security even during business slumps.

The union attempted to define the conditions under which its members were willing to work and then tried to impose these conditions on employers. Wage rates, for example, were not subject to negotiation in the early history of the union. Instead the Chicago Typographical Union simply published a list of prices and refused to allow its members to work below these rates. Employers who violated union rules faced strikes and boycotts, and the Chicago Typographical Union often fined, suspended, or expelled printers working at nonunion rates. Printers who refused to join the union were labeled "rats" and were socially scorned and morally condemned by union printers.

Non-membership [in a printers union], as a rule, arises from one of two causes—incompetency or moral cowardice—and no valid reason can be assigned why an honorable, qualified workman should refuse to identify with an organization which secures the highest remuneration for his services and whose primary and essential objects are his financial and material welfare. We insist the mechanic who refuses or neglects to identify himself with his trades organization is a libel on the human race, and unworthy of the name of protector, husband or father. (Inland Printer March 1884, 11)

By the end of the Civil War, other trades had followed the printers' lead and founded craft unions along a similar model. The Mechanics Union, founded in 1852, was followed by the Iron Molders in 1857, the Machinists and Blacksmiths in 1859, the Shipwrights and Caulkers in 1860, the Seamen and the Foundry Workers unions in 1861, the Painters and the Locomotive Engineers in 1863, and the Plasterers and Bricklayers and Stonemasons in 1864 (Pierce 1957, 2:160-68).

Unfortunately, this solution to the problems faced by the city's working class was not available to all workers. Unlike industrial unions, which employ the inclusive strategy of attempting to organize all those hired by employers in a particular industry, craft unions such as the Chicago Typographical Union employed a con-

― 4 ―

servative strategy of limiting the labor supply, of excluding groups from participating in the trade. Craft union power comes from its ability to control the labor supply through apprenticeship systems. Four-year apprenticeships were the rule, and the union required employers to hire only those who had completed such training. So everyone was not welcome to join the union; generally only friends and relatives of members were offered apprenticeships.

The use of the craft union organizing model meant that entire groups, such as immigrants, women, or prison inmates, often were excluded from the trade. This frequently relegated the excluded group to unskilled work or—in the case of women workers in the city—to low-paying sweatshop labor. This attitude is illustrated by the following quotes from Chicago's major printing trade journal, the Inland Printer. It is interesting that their argument used moral persuasion, not the assertion that excluding certain groups from the trade would have economic benefits for the largely Anglo-American male printers.

Probably the principal reason that there are so few lady compositors in our printing houses is the long time required to perfect anyone in the art. As a general thing, women do not engage in any kind of business except as a temporary employment, their ultimate goal being to preside over a household. (December 1883, 9)

[It is wrong to compel] her to earn her living by following a trade which requires three years of application to master, to which she is altogether unsuited by her taste and condition, while the tendency of that labor must inevitably lead to the lowering of the standard of workmanship ... the tendency to force women ... into indiscriminate competition with men must eventually prove disastrous to both, and is calculated to lower her in the social and moral scale. (September 1885, 534)

There is a vast difference between compelling the law-breaker to earn his living by the sweat of his brow and aggregating the crime of the state in two or three branches of industry, compelling those callings to bear the brunt of such crime, and leasing the labor of the convicts to unprincipled speculators for their own enrichment. (November 1884, 65)

Thus, the power of the craft union model was to define a limited group of eligibles and to exclude everyone else. In certain trades—especially printing, construction, machine, and iron and steel—workers were able to use this tactic to limit the adverse impact of

― 5 ―

depressions and mechanization; they managed to keep their wages fairly high and to mitigate the effects of unemployment with work-sharing schemes (Barnett 1909, 213). A smaller percentage of unions was able to successfully combat the effects of mechanization.

In business expansions, there was prosperity for workers in unions that had enough control over the labor supply to force up their wages in tight labor markets. These workers often made significant gains in wages, working conditions, employment security, and union strength. But most workers could not enjoy the benefits of work-sharing schemes during depressions and wage hikes during expansions because most workers did not belong to unions.

Labor Market Segmentation

The craft union or even a coalition of craft unions was not a very powerful weapon for the economic and political organization of the city's working class because it was an exclusive, not an inclusive, strategy. The organizing model excluded large sectors of the working class—especially the unskilled and women—from the organized group of workers. Even within the targeted group of skilled male workers, organizing efforts were not always successful. Those trades with strong unions that had been organized before the onset of industrialization had an advantage over those that had to scramble to respond with new organizing efforts once they began to be hurt by mechanization and business slumps. Certain trades (construction, for example) had stronger unions because their technical basis made it more difficult to substitute machines for workers.

Thus, some skilled workers—such as cigar makers, boot and shoemakers, and butchers—did not fare well in this period. They suffered skill degradation and eventually the total destruction of their trades with the move to factory production. Positions formerly occupied by skilled workers were taken by semiskilled or even unskilled workers. The crafts lost control over the labor supply available to the employer, wage levels went down, and craft workers were forced out of their crafts and into less skilled, lower paying work. The cigar makers union, for example, had great difficulty coping with the introduction of labor-saving devices into their trade; by the 1890s, most cigars were made totally by machine (Baer 1933).

― 6 ―

Skill degradation could often be accomplished without mechanization. In many trades, labor-intensive production allowed use of the putting-out system. Employers set up sweatshop textile, clothing, or cigar-making operations in any tenement and found workers—usually women—from among those excluded from the discriminatory craft unions. Employers reduced wages and broke strikes by decentralizing the trade into hundreds of hard-to-locate, hard-to-organize workplaces.

Thus, workers in many low-status skilled trades fought a losing battle against the introduction of machinery and less skilled labor. Their inability to limit the labor supply meant that their economic condition was not nearly as secure as that of workers in the printing, construction, and metalworking trades. Their wages were always lower and their unemployment rates higher than those of workers in the elite trades. Their problems were especially severe during business slumps, when their unions often ceased to exist, and their economic condition sank to the level of the unskilled. Few low-status skilled unions survived the 1873-1879 depression; most were forced to reorganize when the business expansion of 1879 began.

Unskilled workers—such as laborers, servants, teamsters, draymen, and porters—faced even worse economic prospects. Their lack of skills and the consequent large size of the labor pool available to break their strikes rendered them unable to form unions. Because they were often searching for better jobs, they also experienced high residential and job mobility; that mobility made them difficult to organize and led to their being labeled tramps. With very low income per wage earner, entire families often had to work. Eventually, the less skilled were forced to enlist the support of those who did possess scarce skills or found it necessary to develop alternative industrial union models of organizing in order to gain any leverage over their employers. In this period, however, they rarely managed to gain such leverage.

Because of their inability to organize, unskilled laborers' wages were about half those typically paid to skilled workers, and unemployment rates were up to four times those characteristic of the best organized crafts. Unskilled workers were unable to take economic advantage of business expansions; depressions resulted in tremendous hardship as their wage levels fell, and unemployment rose dramatically.

― 7 ―

Table 1.Average Daily Wages in Chicago, 1870-1886
(in dollars)





























































Hod carrier






























Source . U.S. Department of Labor Bulletin no. 18, September 1898, pp. 665-82. This is the best source available on Chicago wage rates for the period. The data were compiled directly from establishments doing business continuously in the city from 1870. The department controlled for currency deflation in the 1870-1878 figures. These have been recalculated to reflect actual wage rates.

Thus, industrialization did not have a monolithic impact on the working class . The impact varied according to skill level; the unskilled suffered much lower wages and higher unemployment than the skilled crafts. Even among the skilled trades, there was much variation in economic status based on the history of organization in the trade and the union's ability or inability to resist skill degradation caused by mechanization or sweatshop production.

Table 1 indicates the tremendous differences in Chicago wage levels for a variety of trades between 1870 and 1886. Even the serious depression from 1873 to 1879 did not bring wage levels of the most highly skilled trades down to the level of the unskilled. The skilled were generally able to keep wages over $2 per day, while the unskilled sank to depths as low as $.82 a day. Perhaps just as important, various trades had different degrees of employment stability; the unskilled had much higher rates of both short- and long-term unemployment than the skilled. These differences in earning power and employment stability translated into dramatic disparities in economic consumption.

Differential ability to respond to economic problems must be reflected in the concepts used to analyze the working class. It will be useful to divide the class into three categories: the labor aristoc-

― 8 ―

racy, low-status skilled , and the unskilled . Membership in the labor aristocracy is based on early craft union organization and relative invulnerability to skill degradation based on trade characteristics. Included in this category were printers, tinners, iron molders, machinists, blacksmiths, locomotive engineers, railroad conductors, and many of the construction trades (brick makers, bricklayers, stonemasons, carpenters, painters, plasterers, plumbers). These were the first trades to organize in the city, all of them having established trade unions prior to the Civil War (Pierce 1940, 1:160, 165). Effective organization allowed their members higher wage levels, lower unemployment levels, and higher levels of economic consumption than others in the working class.

Low-status skilled trades included the cigar makers, tailors, bakers, tanners, harness makers, brewers and maltsters, boot and shoemakers, butchers, coopers, and cabinetmakers. Most of these trades organized unions, but not until after the Civil War. For convenience, various types of factory operatives making their first appearance on the Chicago economic scene are also included in this category; their economic situation was similar to that of workers in the less skilled crafts. But it is important to understand that there were few factory operatives in this period. For example, there were only 688 mill and factory operatives listed in the 1880 Census out of about 40, 000 workers in the low-status skilled category (U.S. Census of Population 1880, Table 36). The typical worker in this category was not a semiskilled operative in an automated factory but rather a skilled craftworker experiencing skill degradation due to the introduction of simple labor-saving devices and/or the increasing division of labor within the trade.

The unskilled were represented by the laborers, freight handlers, hod carriers, teamsters, servants, launderers and laundresses, messengers, packers, porters, and lumbermen. These workers, unable to create strong unions, faced low wages, high unemployment and job turnover, economic insecurity, and poverty.

The distribution of these three economic subgroups in the working class can be seen in Table 2. The unskilled are the largest category, accounting for about a third of the city's entire occupational structure in all three years. The low-status skilled represent a little less than one-fifth in 1870, one-quarter in 1880, and one-fifth in 1890. The labor aristocrats are about one-fifth of the distribution in all three census years.

― 9 ―

Table 2. Chicago's Occupational Structure, 1870, 1880, 1890
(in percentages)





Upper middle and upper




Lower middle




Labor aristocracy




Low-status skilled
















Sources. 1870 Census of Population, Table 32, p. 782; 1880 Census of Population, Table 35, p. 566, 1890 Census of Population, Table 118, p. 650.

The relative stability of the percentages in different class groups should not lead to the conclusion that there was little individual mobility from one class to another. These group figures say nothing about individual mobility from group to group. In a period of rapid job growth, as was occurring in the Chicago labor market during this time, stable percentage figures may conceal significant individual mobility.

One striking fact is the tremendous size of the Chicago working class in this period. It represents around 70 percent of the occupational structure in all three census years. There was certainly the potential for the working class to be a major political force in the city based on sheer numbers alone. But that potential may have been reduced by the important economic differences between working-class segments, differences that might be expected to be reflected in political disparities within the class.

Earnings within the working class varied significantly according to sector. Table 3 shows that the mean earnings of the labor aristocrats were approximately $710 per year, compared to $487 for low-status skilled and $376 for the unskilled. Similar but smaller differences occur with regard to family income and savings. The aristocrats managed $752 versus $592 for the low-status skilled and $484 for the unskilled. The family income differences are narrower because those families with lower earnings from the primary wage earner were more likely to seek employment for spouses and children. As far as potential savings—the amount family income ex-

― 10 ―

Table : 3. Earnings of Head of Household, Family Income, and Savings for 1884, by Working-Class Sector
(in dollars)

Working-Class Sector


Family Income


Labor aristocrats




Low-status skilled








Source. 1884 Bureau of Labor Statistics Report.

ceeds expenses—the aristocrats saved around $35 per year, the low-status skilled had an average debt of $1.60, and the unskilled saved around $10. The aristocrats had greater earning power and a better life-style than the low-status skilled and the unskilled.

This three-category variable is an excellent predictor of earnings in the Chicago labor market. For 1884, it had a correlation of .68 with annual earnings (t-statistic of coefficient = 15.42, significant at the .001 level). This result can be interpreted as indicating the crucial role of strong craft unions in elevating the wages of Chicago workers.

Perhaps if industrialization had had a similar or characteristic effect on all or nearly all of the Chicago working class, there might have been a unified working-class response to the problems created by industrialization. But "what if" questions are difficult to answer. In fact, the differences in impact meant that the Chicago working class was economically segmented; different parts of it experienced different kinds of economic problems and had different capacities to respond to them. These disparities limited the possibility of a unified political response to industrialization and made working-class political fragmentation more likely.

The Beginning of the Labor Movement

There was no unified response by Chicago's working class to the problems caused by industrialization. Many workers never became active in labor politics at all. Among workers who did become active in the movement, there were important variations in ap-

― 11 ―

proach. Some argued for reform, saying that the city's economic and political systems could meet the needs of the working class with some minor adjustments; others suggested that only a revolution, a new system, could meet those needs. These differences created severe factionalism that made unified working-class political action difficult at first and later impossible.

The reform tendency was founded in 1864 when a printers' strike led to the formation of the city's first trades assembly. The Morning Post had attempted to hire and train forty women compositors to work at cut rates. Using the exclusive strategy typical of elite craft unions, the Chicago Typographical Union no. 16 decided to strike and boycott the paper; the idea of including the women in the union was never considered (Chicago Typographical Union minutes 1864).

Boycotts require mass support, so the Chicago Typographical Union strikers tried to secure the cooperation of other unions; they called a meeting of all the union members in the city, paying the expenses of hall rent and brass band. Not wishing to alienate their friends in high places, the Chicago Typographical Union invited the mayor of Chicago to preside over the meeting and the editor of the Evening Journal to be the principal speaker (Inland Printer June 1886, 287-88). By the next year, the coalition that was formed as a result of this strike, the Chicago General Trades Assembly, had eighty-five hundred members in twenty-four unions (Pierce 1957, 3:168).

Also founded in 1864 by the Chicago Typographical Union was the Workingman's Advocate, the first significant labor journal in the city.[*] Edited by a leader of the printers union, A. C. Cameron, the Advocate was the primary voice of the Chicago labor movement until it ceased publication in the mid 1870s.

The Trades Assembly and the Advocate did not attempt to challenge the underlying basis of Chicago's economic and political systems. Both had relatively privileged constituencies—the city's best organized, best paid, most stably employed labor aristocrats. The paper and the General Trades Assembly fought for candidates

* The man in the title of the paper and in the name of many of the period's workers associations indicates the discriminatory nature of the movement. There were few attempts to organize women workers but many successful attempts to exclude them from the crafts.

― 12 ―

and for legislation to ameliorate the plight of the workingman in Chicago and not for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism or representative democracy. Variation in economic conditions meant that the trades assembly was sometimes strong, sometimes weak, and sometimes nonexistent; but throughout the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s, the assembly was the crucial advocate of labor reform in the city.

Labor movement factionalism was based on ethnic group membership, not only on economic factors. Many of the city's early unions, the Trades Assembly, and the reform tendency itself were dominated by the native born (Schneirov 1984, 18). Apprenticeships were given primarily to the sons of members or to the sons of members' friends and relatives; women, convicts, children, and non-Anglo immigrants were largely excluded from union membership. An exception was made for those of English, Welsh, and Scottish birth, who were often included in craft unions due to their skilled backgrounds, union organizing experience, and cultural similarity to the native born.

One response by non-Anglo immigrants to their exclusion from the elite native-born unions was to form ethnically based unions in each trade. These ethnic unions remained a crucial part of the labor movement throughout the period, providing an organizing base for an alternative to the Anglo-American labor reform tendency.

The first group to form such unions was the Germans, one of the biggest ethnic groups in the city with large numbers in the skilled working class and a tradition of guild organization. As early as the 1850s, Germans formed unions of the coach makers, carpenters, tailors, and cabinetmakers; and the German Trades Assembly actually was founded seven years before the largely Anglo General Trades Assembly. The German assembly had a membership of one thousand in 1865 (Pierce 1957, 2:166-67), and two thousand members and a weekly paper by the spring of 1869 (Schneirov 1984, 37).

Certainly, there were some German advocates of labor reform. But from early on, many Germans were sympathetic to ideologies that asserted the need for more basic changes in the economic and political systems. Marxist ideas gained popularity because a number of political refugees of the German workers revolt of 1848 settled in Chicago. Among these "forty-eighters" was Josef Weydemeyer, a friend and correspondent of Karl Marx. These Germans published

― 13 ―

a Marxist paper called Der Proletarier as early as 1853 (Pierce 1957, 2:186). The German Trades Assembly became an important forum for these revolutionary pronouncements, as did the German Social Democratic Turnverein, which were German nationalist gymnastic societies.

In 1858, representatives of German workers in the city appeared at the first congress of the International Workingmen's Association, which had been organized in New York the year before. The platform passed at the conference held that the right of revolution was guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence and that scientific, technical, commercial, and industrial progress had reached a stage that necessitated a change in the American form of government. They demanded the right to organize unions, protested against the treatment of labor by capital, and attacked political party platforms and private charity programs as offering no remedies for the working class (Pierce 1957, 2:186). As early as the 1860s, there were important political differences between organized Anglo-American and German workers.

Also in the sixties, a new ideology, called Lassalleanism, began to compete with Marxism for the allegiance of the city's German workers. Lassalle stressed political action as the key to the emancipation of the working class and scorned trade unions as impotent, even irrelevant. Political action was seen as crucial because it could force the government to grant aid to workers' producer cooperatives, making these worker-owned institutions competitive with existing capitalist-owned firms. Eventually, Lassalle proposed, workers would control entire industries and markets, especially if the government could be forced to break up the monopolies that were beginning to dominate some industries (Foner 1955, 2:414).

Marxists rejected this analysis, arguing that a workers party should not be formed until it could successfully influence elections and that the party would not be able to do that until it was based in a strong trade union movement. So there was a running, seesaw battle from the sixties until the eighties in the Chicago labor movement between Lassalleans and Marxists, that is, between political action advocates and economic action advocates. Which group dominated depended on the business cycle. During expansion periods, trade unions had many members and were strong because of the greater demand for labor; this led to the domination of the

― 14 ―

Marxist position. During depressions, Lassallean ideas were dominant because weak unions rapidly disintegrated, economic action was precluded, and political action was viewed as the only viable remedy.

Certainly, the primary appeal of Lassalleanism was to German workers. But some of the native born, most notably A. C. Cameron, of the printers union, flirted with Lassallean ideas (Pierce 1957, 2:188). Marxism, however, with its much more critical view of the capitalist economic and political system, never achieved significant allegiance from the native born.

Thus, the organizational and ideological context of the labor movement in the early seventies was as follows. Anglo-American skilled workers, that is, the native and British born, were organized in a trades assembly that advocated mild legislative reform as a response to the plight of the working class. Some progressive Anglo reformers advocated stronger measures such as cooperation to deal with the workers' plight. German workers were organized into the German Trades Assembly; Marxist, Lassallean, and reform ideologies and organizations competed for the allegiance of these German workers. The unskilled, including many of the city's third most numerous ethnic group, the Irish, were largely unorganized.

Early Response to the Depression: The Unemployed Marches and the International

Debates between advocates of reform versus revolution, between Anglo-American and German workers, were abstract until the mid 1870s, when a serious depression created severe economic problems for the working class. The depression, lasting from 1873 to 1879, resulted in a large number of business failures, and each new victim took with it many working-class jobs. As Pierce (1957, 3: 240-41) describes it:

Skilled and unskilled alike were thrown out of work, and where employees were retained, reductions in wages ensued. The growth of industry, which had been stimulated by the city's rebuilding [after the 1871 Chicago fire], stopped dead in its tracks. Closing banks swept away the savings of thrifty thousands, and even the rich were touched by the palsying depression.

― 15 ―

Figure 1.
Chicago business cycle, 1870-1885: Number of employees and total wages
in manufacturing.  Source. A.T. Andreas, History of Chicago, vol. 3
(Chicago: Andreas Publishing, 1884), pp. 714-16.

The trends in business activity can be seen clearly in Figure 1, which shows the number of employees and total wages in manufacturing establishments in the city for 1870 to 1885. Booms affected the city from 1870 to 1873 and from 1879 to 1884. A depression from 1873 to 1879 is clearly shown, as is the recession that began in 1884.

Prices were unstable as well. As can be seen in Figure 2, the effect of the depression was partially mitigated by falling prices from 1873 through 1878. But inflation often ate into any wage gains that the working class made during business expansions, such as during a boom beginning in 1879. From 1879 to 1882, wages re-

― 16 ―

Figure 2.
United States price index, 1870-1886.

Source. Wesley J. Skogan, Chicago Since 1840: A Time Series Data Handbook
(Champaign, Ill.: Institute of Government and Public Affairs, 1976), Table 2, p. 21.
a 1959 = 100

mained fairly stable while food prices and overall living costs increased at a rate of up to 33 percent a year (Pierce 1957, 3:239).

The 1873 depression clearly threw many out of work; a study by the Relief and Aid Society in early 1874 found a 37 percent unemployment rate among the non-building trades. This means that the actual unemployment rate was probably even higher because the construction trades were recognized to have had the highest rate of

― 17 ―

joblessness (Schneirov 1975, 184). The most important result of this was to destroy many of the city's unions; unemployed workers do not pay union dues. By January 1874, there were only eleven mostly Anglo-American unions left in the city (Schneirov 1984, 43-44).

Only one union affiliated with the Marxist International Workingmen's Association, the German Carpenters and Joiners Union, was still in existence by this time. But some of the Marxists had formed a political club, the Social Political Workingmen's Union, in 1870; and it began to respond to the economic crisis with political action. Apparently this club had no Anglo-American members; it originally had four hundred members in three sections: one German, one French, and one Scandinavian (Schneirov 1975). By 1873, it had five hundred members in six sections: three German, one French, one Scandinavian, and one Polish.

On the advice of the leaders of the International in New York, the Chicago section organized a movement for the relief of the unemployed. They called for a meeting at a German Turner hall on West Twelfth Street on December 21, 1873 (Hillquit 1977, 183; Pierce 1957, 3: 241). But even this large hall was not large enough; five to seven thousand largely foreign-born workers packed it, and many were forced to wait outside. Speeches were made in German, Swedish, Polish, French, and English, but the first speaker was German, perhaps reflecting the high proportion of Germans in the audience. He expressed militant sentiments, maintaining that charity was inadequate and that it was high time a laborer became something other than a machine. "Our aristocratic rulers and manufacturers do not care whether laborers in the city die of starvation," he continued. "We must stand together and show the bloated aristocracy that laborers have some rights that must be respected" (Chicago Tribune December 22, 1873, 11). A Frenchman argued that it was not the workers' fault that they had nothing and the capitalists had everything. The laws were made for the aristocrats, not for the laborers. Workers must demand their rights. They were strangled by the biased press, by the bourgeoisie, and by the priests, all of whom did everything in their power to prevent the emancipation of the working classes (Chicago Tribune December 22, 1873).

Following a model provided by the national office of the International, the provisional committee formed by the workers re-

― 18 ―

solved to demand "(1) work for all that are out of employment and able to work, on an eight hour per day basis; (2) advances to those able to support themselves; (3) a working class committee to be appointed to oversee the relief effort in order to insure that aid go only to those in real need; and (4) the use of city credit to obtain relief funds" (Foner 1955, 1:445). There was loud applause and cheers for these resolutions; many of the workers approved of them.

Finally, there was a proposal to assemble the next night to march to the city council to pressure the council members to meet these demands. The Social Political Workingmen's Union planned to present six thousand signatures of unemployed workers—what they claimed was one-quarter of the unemployed in the city at this time—to the mayor and city council (Chicago Tribune December 23, 1873).

The procession took place as scheduled. The Tribune reported that there were twenty thousand marchers. Several dozen locked arms and led their fellow workers; two had flags; one had a drum. As Currey (1912, 2: 364-65) puts it, "The whole working class population seemed magically to have been drawn together; there appeared to be no leaders but the men fell into orderly lines; and they marched sometimes hand in hand as quietly as a funeral procession to City Hall." Workers carried placards with such sentiments as "Work or Bread!" "War to Idleness!" "Death to Destitution!" "One for All and All for One!" "United We Stand, Divided We Fall!" "Unity Gives Strength!"

The orderly crowd was unable to get close to city hall because three hundred police had many of the streets leading to it barricaded, but the demands were presented to the council nevertheless. The mayor and council assured the workers' representatives that they would respond to their grievances and resolutions; they appointed a committee to discuss the disbursement of funds to the destitute with the main organization responsible for poor relief in the city, the privately sponsored Relief and Aid Society.

The workers' view of the Relief and Aid Society was not a positive one. They charged that the society had taken many of the contributions for the relief of fire sufferers and had distributed them among its own members or to those with connections in high places (Flinn 1973, 147). Over $1 million had been contributed to the so-

― 19 ―

ciety, but as of late 1873, $700,000 had not been publicly distributed (Foner 1955, 1: 447). The workers committee demanded a meeting with society officials; the audience was at first denied, but the appearance of one thousand workers outside their offices changed their minds (Foner 1955, 1: 447). Following the meeting, the Relief and Aid Society announced that it would provide relief for the families of unemployed workers; 9,719 families were eventually provided with aid. But because no public jobs were ever offered by the mayor or city council, this was viewed as only a minor victory for those who had marched to protest unemployment (Pierce, 1957, 3: 242; Schneirov 1975, 184).

This first major militant demonstration by the Chicago working class was not an indication of class unity; it did not include significant numbers of native or British-born workers. The organizational work and hundreds of the participants came from the Workingmen's Union, which did not have an American section. The Tribune reported that the native-born workers were shocked by the demonstration, that it "fell upon the American portion of the population like lightning from a clear sky" (December 23, 1873, cited in Pierce 1957, 3: 241). The political differences between the Anglo-American and other foreign-born workers continued as the latter organized the city's first labor party.

The Workingmen's Party of Illinois

The unemployed marches continued throughout January. But many of the workers were dissatisfied with their inability to influence city officials through direct action. Naturally, they began to discuss the possibility of replacing those elected officials with others more sympathetic to their interests. Many suggested forming a political party to represent the interests of the rapidly growing working class in the city. On Sunday, January 11, 1874, two mass meetings were held by Chicago's workers to establish the Workingmen's Party of Illinois (WPI) (Chicago Tribune January 12, 1874).

The party represented a turn toward Lassalleanism and away from trade union action and organizing in the International. By March 1874, the WPI had twenty-two sections and seven thousand members. These sections generally consisted of workers of one nationality or language group. The party was overwhelmingly Ger-

― 20 ―

man; fifteen of the twenty-two sections were German, three were Bohemian,[*] three were Polish, and only one was American. There were no Irish or Scandinavian sections.

Not only the rank and file was overwhelmingly foreign born; the executive committee was foreign born, with only one exception. Moderate Anglo-American labor reformers were hostile to the WPI proposal that the government ought to provide employment to Chicago workers. As A. C. Cameron argued when the WPI was formed:

In a republican government, the State is not bound to find employment for the citizen. Here we have all the incentives to industry, frugality, and perseverance. If we were to admit the correctness of the theory that the State is bound to find employment for the citizen, we would destroy the noblest ambition in man, that of independence and he would become a simple pensioner. (Workingman's Advocate January 17, 1874, cited in Schneirov 1984, 63)

In an atmosphere of great hope, the party nominated several candidates for city council in north side, predominantly German wards. In the spring elections of 1874, the ticket got fewer than a thousand votes; in the fall of 1874, it received 785 votes, not even close to the twenty-five hundred party members were certain they had cast (Commons et al. 1918, 2: 229-30). The Vorbote claimed vote fraud (not the last time it would do so), and many in the party became disillusioned with electoral efforts. Eight sections of the party dissolved in the next four months, and there was no further participation in elections until spring 1877, when the party polled around six hundred fifty votes (Schneirov 1975, 13).

Typically, when political action failed, the pendulum moved back in the direction of the Marxists, with the workers again devoting themselves to trade union action in order to provide the foundation upon which political action could be based. This time was no exception. The Lassallean editor of the Vorbote was soon replaced with a Marxist, and the two remaining sections of the International were fused with the remnants of the WPI (Commons et al. 1918, 2: 230). This happened nationally as well; on July 15, 1876, delegates from the International met in Philadelphia and dissolved their or-

* Bohemians were immigrants from that part of Europe now known as Czechoslovakia.

― 21 ―

ganization. They then joined the Workingmen's Party of the United States (WPUS), which was established several days later. The WPUS adopted a trade union emphasis consistent with Marxism, and Chicago—with 593 party members and the four thousand circulation German-language weekly Vorbote —became a center of WPUS activity (Foner 1976, 18).

The Marxists found plenty of economic action to support as strikes in 1875 and 1876 became increasingly militant. Violent strikes by outdoor laborers—mainly Irish coal heavers and brickyard workers and Bohemian lumberyard workers (called lumber shovers )—were opportunities for organizational work. The unskilled laborers had no scarce skills and no strong craft unions; the only alternative was to gather in large crowds to verbally and physically intimidate strikebreakers, to try to prevent scabs from replacing them on the job. Such mass strikes (Schneirov 1984, 147) had limited aims (usually higher wages) and were conducted by weak temporary economic organizations.

The common pattern was for workers in one company to collectively agree to strike. Those workers would form a band, arm themselves with clubs and other primitive weapons, and proceed to other unskilled workplaces—brickyards, lumberyards, coal-yards—where they would convince workers to quit work and persuade employers to shut down their operations. Because the unskilled lived near their jobs, these mass strikes often mobilized community residents as well as workers; women, who did not necessarily work in the yards, often joined in crowd actions designed to enforce the strikes.

Skilled workers, especially Anglo-American trade unionists, showed little interest in these strikes. But the largely German WPI tried to support the unskilled strikers. Speaking at a strike rally of several thousand at a Bohemian Turner hall, a WPI leader suggested that the workers ought to drill with wooden rifles if they could not get real ones; when the time came, they would be able to acquire muskets and cartridges (Schneirov 1975, 11). Another suggested that a proletarian revolution would come "within a few decades if the ruling classes threatened to suffocate the labor movement" (Pierce 1957, 3: 243).

Physical intimidation played an important role in the mass strike model of economic action, giving both employers and the police an

― 22 ―

easy excuse to retaliate in kind. Confrontations between police and crowds of foreign-born workers were frequent by the mid 1870s. In 1876, a lumberyard owner shot and killed a striker and wounded three others attempting to prevent crowds of as many as fifteen hundred workers from enforcing a strike by Bohemian lumber shovers. When seven strike leaders were arrested, a contingent of four hundred marched to a police station to secure their release. The mayor was forced to close all gun shops when a committee of workers attempted to secure weapons. That same year striking brick makers gathered in Bridgeport to march to the North Side to tear down a prison where convicts were making bricks under contract. The police arrested twenty-five to prevent this march: eight Irish, five Germans, four native born, and the rest Scandinavians, Bohemians, and Poles (Schneirov 1975).

Some German workers responded to police repression by forming armed worker resistance groups called the Lehr und Wehr Verein (Educational and Resistance Societies) (David 1958, 57). Bohemian workers soon followed the lead of the Germans, forming their own society, called the Lincoln Guards. These militia units drilled regularly, practiced bayoneting, picket duty, deployment, skirmishing, and shooting in formation. The native born did not participate in these associations, and few of the city's Irish residents did either. These working-class units were more significant for the anxiety they caused the city's middle and upper classes than as actual military units; they represented little threat to the authorities because they had a peak strength of three hundred (Illinois State House of Representatives 1879, 39).

Although the strikes of the unskilled provided a few opportunities for political agitation by the mainly German members and leadership of the WPUS, the party did not have any real influence on the mass of Chicago workers until 1877, the year of the great railroad strike. As George Schilling, a party leader at the time, put it:

The daily press paid little or no attention to us in those days [before 1877]. We called public meetings in all parts of the city, but the masses were slow to move. Oft-times, after posting bills and paying for advertising, we were also compelled to contribute our last nickel for hall rent, and walk home instead of ride. At all these meetings A. R. Parsons was the only English speaker.

― 23 ―

Our influence as a party, however, both in Chicago and elsewhere, was very limited until the great railroad strike of 1877. Before this the labor question was of little or no importance to the average citizen. The large mass of our people contented themselves with the belief that in this great and free Republic there was not room for real complaint. The idea that all Americans were on an equal footing seemed to be recognized as an incontrovertible fact in the halls of legislation, in the press, and the pulpit. (Parsons 1889, xvi-xvii)

July 1877: Railroad Strike and General Strike

The strikes of the mid 1870s were but harbingers of much more serious events in 1877.[*] The depression had not abated, and the railroads decided to try to recoup some of their losses by cutting workers' wages. By 1877, most railroad workers had already suffered wage cuts of from 21 to 37 percent; still, late in May, several railroads announced that they would cut wages and salaries another 10 percent (Foner 1977, 28). On June 2, railroad workers formed the secret Trainmen's Union, an organization that aimed to organize all railroad workers for the sole purpose of carrying out a national railroad strike. The union successfully recruited all but the elite engineers and conductors along the entire Pennsylvania Railroad as well as other lines (Pennsylvania State Senate and House of Representatives 1878).

When the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad announced a 10 percent wage cut on July 16, 1877, the local section of the Trainmen's Union in Martinsburg, West Virginia, struck. The strike soon spread along the B & O line and then to other lines through Cumberland, Maryland, Newark, Ohio, and then to Pittsburgh and Chicago. Attempts to suppress the strike were unsuccessful because the local militia often threw down their arms or, as in the case of the Philadelphia militia, were driven from the city. Federal troops were called out in both Maryland and Pennsylvania to try to end the strike in those states (Foner 1977; Schneirov 1975, 14).

* The following account of the 1877 strike is based on a number of sources including Foner (1977) and a reading of the city's daily papers for the period. But I am most indebted to Richard Schneirov (1975), who has provided the most detailed account of the events that took place in Chicago during the strike.

― 24 ―

Railroad workers in Chicago were discussing the strike two days after strike activity had begun in the east; most wanted higher wages (Chicago Tribune July 19 and 22, 1877). As the Tribune reported, "All hands felt hard towards the railroad company because they had reduced the poorest paid workingmen and left the President, Managers, superintendents and foremen alone" (July 22, 1877, 6). But the strike was mobilized primarily by the unskilled and semiskilled, predominantly Irish track laborers, switchmen, firemen, and brakemen. The more conservative engineers and conductors brotherhoods—dominated by the native born—spoke against the strike and never joined it (Chicago Tribune July 23, 1877).

The WPUS was quick to jump on the strike bandwagon. The party's national executive committee met and issued a directive to all local sections to support the railroad strike and to demand both government ownership of the railroads and telegraph companies and the eight-hour day (Schneirov 1975, 16). The Chicago section began agitation immediately, talking to railroaders on Friday, July 20, advocating a strike, and assuring the workers of their full support.

On Saturday night, the WPUS held a rally in a vacant lot at Twelfth and Halsted attended by over one thousand workers. Huge banners were displayed reading "Down with the Wages of Slavery!" "Why Does Our Production Cause Starvation!" "We Want Work, Not Charity!" WPUS leader Albert Parsons—the best known native-born socialist in the city—asked the crowd, "If the proprietor has a right to fix wages and say what labor is worth, then aren't we bound hand and foot—as slaves? We should be perfectly content with a bowl of rice and a rat a week!" He told them, "if the laboring man agrees to work 12 to 15 hours for the bosses and allows them to take five-sixths of the profit, then the laboringmen are themselves to blame" (Chicago Tribune July 23, 1877, 17). Parsons closed with the Lassallean demand for worker cooperatives and exhorted the working class to organize. They must "strike while the anvil is hot"; they must follow the example of the eastern strikers. Parsons, a veteran of the movement to free the slaves, often used the slavery analogy to describe the plight of Chicago's working class. An inspiring orator, he was cheered and applauded on this and on many future occasions.

― 25 ―

The strike began as expected on Monday, July 23, when many of the city's semiskilled switchmen walked off their jobs. The city's business class and the mayor reacted instantaneously. Many of the railroad lines serving the city rescinded the wage cut to avoid a strike. Many others stopped all freight runs, thus locking out their employees to avoid strikes and property damage (Chicago Tribune July 24, 1877).

These actions were effective in preventing a militant strike by railroad workers in Chicago. When the wage cuts were rescinded, the railroaders saw no reason to continue the job action; by the middle of the week, most said they wished to return to work so they could support their families (Chicago Tribune July 25 and July 27, 1877).

But railroaders who wished to return to work were unable to do so. Crowds of less skilled foreign-born workers prevented the railroads from operating and had closed down most of the workplaces along the Chicago River as well. Railroad workers reported to the Tribune that two-thirds of those who had intimidated them into quitting work were not railroad workers and that there were no attempts on any day by railroad workers to induce non-railroad workers to quit work (Chicago Tribune July 25, 1877). The railroaders maintained that they would "protect the corporations' property with sword and gun if it became necessary," publicly deprecated all attempts at violation of the law, and said that they could not see what interest the "rabble" had in their affairs. One switchman said: "We are afraid to work. The mob has intimidated us. They have sent word that we must quit work or suffer. But we want to work if we can only be protected" (Chicago Tribune July 27, 1877, 3).

This was no longer a railroad strike at all, but rather a near general strike against the low wages and massive unemployment suffered by unskilled workers in foreign-born enclaves near the Chicago River. Through the efforts of crowds of less skilled foreign-born workers-mainly the outdoor laborers who had been active in the 1875 and 1876 strikes such as the lumber shovers, brickyard workers, and coal heavers—the strike had spread well beyond the railroad yards to the industrial areas of the city.

The WPUS, believing that perhaps the revolution was at hand, lost no time in trying to expand the strike; it held a mass meeting as

― 26 ―

early as Monday night. The leaflet announcing the meeting ended: "Every day, every hour that we remain disunited only helps our oppressors to bind more firmly the chains around us. Throughout the entire land our brothers are calling upon us to rise and protect our labor. For the sake of our wives and children and our own self-respect, LET US WAIT NO LONGER! ORGANIZE AT ONCE!" (Chicago Tribune July 23, 1877, 9). The meeting was massive; estimates of the crowd ranged from fifteen to forty thousand. Six speaker stands were erected because a single speaker could not be heard by so many. Workers from all over the city carried torches and signs in various languages, including German, Scandinavian, and French. The banners read "Life by Labor or Death by Fight!" "United We Stand, Divided We Fall!" The crowd was militant, and those who suggested moderation were shouted off the speaker stands (Chicago Tribune July 24, 1877; Schneirov 1975, 19).

Again Albert Parsons spoke, denouncing the actions of the monopolies and Jay Gould, W. H. Vanderbilt, and other capitalists. He asked how the workers could feed and clothe their families on $. 90 a day and suggested the workers act in a determined way to maintain their rights (Chicago Tribune July 24, 1877). He concluded:

It rests upon you to say whether we shall allow the capitalist to go on exploiting us, or whether we shall organize ourselves. Will you organize? (Cries of "WE WILL!") Well, then enroll your names in the grand army of labor, and if the capitalist engages in warfare against our rights, then we shall resist him with all the means that God has given us. (Loud and prolonged applause!) (Chicago Daily News July 24, 1877; cited in Foner 1977, 143-44)

In the most militant statement of the night, WPUS activist John McAuliffe suggested that low wages, strikes, poverty, and greed were all effects of the capitalist system. The solution was to take control of the government, by force if necessary. Workers from the crowd also spoke from the stands. One Irish Civil War veteran said: "We fought for the Negro and brought him up to the level of the white man, why not do something for the workingman? We fought for the big bugs, but what have the capitalists done for us? We must bring the capitalists down to our level with powder and ball!" (Schneirov 1975, 19-20). The crowd cheered wildly, and

― 27 ―

someone yelled, "We are the boys to give it to them!" (Schneirov 1975, 19-20).

A reading of the WPUS strike platform, which included nationalization of key industries, organization of unions, and the eight-hour day, was enthusiastically received. The meeting ended with three cheers for shorter hours and better pay, three cheers for the strikers, and the singing of the "Marseillaise" (Chicago Tribune July 24, 1877).

On Tuesday, committees of workers began to roam the streets, closing all rail lines to freight service, then spreading the strike to other industries. Onlookers in foreign-born neighborhoods near the city's industrial center cheered these committees. Many workers visited by the committees agreed to join the strike; railroad officials or the managers of other firms often closed their places of business as the crowds approached to avoid property damage (Schneirov 1975, 23).

Schneirov estimates that a minimum of five to six thousand workers participated in the crowd actions in and around the railroad yards and the city's West Side industrial district by the end of Tuesday. Thousands more were out on strike or had been locked out by their employers. By evening, most of the West Side factories and lumberyards and nearly all the railroad freight runs in the city were shut down (Foner 1977, 145; Schneirov 1975, 26).

On Tuesday afternoon, the WPUS executive committee met to discuss its response to the strikes and crowd actions. Desperately trying to organize the strike under its banner, the party called for a meeting at which striker delegates would plan further action. But such organization was difficult to attain because those active in the strike—the unskilled—did not have preexisting economic organizations, and those workers who had organizational resources—the skilled—were not active in the strike. Only fifty-two delegates came to the WPUS meeting, and few delegates attended subsequent gatherings. The WPUS never had control of the strike.

The workplace closings had been accomplished by loosely organized groups of unskilled workers supported by a few WPI socialists but not by the craft unions. The lack of action by the predominantly Anglo-American Chicago Typographical Union no. 16 was typical. The printers, with the sole exception of Albert Parsons,

― 28 ―

did not participate in crowd actions, offered no money for strike support, and passed no resolution of solidarity (Chicago Typographical Union minutes 1877). Labor reformers in the city never endorsed the general strike or engaged in any actions to support it.

On Tuesday, a meeting of labor reformers endorsed the railroad strike but withheld support for the general strike (Schneirov 1984, 67). Not until Thursday did a small number of German skilled unions begin to discuss the strike, the eight-hour day, and the possibility of demanding pay increases.

This movement was mobilized by unskilled residents of the city's foreign-born neighborhoods; it was not a class-conscious movement by Chicago's entire working class. Anglo-American workers gave the strike little support. Schneirov (1975) found that of the 132 arrested during the strike, the majority of crowd members were foreign born: Only 15 percent had English names, 37-45 percent had German or Bohemian names, 34-42 percent had Irish names, 3 percent were Polish, and 2 percent were Scandinavian.

Schneirov also considered which wards spawned crowds: The fifth through the eighth and the fourteenth through the seventeenth predominated; those were the most heavily foreign-born wards in the city at this time. Finally, newspapers listed the addresses of those killed Wednesday night and Thursday. Twenty-seven percent of those addresses were in the seventh and eighth wards, near the Bohemian community where the Halsted viaduct conflicts occurred. Sixty-seven percent came from the fifth and sixth wards, which were predominantly German, Irish, and Bohemian (Schneirov 1975, 54).

The fact that this was a movement by only one part of Chicago's working class made it easier for the city's well-organized political and economic elite to crush the strike. An unnamed business leader paid for eight hundred special police, and the militia was ordered to its armories. The mayor met with businessmen, police, and militia commanders and issued a statement calling for neighborhood patrols to preserve order. He also required that all saloons be closed, ostensibly to prevent drunken rioting; but another reason may have been to prevent striking workers from utilizing the saloons as meeting places. He ordered all gun dealers to remove firearms from their shops, and all armories were placed under guard to pre-

― 29 ―

vent workers from obtaining firearms (Foner 1977, 142; Schneirov 1975, 17-18).

The authorities had found the strategy that would end the strike by the middle of the week. Three to five thousand workers had gathered for a rally at Market and Madison on Wednesday evening. During the first speeches, a group of police arrived and began to club the workers indiscriminately, forcing the crowd to disperse. There followed numerous assaults on peaceful meetings. As the Inter-Ocean reported, "When the mob was attacked, except in one or two instances, they were attacked for assembling in crowds and not for any unlawful acts they were committing" (July 28, 1877; cited in Schneirov 1975, 51). From this point on, the conflict deteriorated into a violent battle with police, a battle the unarmed workers could not win. The continuing pattern of police violence intimidated the socialists as well as the strikers; the WPUS was never able to hold another mass meeting.

The authorities did not even tolerate indoor discussions. A meeting of three hundred and fifty cigar makers concerning a strike for the eight-hour day was broken up, the coopers narrowly escaped the same kind of attack, and thirteen tailors were arrested for simply discussing the strike (Schneirov 1975, 45).

At the Twelfth and Halsted Streets Turner hall, two to three hundred journeymen German cabinetmakers were meeting to consider the eight-hour day question and some of their other grievances. A group of police, both regulars and specially appointed, attacked this meeting without provocation. They entered the hall and began firing and clubbing everyone in sight, killing one and wounding several others. The Chicago Tribune reported that the workers "ran hither and yon like rats in a pit" (Foner 1977, 153). Two policemen then took turns beating a man pinned to a table while a sergeant took potshots at passersby in the street.

When the police left, the National Guard arrived and, with drawn bayonets, drove everyone in the neighborhood into their homes (Foner 1977, 153). The police involved in the incident were later tried, convicted of inciting a criminal riot, and fined six cents each (Schneirov 1975, 45). Both this event and the subsequent trial of the perpetrators in 1879 were covered extensively in the German press (Illinois Staats Zeitung April 26, 1879). The Lehr und

― 30 ―

Wehr Verein gained recruits as a result of such unprovoked attacks by the authorities.

By the middle of the week, the conflict had moved into the residential neighborhoods of the foreign born, and they began to fight back more aggressively. As the strike moved into the community, women—many of whom worked in less skilled jobs at home or in neighborhood workplaces—became more prominent in the crowd actions. The conservative Inter-Ocean blamed women for many of the most militant worker actions during the course of the strike (Foner 1977, 154-55).

On Thursday, three thousand women and teenagers from the surrounding neighborhoods gathered along Halsted Street and began cutting telegraph wires and damaging streetcar lines. The police soon arrived and attempted to break up the crowd by charging and clubbing everyone in sight. But the crowd soon grew to five thousand and refused to disperse. Angered by the police actions of the previous days, the crowd met the police with a volley of stones. The police began to fire at will and dropped many, but they were outnumbered and forced to retreat. A squad of reinforcements arrived, and the police attacked again, killing several crowd members (Schneirov 1975, 41).

Ten thousand packed the same area the next day, but the workers and residents had few guns and could not confront the police directly. They resorted instead to guerilla warfare; when police or cavalry approached, the crowd would briefly disperse and then close in behind them, throwing stones and pieces of wood. When the police charged, the crowd would run into alleyways. Small groups of workers used the rooftops to shower the police and troops with missiles. Neighborhood residents helped the injured and refused to tell the authorities where the wounded were hiding. Police and troops were routinely denied food and water. Crowd members also attempted to liberate captured workers, sometimes successfully.

By this time, the police actions had had very serious consequences. Between twenty-eight and thirty-five workers had been killed and approximately two hundred wounded seriously. The lopsided nature of the conflict can be seen in the fact that no police or troops were killed during the week, and only eighteen were injured, none seriously (Schneirov 1975, 46). The workers and neigh-

― 31 ―

borhood residents, unable to acquire guns, finally gave up their attempts to confront the police; the cost in killed and maimed was too high, and they had no prospect of victory.

The great strike was essentially over by Friday, when most of the railroad workers went back to work (Schneirov 1975, 75). The daily papers and employers showed that they understood that this had not been a railroad strike. The Tribune praised the railroad workers for their loyalty to the companies (July 28, 1877), Illinois Central management allowed full pay for the time lost by its employees, and other railroads followed their lead (Lightner 1977, 201).

Socialist Electoral Campaigns

Finding again that elected officials had failed to take their side in a conflict, the socialists moved back into the electoral arena. The WPUS nominated a full slate of county officers in the November 1877 elections and did quite well. The continuing depression and the memory of police repression of workers just a few months before undoubtedly helped the party's candidate for treasurer Frank Stauber net 6,592 votes, 13.7 percent of the total votes cast. He received over 20 percent of the vote in the seventh, fifteenth, and sixteenth wards, over 30 percent in the fifth and fourteenth, and over 40 percent in the sixth (see Table 4). This success again led to the strengthening of the political action viewpoint within the party.

At the next national WPUS convention, the party name was changed to the Socialist Labor party (SLP). It was determined that all sections should form state organizations and hold conventions before each election; the SLP was to be an electoral machine. One crumb was thrown to the trade unionists: A resolution was passed suggesting that the party "should maintain friendly relations with the trade unions and should promote their formation upon socialist principles" (WPUS Proceedings 1877; cited in Commons et al. 1918, 2:278-79).

Party reorganization allowed the English-speaking section and other political action advocates in the Chicago SLP to wage a strong campaign in the spring 1878 election. Prospects seemed so bright that even the largely German Marxists and the Vorbote accepted that political action would be the SLP direction in the near future (Commons et al. 1918, 2: 279). The city's trade unions also

― 32 ―

Table 4.Socialist Vote for County Treasurer, Fall 1877, by Ward


Number of Votes















Zubieta Anallely Part 1 – Complete the following chart using information from the lesson.Category North SouthWest Midwest Political The people would form labor unions in that way they could get higher wages and working conditions. Miners and steelworkers were some of the first workers to use the strike as abargaining tool against business owners.The laws that allowedsegregation and discrimination made it hard for the southern African Americans to enjoy the transportation of the second industrial revolution.Discriminatory laws and riots due to increased tension between immigrants and white settlers.Social Reform movements raised in Ohio and Illinois. In some rural areasthe farmers also became politically involved. SocialWealthy entrepreneurs wanted to increase profits. Miners and steelworkers were some of the first workers to use thestrike as a bargaining tool against business owners.The post-Civil WarSouth continued tohave problems related to race. New laws from segregation made it hard for southern African Americans to enjoy the improved and rebuilt transportation.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *