Blog Knights of Labor:
Workers have built some of the strongest organizations in the country, but unions have often struggled for life against well-organized, militant employers, and racial and ethnic diversity has shaped the movement's character as much as the dynamics of social class.
How do we explain the broader patterns of labor organization in terms of the city's distinctive characteristics? What factors contributed to the rise, changing character, and decline of the movement, and what are its prospects at the dawning of a new century?
Union Tailor Shop, n. With the shifting composition of its working-class population and the diversity of its metropolitan economy, Chicago has presented both enormous challenges and special advantages for labor organizers.
Heavy immigration from the mid-nineteenth century through the early s, and then again in the postwar era and especially after the Immigration Act ofrequired labor to carry its message in diverse languages to people from vastly different cultures. Likewise, the Great Migration of black southerners, immigration from Mexico and other Latin American nations, Puerto Rican migration, and the influx of East and South Asian immigrants in the late twentieth century have forced organizers to confront race issues for most of the movement's history.
Yet racial and ethnic minorities have often played key roles in building and transforming the movement. The city's largest employers in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century were building construction and maintenance companies, railroadsand a range Child labor in early 1900 s manufacturing concerns characterized by increasing concentration in a few large firms—slaughtering and meatpackingmetalworking, garment manufacturing, iron and steel production, lumber and woodworking, electrical manufacturing, and a variety of food processing factories.
Chicago also built a large printing and publishing industry and, as a corporate, legal, and medical center, claimed an increasingly large population of white-collar and technical workers beginning in the late nineteenth century. Immigrants and workers of color often have been more difficult to organize, not because of any intrinsic qualities, but because they have tended to be among the least skilled and the poorest paid—and as such particularly vulnerable in periods of economic crisis and employers' offensives.
One of the Chicago movement's distinctions, then, was that well into the mid-twentieth century it generated considerable power amid this social, cultural, and occupational complexity.
Another was the movement's division between conservative and often corrupt elements, concentrated disproportionately in the Building Trades Council, and progressive, often radical elements. In the late nineteenth century the radicals were represented above all by the German -speaking Marxists; in the early twentieth century, by the mainstream labor progressives around Chicago Federation of Labor CFL president John Fitzpatrick ; and in the Great Depression and war years, by the activists involved in the creation of the new Congress of Industrial Organizations CIO unions.
Such progressives provided the movement with an aggressive, innovative leadership that helps to explain organized labor's relative success in Chicago.
They were particularly important in expanding the movement to those otherwise left behind—women, the unskilled, and racial minorities. As elsewhere, skilled workers led the move to permanent organization.
In the s and s, printers, shipwrights and caulkers, iron molders, machinists and blacksmiths, and others established craft unions that were often linked to some of the earliest national organizations.
By the late s Chicago workers supported more than 20 unions aimed at higher wages and shorter working hours; a lively newspaper, the Workingman's Advocate; numerous producers' cooperatives; and a network of Eight Hour Leagues which organized in municipal, state, and congressional elections, winning both city and state eight-hour laws.
As with later legislative successes, however, the laws worked only where unions were strong enough to enforce them, a rare scenario during the —77 depression.
Until the s, the city's unskilled— IrishBohemian, and Polish lumber shovers, brickyard workers, coal heavers, and construction and track laborers—found their voice only sporadically, often in violent strikes and riots, as in the railroad strike.
The big breakthrough, however, came in the organization of the Irish and other unskilled workers in the ranks of the Knights of Laborby far the largest and most important late-nineteenth-century labor reform movement. As craftsmen poured into the Knights' trade assemblies and laborers into its mixed assemblies, the movement grew from 2, in to more than 40, by Led by Elizabeth Rodgers, the Knights also organized thousands of women.
Working together, the radical Central Labor Union's German and Bohemian socialists and anarcho-syndicalists, the immigrant and native-born craftsmen in the mainstream Trades and Labor Assembly, and the Knights created perhaps the strongest and most radical movement in the United States.
They sponsored labor newspapers in various languages, a vibrant cooperative movement, and a United Labor Party which seemed poised to win control of the city government. More than 40, joined a general strike for the eight-hour day in Mayand throughout the world Chicago became a great symbol of labor solidarity.
A number of factors explain the destruction of this movement. First, a series of crushing defeats, particularly among the unskilled in the stockyards and elsewhere, reversed the movement's expansion.
Second, internal conflicts, especially within the Knights of Labor, eviscerated the movement's vitality. Finally, the radical socialist and anarchist wing, especially strong in Chicago and a key to the organization of unskilled immigrants, was decimated in the political repression following the events at Haymarket Square in By many of the radicals were in prison, blacklisted, or dead, while the Knights had shrunk to 17, members.
A new movement emerged in the s. While the Knights lost 75 percent of their membership between and and the revolutionary organizations were badly disrupted, many of the craft unions survived. The new American Railway Union emerged to organize both skilled and unskilled in the early s.
Greater federation through the formation of the Building Trades Council and the Chicago Federation of Labor CFL, brought more planning and coordination and an era of effective sympathy strikes. Thus, the movement emerged from the historic defeat of the Pullman Boycott in and the depression of the s with renewed strength.
At the turn of the century, organization spread once again to the less skilled—in the stockyards and steel plants, in machine shops, in candy, garment, and box factories, among scrubwomen, waitresses, and teachers. By the end of, more than half of the city's workers, were affiliated with the CFL, including 35, women in 26 different occupations.
Strikes mushroomed amid new calls for a shorter workday.Be ready before the storm Know your evacuation zone — and find out how to prepare for tropical storms and hurricanes. Many early efforts to organize workers in the United States saw their inception in Pennsylvania. As early as the s, shoemakers in Philadelphia joined to maintain a price structure and resist cheaper competition.
In the s, a Mechanics Union was formed that attempted to unite the efforts of more than a . Labor Systems of Early America Native American Labor. A short guide to the tribes of North America (site also has a bibliography); Richard Hakluyt Discourse of Western Planting ().
's Child Labor in America This article provides facts and information about child labor in America during the 's. This was the time when the Industrial Revolution and the process of Industrialization transformed America from a rural, agricultural to a city based industrial society that resulted in a massive increase in child labor during the 's.
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