"You're Laborers! You're Supposed to Be Laboring!"
By Scott Smith in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 4, 2006 5:07PM
Chicagoist hopes you’re busy celebrating Labor Day the way most folks do: by sitting around on your fat ass and drinking some beer (BBQ called on account of rain). Admit it: you deserve a break. Even though Federal, state, city and county offices will be closed along with banks and the post office, many people are spending the day working in our fair city, so it’s only right that we take a brief look at the history of labor in Chicago.
Chicago has long been synonymous with labor struggles. One of the first incidents on record involved a railroad strike in July of 1877. Federal troops were called in to end the strike in several cities. In Chicago’s Battle of the Viaduct, 30 railroad workers were killed and over 100 were wounded. In 1893, Pullman railroad workers went on strike, led, in part, by Socialist reformer Eugene Debs. In the often-violent struggle, two workers in Kensington would be killed. In the wake of this strike, President Grover Cleveland declared a national Labor Day in 1894. As this PBS report dryly states, “he was not reelected.”
Of course, the most famous labor incident in Chicago was the Haymarket Square Riot. On May 4th, 1886 at the corner of Des Plaines and Randolph, a rally of union workers and anarchists was disrupted when someone threw a bomb at a police line intended to disperse the crowd. The bombthrower was never found, but eight men “all with foreign-sounding names” (five of whom were German immigrants), were convicted of the crime. Four of the men were quickly hanged, while a fifth committed suicide. Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld later pardoned the remaining three.
Though many of Chicago’s great labor battles are part of history, the fight for fair wages and benefits continues, though the methods have changed. This year saw the Chicago City Council pass the so-called Big Box Ordinance, though the jury's still out on how it will effect wages and business development.
For more on Chicago and Illinois’s labor history, peep this chronology. If the rain holds off, you can tour these Chicago labor history sites or plan a road trip for next year. If not, do a little light reading.
We’ll return to posting on a regular schedule tomorrow.
Image: Chicago Public LIbrary