Posted by: history591seventeen | April 4, 2009

Chicago Begins Labor Issues

           After reading James Green’s Death in the Haymarket one can see that after the Civil War Chicago was a place of great prosperity, like no where else in the United States. It was becoming the industrial capital of the United States, and it had the population coming in to fill the jobs. Many things occurred in Chicago that had not yet occurred elsewhere in the nation. Political ideas were freely exchanged. Some of the first labor disputes began here, which led to the formation of many labor unions. Some labor disagreements ended peaceful and some ended in all out war between employees and employers.

            Along with the industry in Chicago came jobs, and because of the plentiful employment, many immigrant groups settled in Chicago. Immigrants came from all over- Germany, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, England, Scotland, Wales and the British provinces in Canada. Each group came to America and settled in Chicago because there seemed to be many opportunities for people to be able to make a living.

            Yet in the 1800s many workers were unhappy with their working conditions and these workers joined unions to help better their situation. One concession workers wanted was to work an eight-hour day. They were expected to work at least 10 hour days, if not longer, six days a week. Most of the employees in Chicago were actually displaced farmers from other countries and for one thing, they missed seeing the sunlight; while working in Chicago, they were usually inside a factory from dawn until dusk. “On March 2, 1867, the Republican governor of Illinois, Richard J. Oglesby, signed the nation’s first eight-hour law, to take effect on May 1” (25).

            At the same time, Chicago businessmen had no intention of observing this new law. Their excuse was that this new law would not allow workers who wanted more hours to work longer, for it would be against the law. Therefore, workers began organizing a march to take place on May 1, 1867, the day the new law was to go in to effect (31). After the march, on May 2, the employers still refused to observe the new law and many workers went on strike, which led to many employees being unemployed and replaced by nonunion workers. This is just one of many disagreements in labor that took place in Chicago, and the eight-hour day dispute did not end there. Employers hired guns, like the police force or the Pinkerton Detectives to protect businesses and strikebreakers from striking workers. Sometime these strikes got ugly. People on both sides died in shoot outs between the groups.

            For the next two years Chicago continued to be a profitable place to own a business, and find a job, but the fire of 1871 began many new problems. This fire burned 17,450 buildings, yet the people of Chicago rallied around and decided that Chicago “must rise again” (42). The aftermath of the fire was hardest on the working class, for many of their homes and the businesses where they worked burned to the ground, so there was no place for them to live or work. In fact, the immigrants were blamed for “the blaze having leapt across the river from a shantytown [where they lived] and laid waste to the business district” (45).

            Another indulgence Chicago clearly supported was freedom of speech, and as hard times continued into 1875, some immigrants began listening to some socialist ideas. In March of 1876, a socialist agitator and union organizer named Peter J. McGuire introduced the Workingmen’s Party of America to Chicago, explaining that this party could create a “cooperative commonwealth to replace monopoly capitalism” (67). The socialist agenda matched what the immigrants of Chicago felt they needed. Albert Parsons was a printer who became the voice of the people. He was an eloquent speaker who continued trying to organize the immigrants into labor unions

            By the summer of 1876, profits were up, but in the mean time, Chicago had become overpopulated with more immigrants coming in to make a living, which led to more mistreatment of workers. During the hard times, wages had been cut, and now when money was coming in to the companies, workers wanted their wages increased. Employers refused, employees went on strike and because of the many unemployed immigrants, employers again replaced them with other nonunion employees. Therefore the striking workers were again without money for food and shelter.

            Albert Parsons continued to speak out and encourage people to join together through the many different unions. As a result of Parsons’ socialist speeches he was fired and blacklisted, but that still did not stop him. He, in fact, ran for a county office and then a city council seat that he was 744 votes short of getting (86). The socialist party continued to try and get candidates elected to Chicago’s government. They nominated a popular and respected physician for mayor, and put up candidates for all the major offices (86). As a result of splitting the vote among the Republican Party, the Socialist Party and the Democratic Party, a Democratic candidate won the seat of mayor.

            By 1884, Chicago businesses were booming. Workers again brought up the issue of the eight-hour work day, and this time, employers began the mechanization of jobs. When workers went out on strike, employers replaced them with machinery that could do their job faster, without any pay increase and work as many hours as employers wanted. People still went out on strike. Socialist, Albert Parsons continued to tell the immigrants that their situation would improve. Then the City Council approved the eight-hour work day and Parsons felt “a peaceful solution to the difficulties between capitalist and laborers” was underway (156). Parsons may have been rig ht, up until the night of May 4, 1886. There was a meeting held at Haymarket Square. It was a peaceful meeting until someone threw a bomb in the crowd, killing seven policemen. In the end, four anarchists, including Albert Parsons, as these leaders of the Socialist Party came to be called, were given a very unfair trial and were hanged for this bombing. This became the communist “red scare” that took place in Chicago. As a result of the bombing, people were no longer allowed to meet as freely as before and Socialism was no longer looked on as just another political party; it was viewed more as a threat to the American way of life. Out of necessary, Chicago had become the most productive city in America; along with this productivity, came the many disagreements that only Chicago seemed to face at the time; however other cities would later face many of the same conflicts.




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