The Chicago Struggle

A brief description of the labor conditions around Chicago before and after the turn of the century should help put into context the tremendous struggle our forefathers went thru to have the ability to organize and support each other. There is no doubt that Ironworkers and those that would become Ironworkers would be involved in these struggles because in those days to work without Unionization meant virtual slavery.

Ever since 1877, Chicago had been the center of strife between labor and capitol. Among the ranks of both were extremists: radicals and anarchists who cried that dynamite was the workingman’s best means of obtaining justice, and industrialists who advocated public lynching of anyone who dared speak against them.

Three events illustrate the volatility of the times;

1. The National Railroad Strike.

In July 1877, Chicago workers struck in support of the Railroad Strike, though lacking Unions, thousands of working men, women and teenagers thronged the streets, going from factory to factory behind brass bands calling employees out to strike. Police and militia forcibly dispersed crowds of Irish, Bohemian and German strikers while the U.S. Army waited in readiness. By the time the strike was suppressed, 30 workers lay dead and 200 were wounded.

2. The Haymarket Riot.

On May 1, 1886 , in response to a call for a nation-wide strike for the eight-hour day. 80,000 workers marched up Michigan Ave. arm-in-arm singing and carrying the banners of their Unions.

On May 3, the peaceful scene turned deadly when the police attacked the workers at the strike-bound McCormick Harvester Works on Blue Island Ave. During a clash between workers and police, shots were fired , killing one worker and wounding many.

A mass protest meeting the following night drew 2,000 people who listened to speakers excoriating the police, strikebreakers and bosses. It was relatively peacefully until Captain William Ward showed up with 176 policemen each armed with a club and an extra revolver. Just as Captain Ward ordered the crowd to disperse a bomb was thrown. Policemen fell dead and dying, dozens of bystander were maimed.

Hundreds of activists were jailed for weeks. Finally eight Haymarket Martyrs were tried for murder (Only two were at the meeting), all were found guilty and ultimately four were hung on the gallows. The rest went to jail for years.

3. The Pullman Strike.

In 1894, the American Railroad Union (ARU) mounted a boycott of the nation’s Pullman railroad cars. With most of the nation’s transportation at a standstill, a federal court granted the railroads an injunction declaring the strike illegal, and President Grover Cleveland dispatched 2,000 federal troops and over 5,000 U.S. Marshals to Chicago which precipitated widespread violence. Despite a general strike by 25,000 Chicago Unionists, the ARU was crushed.