On May 2, 1867, Chicago's first Trades Assembly (formed in 1864) sponsored a general strike by thousands of workers to enforce the state's new eight-hour-day law. Though the one-week strike was unsuccessful, it capped a four-year mobilization of local workers that encouraged political parties to incorporate labor demands into their platforms and appeals.
In 1886, Chicago was the center for another labor upheaval. Approximately 88,000 workers in 307 separate strikes demanded the eight-hour day that year, most of them on May 1. Industry was paralyzed, and the city “assumed a sabbath like appearance.” The Haymarket Affair of May 4 triggered widespread antilabor repression. Moreover, the failure of the movement to spread much beyond Chicago made it easier for employers who competed in national markets to ignore labor demands.
As the tide of the great upheaval receded in the late 1880s, the character of strikes began to change. Until then, strikes often mobilized large numbers of immigrant men, women, and children within ethnic communities such as Irish Bridgeport and Bohemian Pilsen. Easily replaced unskilled workers, in particular, relied on crowd actions to intimidate strikebreakers. To avoid riots and capture the vaunted “labor vote,” 1880s politicians such as Mayor Carter Harrison began to restrain police from intervening in strikes called by well-connected local unions. As the mass strike subsided, craft unions spread among skilled workers employed by small-scale employers in local and regional markets. A metropolitan unionism took hold particularly among the building trades, the building service workers, and the teamsters. For the most part, strikes were not spontaneous but were called, coordinated, and supported by the strike funds of permanent unions and aided by a hands-off attitude of the police. By the turn of the century, labor was a recognized interest in local politics and Chicago had became a “union town.”
From the end of World War II through the early 1970s strikes continued to be widespread, but with the acceptance of collective bargaining they did not precipitate social upheavals nor did they generate the enormous class hostility that they had earlier. In the 1970s, the postwar liberal accord between capital and labor began to unravel. The strength of labor weakened as automation and the export of jobs overseas by corporations took its toll in heavily unionized Chicago. Industrial work increasingly gave way to service-sector work that was largely nonunion. Then, following the example of President Ronald Reagan in the 1981 Air Traffic Controllers Strike, private employers, especially those facing global competition and deregulated markets, returned to the union-busting tactics of their forebears. Since then, with the exception of public-sector unions such as the Chicago Teachers Union, strikes have been scarce in Chicago.
Barrett, James R. Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago's Packinghouse Workers, 1894–1922. 1987.
Lindsey, Almont. The Pullman Strike: The Story of a Unique Experiment and of a Great Labor Upheaval. 1942.
Schneirov, Richard. Labor and Urban Politics: Class Conflict and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1864–1897. 1998.
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