As discussed in Sec. 1.6, following the squashing of the labor riots in Chicago during July 1877 by the police, aided by a unit of the U.S. Army that had camped in front of the Exposition Building to protect the Theodore Thomas “Summer Nights” concerts, then in its fourth of a planned six-week festival, Chicago’s Socialists had made significant inroads on Council with the election of four of their candidates in the November 1878 municipal elections. These four aldermen succeeding in prying total control of the Exposition Center away from its Board of Directors, rightfully stating that the City still owned the land that the building stood on. This allowed the Socialists to reserve the Center, originally erected by Chicago’s patriarchs to offer the middle-class alternatives to Socialist speeches and rallies, and the opportunity to reverse the roles of the building.
The highpoint of their campaign was the great protest rally in the Expo Building held to commemorate the eighth anniversary of the Paris Commune in March 1879, that was also the highwater mark for Chicago’s Socialist-leaning unions, as once the economy finally started to improve, workers found themselves employed, correspondingly reducing the immediacy of the Socialist cause. This is not to say that the union movement in Chicago began to dissipate, for just the opposite was the reality, for what was changing was the politics or ideology of the leading unions. The labor union scene had never been monolithic in the U. S., especially in Chicago. The entire political spectrum from capitalism to communism had always been represented in the American labor movement from its inception. During the labor movement’s infancy, the strength of a given union depended upon varied factors such as the given abilities of its leaders, the state of the economy, the ethnicity of its members, and what industry the union represented. By no means were all labor unions in America flying the Communist red flag, or after the 1872 split between the Marxists and the Anarchists, the black flag of the supporters of Mikhail Bakunin. Following the police’s violent crushing of the 1877 railroad strike in Chicago, a small, but dedicated fringe of the Socialist Labor Party (the WPUS had changed its name in 1877) became convinced that the only way things were going to change was to abandon the capitalist electoral system and press for revolution via armed force. Bakunin had been right! For Germans in Chicago who had experienced firsthand the 1848 revolutions back in the home country, it was time to organize their own paramilitary groups, the Lehr-und-Wehr Vereines (Education and Defense Societies), to counter the force of the police and state militias.
The first American revolutionary socialist club had been founded in New York in November 1880. In July 1881, representatives of the New York group attended a congress in London that founded the anarchist International Working People’s Association (IWPA) as a successor to the original Communist IWA. When they returned home, the New Yorkers called for an American congress of Revolutionary Socialists that was to be held in Chicago in October 1881. The 1881 Congress was organized by Albert Parsons, who had completely abandoned the political system following his harrowing experience during the 1877 strike, and German-born August Spies, the editor of the Socialist newspaper, the Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung. Members had pledged their support to “armed organizations of workingmen who stand ready to resist, gun in hand, any encroachment upon their rights.” This call to revolution had effectively split the socialist labor movement between the Socialist Labor Party and the anarchist IWPA, who met two years later at the Second National Congress of Revolutionary Socialist Clubs in Pittsburgh. It was here, that Spies, along with Parsons described the “Chicago idea” in which labor unions were to be co-opted to be the leader or organizer of the revolution and to be the institutor of post-capitalist anarchy. The Pittsburgh Proclamation that had been approved, declared the organization of the American wing of the IWPA for “destruction of the existing class rule by all means” and for the establishment of an economic system based upon “free contracts between the autonomous (independent) communes and associations, resting upon a federalistic basis.” The Chicago anarchists had a meager, but nonetheless committed following.
The IWPA was but one extreme bookend of the Labor movement during the first half of the 1880s. At the other extreme in both philosophy and membership size was the Knights of Labor. Founded as a secret union to protect its members from reprisals by employers in Philadelphia in 1870, the Knights filled the vacuum created by the demise of the National Labor Union in 1873, and under its highly effective Grand Master, Terence Powderly, would increase in membership to 700,000 by 1886. Powderly thought that strikes were a “relic of barbarism” but the union was so large and diverse in its membership that it increasingly did support strikes, but for economic and not ideological purposes. Its primary concern was again, the eight-hour workday. Unions in the Chicago Labor movement during the first half of the 1880s operated between these two poles, with the central power of the Chicago labor movement during the first half of the 1880s residing with the Amalgamated Trades and Labor Assembly. The city’s popular mayor during this period, Carter Harrison, owed some of his success to his sympathetic cooperation with this group.
As the approaching building season for 1883 promised to be one of Chicago’s biggest with the new Board of Trade, the Armour, Kent, and Bensley project, the Calumet, and numerous rumors of other projects in the Board of Trade area, the city’s unionized bricklayers sensed the time was ripe not only to demand an increase in their daily wage, but also to eliminate all wage differentials among the membership (especially those based on productivity and quality of craftmanship) in favor of a uniform rate for all of their members. Since the 1871 fire, the masons had slowly taken over more and more control of the building process from the carpenters, until it was now they who were the most important group of workers in the erection of the city’s large, brick bearing wall buildings. In 1879 they had formed the local United Order of American Bricklayers and Stonemasons. The over-reliance of Chicago’s construction industry on bricks had already brought about a strike by Chicago’s brickmakers the prior summer of 1882 (which may help to explain the relative slowness of construction in 1882) and had whetted the appetites of the city’s bricklayers. On April 1, 1883, the Union pulled its members off the construction site of the Board of Trade, demanding that a wage schedule of four dollars for a ten-hour day, initiating a strike that lasted for two and a half months into the middle of June, when it was finally resolved with the adoption of the wage rate without the demand for a union shop.
Jentz, John B. and Richard Schneirov. Chicago in the Age of Capital. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012.
Schneirov, Richard. Labor and Urban Politics: Class Conflict and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1864-97. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
Siry, Joseph M. The Chicago Auditorium Building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
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