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Brief History

“Fight Like Hell for the Living”: A Brief Sketch of Working People’s History in Illinois

by Robert D. Sampson, Ph.D.

From the worn brick of Chicago’s Haymarket Square to the Illinois river bluffs near Spring Valley to the flat, bloody terrain of Virden and onto to the now-abandoned killing floors of the old Chicago stockyards linger the traces of Illinois working men and women struggling to better their lives. More than violent confrontation, however, theirs is also a story told in the halls of the state legislature as battles were waged and won, as well as in countless union halls where workers came together.

Colorful and varied, it is a tale woven from the strands of remarkable characters like “Mother” Mary Jones, Albert Parsons, John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman, John Fitzpatrick, Jane Addams and Florence Kelley. Courageous public officials such as Governor John Peter Altgeld and labor organizer and later U.S. Congressman Charles Hayes play important roles. Equally, if not more, significant are barely known figures like “General” Alexander Bradley, Mary McDowell, and thousands more in the rank and file whose deeds and accomplishments remain unrecovered by historians.

Strikes and landmark contracts, racial and ethnic clashes and solidarity transcending those artificial lines, bitter defeats and joyous victories all combine to make the story of working people in Illinois essentially a microcosm of the nation’s.


In 1819, one year after Illinois became a state, the legislature passed the Apprenticeship Act, protecting the rights of minors. Primarily an agricultural state in the nineteenth century’s first decades, Illinois missed the wave of labor activism that swept the East Coast in the 1820s and 1830s, but by 1861 had enough coal miners to serve as the launching point for the first national miner’s union, the American Miners’ Association formed that year in Belleville. Labor activism prompted a legislative rebuke in 1863 with passage of the La Salle Black Law which sought to outlaw strikes in the coal fields. Two years later, however, the most powerful union then in existence, the Iron Molder’s International Union, held its convention in Chicago and by 1867 labor had sufficient political clout to gain passage of an eight-hour workday law in the legislature. The law proved to be meaningless, touching off two decades of agitation that would culminate May 4, 1886, in Chicago’s Haymarket Square.

By that time, Illinois workers were accustomed to organizing. In the early 1870s, labor founded the Workingmen’s Party and, beginning in 1877, the Knights of Labor enjoyed great success in a number of Illinois cities. As an important railroad center, Illinois played a significant role in the 1877 national rail strike and troops were sent to Chicago, Decatur, East St. Louis, Galesburg, and Peoria. The loss of that strike only slowed rather than killed the growth of organized labor and, meeting in its first convention in 1884, the Illinois State Federation of Labor declared that May 1, two years hence, would be a day of confrontation over the eight-hour day crusade.


With its mixture of anarchists, trade unionists, socialists, and reformers, the Chicago of spring 1886 presented a rich tapestry of solidarity. Mass demonstrations marked May 1 as immigrant and native-born united in the crusade against a backdrop of literally dozens of strikes and lockouts at major and minor industrial concerns. One of the most bitter was at the McCormick Reaper factory, where on May 3 the police attacked a group of strikers killing two, though the early reports placed the number at six. That incident only inflamed simmering passions, provoking newspaper editor August Spies to publish a flyer urging workers to attend a rally the evening of May 4 in Haymarket Square, to arm themselves and seek revenge.

The May 4 rally turned out to be more an exercise in oratory than revolution and Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison Sr. told the police, notorious for their brutality, not to intervene. Despite this, as a contingent of police advanced on the rally, a bomb was tossed into their ranks. Between the bomb and the indiscriminate fire of police officers themselves, eight police officers were killed. In the witch-hunt that followed, Spies and nine others were charged with conspiracy to commit murder. In a trial that forever stains the fabric of Illinois justice, five were convicted and sentenced to death. Three were spared, but given long prison terms.

Six years later, a new governor sat in Springfield. John Peter Altgeld, the first Democrat elected to the office in forty years, was considered a friend of labor. On June 26, Altgeld issued a pardon for the three prisoners that was as exhaustive as it was stinging in its revelation of the miscarriage of justice. For this, Altgeld was literally damned by newspapers from coast to coast, branded an anarchist or worse.

By the time Altgeld issued the pardon, Illinois was deep in a depression following the collapse of the national economy that year. Some workers joined Coxey’s Army and marched on Washington seeking relief. Others, through their unions, fought to resist the wage cuts and layoffs that were the corporations’ standard response to the economic downturn. Mine owners in Illinois had become accustomed to using state militia as strikebreakers, something Altgeld vowed to end. He ordered the militia’s commander not to let troops be used as “custodians or guards of private property.” Judicious and restrained in his use of the state militia, Altgeld was outraged when, during the Pullman Strike of 1894, President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to the state. Over Altgeld’s objections, the federal troops were used to do what the governor prevented the militia from doing–break strikes.

Illinois played a central role in the Pullman Strike, which came on the heels of a bitter and unsuccessful coal strike. Called by Eugene Debs’ fledgling American Railway Union, the strike spread throughout Illinois, tying up rail traffic and in Chicago, Spring Valley, and Grape Creek, leading to violent confrontations. It occurred against a backdrop described by historian Shelton Stromquist as “the most intense period of class warfare in American history.” At the height of the depression, 16 percent of the Illinois work force was idled by strikes and the Pullman Boycott came on the heels of an unsuccessful coal strike.

The boycott that would tie up much of the nation’s rail traffic began on June 26, 1894, when ARU members refused to handle trains carrying Pullman cars. They agreed, however, to switch and handle trains including U.S. mail cars. In a remarkable display of worker solidarity and pent-up grievances with the nation’s railroads, which had slashed wages drastically in response to the depression, more than 124,000 rail workers joined the effort within days. Illinois was a natural center for boycott activity not only because of Chicago’s key role as a railroad hub, but also because the state led all others in railroad mileage constructed and in operation by 1894.

Peaceful protest and worker solidarity proved no match for the combined power of government and corporations determined to crush the fledgling industrial union. President Grover Cleveland appointed the Railroad Managers Association’s attorney as a special U.S. attorney in Chicago. This official, in turn, sought and gained an injunction against the ARU. Cleveland, over the bitter protests of Altgeld, dispatched federal troops to Illinois to break the strike. Significantly, while a number of people were killed in clashes with the troops, no ARU member was ever wounded or killed by the troops, and, from all indications, never involved in violent acts against strikebreakers or railroad property. By mid-July, the strike was crushed.


Depression and the loss of the Pullman Strike only deterred for a time the growth of organized labor in the state. In 1897, Chicago teachers organized the Chicago Teachers’ Federation, which four years later affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. Also in 1897, the United Mine Workers of America gained a major victory when it won a strike in Illinois. Central to that success was the unlikely figure of “General” Alexander Bradley, a rank-and-file miner and gifted orator who led Mount Olive miners on a march through much of the southwestern coal fields, gaining union members as they went.

A few coal operators decided to challenge the UMWA in 1898 by refusing to abide by the 1897 contract. Operators at Carterville, Pana, and Virden recruited African-American workers in Alabama and other southern states, neglecting to tell them they were being used to break a strike. The Illinois UMWA was integrated and the local at Virden, scene of a gun battle on Oct. 12 that left eight miners and five mine guards dead, included 15 black miners. Violent confrontations also occurred in the other two locations. When the governor of Illinois refused to send troops to protect the imported workers, the UMWA prevailed.

The next year, 28-year-old John Mitchell of Braidwood, became president of the UMWA. The son of a Scotch-Irish miner, Mitchell led his union to the greatest victory to date for organized labor in the 1902 anthracite strike. Skillfully, Mitchell molded public opinion in the miners’ favor as the mine owners’ belligerence led them to defy President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s personal intervention in the strike and Mitchell’s brilliant leadership gained a favorable contract.

Headquartered in Illinois was another institution important in 19th and early 20th century labor relations–the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Founded in Chicago in 1850 by Scottish immigrant Alan Pinkerton, the agency was increasingly looked to by anti-union industrialists to provide the shock troops in the war against labor. Pinkerton’s Protective Patrol provided armed guards–in effect, a private army–that intervened in at least 70 strikes. Their most notorious use came in the 1892 strike against the Carnegie steel works in Homestead, Pennsylvania, where a day-long gun battle left seven working men and three Pinkerton guards dead. In the wake of Homestead, 24 states outlawed the use of private armies like the Pinkertons and the agency turned increasingly to covert operations against labor.


Outside mining, the back of industrial unionism was broken at Homestead in 1892, and for years efforts continued to find ways to bring decent wages and working conditions to the men and women who labored beneath the smokestacks. Frustrated with the AFL’s craft approach, a group gathered June 27, 1905 in Chicago. Included in the ranks were “Mother” Mary Jones, who was born in Ireland and emigrated to the United States, settling in Chicago. After an epidemic carried off her husband and children, Jones devoted herself to the cause of labor. A fiery, feisty orator, she served off and on as a paid UMWA organizer. “Pray for the dead but fight like hell for the living,” she declared. There, too, was William “Big Bill” Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners, Debs, and fellow socialist Daniel DeLeon. A Catholic priest, Father Thomas J. Hagerty, wrote the organization’s preamble, which described class struggle as inevitable and the cause of workers everywhere equal–“an injury to one [is] an injury to all.” The new organization was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and headquartered for many decades in Illinois.

As the IWW fought battles on many fronts, a group of clothing workers in Chicago turned to organization to better their lives. In 1910 and 1911, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers staged a successful strike against Hart, Schaffner & Marx in Chicago, winning the first union contract in that industry. Included in the contract was a precedent-setting provision for workers’ councils to participate in arbitrating shop-floor disputes. Emerging from the Amalgamated was Sidney Hillman, who served as the union’s president from 1914 to 1946 and played a major role in forming the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s. Hillman also held key positions in the New Deal and agencies and boards charged with wartime production during World War II.

The Amalgamated Bank also became the first such institution sponsored by a union. Labor also moved into a new field–radio–in 1921 when WCFL, the Chicago Federation of Labor-sponsored “voice of labor,” went on the air in Chicago.

Buoyed by the growth of unions during World War I, organizers made Chicago the scene of key 1919 strikes in the steel and meatpacking industries. Chicago Federation of Labor President John Fitzpatrick and his allies took the lead in building unions that included blacks and whites, transcending racial animosities used to divide workers. The failure of these strikes set the stage for a prolonged attack on labor throughout the 1920s.


Surviving through the anti-labor climate of the 1920s, Illinois unions entered the 1930s battered by the Great Depression. By the end of January 1931, more than 700,000 Illinois workers were unemployed. Two years later, nearly one-half of the state’s working men and women faced unemployment, creating a “mountain of misery” overwhelming private and public relief efforts. Under the administration of Governor Henry Horner, Illinois launched legislative initiatives. In 1935, a law limiting the work week to six days was passed and the next year laws covering occupation-related diseases and home work went on the books. An eight-hour day law for women workers passed in 1937, as did a unemployment compensation law.

Encouraged by John L. Lewis’ Congress of Industrial Organizations, workers in the large industries like steel and autos began to organize. A clash on Memorial Day 1937, known since as the Memorial Day Massacre, between police and members of the steel workers’ union at Republic Steel Company in South Chicago left 10 demonstrators dead and eight wounded. Newsreels showing police firing on peaceful men, women, and children shocked the nation.

Transcending racial divisions, the CIO’s Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee launched its efforts in 1937 to organize the stockyards with a bottom-up approach to organization. In the words of Henry “Hank” Johnson, a prominent African-American union organizer, speeches don’t make unions. “The real job of organizing has to be done everyday by the men and women who work right in the plant.” The CIO-led effort not only transformed the packinghouses, but Chicago’s political landscape as well, gaining support for the union from the city’s fabled Democratic machine and completing the migration of black voters from the Republican to the Democratic Party.

As in the nation at large, workers in Illinois gained greatly from the World War II economy. A wartime agreement that both protected and insured union organization in defense industries combined with tax code revisions led to a substantial rise in real wages for working men and women and, in the words of one historian, “the most significant and progressive income redistribution of income to take place in a century.” For the first time, the average normal earnings of blue-collar workers passed those of white-collar workers. Strong unions played a vital role in this process. The wartime economy, too, swept away the lingering Depression. For example, employment in the Springfield-Decatur labor market jumped from 14,400 in 1940 to 34,000 by 1944–the largest gain in the state.

Employment among women surged. Between 1940 and 1944, the number of women working in Illinois increased by two-thirds and in the manufacturing sector alone by 120 percent. Laws were passed making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color or creed in defense industries and requiring equal pay for women.


At war’s end, Illinois labor entered what Milton Derber of the University of Illinois Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations has termed “the affluent years.” Industrial organizing proceeded, increasing union membership in Chicago as well as in Downstate communities like Peoria, Decatur, Danville, and East St. Louis. The craft unions benefited from booms in housing and general construction.

New areas of union representation were opened. The Chicago Board of Education recognized the Chicago Teacher’s Union as bargaining agent in 1967. Bargaining rights were extended to state employees in agencies under the Governor’s Office in 1974 through Gov. Dan Walker’s Executive Order #5. Throughout the state, teachers at public schools, clerical and service workers in state universities, county and municipal workers organized unions. Over the next two decades, public employee unions and the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers enjoyed growth throughout the state and increasing influence in the halls of the General Assembly. Official recognition of what had been taking place for many years came in 1986 with passage of the Illinois State Labor Relations Act and the Illinois Educational Labor Relations act.

Increasingly, women workers sought a stronger voice in labor’s leadership. An important step came on March 22-24, 1974, when 3,200 women unionists from 58 unions and 41 states met in Chicago to form the Coalition of Labor Women (CLUW). In the words of CLUW chair Myra Wolfgang, “we didn’t come here to exchange recipes.” Playing key roles were Addie Wyatt, Director of Women’s Affairs for the Meatcutters’ Union and Joyce Dannen Miller, Vice President and Director of Social Services for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, who was elected the CLUW’s first national president. Six years later, Miller became the first woman appointed to the AFL-CIO’s executive council. In the wake of the founding conference, CLUW has contributed to increasing labor activism among women and their movement into union leadership positions.

By the mid-1980s, Illinois workers faced a less-friendly climate. Illinois workers who participated in the 1981 strike by federal air traffic controllers lost their jobs. As the economy soured, corporations looked to downsizing, changes in work rules and hours, and even non-union operation as competitive tactics. With an aging industrial infrastructure, Illinois was ravaged by the decade’s economic shifts. Scores of plant closings occurred throughout the state. Thousands of jobs in steel, farm implement, and other heavy manufacturing industries disappeared, creating tremendous challenges for workers and their organizations.


The 1990s were marked by three labor disputes in Decatur, a manufacturing center in the heart of the state. Workers at the A.E. Staley Mfg. Co., one of the city’s oldest industries but now owned by an English corporation, were locked out after they resisted the imposition of 12-hour rotating shifts and other rollbacks in the summer of 1993. The next year, United Auto Worker members at Caterpillar Inc. plants in East Peoria, Peoria, Decatur, Mapleton, and Pontiac went on strike, beginning an on-again, off-again cycle of strikes that would continue until 1998. Workers making tires at the Bridgestone/Firestone plant in Decatur struck in 1994 over a number of issues, including 12-hour, rotating shifts. Mass demonstrations and appeals for national and international support for workers in what came to be called the “Decatur War Zone” marked these disputes, whose legacy still smolders in Decatur.

A successful 1996 strike against United Parcel Service by the Teamsters again featured Illinois as an important theater. Whether or not that success marks yet another turn in organized labor’s fortunes in the state remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Illinois working men and women today enjoy a vibrant history marked by a determined commitment to better the quality of life for all workers.

Note: those who wish to explore these topics further can find more information in the materials listed in the Basic Bibliography on Illinois labor history.