On Chicagos Labor Trail

Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders – Carl Sandburg, “Chicago,” 1916



Although much has changed since Carl Sandburg penned the classic description of Chicago, the echoes of that tremendous multiracial, working- class history can still be heard and felt today.

“Even as global commerce has replaced manufacturing,” writes University of Illinois at Chicago Professor Leon Fink, “a distinctive egalitarian, ‘blue-collar’ ethic still dominates Chicago’s civic culture.”

Fink was the project director of Chicago’s first comprehensive labor tour guide and map, “The Labor Trail: Chicago’s History of Working-Class Life and Struggle,” released in February. Produced by the Chicago Center for Working Class Studies with support from numerous partnerships and grants, “The Labor Trail” highlights the many generations of dramatic struggles and working-class life in the City of the Big Shoulders.

The trail’s neighborhood tours acquaint its reader with places, and people — often unsung — who have made the city what it is today. The map also includes a smaller insert of selective, statewide labor sites to encourage the public’s discovery and discussion of Illinois’ rich labor heritage. All told, 140 sites are highlighted on the map.

Chicago’s labor history is punctuated by three famous struggles, according to Fink. “The first occurred in the ‘Battle of the Viaduct’ as part of the nationwide Uprising of 1877; when Bohemian, German, Swedish, Polish, and Irish laborers attempted to support the German Furniture Workers Union, some 30 workers were killed by the combined forces of the Illinois National Guard and Chicago police.

“More famous, of course, are the ‘Haymarket’ events of 1886,” Fink says of the nationwide strike and struggle for the eight-hour day, which led to the founding of the international workers ‘ holiday, May Day.

The third epic event was in 1894, “when corporate paternalist, George M. Pullman, locked out union workers after cutting their wages but not their rents amidst industrial depression,” writes Fink. The Pullman strike saw American Railway Union leader Eugene V. Debs emerge as the nation’s most prominent labor leader and socialist of that time.

However, as Fink points out, “Chicago labor history has been less a tale of dramatic confrontations than of quieter struggles by immigrant and migrant families to better themselves and the lives of their children. Aside from the workplaces themselves, working-class life in Chicago occurred in cottages and bungalows, churches and ethnic community centers, parks and public baths, and taverns and neighborhood clubs.” And these places are also shown on “The Labor Trail.” From the stories of a people struggling against racism and segregation, “The Labor Trail” showcases Bronzeville, where Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines tutored Benny Goodman on jazz, and the founding headquarters of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the all-Black union that A. Philip Randolph led to a collective bargaining victory over the Pullman Company in 1937. It also profiles to the diverse working-class and immigrant neighborhoods of Pilsen, Back of the Yards and Polonia Triangle.

One piece of history is absent from the trail. However, The founding of the Communist Party in the U.S. took place in Chicago in 1919. The trail does mention the contribution of socialists and communists in some of the struggles highlighted.

The trail points out more recent history, like the election of Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, and the community commemoration of union organizer and Mexican American activist Rudy Lozano. “Chicago offers a living museum to some of the most dramatic, as well as some of the most enduring, aspects of American labor history,” says Fink, citing Chicago’s new immigrants from Mexico, South Asia, and Eastern Europe.