Editorial: Understanding the labor movement in Illinois history

  • Pullman strikers outside the Arcade Building in Pullman, Chicago, in 1894. The Illinois National Guard can be seen guarding the building.

    Pullman strikers outside the Arcade Building in Pullman, Chicago, in 1894. The Illinois National Guard can be seen guarding the building. Courtesy of Capitol News Illinois

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted8/30/2019 10:41 AM

A crackdown on child labor. Mine safety regulation and workers' compensation laws. An eight-hour workday and the creation of Labor Day itself. Illinois has played a significant historical role in the nation's labor story. Often, that role was tragic: massacres, disasters and bloody strikes that nevertheless affected great change in the working conditions of our ancestors -- changes that affect us today.

As we ease into this Labor Day weekend, it's worth noting that today, of course, "labor" means something different from what it meant before 1900, when one out of every four organized workers in the U.S. lived in Illinois.


But Illinois history in this arena is unique -- both good and bad. As historian Barbara Newell wrote, "Few if any states have contributed more to the history of American labor than Illinois."

National labor leaders John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman, John Mitchell, Mary "Mother" Jones and Eugene V. Debs, started here. Dozens of national unions -- including teachers, meatcutters, miners, bookbinders and restaurant workers -- were founded in Illinois.

The very origins of Labor Day grew out of the Pullman strike of 1894, a conciliatory gesture to the labor movement made by President Grover Cleveland and Congress after the strike ended.

The infamous 1886 Haymarket Affair started as a rally for the eight-hour workday, a right that had actually been achieved in 1867 but was never enforced.

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Much less known is the deadly fire inside the Cherry, Illinois, coal mine 110 years ago that killed 259 men and boys, some as young as 10, and led to a crackdown on child labor and to mine-safety rules that eventually paved the way for modern workers' compensation.

And then there is the 1922 Herrin Massacre, in which striking union miners murdered 23 replacement workers who had come from Chicago to southern Illinois for jobs, and reportedly weren't told they were strikebreakers. Sympathetic local juries acquitted the accused, but the nation was so repulsed by the killings that the union lost many members and significant power.

Today, the fundamental goals of that early labor movement -- safety, eight-hour days, benefits and more -- are workplace expectations for many people. But it is still valuable to use Labor Day to consider the history of labor in the U.S., especially Illinois' role in it -- not just to appreciate what it produced but also remain committed to the fundamental goal of ensuring equality and justice for employees, whatever their industry.

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