Chicago Strike





Scanned from The World's Work, Vol. 10, 1905.

In Chicago last May the slightest disturbance might end in a serious riot. Often a union teamster stopped his wagon at a cross street, a non-union caravan halted a moment, almost instantaneously other wagons hemmed it in, cars were stalled, there was cursing and cutting of traces and exchange of blows and shots. Perhaps a shower of inkstands and rulers and bottles came from the windows of the tall office buildings. The police rang in a riot call, and with their reinforcements beat back the jeering crowd, dragged away the blockading trucks by sheer force, and the train of strike-breaking wagons moved on with a dozen broken heads among its drivers.
This was in the business heart of the city. Farther out men used more primitive methods of combat. They knocked each other down with clubs and blackjacks, and then kicked in heads and ribs, and gouged out eyes, and slashed and stabbed with knives.
Such scenes hurt the reputation of a city, but Chicago herself is guiltless here. No city in America to-day is more essentially democratic in spirit and none has higher ideals of municipal life. When such a city is suddenly divided against itself and made the battleground of two armies fighting to the death the condition requires an explanation and a remedy.

Chicago was in that position last spring. The Employers' Association and the Federation of Labor were the combatants, and the helpless citizens stood between the battle lines. The question at issue was one far deeper than any strike: Shall any body of citizens be permitted to jeopardize the peace, comfort, prosperity and personal safety of their fellows in the settlement of a private quarrel? Or, as one man puts it, "Who is Chicago for, anyway—all of us or just a few ? "

This condition arose from two distinct strikes which occurred in the autumn of 1904. On November 19th some six thousand employees, members of the United Garment Workers of America, struck in the twenty-seven wholesale houses which were then members of the National Wholesale Tailors' Association. Justice seems to incline to the side of the employees. For three years now the larger employers of Chicago, through the Employers' Association, have been fighting for the principle of the open shop, and in a majority of industries that principle prevails to-day. It did not prevail in the tailoring industries when this strike occurred last fall. The National Tailors' Association had agreed with its employees, as members of District Council No. 6, U.G W. of A., by a contract dated June 26, 1903, to employ in their shops only members of the union and to send out work only to union contractors. This is the closed-shop principle in its strictest form.

You may know more or less of the conditions of a place like the East Side of New York City a generation ago, the swarming tenements, the half-brutalized, diseased men and women tottering to the Potter's Field, the puny children growing up into replicas of their parents at best. Perhaps you felt the hopelessness of it all, for there seemed no way to help them. They were too many and too hopeless themselves.
Black and white image of a crowd of Strike Breakers in Hostile Territory Of all those hideous nests of misery— the worst were the tenements occupied by the Jewish families, who made up the bulk of the garment workers then, as they do to-day. And yet it was not as hopeless as it seemed. The East Side is changed to-day, and no small part of the improvement is due to the courage and patience of Mr. Henry White and a dozen other devoted men who taught these helpless people to help themselves by standing together and demanding with the power of organization behind them better hours, better pay, better conditions of labor. What they did in New York has since been done in Chicago and a dozen other cities by the same means. That was the origin of the union called the United Garment Workers of America, and it is justified by its fruits even now, when its work is not half done.The closed-shop principle is almost vital to the effectiveness of this particular union. Down at Ellis Island, New York, any day during the immigration season you can see the inpouring supply of garment workers in those crowds of stupid, frightened folk, who teach here with little money, and must have work at once. Have they an inalienable right to do that work in any way they choose, to crowd into sweatshops and restore the old conditions? The United Garment Workers think not, and therefore the rule of the closed shop is part of their religion. They say to these newcomers, "You can't work as you choose. You are Americans now, you must stand with us and we'll all help ourselves and our children to better conditions."

Whether the garment workers are right or wrong in this makes no difference on the point we are considering, that they hold this belief with all the tenacity of their stubborn, untrained minds. Unless an employer really desires a strike he must approach them very diplomatically when he proposes a change from a closed shop to an open one.

The National Tailors' Association was not diplomatic at all. That closed-shop contract, dated June 26, 1903, and expiring March 1, 1905, contained two other important clauses.

The first clause provided that if one party desired to change the provisions of the existing contract he must present his proposal to a joint meeting not later than November 1st. The second clause provided for the arbitration of all disputes.

A Crowd of Strike Breakers in Hostile Territory
Black and white image of Bundle Boys as Substitutes for Wagons
Bundle Boys as Substitutes for Wagons
Black and white image of men running after shooting started
What Happens When Shooting Begins
A Blockade Formed By Union TeamstersThis is what happened. It could not be proved, of course, and perhaps it would not be fair to say that the manufacturers desired a strike last fall, but it can easily be shown that they did everything likely to bring one about. Early in October, when their contracts with the unions still had five months to run, some of these wholesale houses began discharging union employees and hiring non-union men to take their places. Of course, the union immediately applied for a conference on this, but it was refused them, as was also a conference on the terms of a renewal contract, due before November 1st. The negotiations dragged on for weeks, and all the time more manufacturers were "opening" their shops by hiring nonunion help or by sending out garments to contractors who ran open shops. At last, on November 17th, a committee of the union, authorized only to deal with these grievances, succeeded in obtaining an audience with a committee of the wholesale tailors. In reply to the garment workers' statement, the tailors' committee cited grievances of its own, and the union committee at once offered to submit the whole case to arbitration. The manufacturers, instead of replying to this offer, asked that the committee proceed to arrange new agreements with their association, more elastic than the old. The union men very properly replied that they had authority to confer only on the present grievances, but offered to arrange with their union for a conference on the preparation of new agreements. The reply of the manufacturers was not an acceptance of this offer, but the statement that a new agreement must be made at once or they would be compelled to "open" their shops. A heated discussion followed and the conference was broken off with affairs in this unsettled state.
A Promise of Trouble- A Blockade Formed By Union Teamsters
The union took no further action that day. On the morning of the 18th, the employers informed their help that their various places of business were now being run under the open-shop policy. The next day, November 19th, the six thousand garment workers in these twenty-seven houses struck. We must remember that the employers were bound to the closed-shop policy till March 1, 1905, and that the unions had been unable to obtain a conference to adjust the difficulties in the peaceful way provided for by their contracts. Above all, we must remember what a fetich those words, "closed shop," are to a garment worker. It is very hard to believe that all peaceable means of settling the difficulty were exhausted before radical action was taken.

Black and white image of a lot of police officers protecting one wagon

The second strike was of an entirely different sort, and it is difficult to find any justification for the men. The firm of Montgomery Ward & Co. was not a member of the Wholesale Tailors' Association. It had a special contract with the unions, agreeing to employ only union cutters, fixing hours of labor and compensation therefor, providing for arbitration of all differences, and stating most specifically that no further demands should be made by the union during the life of the contract. On December 15th the nineteen cutters of the house walked out because it dealt with unfair houses. This was their only grievance, and the manager, after trying for four days to meet the officers of the union and confer on the difficulty, secured new cutters.


The Brotherhood of Teamsters is the most powerful fighting body among the unions of Chicago, for a strike of teamsters paralyzes the business of the city. It has grown to be a habit on the part of other unions, when in difficulties, to call on the teamsters for a sympathetic strike, and the six thousand beaten garment workers did it in this case. Rumor is rife in Chicago that the leaders of the teamsters long ago realized the moneymaking possibilities inherent in their strategic position and have demanded and received round sums for their services before ordering their men to strike. No one, however, has come forward who was able, or willing, to prove these charges in any specific case. The garment workers solicited in vain for a long time, but at last, about the first of April, the teamsters voted to take up the cause of the strikers.

Sometimes It Took Many Police To Protect A Few Wagons
Black and white photo of Frank Curry who handled the employer's forces in the field On April 6th a joint committee of fifteen men, five from the Garment Workers, five from the Teamsters and five from the Federation of Labor waited, not on the Wholesale Tailors' Association, against whom the strike had been directed, but upon Mr. Thorne, of Montgomery Ward & Co. After three months and a half of silence on the part of his nineteen cutters, Mr. Thorne claims he concluded that the strike was ended. There has been much conjecture on all sides as to the cause of this choice of the point of attack by the unions, and opinion is about evenly divided in regarding it as complete stupidity or attempted strategy. At any rate, the committee asked Mr. Thorne to arbitrate his difference with his cutters. Mr. Thorne replied that there was nothing to arbitrate in a dead issue, that a strike must be assumed to cease sometime, and that he assumed his had ceased when his tailoring department had been running peaceably for three months without a word of protest on the part of the former employees or the official representatives of their union. Furthermore, he held, it would be manifestly unjust to discharge nineteen faithful and efficient men, and give their places to others, solely because those others had worked for him some months before, and after leaving and thinking it over had decided that they wanted their places back. He had no prejudice for or against union men, but he could not arbitrate an issue which the union had refused to arbitrate at the time it arose, though it broke its contract in the refusal. Mr. Thorne's attitude was so uncompromising that it left the teamsters no choice but to "put up or bust," and that night of April 6th, President Shea, of the Brotherhood, ordered out the forty drivers employed by Montgomery Ward & Co. and declared the house "unfair," which means in every-day words, boycotted. No union teamster could receive or deliver goods at that store. It is pitiable to see how completely the ordinary union man is in the hands of a few leaders whose leading is too often blind. Already these leaders had chosen a point of attack which was untenable, and which was soon to lead them against the antagonist the teamsters of Chicago dread most of all, the Employers' Association, which has defeated them time and time again.
Mr. Frank Curry; Who handled the employer's forces in the field.
Black and white image of  person pointing to federal protection order on wagon That Association was formed with the express purpose of combating the unions of Chicago on two points, the closed shop and the sympathetic strike. It comprises the greatest mercantile interests of the city, it has unlimited capital, and it has never failed to win a contest. It meets the unions by their own methods, a combination of forces and interests, and a sharing of hardships. All the great department stores, the so-called "State Street stores," are members, and they all have contracts with their teamsters permitting them to employ either union or non-union drivers. The three great stores of Marshall Field, Farwell, and Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co., hired non-union men for a few days to make their contracted deliveries to Montgomery Ward's, but soon they directed their union drivers also to deliver to the boycotted store, and discharged them when they refused. The teamsters accused the stores of bad faith in this, and they had some show of reason. Of course it made no difference in the end whether the stores (as they could under their contracts) discharged some union men at once and filled their places with nonunionists or waited until the union men refused to do their work and then discharged them. But in the latter case they brought the boycott issue squarely to the front. The employers had the unions in a very tight place and were forcing the fight to a finish.
Under Protection of the Federal Courts
Black and white image of swearing in of special deputy sheriffs The teamsters made one even less well considered move in trying to prevent the seven national express companies operating in Chicago from making deliveries to Montgomery Ward & Co. Whenever a company contracts in New York, say, to deliver a package to a firm in Chicago, it must do it or be subject to a suit for damages. The issue was soon joined, for the union had either to acknowledge defeat at once or declare a strike against the nine department stores, the seven express companies, and the three or four big coal companies who were making deliveries to Montgomery Ward & Co. The strike was declared. The employers met it squarely by forming under the laws of West Virginia a corporation called the Employers' Teaming Company. With the capital of the employers behind it, the new corporation was soon well enough equipped to make a fair number of deliveries, and the issue was once more squarely put to the strikers, "Will you give up now, or will you go on?" With the stubbornness of men who know they are fighting in the last ditch, they chose to go on.
Swearing In Special Deputy Sheriffs

The only weapon the strikers had was violence, for under present conditions a peaceful and successful strike is an impossibility. As some one said recently, "What are they going to do? Say to the employer, 'I don't like the way you're treating me, so I'm going home and sit on the front steps. When you want me to come back just drop me a postal' ?" While there are in all our cities so many non-heroic, non-professional strike-breakers lounging on every street corner ready to die for unlimited beer, the striker, whether his cause is just or unjust, must be prepared to say to them, "See here! If you try to take our jobs while we're looking for a square deal we'll just break your heads." Intimidation is the only argument that appeals to a certain class of minds.

Yet nothing hurts the cause of the striker with the public more than violence, and public sympathy says the last word in a strike. The Employers' Association understood that thoroughly, and it gave the strikers every opportunity to injure themselves. From the start it marched its wagons in long trains. Of course the claim was that protection could be given more easily to a train of wagons than to the same number singly. But this formation was the very one most calculated to cause violence, since it was the most conspicuous and also the most likely to cause blockades, with their attendant dangers.

The strikers claimed that this was done expressly to incite such violence as would necessitate the calling in of troops, and they pointed out one very concrete instance. On the morning of May 5th, Sheriff Barrett telephoned the strikers' headquarters, asking that any men who desired to be sworn in as deputy sheriffs should come to his office between three and four that afternoon. As the strikers had long been requesting this, a number of them responded. When they approached City Hall at the hour named they met a train of some ten wagons of the Employers' Teaming Association loaded to their limit with colored strike-breakers. When the strikers entered Sheriff Barrett's office he refused to swear them in. They returned to their quarters without violence, but full of very evil suspicions.

By such methods as these the employers drove the strikers relentlessly from ditch to ditch. At any time the union would have snatched at a merely nominal compromise for the sake of peace, but the Association would offer no terms save unconditional surrender, and the strikers had grown too desperate for that.

Finally the Association induced the Team Owners' Association, composed of the transfer, trucking and local express company owners, to direct their union drivers to deliver to all stores or be discharged. The team owners had up to that time held the balance of power by remaining neutral. Again the issue was put squarely to the teamsters: they must give up entirely or go on to the end. To go on meant to call out all the 35,000 teamsters, paralyze the business of the city, and run the risk of violence little short of civil war. And the Employers' Association announced its fixed purpose of fighting it out on this line if it took all summer. No wonder the ordinary citizen grew weary.

For weeks his city had no government. From one end of the City Hall the Mayor proclaimed that no violence would be tolerated, and urged well-disposed citizens to keep off the streets as much as possible. Why should they keep off their own streets? From the other end of the Hall the Sheriff of Cook County was sending out numberless deputies, with orders to shoot to kill if attacked. Down in the Monadnock and Marquette Buildings the officials of the Employers' Association were handling the situation by means of armed strike-breakers and private police and deputies. From the strikers' headquarters, President Shea assured the Secretary of War that Federal property in transit would not be held up in the streets of Chicago, and issued permits (" passes ") to certain favored individuals to have goods delivered to them. Homicides and vicious assaults were of daily occurrence; a man going about his day's work on the streets might be struck at any moment by a missile thrown from a tenth-story window or shot by some wildly firing deputy or strike-breaker; their very children in the schools were striking and rioting—the whole situation was chaos.

Beside these considerations, the whole question of the open shop or the sympathetic strike faded into insignificance. Here was a whole city disrupted simply because two parties of its citizens were fighting out in the public streets a quarrel started in private. The only wholesome thing about the whole situation was that the ordinary citizen awoke to the fact that such conditions are intoler able, and his impatience, inarticulate as it was, made itself felt in the actions of all the parties. In spite of the ultimatum of the team owners the teamsters did not strike, but called a council of the American Federation of Labor. The Mayor announced with some determination that if violence increased he would call for troops. It was the first firm stand that the executive of the city had taken in six weeks of anarchy. And the Employers' Association quietly removed all the lawless city toughs and loafers from its force of strike-breaking teamsters and replaced them with young men from the country, who at least were not vicious. The public sentiment of the citizens at large might have accomplished the same result much earlier, but Americans have fallen too much into the habit of stepping aside and meekly leaving their cities and towns for the convenience of any persons who have a labor controversy to settle. It is sincerely to be hoped that not only the citizens of Chicago but the rest of us will draw our lesson of disgust from this newest strike, and refuse hereafter to abrogate our rights with quite such prompt facility. "Who is the country for, anyway?"