John H. Walker
Miner, state federation president, gubernatorial candidate
John H. Walker tromped through coal camps with Mother Jones, led the Illinois Federation of Labor, ran for Illinois Governor and gave the United Mine Workers’ John L. Lewis his first full-time union position, only to become a bitter enemy of Lewis. Walker was born April 27, 1872 in Binnie Hill, Stirlinghsire, Scotland. On his ninth birthday his family arrived in Braidwood, Illinois and within the year the boy was working in Coal City mines. At age eleven he joined the Knights of Labor and also participated in the short-lived Miners’ Federation and the Mine Laborers. His father was blacklisted for union activity and the family migrated to Oklahoma.
In 1896 he organized United Mine Workers of America Local 505 in Central City, Illinois. That same year he married Phoebe Fox of Mason, Illinois, a Welsh miner’s daughter. In 1897 he worked closely with UMWA President John Mitchell during a nine-month Illinois strike. In 1900 Mitchell appointed Walker as an organizer to assist Mary “Mother” Jones in organizing the West Virginia mines. He then worked his way up in the union ranks, becoming Illinois Mine Workers President in 1905. He lobbied for mine safety laws, workers’ compensation and successfully negotiated four statewide contracts. He served on the Illinois Mining Investigation Committee after the 1909 Cherry mine disaster, which resulted in new safety laws. Walker gave John L. Lewis his first full-time union position, as a lobbyist after the Cherry disaster.
Elected President of the Illinois State Federation of Labor in 1913, Walker led Illinois labor’s legislative agenda, most importantly a law limiting court injunctions against strikes. Under his leadership the Illinois Federation became one of the nation’s largest. The Federation supported inclusion of occupational diseases under workers’ compensation, child labor laws, public ownership of utilities, teachers’ rights, cooperative stores, a state old-age pension program, credit unions and guarantees on bank deposits. In the early 1920s, when business promoted its anti-union, open shop “American plan,” the Federation’s lead defensive efforts against the business agenda.
During World War I Walker served on the State Council of Defense and served on President Woodrow Wilson’s Labor Mediation Commission, where he helped settle strikes and lock-outs in the western states and mediated the 1917 Chicago stockyards agreement. When the war ended the State Federation supported the 1919 steel strike.
Walker was a Socialist Party member and activist until 1916, when he supported President Woodrow Wilson. In 1919 the State Federation and the Chicago Federation of Labor organized an Illinois Farmer-Labor Party. In 1920 Walker was its candidate for Governor, with Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) President John Fitzpatrick running for the U.S. Senate. Both candidates fared badly in the general election. After the dismal 1920 showing and fearing that a competing party would stymie labor’s Springfield agenda, most Illinois unions abandoned the Party, which was taken over by a Communist faction headed by William Z. Foster in 1923.
In 1922, unions and sympathetic groups re-organized the Joint Labor Legislative Board, which forged a united front on Springfield legislation. AFL affiliates, the railroad brotherhoods, the CFL, the State Teachers Association and the Farmers’ Educational and Co-operative Union were amongst the members. This united front helped pass labor’s key legislative agenda in 1925, an anti-injunction bill, limiting court injunction in labor disputes. As a union democracy advocate, under Walker’s leadership the State Federation officers were elected through a popular vote by union members statewide. He ran on the Socialist ticket for State Representative in 1904 and for Congress in 1906. He strongly advocated workers’ cooperatives and in 1915 was elected the first President of the Illinois State Co-operative Society. Walker unsuccessfully ran for the UMWA presidency in 1908, 1916, and 1918. These were close races and Walker’s advocates charged fraud in his 1916 loss. He resigned as President of the State Federation in 1918 to run for UMWA President and came back in 1919 to re-win his Illinois AFL position. While out of office in 1919 he toured the nation, promoting U.S. membership in the League of Nations. In 1928 Walker made his last UMWA effort, but Lewis successfully denied Walker’s candidacy, claiming he was not “actively working at the trade.”
1930 turmoil in the UMWA ended Walker’s Federation leadership. There were two UMWA conventions that year, one in Springfield held by anti-Lewis factions, and another in Indianapolis, led by Lewis. Walker was elected secretary-treasurer by the Springfield convention; the AFL then forced Walker to resign as Federation President. The dispute went to the courts, where Lewis’ leadership was upheld, but so was Walker’s election as UMWA Illinois District 12 President. In 1932 dissidents launched the Progressive Mine Workers; Walker was still a UMWA officer, but the Illinois UMWA was so impoverished from these battles and the Depression that they asked the national organization to take over the Illinois District in 1933 and Lewis supporters gained control. Reuben Soderstrom had successfully filled Walker’s position at the State Federation in 1930. Without his UMWA base, Walker then began his final career position, business agent for the Men’s Teachers’ Union in Chicago. In 1930, Eugene Staley wrote of Walker, “Walker is a man of strong emotions; feeling, not logic, is the key to his spirit. …John H. Walker feels and talks of ‘decency and humanity,’ leaving the subtleties of constitutional law to others. …A likeable personality and an emotional nature make him an effective lobbyist; he can mix with politicians of all complexions in a free and easy way; he can win over wavering support to his cause; or he can flay his adversaries verbally in a committee hearing.”
Charles W. White began painting as a child growing up poor on the south side of Chicago. Although denied entrance to different art schools due to discrimination in the 1920s and 30’s, White finally received a scholarship from the School of the Art Institute, one of the few schools that accepted African Americans. As a painter in the WPA Federal Art Project in 1939, White was the only African-American on the murals staff (only 5% of Illinoisans hired in the FAP were African-American). His murals for the George Cleveland Hall Branch Library—now lost, History of the Negro Press for the1940 exhibition of the 75th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and other murals testified to the contributions of African-Americans leaders, activists, and workers. White painted the lives and history of African Americans workers—from sharecroppers to musicians to neighborhood people at a time when African-Americans were silenced or only portrayed negatively in art, history books, and the media. He was among the group of artists that organized the South Side Community Art Center, which was supported by the Roosevelt administration and the pockets of people in Bronzeville, along with Margaret Goss Burroughs, Gordon Parks, Eldizer Cortor, and Archibald Motley. Leaving Chicago in the 1940s, White never wavered from his commitment to using his art as a weapon for social justice. He said, “Paint is the only weapon I have in which to fight.” In honoring Charles White, the ILHS also pays homage to the other WPA artists in Illinois that painted murals portraying workers in Chicago and across Illinois, particularly, Mitchell Siporin, Edmund Britton, and Edward Millman.
Alejandro Romero began his studies in 1967 at the Academy of San Carlos of the National School of Fine Arts and finished his studies at the Art Institute of Chicago. Growing up in Mexico, he was influenced by his neighbor and mentor, the David Alfaro Siqueiros—a key influence for all muralists, and in England, he was profoundly affected by the muralist Charles Spencer who depicted the British industrial workers. Moving to Chicago in 1976, Romero has created art for unions, community organizations, and other concerns. His murals’ strikingly vivid colors bring joy, power, and life to his portrayals of communities, working people, and revolutionary leaders. His labor murals for the Central States Council, Chicago Federation of Labor, and Joliet Community Public Arts program feature workers in the service, steel, construction and trades, cultural arts, medical, and transportation industries. Each Romero mural is a celebration.
Since the 1970s, Kathleen Farrell has painted murals that portray the lives of communities and working people from the walls of Joliet to the halls of international unions in Washington, D.C. Whether the mural is for the Will-Grundy Counties Central Trades and Labor Council or Jobs with Justice, Farrell’s unique use of realism and rich colors seem to shine rays of light upon her subjects and do honor to the dignity and craft of men and women on the job: poultry workers, bricklayers, printers, laborers, electricians, service workers, stonecutters, canal workers, and musicians. Often not overtly political, the beauty of the workers and community people in the murals explicitly challenges the viewer to recognize the real builders of this country. Mentored by Mark Rogovin (who help to form Public Art Workshop and Chicago Muralist Group), Farrell teaches others to make murals through the Labor Heritage Foundation Great Labor Arts Exchange and the Friends of Community Art in Joliet, and consistently brings members into the experience of painting. She says, “Workers in general have not been exposed to the pleasure and power of art, and by bringing them together to paint the mural, they found it was fun, exciting, and interesting…It was something that enriched their lives, something they’d never thought about before.” In 1991, Farrell co-founded the Friends of Community Public Art with Kathleen Scarboro and others which has transformed Joliet’s walls into a testament to the history of this this important working class city. The ILHS also recognizes the instrumental collaborative work of Katherine Scarboro. Farrell lives in Joliet.
The ILHS Union Hall of Honor recognizes the mural work and other artistic agiprop for justice of Mike Alewitz. Most known in Chicago for his “Teamsters Power” mural, Alewitz has created murals, banners, puppets, and memorials to promote and be part of the struggles for human rights, dignity, and liberty. Unlike the WPA murals that could not depict any overt political message, Alewitz’s powerful murals do not hide and take any prisoners. Alewitz says, “I don’t paint murals that are easily understood. Art must be challenging. And the labor movement must be challenged and we must be challenged.” In his murals for international unions, Alewitz’s work has taken have him to Chernobyl in the Ukraine to Mexico. Like, Farrell, Alewitz brings the community into the powerful activity of painting murals that he has created. He teaches at Central Connecticut State College and co-runs the Labor Art and Mural Project. The ILHS also recognizes Daniel Manrique Ariras, a Mexican muralist that made the UE hall mural and collaborated with Alewitz on a UE Chicago-Mexico project.