The Illinois Labor History Society is proud to support students as they work on their annual History Fair projects. We encourage students to visit our archives, contact us for interviews, and explore our website as they complete their projects. In support of student research, the Illinois Labor History Society offers small cash prizes at the History Fair State Expo as well also a prize at the Chicago Metro High School Finals.
Students who look to Chicago and Illinois labor history for their projects will find many rich veins of topical material to explore. More than that, they may find themselves in a place where their research intersects with multiple broad themes of our national history.
For example, a project that begins with the garment strike of 1910-1911, may quickly lead to the themes of women in the workforce, social class relationships, industrial organization and economic structure, immigration, or the problem of child labor.
Or consider the possible extension of a project on the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937. The student might go beyond a description of the event in which ten men were shot to death by the police at a labor rally. That dramatic moment on Chicago’s East Side intersects with the nature of work in the steel mills, the formation of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee by the CIO; and, the election of President Roosevelt and the subsequent passage of the National Labor Relations Act. This one topic can open the door to explore the broad issue of the uses of power—political power, social and economic pressure, and the role of the Constitution as a limit on the abuse of power.
These are just two examples of the exciting paths of discovery possible with a project on labor history.
Students who choose projects that do not appear to involve labor history may nevertheless look for a labor history component. For example, projects on the I&M Canal, on Marshall Fields, or the Skyscrapers of Chicago could all address the experiences of the workforce involved.
Potential Topics and Themes
- The Changing Role of Women in the Workplace How did industrialization impact the experience of women in the work place? How did this apply in Chicago and the state of Illinois? How did World War II impact the opportunities for women workers? How did women organize to improve their wages and workplace health and safety? Potential topics to explore: The Careers of Female Trade Union Leaders, Women in the Sweatshops and Garment Industry, Women in Steel, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Hull House
- Immigration, Migration and the Changing Chicago Workforce How did the Great Migration change the Chicago workforce? What are the workplace stories of immigrants to Chicago from European countries, Mexico, Central America, Africa and Asia? How have these stories changed over time? Potential topics to explore: An investigation of how immigration and migration shaped work and community life in neighborhood such as Pilsen, Back-of-the-Yards or Bronzeville, and how it has changed over time
- Influence of Labor Unions How have working people come together to form unions to improve their wages and working conditions in Chicago? Potential topics to explore: Amalgamated Clothing Workers, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Carpenters Union, Industrial Workers of the World, Packinghouse Workers, Steelworkers, Teamsters, United Mine Workers of America, Women's Trade Union League
- Conflicts Between Workers and their Employers Chicago and Illinois have experienced major conflicts of local, national and even international significance, why did these events occur? What were the consequences? Potential topics to explore: Haymarket Tragedy (1886), Pullman Strike (1894), Memorial Day Massacre (1937)
- Mining History in Illinois Who was Mother Jones, and how did her time in Illinois shape her life as a nationally significant labor leader? What happened at the Cherry Mine Disaster and how did this event influence the history of workplace safety regulations? Potential Topics to Explore: Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, Cherry Mine Disaster, John Mitchell, John L. Lewis, the Battle of Virden