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Illinois Labor History Society

Labor History Articles

Filtering by Tag: general labor history

Why Unions Matter

Webtrax Admin

Produced by The Democratic Party of Evanston

February 2011

With the full-scale attack on collective bargaining launched by Wisconsin's Governor Scott Walker, maybe you're wondering how to convince your colleagues, friends or family that unions deserve support. Or perhaps, frankly, you need to hear those arguments yourself. The case is clear: a vibrant, powerful labor movement makes for a better America. Here's the evidence, with links providing more information.


Your paycheck will be bigger. In nearly every occupation, union members earn more than non-union workers. Overall, union members earn nearly 30% more than non-union workers. If you're a woman, or a person of color, unions make an even bigger difference: Latino union members, for instance, earn over 50% more than their non-union counterparts. For low-wage workers, a union card can lift you out of poverty: non-union cashiers, for instance, earn wages that keep them below the poverty line, while union cashiers make more than $2400 above poverty guidelines.

Your health and pension benefits will be better. Nearly 85% of union members receive health insurance through their employers, compared to 55% of non-union workers. If you are a union member you are far more likely to have employer-sponsored retirement plans.

You'll get more time off. Union workers average 28% more vacation time than non-union workers.

You'll be safer, better informed, and more empowered. Unions actively communicate with their members about beneficial laws and ensure that protective regulations are enforced. Unionized workers are more likely to take advantage of workers' compensation, get their benefits faster, and return to work more quickly. Union members are more likely to receive unemployment insurance. Union workplaces are far more likely to receive OSHA inspections. Union workers are much more likely to know about, and benefit from, the provisions of the Family Medical Leave Act. Union members who are fired or disciplined because they missed work for family-care emergencies can turn to their unions for protection, and in many cases will overturn their punishment. Union members are more likely to receive overtime pay they've earned.


You earn more because unions exist. "Unions have set norms and established practices that become more generalized throughout the economy, thereby improving pay and working conditions for the entire workforce." This is especially true for those lacking college degrees (75% of the workforce), as high school graduates in unionized industries (even if they're in non-union shops) earn more than those in less-unionized segments of the economy. All workers benefit as well from labor's campaign to raise federal and state minimum wage provisions.

Your working conditions and benefits are better because unions have improved them. Unions have been the driving force propelling advances for all workers, like unemployment benefits, workers' compensation, improved treatment of immigrant workers, family leave, and safety regulations. Labor's victories are not for their members only: thanks to a 2008 union lawsuit, for instance, all workers who are required to wear safety gear on the job now must be provided that equipment by their employers, rather than paying for it themselves.

Unions strengthen the economy generally. "Analyses of the union effect on firms and the economy have generally found unions to be a positive force, improving the performance of firms and contributing to economic growth."


America is a more just and a more equal society because of the labor movement. Unions have provided the organizational savvy, the financial backing, and the foot soldiers to bring about crucial social reforms throughout our country's history. We can thank unions for social security, the 40-hour week, child labor prohibitions, farm worker protections and mine safety provisions, minimum wage laws, safer workplaces, and much more. Unions were integral to the civil rights movement and made possible the Equal Pay Act and the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s.

Unions are still essential to progressive change. Enacting health care reform, codifying family leave time, protecting immigrant workers, safeguarding Social Security, combating discrimination -- labor remains on the front lines of these and many other ongoing battles. Unions constitute an indispensable advocate for the disadvantaged and the powerless; a stronger labor movement translates to more progressive legislation.

Unions constitute the principal bulwark against corporate political power. In the aftermath of the Citizens United decision, unions are all we've got offsetting the floodtide of campaign cash coming from the Chamber of Commerce and its ilk. Even now, unions are far outspent by corporate PACs, and if labor declines even further, we will see fewer progressive candidates (or Democrats of any variety) elected to office.

Income inequality -- perhaps the most important issue of our time -- can be addressed only by strengthening the labor movement. Unions lift workers into the middle class and help counterbalance Wall Street's pervasive influence in Washington.


Unions make workers' lives easier, which leads to better products, better care, and better service. Union workplaces see less turnover and provide more training, meaning a more experienced workforce. By negotiating for and enforcing limitations on workloads, unions allow teachers to maintain smaller classrooms, keep case loads for social workers manageable, make it possible for hotel maids to clean rooms more thoroughly, and ensure enough workers are on the job to clear our streets after snowfalls. Union workers, who can communicate more effectively with management about problems they encounter in the production process, produce higher quality goods.

Enforcement of union regulations makes things safer for workers, and for you. Firefighters and police officers' unions ensure public safety by fighting for proper staffing levels. Unions work to keep nurse-patient ratios manageable and to prohibit mandatory overtime for healthcare professionals, which makes a measurable difference: if you suffer a heart attack, you're less likely to die if the nurses who care for you are in a union. Airline pilot unions keep our skies and runways safer. Food and farm workers' unions lead the struggle to protect our food supply and keep pesticide use down.


Through the electoral process, we express our collective voice and shape our political destiny. Unions allow workers a collective voice with which they can affect their economic destiny. Collective bargaining allows workers some say over their wages, benefits, and working conditions -- in other words, those things central to the quality of life. Unions provide workers with an avenue for redress when they've been sexually harassed; when they've been passed over because of their race, gender, or ethnicity; when they've been disciplined for complaints about unsafe conditions. Unions empower people to speak out against unfair treatment and to speak up for their rights.

Unions make America work. Spread the word.

Samuel Gompers

Webtrax Admin

1850-1924, First President of the American Federation of Labor, 1886-1924

Samuel Gompers, for whom Gompers Park on Chicago's Northwest Side was named, was one of the founders of the American Federation of Labor in 1886. He was elected president, a position he held, except for one year, until his death 38 years later.

Under his leadership, the organization grew from a handful of struggling labor unions to become the dominant organization within the Labor Movement in the United States and Canada.

Gompers was born in London, England, on January 26, 1850. His parents were poor immigrant Jews from Holland. In London the young Sam was apprenticed to a shoemaker at age 10. He soon changed trades and became a cigar maker, a trade he brought with him to New York when his family emigrated to America in 1863.

Life was difficult in the crowded slums of New York. There were a few relatively large cigar making shops, perhaps, with as many as 75 employees; but much of the work was done in a thousand or more sweatshops, often the same crowded apartments where the workers lived. Thousands of little children worked in New York sweatshops and factories, as they helped their parents eke out a living.

By 1885, Sam Gompers had become highly skilled at his trade and was employed in one of the larger shops. He was respected by his fellow workers, mostly Germans, who elected him as president of Cigar Makers Union Local 144. He and the other officers were unpaid as they struggled to keep the union together in the face of mechanization and the flooding of the labor market by scores of new immigrants, largely Bohemian.

In 1881 Gompers was sent as the delegate of the Cigar Makers to a conference of various unions which created a loose confederation to be called the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Councils. Although without the title of President, as head of the legislative committee, Gompers became its leader, practically speaking; but the organization was structurally weak and ineffective.

Nevertheless, the need for close cooperation among like-minded labor organizations was abundantly evident; so the organization was reconstituted in 1886 as the American Federation of Labor. This time Gompers was the President. His office was not much more than an 8x10 room in a shed. His son was the office boy. There was $160 in the treasury. As Gompers said, it was "much work, little pay, and very little honor."

Four years later, the AFL represented 250,000 workers. In two more years the number had grown to over one million. Under Gompers, the guiding principle was to concentrate on collective bargaining with employers, and on legislative issues directly affecting the job. Broad social goals and political entanglements were left to others.

Gompers did have an interest in international labor issues. At the conclusion of World War I, he attended the Versailles Treaty negotiations, where he was instrumental in the creation of the International Labor Organization (ILO) under the League of Nations.

He was a supporter of trade unionism in Mexico and, though elderly and in failing health, he went to Mexico City to attend the inauguration of Mexico's reform President Calles; and, also, the Congress of the Pan-American Federation of Labor. It was at the Congress that his final collapse occurred. He was rushed to a hospital in San Antonio, Texas where he died on December 13, 1924.

Some questions to explore:

If the AFL was the "dominant" organization, what were the names of others, and what was their role?

What did/does the International Labor Organization do?

The Cigar Makers were an interesting early union. What can you find out about the trade and their organization? (The Cigar Makers in Chicago owned a large number of gravesites in Forest Home Cemetery (Waldheim) in Forest Park, ILL. There is a large memorial stone and many graves of union members.)

What are Bohemians?

Rabbi Jacob Weinstein

Webtrax Admin

Biographical sketch of Rabbi Jacob Weinstein and his connections with the cause of labor.

"And, what do you want to be when you grow up?" inquired the gentleman of the young newsboy who was peddling papers outside the Portland [Or.] Chamber of Commerce Building one day in about 1914.

The young fellow responded that he wanted to be a lawyer and help get the IWWs and other innocent people out of jail. It turned out that the 12-year-old Jacob Weinstein became a Rabbi instead; but he remained true to his concern for justice and the defense of the needy and oppressed.

The newsboy's customer just happened to be attorney Charles E. Wood, Portland's most prominent civil liberties defender, one of whose clients was no less than famed anarchist, Emma Goldman, who was certain to be arrested during her periodic agitational tours of the Northwest.

And so, the immigrant Jewish boy, not long off the boat from Poland, became the protege of a noted advocate of union organization and the First Amendment, in whose office the schoolboy listened to many a discussion of workers' rights, socialist thought, and American politics.

Years later, the boy became the young rabbi on his first job, in San Francisco, preaching support for striking longshoremen, or urging higher wages for department store employees to a congregation which included the owners of the stores!

Soon, his bags were packed and Rabbi Weinstein was in search of a new post with a congregation more receptive to those forms of social advocacy which were consistent with his reading of Jewish ethical thought. That congregation was to be Chicago's K.A.M. Temple, where he found both sympathy and encouragement.

During the years of World War II, Rabbi Weinstein served as public member of the Chicago area War Labor Board which arbitrated a crushing load of contract disputes between workers and their employers. This experience led to subsequent arbitration assignments in the labor relations field, and to an appointment by President Kennedy to the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, and to the Business Ethics Advisory Committee to the Secretary of Commerce.

We do not know whether business ethics became any more enlightened from Rabbi Weinstein's instruction; but there can be no doubt that he felt welcome and relevant during his term of service on the Public Review Board of the United Auto Workers, established by Walter Reuther in 1957 to mediate and adjudicate disputes within the union. Among his colleagues on that Board were Msgr. George Higgins, chair of the Catholic Conference on Social Research; Prof. Frank McCulloch, formerly head of the Labor Education Division at Roosevelt University, and Dr. Robin Flemming, labor arbitrator and President of the University of Michigan.

"Jacob brought the human influence," wrote the Board's executive director." He brought that much needed balance as a great humanitarian with understanding and compassion."

Rabbi Jacob Weinstein: 1902 - 1974

May --Labor History Month

Webtrax Admin

A list of historical events that happened in the month of May.

(In 1995 and 1996 President Clinton proclaimed the month of May as Labor History Month. It is presumed that he will do so again in 1997.)

May 1
1830...Birth of Mother Jones.
1886...March of the 80,000 up Michigan Avenue for the Eight Hour Day.
1951...Founding of the Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians Union.

May 2
1911...Passage of the Illinois Workman's Compensation Law, which Dr. Alice Hamilton helped to get passed.

May 3
1886...Workers killed and injured by police at McCormick Reaper Plant.

May 4
1886...Haymarket Square Meeting, Police Attack, and the Bomb thrown by someone unknown.

May 5
1852...Founding of the Typographical Union.
1886...Police attack on Jewish Workers from the Chicago West Side as they tried to march into the Loop to protest slum conditions.
1888...Founding of the International Association of Machinists. 

May 8
1926...Founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters by A. Philip Randolph and Milton P. Webster.

May 9
1916...Founding of the American Federation of Teachers.
1934...Longshoremen's General Strike on West Coast.

May 10
1937...Founding of Transport Workers Union.

May 11
1894...Pullman Strike begins.

May 12
1958...Founding of the Laundry and Dry Cleaning Union.

May 15
1893...Founding of the Western Federation of Miners, the union of Big Bill Haywood, later head of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
1935...Passage of the National Labor Relations Act.

May 16
1934...Teamsters Strike for Recognition in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

May 19
1937...Founding of Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union.

May 20
1926...Passage of the Railway Labor Act.

May 22
1895...Eugene V. Debs enters Woodstock, Ill., jail after trial for injunction violation during Pullman Strike.

May 25
1932...Bonus Marchers arrive in Washington, D.C., to protest unemployment.

May 26
1937...Battle of the Overpass--Walter Reuther and the UAW in Detroit.

May 30
1937...Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel in South Chicago.

NOTE...Compiled by WILLIAM J. ADELMAN, Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society

Live Off Work, Not Off Workers

Webtrax Admin

A serious Labor Day Address made by the President of Southwest Missouri State University, Dr. John Keiser.

For five hundred years America has depended on and glorified work. The United States was built by the farmers, the itinerant craftsmen, the indentured servants and the slaves who settled the frontier, by the tradesmen who constructed the cities, the gandy dancers who laid the railroad tracks, and their brothers who operated the trains, the miners who provided the fuel and metals, the teamsters and sailors who opened the doors of national and international commerce, the men and women who turned the wheels of major industries, the clerks in the nationwide retail establishments, the providers in the service industries, and the technicians who facilitate the information highway.

Their work was valued by all elements of society, rich and poor alike, as a necessary ingredient to settling a continent, to making the capitalist free enterprise system strong and profitable, to winning wars, and to making peace civilized and comfortable. They came first from Europe, then Africa, and more recently from South America and Asia, to work and to mix t heir sweat, their dreams, and their genes to create an ever-new nation. It was their work and the Constitution of the United States that united each generation of newcomers to America with those already here.

Work has been emphasized and praised by our finest leaders and authors. Abraham Lincoln put it simply when he said, "All that serves labor serves the union. All that harms labor is treason to America. No line can be drawn between these two." And when W alt Whitman, America's best poet, wrote, "I hear America Singing," he wrote only of workers. It is worth recalling on Labor Day. It goes like this:

"I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be, blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The woodcutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else..."

The problem, of course, was that while nearly everyone was stressing the virtue and the significance of work, too many forgot the worker. Lincoln regretted the spirit and said (ironically), "You toil and earn bread and I'll eat it." In the first steel mills the process seemed to be to grind up a load of ore, a load of coke, and a load of workers to produce a ton of steel. Labor became a factor of production, and too many forgot that one of the essential industrial elements was human, and deserved to be treated that way.

It was, of course, the failure to do so that led to the establishment of organized labor. The message of the early 19th century craft unions and workingmen's political parties, the inclusive Knights of Labor, the skilled crafts of the American Federation of Labor, and the industrial unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, was that work (praised and valued by all), cannot be separated from the treatment, reward, and respect accorded the worker. Their efforts and those of the men and women who led them to achieve a fair share of what their work produced is what Labor Day is about.

It was the organized worker who registered gains in reasonable hours and wages, safety, and sufficient security and benefits to lead dignified lives. They campaigned to broaden the franchise, for universal public education, and for equitable treatment before the law.

Through apprenticeship programs skills were passed down to young workers. Neighborhoods and communities were formed to meet the needs of those who shared their workday with one another. American presidents praised those who made the tools to win the nation's wars. SMSU is proud to have the labor history archives, which records that story in the Ozarks, on its campus. I urge you to help us make it complete and accessible.

Since the mid-1970s, the challenges of the modern world have made explaining the importance of work and representing the worker more difficult than at any time in this century. In my hometown where everyone once was a coal miner and dependent on a sing le industry, work was easily understood by young people. In Springfield, Missouri, today, with forty or fifty different manufacturing establishments, a bewildering number of service industry jobs, many close to the minimum wage, and the cynicism and temptations of everyday life, work is much tougher to explain to young people than it once was.

In the face of multi-wage earner families, new immigrants, competitive employer-sponsored assistance programs, increasing numbers of part-time employees, stagflation, foreign competition and a global market, deregulation and new forms of competition, and occasional leaders who live off the organization instead of for it, effectively representing workers is much more complex than it once was. In a society where individual behavior of the most extreme fashion seems to command greatest attention, "Solidarity Forever," is not a compelling rallying cry.

What all citizens must understand, however, is that a democratic America in the 21st Century depends upon the importance of work, as well as upon the dignity of and respect for the worker. Those commitments have rarely been more important, and Labor Day is the time to make that point.

Delivering that message is not a task for the labor leader alone, for those who will make the greatest contribution will learn how to work with many groups. As a person whose family is buried in the only labor-owned cemetery in America, in graves whose deed says they do not own the coal beneath them, I wish our present and future leaders well.

Thank you for asking me to be with you today.

John H. Keiser
Labor Day Address
September 4, 1995

Note: Dr. Keiser gave the above address at the 1995 Labor Day Parade and Picnic in Springfield, Mo. He shared the platform, at that time, with Governor Mel Carnahan and IBEW International Secretary Jack Moore. Dr. Keiser is the President of Southwest Missouri State University which houses the Ozark Labor Union Archives. The university campus is located in Springfield, Mo.

A former professor of history, Dr. Keiser is a native of Mount Olive, Illinois, the location of the Union Miners' Cemetery where Mother Jones is buried "among my boys." Mount Olive lies between Springfield, Ill. and St. Louis, Mo. A visit to the Cemetery and its impressive monument is well worth a short detour to the east from I-55. It lies on the western edge of the town, and can be easily found; or just ask anyone for directions.

Note: You can find the extraordinary story of how the Union Miners Cemetery came to be, and that of some fascinating characters who are buried there, in the pages of The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn, 1969. Look for "The Union Miners Cemetery at Mt. Olive, Illinois: A Spirit Thread of Labor History." The author? Dr. John Keiser! Perhaps, your local library can acquire it for you.

First Labor Day Parade

Webtrax Admin

An account of the labor parade in New York City (and the secret reason why it was held) which became the first Labor Day Parade.

[Ted Watts is the author of The First Labor Day Parade, a fascinating little booklet which describes the very first Labor Day Parade as the various contingents came past the reviewing stand. The booklet is available from the Illinois Labor History Society ($5.00).]

The first parade was not held on a Monday, but on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City. The parade was repeated annually without interruption, but not always on a Monday, until several states and then the Congress in 1894, settled on the first Monday in September.

Those first parades were really protest rallies for the adoption of the 8-hour day, rather than the, often tame civic events they have involved into. Participants had to give up a day's pay in order to march. The New York City Central Labor Union (CLU) even levied a fine on non-participants!

In 1882, the New York City CLU was a lodge of the still-secret Knights of Labor, with a progressive tailor, Robert Blissert at its head. His right-hand man and Secretary of the CLU was Mathew Maguire, a machinist. The parade was timed to coincide with a national Kinghts of Labor conference being held in New York. This accounts for the presence of almost the entire K of L leadership on the reviewing stand. But their affiliation with labor was masked for the reporters who covered the parade. Grand Master Workman Terrence Powderley, for example, was introduced as the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, which he, in fact, was.

The parade Call and all invitations were sent out over the signature of Mathew Maguire. During the post-parade picnic at Wendel's Elm Park, P.J. McGuire of the Carpenters, was one of many speakers; but he does not figure during the planning for the parade.

By the 1890's, when the Knights of Labor had all but disappeared, and Samuel Gompers' American Federation of Labor was the dominant labor organization, the folklore about the origins of labor's holiday began.

Robert Blisset was no longer a labor activist. He had become a custom tailor with his own shop in Manhattan. Mathew Maguire had moved to New Jersey, where he became very active in the Socialist Labor Party. P.J. McGuire became a member of the AFL Carpenters' hierarchy.

Gompers simply re-wrote history to conform to the spirit of his new American Federation of Labor by crediting P.J. McGuire with the Labor Day Parade idea. Because the AFL was very non-political, the fact that Mathew Maguire had the effrontery to run as the Vice Presidential candidate on the National Socialist Labor Party ticket in 1896 erased his chances of recognition as the father of Labor Day. Blissert was conveniently out of the Labor Movement.

All of this, and more, can be found in greater fun and detail within my little book, The First Labor Day Parade.

Ted Watts,
Silver Spring, MD.