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Unloading rolls of paper from a horse drawn cart. Nov 7th 1903.

[Detail] Unloading rolls of paper from a horse drawn cart. Nov 7th 1903.


During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, workers throughout the United States went on strike to demand higher wages, shorter hours, and the ability to negotiate through unions. Chicago, one of the largest and most tumultuous cities of the era, became the setting for two events that drew the attention of the entire nation to the conflicts between capital and labor.

In 1886, a labor demonstration at Chicago's Haymarket Square ended in a violent confrontation between Chicago police and labor protesters. Search on Haymarket for photographs of the location of this infamous riot and refer to the American Memory collection, Chicago Anarchists on Trial: Evidence from the Haymarket Affair, 1886-1887 to learn more about the riot and the trial that followed.

In 1894, workers of the Pullman Company, a railroad car manufacturer, went on strike when owner, George Pullman, fired over 2,000 workers and reduced wages by an average 25 percent. Soon, the American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs, took command of the strike, calling on rail workers throughout Chicago to stop operating trains carrying Pullman cars. The strike seriously disrupted the nation's rail service and put considerable pressure on Pullman to negotiate. But Pullman, along with other railroad companies, solicited President Grover Cleveland, who sent in federal troops to restore train service. Search on Pullman for numerous pictures of the company town where the disgruntled employees of the Pullman Company worked and lived.

  • Why did the Haymarket Affair and the Pullman strike end up being set backs for the labor movement?
  • What if any victories came out of these events for the labor movement?
  • Why do you think that business owners such as George Pullman created company towns such as Pullman, Illinois, located just outside of Chicago?
  • What would you expect the town to have been like at the time of the Pullman strike?
  • What are the pros and cons of a company town?

Eugene V. Debs became a national figure during the Pullman strike and later ran for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket. Search on socialist for images of Debs and his colleagues. Other radical labor organizers of the day were often drawn to Chicago, including William "Big Bill" Haywood, organizer of the Industrial Workers of the World, anarchist Emma Goldman, and Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor. The collection also includes photographs of William Bross Lloyd, a millionaire from Winnetka, Illinois, and one of the organizers of the Communist Labor Party, and populist Jacob Coxey, who organized "Coxey's Army" to march on Washington in 1894 in a failed effort to seek a national public works relief program to provide jobs for the unemployed.

  • How did labor unrest impact early-twentieth-century politics?

Chicago continued to be a center of labor activity in the early-twentieth century with the Chicago City Railway strike of 1903, the Stockyard strike of 1904, the Garment Workers strike of 1915, and the Bloomington and Normal Electric Power and Railway strike of 1917, all involving confrontations with police. Use the Subject Index heading, Chicago City Railway Company workers strike and the search terms, stockyards strike, garment workers, and Bloomington Normal for photographs of these conflicts.

Chicago police arrested a number of demonstrators during this period, including Lucy Parsons, the widow of Albert Parsons, one of the men hanged following the Haymarket Affair of 1886. She was arrested in 1915 during an unemployment protest at Hull House. Search on Parsons for a portrait of this famous labor leader.

  • Why do you think that Chicago was the center for so much labor activity during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries?
  • Why do you think that events in Chicago ended up figuring so significantly in United States labor history?

Search on worker for images of Chicago's diverse working class. Search on labor for images of Chicagoans celebrating Labor Day, which was first proposed by the Central Labor Union of New York in 1883 to recognize the contributions of American workers to national prosperity and to afford workers and their families a day of rest and recreation.

  • What kinds of jobs are depicted in these images of Chicago workers?
  • How many of these jobs are outdated?
  • How did Chicagoans celebrate Labor Day in the early-twentieth century?
  • How have labor and Labor Day changed over time?