Working Class History PDF Print E-mail

Chicago gained fame as the city of "broad shoulders" in honor of the working people whose labor built it into a world-class industrial city. Today, although many of the steel mills, factories, stockyards and packing houses that employed them have since shut down, the city's motto is still "the city that works." The kinds of jobs most wage-earning men and women do have changed, but labor is still central to who we are and what keeps the city going. It is the chance to earn a better living that draws people from across the world to Chicago, from Europe in earlier years to Latin America, Africa, and Asia today.

Working-class history is the history of such people and their American-born counterparts and children, people who work for a living. That means it's the history of the vast majority of Americans, so it's a big subject area with many possibilities-topics including the changing nature of work, leisure, family life, community, faith, trade unions, politics, and more. What joins these topics together is looking at them from the perspective that class matters: that where we stand in the economy and in relation to employers and other workers shapes our and our families' lives in both obvious and subtle ways, usually in ways affected by other aspects of our identities as well, such as race, gender, nationality, faith tradition and the like. Working-class history looks at how Americans' experiences, life chances, culture, ideas, ways of organizing, and more have been shaped by class in changing ways over time. It uncovers how class matters.

One key aspect of working-class history is LABOR HISTORY: the story of the collective struggles by working people to improve their lives and better their communities, usually through trade unions and political activism. For more on these topics, see the suggestions from the Illinois Labor History Society:

Other broad topic areas include:

LEISURE AND CULTURE:What difference did class make to how Chicago's working people and their families spent their free time and how others in the city reacted to their pleasures?
  1. What was the lager "beer riot" of 1855 and why did participants feel so strongly about beer?
    * Read Doug Nelson, Labor Battleground: The Streets of Chicago for details, then consult city newspapers around the time of the events as primary sources.
  2. Why was there a panic among middle-class people over the dance halls attended by young people in the early twentieth century? What did economics have to do with the sexual revolution?
    * Read Joanne Meyerowitz, "The Roaring Teens and Twenties Reexamined: Sexuality in the Furnished Room Districts of Chicago," in Nancy A. Hewitt, ed., Women, Families, and Communities: Readings in American History, vol. 2, From 1865, then analyze Jane Addams, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets as a primary source, especially the chapter "The Quest for Adventure" to see things from a reformer's perspective to answer.
  3. The Bill of Rights guarantees free speech, but the promise has not always been kept. How did working-class Chicagoans make Bughouse Square (across from the Newberry Library) into a popular forum for free speech, especially dissent and advocacy of new ideas?
    * Read Slim Brundage, From Bughouse Square to the Beat Generation, and then work with Newberry Library staff to explore one of the episodes recounted in the book.
SOCIAL JUSTICE:Because work is so central to adults' lives and good jobs are so vital for achieving equality, working people have made key contributions to struggles for social justice, often unique contributions. The topics below offer some examples.
  1. The women's suffrage movement was stagnating until the 1910s, when large numbers of young wage-earning women got involved and revived it by bringing new tactics and arguments for getting women the right to the vote. What changes did they bring and how did they help the movement succeed?
    * Read Ellen Carol DuBois, "Working Women, Class Relations, and Suffrage Militance: Harriot Stanton Blatch and the New York Woman Suffrage Movement, 1894-1909," in Unequal Sisters: A Multi-Cultural Reader in U.S. Women's History, ed. Vicki Ruiz and Ellen DuBois, and then ask Reference librarians at the Newberry Library and/or the Chicago History Museum for help in locating sources on the Chicago women's suffrage movement, especially at the time of the 1910 Chicago clothing industry strike.
  2. Chicagoans invented community organizing as a strategy of social change that is now used all across the U.S. One good example is the Back of the Yards Council in the city's meat packinghouse neighborhoods in the 1930s. What did this community organization do and why was it so important in winning better conditions for working people in the Great Depression?
    * Read pp. 51-65 of Robert Fisher, Let The People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America, and the primary source guide to organizing by Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals (1946), and explain how his ideas and methods helped the community achieve change.
  3. Though few people know it today, progressive labor unions were a vital part of the civil rights coalition in the 1950s and 1960s. The Chicago-based United Packinghouse Workers of America, led by African Americans local leaders like Addie Wyatt and Charley Hayes, was a big help to Martin Luther King, Jr. Why did labor unionists support the civil rights movement and how did they help it achieve key victories such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
    * Read Roger Horowitz, Negro and White: Unite and Fight: A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930-1990, pp. 206-242 and then ask to interview the Reverend Addie Wyatt at the church she serves as co-pastor, the Vernon Park Church of God, or read one of interviews with her you can locate on the web to understand why she saw unions as vital for racial equality and racial equality as vital for unions.
  4. Much of the activism that advanced the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s was related to workplace issues, such as sex discrimination and sexual harassment. How did the Chicago-area steel worker Alice Peurala make women's rights part of human rights on the job?
    * Consult Mary Margaret Fonow, Union Women: Forging Feminism in the United Steelworkers of America and then read the interview with Peurala in O 'Farrell and Kornbluh, Rocking the Boat, Union Women's Voices, 1915-1975.
  5. Working-class communities get targeted for toxic waste dumping, often poorer communities of color especially, in what is sometimes called environmental racism. The South Side of Chicago, which is predominantly African-American and Hispanic, has the greatest concentration of hazardous waste sites in the nation. How did the people of Atgeld Gardens organize against toxic emissions that were causing diseases such as cancer, brain tumors, respiratory problems, birth deformities, and blindness?
    * Read Karl Grossman,. "Environmental Racism." Crisis 98 (4): 14- 17, 31-32, April 1991. Try to interview at least one of the Chicago activists involved.
FAITH:What roles have religious faith and institutions played in Chicago working-class communities? Can class matter where God is concerned?
  1. Chicago is home today to a national organization called Interfaith Worker Justice that draws on shared religious values among all faith communities in order to educate, organize and mobilize in support of campaigns to improve wages, benefits and working conditions for workers, especially low-wage workers. Write the story of one of their Chicago campaigns from the 1990s, analyzing why religious involvement was important and what difference it made to the outcome.
    * See their web site for orientation: Then call the office and ask to interview people involved and compare IWJ's coverage to mainstream newspapers.
  2. The Catholic Worker movement began in the 1930's to apply Catholic ideals to the needs and struggles of working people and actively seek social justice. Check a biography of Dorothy Day and some of her speeches and writings for the Chicago work of Catholic social justice activists and tell the story of one of their campaigns.
    * Resources: Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion, by Robert Coles; Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, ed. Robert Ellsberg
  3. During the great Pullman Strike of 1894, the Rev. William Carwardine, the minister of First Methodist Episcopal Church in Pullman, wrote a full story of the strike so people from other communities could learn what their mainstream newspapers were not telling them. Some see his effort as the beginning of the involvement of churches in supporting workers' organizing and labor reform efforts in the Progressive Era.
    * Read his account of the strike and analyze how his religious convictions led him to support the Pullman workers and help those who were blacklisted and lost their jobs and homes: William H. Carwardine, The Pullman Strike (126pp)
SOCIAL CONFLICT: Besides union struggles and electoral politics, in what ways did class differences or work-based conflicts lead to or influence clashes over power in city life?
  1. Why do so many more working-class children than middle-class or wealthy children get in trouble and wind up in the juvenile court system? Why do working-class kids get drawn to the streets as places to socialize and why do police and some adults come to see them-and treat them-as threats? Can we see parallels between the experiences of white immigrant children at the turn of the century and those of black and Latino young people today and if so why?
    * Read Jane Addams, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1906). How does she explain juvenile delinquency and why or why isn't her argument persuasive?
  2. What role did conflicts between white and black workers have in the race riot of 1919, a time that came to be known as "red summer" for all the violence and bloodshed? What role did packinghouse companies play in creating hostility between them and why?
    * Read Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919 by William M. Tuttle, Jr. and contrast the accounts of the riot in The Chicago Defender and The Chicago Tribune.
  3. When black Chicagoans tried to enter skilled jobs in the building trades after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed employment discrimination, many white construction workers bitterly opposed them. Both sides were working-class, but how did being white or black make their experiences different and set them at odds?
    * Check the New York Times Index for articles on the 1969 Chicago clash, read them, and follow up with articles from the same weeks in the mainstream Chicago press and the Defender to explain what led to such a pitched battle.
ECONOMIC JUSTICE:What visions did Chicago's working people develop of economic justice and why were theirs ideas so often in conflict with those held by wealthy Chicagoans?
  1. Why did Chicago workers want an 8-hour work day and who opposed them and why?
    * See Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day, by Philip S. Foner and David Roediger, and then compare coverage of the 1886 Chicago strike for a shorter work day in labor publications and the business press or mainstream city newspapers.
  2. Why did workers and business owners have different views about property rights in the 1930s, as shown in the wave of sit-down strikes that swept Chicago in 1937, a new tactic in instead of leaving their jobs, workers stayed on the premises together and refused to work until employers granted their demands. (This tactic later inspired the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s). In just 2 weeks, from March 7-21, the city had almost 60 sit-down strikes, involving everyone from motormen on the "El" to waitresses, office workers, and peanut baggers at the stadium.
    * Compare and contrast the portrayal of sit-down strikers in the mainstream city press and the labor press in March of 1937 and explain the differences you see.
  3. What happens to older working people and their communities when plants close and they lose their jobs? What life experiences led Frank Lumpkin to lead this fight for fair treatment after years of hard work at Wisconsin Steel, when it shut down with no warning? How did he and others organize successfully to win severance compensation, though it took 17 years?
    * Read Always Bring a Crowd: The Story of Frank Lumpkin, Steelworker, by Beatrice Lumpkin, and Rusted Dreams: Hard Times in a Steel Community, by David Bensman and Roberta Lynch and contrast their perspective to coverage of the same events in the business press.
IMMIGRATION:How does the history of immigrants in Chicago look different when we focus on their jobs: the opportunities for earning that drew newcomers here and the experiences they had on these jobs as they tried to earn a living?
  1. Interview 3 adult immigrants in your neighborhood about their decisions to come to the U.S. and write up what you learn, making an argument about why work matters to understanding their lives. Make sure to ask them about their parents' lives to get a sense of change over generations. Work with your teacher to develop the questions.

For More Neighborhood-based ideas, see "The Labor Trail: Chicago's History of Working-Class Life and Struggle" at

_ Topics prepared by Nancy MacLean, formerly of the History Department, Northwestern University, and now at Duke University.  The Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies sponsors a prize for best project in this area.


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