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Between two fires: race and the Chicago Federation of Labor, 1904-1922

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Title: Between two fires: race and the Chicago Federation of Labor, 1904-1922
Author(s): Bates, David
Director of Research: Barrett, James R.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s): Barrett, James R.
Doctoral Committee Member(s): Roediger, David R.; Cha-Jua, Sundiata K.; Lang, Clarence E.
Department / Program: History
Discipline: History
Degree Granting Institution: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Degree: Ph.D.
Genre: Dissertation
Subject(s): Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) John Fitzpatrick William Z. Foster progressive unionism Chicago Race Riot of 1919 interracial unionism Stockyards Labor Council (SLC)
Abstract: This dissertation critically examines the failure of the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) to organize interracial unions during the World War I era. Specifically, it argues that progressive unionism was structurally limited and offered CFL leaders little ability to directly confront the racism of white workers. External factors—most importantly, the race riot of 1919 and the hegemonic power of employers—further weakened the Federation and doomed its efforts. After suffering a series of brutal defeats in the early twentieth century, all of which involved racial conflict, CFL leadership sought to transform the city’s labor movement. Their solution was “progressive unionism,” a system by which loosely affiliated union locals were empowered to organize unskilled workers, with a particular emphasis on African Americans. The CFL’s initial organizing drive was met with enthusiasm by white and black workers alike, and scored a historic victory in 1918 when the President’s Mediation Commission awarded the city’s meatpacking workers union recognition, a wage increase, and the eight-hour day. Unfortunately, progressive unionism was organized around so-called “neighborhood locals” organized by community rather than by craft. As a result, African Americans faced de facto segregation within the Federation and quickly grew frustrated. On the shopfloor, tensions between whites (suspicious of African Americans, who they feared as a “scab race”) and blacks (who viewed unions with a jaundiced eye) exploded into violence. Employers used spies and agitators to enflame conflict, and courted the loyalty of black workers on the shopfloor and middle-class leaders in the community. The brutality of the 1919 race riot further divided whites and blacks, and a series of racially entangled defeats in the early 1920s, including disastrous strikes in steel and meatpacking, sealed the fate of progressive unionism.
Issue Date: 2012-09-18
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/34211
Rights Information: Copyright 2012 David Bates
Date Available in IDEALS: 2012-09-18
Date Deposited: 2012-08
 

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