Chicago: Storm Center of Class Conflict

By Richard Schneirov, Indiana State University

The events surrounding Haymarket are impossible to make sense of without understanding that they were part of what late nineteenth-century observers called the "social" or "labor question." Chicago, more than any other city, embodied the conditions that made American labor into a burning social problem. It was the quintessential industrial city of the era, a nexus of Eastern capital attracted by proximity to markets and raw materials and a labor supply consisting largely of workers of immigrant background attracted by relatively high wages and cheap transportation. But, the city lacked the leavening of a pre-industrial class structure or the political glue provided by a centralized party machine that in Eastern cities buffered, moderated or diverted class hostility and conflict. To numerous outside observers Chicago seemed to be given over to vulgar moneymaking, ruthless competition, and parvenu manners. In the late nineteenth century nowhere else was the yawning gulf between social classes so evident as in Chicago where a largely Catholic and Lutheran -- or in many cases free thinking -- foreign-born working class faced off against a native-born capitalist class.

It was during the 1873-1878 depression that Chicago gained its deserved reputation for class conflict and working-class radicalism. In December 1873 thousands of foreign-born workers, many attracted to the city by its rebuilding following the 1871 Chicago Fire, marched under Socialist leadership demanding bread or work. Their target was the upper class-controlled Relief and Aid Society, which had hoarded fire relief funds. The event sent shivers of foreboding through the city's business and civic leaders, who recalled the Paris Commune, a revolutionary upheaval in 1871 that was crushed by the French government with great bloodshed.

Then, in July 1877 a national railroad strike precipitated a general strike in the city involving tens of thousands of workers of all occupations, nationalities, and religions. The ensuing violent confrontation with police led to approximately thirty deaths and two hundred wounded. Though the strike was largely spontaneous, the new Workingmen's Party, a socialist organization, had come closest to providing it with leadership. In the aftermath of the strike, socialism became part of the city's public discourse. Socialist George Schilling wrote that the 1877 strike "was the calcium light that illumined the skies of our social and industrial life . . . . Our influence as a (Socialist) party both in Chicago and elsewhere was very limited until the 'Great Railroad Strike of 1877. . . . . [The strike] secured us the public ear.'"1

Bordering on an insurrection, the great strike -- and the violence necessary to defeat it -- left employers and the middle classes feeling isolated, anxious, and fearful. Many viewed the city's workers as the "dangerous classes." Immediately after the strike leading citizens professionalized the state militia, built new armories, and restricted the private militias of the socialists in their public drilling. A new Citizens League started by Marshall Field, Cyrus McCormick and other elite businessmen, located the sources of dissent in workers' intemperance and the saloon culture.

But in a city in which the native-born, Protestant middle and upper classes were in the minority, such views had difficulty assembling a majority in the electoral system. In 1879 Chicago voters elected a Democratic mayor for the first time since before the Civil War. The new mayor, Carter Harrison I, won because a Socialist third party garnered 19 percent of the total vote, which included a substantial bloc of German voters, who defected from the Republican Party. Realizing that he needed to keep these voters from returning to the Republican camp, he assiduously courted them, including their labor base. He appointed Socialists to local patronage positions and signed into law ordinances enacting several planks in the Socialist platform, including a model factory and tenement house inspection act. When the labor movement revived, Harrison appointed police officers that would refrain from harassing Socialist picnics and parades and from intervening on the side of employers in strikes of politically favored unions. 2

1. George Schilling, "History of the Labor Movement in Chicago," in Life of Albert R. Parsons, ed. Lucy Parsons, (Chicago: Mrs. Lucy E. Parsons, 1903).

2. For a discussion of Harrison and the political context of the Haymarket Affair see Richard Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics: Class Conflict and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1864-97 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998).