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Chicago’s Progressive Alliance: Labor and the Bid for Public Streetcars

Author(s):Leidenberger, Georg
Reviewer(s):Clair, David J. St.

Published by EH.NET (October 2006)

Georg Leidenberger, Chicago’s Progressive Alliance: Labor and the Bid for Public Streetcars. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2006. vii + 202 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 0-87580-356-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David J. St. Clair, Department of Economics, California State University, East Bay.

Georg Leidenberger seeks to redefine the role of Chicago labor unions in the city’s Progressive Movement at the turn of the twentieth century. Union membership in Chicago surged from one hundred thousand in 1900 to three hundred thousand in 1903. Membership growth coincided with unprecedented labor solidarity and public support. In addition, labor expanded its agenda beyond narrow work-related issues to include broader social issues of city corruption and municipal reform. Labor created alliances and coalitions with middle class reform groups and became a driving force in the reform movement.

Leidenberger credits two new Chicago service unions with labor’s success: the teamsters and the public school teachers union. The rapid growth of membership and inter-trade labor solidarity was largely the work of the teamsters and their ability to use sympathy strikes to promote the unionization of less powerful workers. On the other hand, the teachers union and the Chicago Federation of Labor were instrumental in expanding labor’s agenda and hegemony and in breaking down the barriers to building coalitions with other progressive interests.

Leidenberger admits to feeling “nostalgia” for the day when labor unions assumed center stage in municipal reform politics and he seeks to understand the reasons for this earlier success (p. 4). While his nostalgia extends to sympathy for the sympathy strike (yes, the pun is intended), one need not be similarly disposed to benefit from this book. Whether you rejoice or recoil at the sympathy strike, Leidenberger draws on archival data to effectively document labor’s use of the tactic to expand its power and influence.

Leidenberger’s primary focus is on labor and its role in politics. Transit is essentially a case study for these issues. Transit historians will not find any discussion of the history or economics of transit per se. This may limit the book, but it does not diminish its importance. Scholars have often gazed into the transit mirror and seen different reflections: transit as city builder, transit as city unifier, transit as competing technology, transit as a business, transit as a regulated franchise monopoly, transit as a corruptor of urban politics, and transit as a civic political issue.

Leidenberger deals with the political dimension of transit and he correctly highlights the crucial issue: franchise monopoly. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to understand the economic history of transit at this time, or in subsequent periods, without an appreciation of this issue. Leidenberger also explores Chicago’s campaign to resolve the abuses of the franchise monopoly system through municipal ownership.

Leidenberger’s story is ultimately a tale of coalitions forged, then lost. Of labor solidarity and influence gained, then lost. Of strikes won, then lost. He seeks to explain both the successes and the failures.

An Introductory chapter describes the rapid increase in union membership in Chicago in the early twentieth century. Along with San Francisco, Chicago became the most unionized city in the country with more than fifty percent of its labor force in a union. The Introduction also lays out the Leidenberger’s major themes, his views on “public spaces,” and his view of streetcars as important public spaces.

Chapter One chronicles the defeat of Chicago’s Building Trade Council (an organization of the city’s traditional building trade unions) at the hands of the Building Contractors Council in the Great Lockout of 1900. Defeat resulted in the elimination of the sympathy strike by the city’s building trade unions. However, Chicago’s labor movement was soon transformed by the creation and ascendance of two new service unions; the teamsters and the teachers union. The teamsters were organized in 1901 and came to prominence in a 1902 city-wide teamster strike in sympathy with union recognition for meat packing workers. Being a service union at the core of the city’s distribution network, the teamsters were particularly well positioned to wield the sympathy strike weapon and they aggressively employed it to promote the unionization of less powerful workers in unrelated trades. Success in the 1902 strike brought the teamsters to the vanguard of labor organizing and was primarily responsible for the surge in union membership and inter-trade labor solidarity in the city.

Chicago public school teachers also formed a union in 1901. This service union was nominally white collar, overwhelmingly female, and particularly well positioned to articulate labor’s views to middle class reform interests. The teachers union and the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) promoted labor solidarity and were able to articulate a labor agenda that transcended narrow job-related issues. Labor’s expanded agenda included issues of city reform and the teachers union and the CFL aggressively reached out to establish coalitions with middle class reform groups to secure a prominent place in the broader progressive movement.

Chapters Two and Three discuss the role of streetcars in city politics and reform. Leidenberger characterizes public transit as the “central political question in turn-of-the-century Chicago” (p. 44). Streetcar companies figured so prominently in city politics and reform movements because they were widely perceived as abusive monopolies responsible for unsafe transit, corruption, tax evasion and abusive labor practices. At the core of the problem was the monopoly franchise system that granted private owners a monopoly over a vital urban utility. Rent seeking and corruption became the norm in Chicago and across the nation. Chapter Three chronicles the efforts of teachers to promote municipal ownership of streetcars as the solution to the transit problem and municipal reform. These efforts were bolstered by a strike by transit workers in 1904. The successful strike garnered broad public support and thrust labor to the fore in the campaign to have the city buy out the transit companies. Labor thus achieved the status of a full participant in a vital city reform issue.

Chapter Four describes the ill-fated teamster strike of 1905. The strike began in April with the teamsters striking the Montgomery Ward department store in sympathy with Montgomery Ward garment workers. However, an aggressive response from the newly-formed Chicago Employers Association escalated the conflict into a city-wide affair. Leidenberger attributes the strike and especially the escalation to an aggressive attempt by employers to crush union power. To this end, Leidenberger asserts that Chicago’s 62-mile network of underground tunnels was developed to break the teamsters’ hold on the city’s streets. Historians have usually viewed the tunnels, begun shortly before the 1905 strike, as an innovative solution to moving goods in and out of the congested central business district. Leidenberger’s assertion is a provocative departure from this view.

Strike violence, police intervention, and contentious accusations polarized public opinion and broke the union’s support from middle class progressives. The motives of teamster leaders were challenged by accusations of rampant corruption, charges that Leidenberger claims were responsible for discrediting the teamsters “for generations to come” (p. 110). In the end, the teamsters lost the strike and were forced to abandon the sympathy strike.

Chapter Five describes the failure of the municipal ownership campaign. With support for labor shattered by the violence of the teamsters strike and a daunting list of hurdles to municipal ownership posed by the courts, vacillating politicians, and “functionalist” views of regulation, the municipal-ownership candidate lost the race for mayor in 1907. In addition, the referendum on municipal ownership on the 1907 ballot was also defeated.

Chapter Six and a Conclusion trace the legacy of labor’s failed foray into progressive politics in Chicago. Leidenberger argues that with labor’s political defeat and the defeat of a unified plan for the city’s transit needs, Chicago became a politically and physically fragmented city. Fragmentation ultimately paved the way for the rise of the political machine and the automobile (initially, the only non-political transit mode).

For all of its strengths, the book is not without weaknesses:

1. Nostalgia aside, Leidenberger’s advocacy sometimes clouds his objectivity. He invariably portrays labor’s position and struggles as progressive and democratic while the actions and positions of employers and labor’s opponents are always driven by baser motives. Likewise, Leidenberger seems to see “democracy” as a favorable (to him) outcome rather than a process. One is left wondering why the defeat of municipal ownership at the polls is not a democratic outcome.

2. Some important assertions are either not adequately supported or not developed. For example, anyone familiar with Teamster Presidents Beck and Hoffa will find Leidenberger’s claim that the union’s reputation for corruption stemmed solely or even primarily from the 1905 strike less than convincing. Likewise, Leidenberger fails to develop or support his assertion that Chicago’s 62-mile network of underground tunnels was developed in order to break the teamsters’ hold on the city’s streets. While Leidenberger cites contemporary statements that make it clear that some envisioned the tunnels for this purpose, he does not delve into the claims or consider alternative motives. Nor does he show how the tunnels were used to break the 1905 strike or subsequent labor disputes. Unfortunately, his assertion remains a provocative, but unproven, claim.

3. A related problem arises in his analysis of the municipal ownership issue. While Leidenberger ties labor’s interests in transit politics exclusively to municipal ownership, he does not explain why anything short of city ownership was so unsatisfactory to labor. Did labor have no interest at all in any type of streetcar regulation short of municipal ownership? Why was municipal ownership such an all-or-nothing position for labor?

4. The reader will be left wondering what happened to the teachers union. After figuring so prominently in the initial discussion of labor’s new role in progressive politics, the teachers union seems to just fade away. Leidenberger describes the demise of teamster power in the violence of the 1905 strike, but his treatment of the teachers union is anti-climactic at best. A half-paragraph on p. 146 tersely relates the hostility of the political machine to the teachers union and the outlawing of teachers unions in 1915-17.

These shortcomings aside, Leidenberger provides an interesting, provocative, and readable analysis of labor’s role in the Progressive Movement. The strength of his work is in documenting labor’s active participation in reform issues that went beyond job-related concerns. Histories of the progressive era have often treated labor as an issue; Leidenberger effectively adds labor to the cast of players in urban reform and his book deserves the attention of anyone interested in understanding the Progressive Era.

Georg Leidenberger is Professor of History at Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana in Mexico City, Mexico.

David J. St. Clair is Professor of Economics at California State University, East Bay. He is the author of The Motorization of American Cities and is currently doing research in the history of transit in Los Angeles and nineteenth-century California economic history.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII