Unionism among Chicago carpenters, 1855-1901
Suhrbur, Thomas J.
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This study examines the process of economic change, class formation and unionism among Chicago carpenters from 1855 to 1901. The central thesis of this essay is that the carpenters' success in organizing a powerful trade union was a direct result of their class consciousness and the belief that unionism was the vehicle by which workers would assert their right to control their own labor. In 1881, the Chicago carpenters unions were weak and fragmented. Earlier attempts to organize unions had failed. Piecework and technological innovations threatened to subdivide the trade into a number of semiskilled occupations. The survival of carpentry as a craft seemed doubtful. Wages were the lowest in the building trades. Ethnic and political rivalries caused serious divisions among the carpenters. Nevertheless, by 1891, the carpenters had organized the largest and most powerful union in the city. They forced the contractors to concede the eight-hour day and to sign a historic two-year agreement. These successes were realized only after the carpenters developed organizational strategies and a class consciousness that addressed the complex issues posed by ethnicity. During the 1890's, the carpenters union achieved a highpoint of success and influence. Carpenters dominated Chicago's labor movement. They held prominent positions on all central labor organizations. They led the eight- hour day struggle against World's Fair officials, organized unemployment protests in response to the depression, and actively supported the movement to create a Labor-Populist alliance in Illinois. Finally, backed by the sympathy strike, the carpenters and their Building Trades Council allies virtually controlled the workplace. When prosperity returned in 1898, they held a position of unprecedented power vis-a-vis their employers. The Great Lockout of 1900 was the counteroffensive by the business community against unionism. The Lockout successfully checked the growing power of the unions and reasserted the authority of the contractors in the workplace.