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Chicago Teamsters Strike (1905)

A bitter labor dispute, the Chicago Teamsters strike of 1905 lasted 105 days, from April to August 1905, and violence stemming from the strike left 416 people injured and twenty-one dead. The strike resulted from efforts by Chicago employers to reduce the power the Teamsters Union, efforts that were only partially successful. In seeking to achieve their goal, employers promoted public concerns about union corruption and sought to fan racial tensions in the city.

In 1905, Chicago was a stronghold for the recently formed International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). Nationwide the union claimed a membership of 45,000 with about 30,000 of those members located in Chicago. Organizing efforts in Chicago had begun in 1899 and enjoyed great success by 1902. The union's rapid growth benefited from a network of collusive arrangements with team owners associations. In return for agreeing to a closed-shop contract, the union promised employers it would help enforce cartel arrangements controlling competition and price. These agreements led most team owners to support union organization of their employees, the drivers. As the union grew it assumed an increasingly active role in the city's labor affairs. By choosing whether or not they would honor another union's picket line, team drivers often could determine the fate of a strike or organizing campaign. If the drivers refused to cross the picket line, they denied the employers needed supplies. In so doing Teamsters were in fact engaged in a kind of sympathy strike. The union used this power to pressure employers in a range of industries agree to accept the organization of their employees. In so doing, the Teamsters earned the ire of Chicago's business interests.

As union gains mounted across the country in the early years of the 1900s, an employer counter-offensive resulted and Chicago employers took a leading role in this counter-offensive. Associations of employers, in Chicago and other cities, sought to engage in concerted efforts to break organized labor's power by attacking key union strategies, such as the union shop contract and the sympathetic strike. The Chicago Employers' Association (CEA) specifically hoped to confront the Teamsters Union, because of the latter group's strategic role in promoting organized labor in that city.

The CEA's opportunity came in early April 1905, when the Chicago Teamsters declared their intention to support a strike by the United Garment Workers Union, whose members had been fired several months earlier by Montgomery Ward & Company. When the Teamsters announced that their members would make no more deliveries to Montgomery Ward & Company until it came to terms with the Garment Workers, the CEA responded by having all of the other city's department stores order their drivers to make the forbidden deliveries, forcing those Teamsters to join the walkout as well. In this way, the Employers spread the dispute beyond the initial company. When the Garment Workers pulled out of the dispute in late April and the Teamsters tried to end it, the Employers Association kept the strike alive by refusing to allow the striking Teamsters to be rehired.

By early summer about 5,000 Teamsters were on strike and Chicago's streets daily street battles took place between strike supporters and convoys of non-union wagons with armed guards on-board trying to negotiate the unfriendly city avenues. The city assigned the bulk of its police department to strike duty, but Mayor Edward F. Dunne, who had been elected with the support of organized labor, refused to have the crowds driven from the streets. Nor would he call for state or federal forces to enter the city and restore order. Without such a request from the mayor, neither Illinois's governor, or President Theodore Roosevelt were willing to intervene. As a result the employers' wagons remained vulnerable and unable to make all of the needed deliveries.

The employers turned for help to the courts, where they received more sympathetic treatment. Court injunctions forbade further union picket activity. But more significantly, the employers convinced the state prosecutor's office to launch a union corruption investigation that could bring the Teamsters Union's leadership into disrepute. Meeting on a daily basis with the CEA, state prosecutors directed a grand jury probe that eschewed any investigation into employer activities and which came to focus on the private life of the Teamsters President Cornelius P. Shea. Details about Shea's alleged visits to a brothel and an extra-marital relationship became front page news, supplemented by unsubstantiated charges of bribe taking. In July, the Grand Jury indicted Shea and other union leaders, not for corruption, but on conspiracy charges that stemmed from leading a sympathetic strike. Despite the bias of the investigation, the mud stuck and the union's leadership, as well as the strike, were discredited in the eyes of many Chicagoans.

Just as corruption charges swirled around the strike, so too did racial tensions. African Americans from Southern cities made up a portion of the replacement drivers recruited by the CEA. Chicago newspapers highlighted the role of these black drivers and in news stories and cartoons the papers played on white racial antipathies. Similarly, the Chicago police encouraged violence against black replacement drivers and at one point during strike police rioted through a district of town where some of the replacement drivers were staying. Some observers charged that the Employers' Association sought to play on racial tensions in order to create a violent incident that would justify intervention by the state militia. But the Teamsters, which had from the beginning been a bi-racial union, urged its membership to avoid seeing the strike in racial terms.

By August 1905 the strike petered out to its end. The Teamsters accepted the fact that their striking members would not be rehired and the CEA gave up its efforts to destroy the union. Although department store drivers remained non-union for decades most of the rest of the city's teamsters remained well organized. But, a chastened Teamsters Union avoided further involvement in sympathy strikes. More significantly the corruption charges had undercut the legitimacy of the union's power, which was now seen as abusive and irresponsible.

References and Further Reading

Cohen, Andrew Wender. The Racketeer's Progress: Chicago and the Struggle for the Modern American Economy, 1900-1940. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Witwer, David. Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

David Witwer

See Also: International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

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