Chicago Teamsters Strike (1905)
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
and Further Reading
Wender. The Racketeer's Progress: Chicago and the Struggle
for the Modern American Economy, 1900-1940. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2004.
Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union. Urbana, Illinois:
University of Illinois Press, 2003.
International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
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