The Ordeal of the Jungle: Race and the Chicago Federation of Labor, 1903–1922
Between 1910 and 1920, the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) inaugurated a massive organizing drive in the city’s meatpacking and steel industries. Although the CFL sought legitimately progressive goals, worked earnestly to organize an interracial union, and made major inroads among both black and white workers, their efforts resulted in a bitter defeat. David Bates provides a clear picture of how even the most progressive of intentions can be ground to a halt.
By organizing workers into neighborhood locals, which connected workplace struggles to ethnic and religious identities, the CFL facilitated a surge in the organization’s membership, particularly among African American workers, and afforded the federation the opportunity to aggressively confront employers. The CFL’s innovative structure, however, was ultimately its demise. Linking union locals to neighborhoods proved to be a form of de facto segregation. Over time union structures, rank-and-file conflicts, and employer resistance combined to turn the union’s hopeful calls for solidarity into animosity and estrangement. Tensions were exacerbated by violent shop floor confrontations and exploded in the bloody 1919 Chicago Race Riot. By the early 1920s, the CFL had collapsed.
The Ordeal of the Jungle explores the choices of a variety of people while showing a complex, overarching interplay of black and white workers and their employers. In addition to analyzing union structures and on-the-ground relations between workers, Bates synthesizes and challenges previous scholarship on interracial organizing to explain the failure of progressive unionism in Chicago.
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