What are the roles of labor unions?
September 9th, 2011Filed under: Collections
In the “City that Works” and with Labor Day just past, I’ve been thinking a lot about Chicago’s labor union history. Lately, it seems, every time we look, there’s a new dispute between organized labor and a government or a company somewhere in the country. Even pro sports—both athletes and owners—recently got involved. Many Americans wonder what role labor unions should play in society. Some say unions are no longer important. Others argue that unions are as significant now as they have ever been.
The Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL), a major union, hosted some spectacular Labor Day celebrations at Soldier Field in the 1920s. Edward N. Nockels, the CFL’s secretary, wrote this letter advertising the 1927 festivities. For $1, people could see soccer and boxing matches, a circus, and airplane stunts all at Soldier Field. Kids, adults, and even a few elephants sometimes marched into Soldier Field for the Labor Day revelry.
Circus enters Soldier Field for Labor Day, c. 1927
Girls representing the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union enter Soldier Field, c. 1927
Earlier in the 1900s, Chicagoans often marked Labor Day with a parade. CFL leaders thought, though, that employers and company-dominated unions controlled these celebrations. The CFL unionists wanted something different. In 1926, Nockels and others created the nation’s first labor radio station, WCFL. Among many other things, station managers used it to promote and broadcast the massive Labor Day parties at Soldier Field. CFL leaders, like Nockels, hoped these events and their radio broadcasts would show workers the positive sides of organized labor. Workers would then, Nockels expected, join the CFL.
Crowd awaiting start of the Labor Day celebration, Soldier Field, c. 1927
Today, Chicago’s Labor Day celebrations might be smaller and more dispersed, but we still are left wondering how to move the country forward in the face of economic and labor unrest. What purpose do you think labor unions should serve?