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Illinois labor: History raises question for new generation


Milton Derber with Neil M. Fox, Kraig Kircher, David Nicolai, Curtis A. Scott, Christina E. Shalley and Janet Snow-Godfrey. Labor in Illinois: The Affluent Years, 1945-80. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989. Pp. 460 with appendix and index. $47.50 (cloth).

For Illinoisans from working class families who reached the age of general awareness as World War II ended and remained in the Prairie State until 1980. progress was a way of life easy to understand and to appreciate. After all. America had won the war, and Illinois was one of the most advanced economic units in the United States indeed, the world.

Growth was the dominant theme. So what if some opportunities for employment in mining or railroads receded? You could get a job in the burgeoning areas of government, contract construction, finance, insurance, real estate, wholesale trade, trucking and warehousing, or manufacturing.

Because the state's economy and society were balanced so remarkably like the nation's, Illinois always seemed to support the winner in presidential elections, and your vote appeared to be worth more. The education system extended itself to make room for you as well as the baby boomers on your heels. Like the Chicago Bears, working folks didn't win 'em all, but observers knew they had the muscle to leave their mark on anyone with whom they became involved.

While all workers did not belong to a union, Illinois was a labor state, and the organizations provided the worker's loudest voice. Milton Derber tells this story in detail through in-depth investigations of seven unions and in a fashion that makes a middle-aged Illinoisan think he's living his life over again.

While domestic and foreign competition dealt major blows to labor organizations in meat packing, clothing and the electrical trades, and technology brought setbacks to those in transportation, coal mining and steel production, these reversals were offset during the '60s and '70s by the spectacular growth of public unionism among teachers, hospital workers, police and firelighters. The names of Jerry Wurf of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Don Peters of Teamsters Local 743 and Joe Germano of Steelworkers District 31, among a roster of others, recall distinct, colorful and important contributions to the era.

Collective bargaining produced wage increases significant enough to be noted with pride by children in playground conversations, while only a few university professors speculated on whether rising labor costs contributed seriously to increasingly noncompetitive situations in the world market. Most innovative among contract gains were the development and elaboration of substantial fringe benefits particularly health and welfare plans and improvement in grievance arbitration. Those were the results that counted around family kitchen tables and when it came time to vote for union status or for leadership.

The diversity of Illinois history is emphasized in the section entitled "Labor in the Community," with chapters on Chicago, Rockford, the Quad Cities, Peoria, Decatur and East St. Louis. The conservative cultural values of Rockford's Swedish population set the tone there, while struggles for status and political power as well as challenges posed by a remarkably outdated, worn and untended industrial infrastructure characterized the workers' situation in East St. Louis. Single industries controlled the fate of Peoria and the Quad Cities, while the integration of Chicago politics and unionism dominated that city's complex story, centering around Mayor Richard J. Daley's use of licensing, patronage and the prevailing wage system (City tradesmen received the same wages as those negotiated by their unions with private contractors.).

Unfortunately, during this period organized crime exerted an obvious if often exaggerated influence on the prosperous and tempting Illinois labor scene, especially Chicago's. Abuse focused on the misuse of pension and welfare funds for private advantage and on the manipulation of union elections. The Chicago Crime Commission, the Kefauver Committee, the Ives-Douglas Investigation, the McClellan Committee and the Senate Labor Racketeering Committee provided notoriety for Joey Glimco and John Lardino as well as for James Hoffa and a number of Illinois teamsters. While a few labor leaders set amazing records in refusing to testify on grounds of the Fifth Amendment, the press overdid analogies with the Capone era.

Derber paints a picture of steady labor progress, interrupted by relatively minor setbacks, from 1945 to 1980. This period was a natural extension of the good times at the turn of the century, after World War I and during the New Deal. Nothing important is left out, as organized labor in Illinois responded to important national legislation, the relationship between the AFL and the CIO, wars and social movements. The volume, which suffers a bit from the variant styles of multiple-authored chapters, an inadequate index and no bibliography, is a major contribution to the literature.

And when one closes the book, the intriguing question remains: Is the modern version of technological advance and expanding markets, of Reaganomics and of stagflation (rising prices and rising unemployment) as manifested in the difficult times of the late '70s and early '80s distinctive and significant enough to signal a major new era for working class Illinoisans now coming of age? Derber and his assistants raise the issue as well as historians can by providing an excellent account of the preceding generation in a book that will be indispensable to labor history and to the history of the state of Illinois.

John H. Keiser is president of Boise State University. A labor historian for the past 25 years, he has served on the board of directors of the Illinois Labor History Society. His book, Building for the Centuries: Illinois 1865 to 1898 (1979) won an award of merit from the Illinois State Historical Society.

January 1990/Illinois Issues/31

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