Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago
by heath w. carter
oxford
, 278 pages, $35.00

This historical study by an assistant professor at the Lutheran-affiliated Valparaiso University in Indiana focuses on one of the most fascinating chapters in American history: Chicago labor relations between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century. In those decades the city churned with industrial development, drawing ever greater numbers of native-born, Irish, northern European, African American, and southern and eastern European laborers. As Heath W. Carter notes, between 1870 and 1890 Chicago’s population increased from about 300,000 to one million, absorbing older municipalities and creating a dense conurbation of packinghouses, railroad yards, docks, and small and large factories.

But the rise of Chicago commerce was paralleled by an increasing polarization of employers and workers. This represented a significant challenge for the Protestant churchmen of the city, who were members of the Chicago elite and tended to side unquestioningly against labor protest and union organization. Their leading figures included Congregationalists, Methodists, Baptists, and Unitarians.

The tensions exploded repeatedly, starting with a failed general strike in 1875 (little documented or discussed by labor historians), then an insurrection by striking railroad workers in 1877, which was part of a national upheaval. There was serious bloodshed in the 1886 Haymarket incident, where Chicago labor demonstrators again clashed violently with police, and in the 1894 Pullman strike.

In the Haymarket and Pullman episodes, new and daring leaders emerged who galvanized the discontent of the working class. After Haymarket, four anarchists—three Germans and the American-born Albert R. Parsons—were hanged as perpetrators of a bombing during the confrontation. The anger of the protestors was stoked by police shooting into a crowd at the McCormick Reaper Works. Six workers were killed.

The German-speaking section of the Chicago radical movement was the most extreme in its subversive position. The community had produced a “Lehr-und-Wehr Verein” or “learning and shooting union” in 1875, and the leaflets the small anarchist group led by the Germans and Parsons distributed after the McCormick conflict were incendiary, crying “Revenge! Workingmen, To Arms!!!”

This German trend, affiliated with the socialist movement of Karl Marx whose members were known as “internationals,” had been active in Chicago since 1869, producing German-language propaganda and organizing meetings and processions. Parsons is the most interesting of the Chicago radical pioneers, but Carter treats him superficially. Parsons was a white Southerner, but then married a woman of mixed race, Lucy Parsons (Carter identifies her unequivocally as a freed slave). The Parsons couple landed in Chicago in 1873.

Unfortunately for the budding labor movement, the 1870s began on a disastrous note for moderation among workers, employers, and ministers alike. The great Chicago fire of 1871 spurred demands for city political reformers to ban the construction of wooden buildings. But more importantly, the Paris Commune of 1871, in which that city’s residents rose up following the collapse of the French Army in contest with the Prussians, alarmed the people of the world, through media reports, with the specter of mob rule and, specifically, of “communism.”

Protestant ministers in Chicago were quick to equate labor activism in their city with revolutionary acts in Paris. A decades-long process of hostility set in until, finally, compromise between the Protestant preachers and the unions was reached. Slowly, each side made concessions. Protestant church leaders, according to Carter, were vexed by the overwhelmingly-female composition of their congregations. Carter cites the historian Gail Bederman’s claim that American Protestantism had been two-thirds female since the 1660s. But, as if discovering this disparity in participation for the first time, Protestant leaders asked “why the working man does not attend church.”

The answers they received were harsh, as Carter states. The Protestant churches, they were informed, had turned their backs on the Gospel of Jesus, which warned the rich against greed and called for succor to the poor. In addition, the Protestant ministers were loud in praising the wealth of the rich at the same time as they blamed the misery visible in Chicago’s streets on poor morals and lack of ambition among the disadvantaged. According to Carter, the saloon was considered an especial enemy of the Christian worker: aside from wasting his wages, it put him in the company of radical German and Irish beer drinkers.

The Protestants noticed, however, that the Roman Catholic clerics of Chicago had greater success attracting worshippers, first because of the large Irish contingent in the city and later complemented by the arrival of Poles and other Catholic workers. The Catholic priests were additionally more willing to accommodate the demands of what Carter labels “conservative” labor leaders, committed to peaceful change.

The 1894 Pullman strike began in a factory complex where railroad sleeping cars were constructed. The enterprise was owned by George Pullman, a paternalistic investor, who adjoined the works with a company town where workers were housed and Pullman was the landlord. An economic crisis in 1893 had led Pullman to cut costs, discharge workers, and reduce wages—though he refused to lower rents in his town.

Discontent in Pullman led shop workers to join the new American Railway Union, founded by Eugene V. Debs, America’s most famous advocate of socialist doctrine until the emergence of Bernie Sanders. Carter admits that Debs’s ARU, held up as a paragon by many labor historians, was a whites-only affair, even as a great share of railroad workers were black. He passes lightly over the violent anti-Asian views of the American labor movement of the time, too, leaving issues of race apart from those of class.

In May 1894, the Pullman workers walked out. Their strike spread across the country as, in June, the ARU called on railroad employees outside Chicago to refuse to handle trains with Pullman coaches. Federal troops were sent to the city, which erupted in vandalism of railcars and violent encounters with the forces of order. Few Chicago religious leaders could be expected to support the ARU. Protestants and Catholics condemned the boycott of trains with Pullman cars in equal terms: the Congregationalist Advance labelled the boycott “the rankest injustice,” while the Catholic New World referred to strikes as “barbarous” and “ruinous.”

In Carter’s telling of Chicago’s labor upsurge, the Protestant clergy were motivated to embrace a new, “social gospel,” by realities on the ground, since they lost members and public respect as long as they maintained an intransigent anti-union posture. (Dutch churches in Chicago prohibited union membership among their followers until the middle of the 20th century, Carter points out.) His treatment of the Catholic church in Chicago is somewhat different, given that the encyclical Rerum Novarum, issued by Leo XIII in 1891, declared that just payment should be received by the employee and that Catholic labor unions should be formed. That Catholic “social doctrine” was, Carter admits, reinforced by Quadragesimo Anno, issued by Pius XI in 1931. Finally, however, he appears to put the weight of the success of the Chicago “social gospel” on the cautious tactics of local labor leaders.

Carter concludes his book with dark forebodings about present-day America and a threat that “American capitalism appears once more poised to overcome American democracy.” That glib judgment might explain why Union Made bears a warm endorsement from Michael Kazin, a fellow-academic (at Jesuit Georgetown) and currently the reigning mandarin in studies of American labor and populist history. But, in truth, the book fails to live up to its subject matter. Important historical figures are included without the least biographical detail; major organizations are allowed no more than a cursory mention.

Most of all, the essential forces in Chicago’s labor upheaval, heavy industry and a large factory proletariat, remain abstract. Carter leaves too much of his narrative to quotations from sermons and periodicals, instead of relying on records of the daily lives of the Chicago laborers, male and female, white and black.

Indeed, Carter’s discussion shows American capitalism was not poised at the end of the 19th century to overcome or undermine democracy, with the social gospel arising to prevent that catastrophe. If anything, American capitalism was strengthened by the rise of the social gospel.


Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He is author of Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook (2005) and Kosovo: Background to a War (2000).

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