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June 22, 2009 / howardmestas





Our final day in Chicago proved to be one of the most informative of the entire trip, and a culminating activity of all our books and classes. When we entered the bus and were introduced to Dr. William Adelman, I didn’t know we were meeting an “institution” of Chicago’s labor history. When this man dies, it will be like a library burning down in the city. And, as if through intervention from a ghost of organized labor’s past, the rainy weather set the mood for a day that helped us all revisit the struggles that helped establish the working standards we all enjoy today.

Researching about the Haymarket Affair, with all its tragedies was a learning experience, but seeing where it all happened made it a living encounter. It’s incredible to think that this site was responsible for May Day, or International Worker’s Day celebrations throughout the world commemorating the struggle for the eight hour day. It’s also sad to realize that the U.S. and Canada are the only two nations on the planet who do not celebrate the holiday.

Dr. Adelman was very poignant in his homage to the entire affair including stops through the courthouse where the injustices were carried through, to the exact location of where the gallows stood and four innocent men were hanged. It’s sickening to think of how the entire tragedy unfolded, and it is also easy to see why these five men (one committed suicide) are considered martyrs who inspired hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans to turn out for the funeral procession. Many teachers on the bus were grumbling about how biased Adelman was toward left-leaning politics, but to me it was all about passion. Here is a man who has spent his entire adult life reliving the struggles of labor versus capital, with all the atrocities that colossal wealth can inflict. I applaud his viewpoints, how could you rationally expect him to be anything else?

Our next stop was at the Martyr’s Monument at the Forest Home Cemetery where it was obvious, even in the rain, that those who fought for worker’s rights were not forgotten. Remnants of flowers and ribbons could be seen in revered places, and Dr. Adelman would continue that veneration by placing red roses with the help of some in our group. The bodies beneath those stones are silent now, but their deeds live on in the collective bargaining the working class enjoys today. It was a solemn moment I’m glad I experienced; it helped put all those many sacrifices in perspective.

Our trip to the Lithuanian restaurant was memorable as well, not only for the unique and tasty food, but because it was a reflection of the many cultures who arrived in Chicago from far away places in search of a better life. To think, these workers may be the descendants of the many downtrodden stockyard workers as described by Upton Sinclair in “The Jungle.” The memorabilia on the walls served as reminders of their distant homeland and their forefathers. What a melting pot Chicago was, and still is.

All day long the gates of the packing houses were besieged by starving and penniless men; they came, literally, by the thousands every single morning, fighting with each other for a chance of life.

Seeing the Stockyard gate was an eerie experience. This was the desired focal point of so many immigrants who left their homes for the American dream only to find they would have to compete with thousands of others in a dog-eat-dog environment. This was a place where greedy magnates grew wealthier through the toil of so many who were in a desperate attempt just to survive. Where ambitions met realities through the scope of Social Darwinism, and only the fittest, or perhaps the luckiest survived. I had a solemn reflection of the nearly 400 million animals, who through no fault of their own met their painful destiny there. Yet all that remains is the gate.

Our final stop was the location of the most famous planned community in America and where Pullman Palace Railroad Cars were made. A turbulent strike with a nationwide audience occurred there in 1894 after owner George Pullman kept employees rents the same even though there was a huge cut in their wages. Pullman’s plan was to provide everything his workers could need for basic survival, however, there were many rules that kept them in a cycle of dependence on the community. Political, economic, and social rights were impossible; and when changes or new demands occurred, the workers were at the complete mercy of the owner. This was very similar to the company towns of CF&I in the Southern Colorado where workers had everything, except freedom to move up in life. Under these conditions, strikes are always inevitable. The tour ended with an extraordinary comment from Dr. Adelman when he pointed out the home of the company doctor who gave depositions blaming the lead poisoning of workers on their own personal alcoholism. This gave a final touch to the tour and an insight to Pullman’s attitude towards his employees. Publically he called the workers in the town his “children,” but reality was a different tale.


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