Livingston & McLean County Labor
Bloomington & Normal Trades & Labor Assembly / Livingston & McLean Counties Building & Trades Council
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  • McLean County Labor History: Mother Jones & the Streetcar Strike; Cooperative Store
    Posted On: Sep 02, 2014
    National Guard troops surround the McLean County Courthouse in downtown Bloomington, July 6, 1917, after a fiery speech by Mary "Mother" Jones. McLean Co Historical Society photo.

    Although unsuccessful at the polls, Bloomington labor could still point to other accomplishments. In 1917, after an almost 20 years of effort, streetcar workers successfully formed Local 752 of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Workers. The streetcar system, the Bloomington & Normal Railway & Light Company, was owned by U.S. Congressman William B. McKinley, who controlled over 60 midwestern trolley systems, including the Illinois Traction System interurban rirailroad. These companies would eventually become the Illinois Power Company.

    The streetcar workers had struck in 1902, winning some improvements, but their union was defeated in 1904 after a six month strike. In 1917 they were working nine-and-one-half hour days, seven days a week, at $1.75 per day. At a midnight meeting that April the workers formed local 752. The company immediately fired all 13 meeting participants.

    On April 28 the workers called a strike, despite a company offer of a 20 percent pay increase. The company refused to negotiate; Mayor Jones refused a request to mediate. 51 of 200 employees stayed on the job, still operating the trolleys, while the Trades & Labor Assembly organized a boycott. The company stationed armed guards on the streetcars, whose main activity was chasing children who threw rocks at the cars.

    On June 10 the company won a court injunction forbidding picketing, boycott effort, button and leaflet distribution or congregation by supporters at the corners where trolleys stopped. Illinois Federation of Labor President addressed a June 11 rally and the company's 20 powerhouse workers walked out in sympathy that night (Matejka).

    To bolster union spirits, the Trades & Labor planned a rally for July 5, featuring famed labor organizer Mary "Mother" Jones. The then 87-year-old woman was nationally renowned for her organizing battles supporting miners and against child labor. The only surviving words of her speech were "Go out and get em!"

    After her fiery address union supporters surrounded trolleys as they passed the courthouse square, smashing windows with paving bricks stacked nearby for a street repair project. They then marched on the company's powerhouse on South Roosevelt, demanding the power be cut. A nervous Mayor Jones, the sheriff and police chief waited there. After a tense stand-off and a dialogue between union president John Nitzel and the authorities, the power was cut.

    Harry Rhoads, a railway carman who heard Mother Jones speak and who was part of the crowd that night, remembered the event:

    There was a policeman. He walked right along with the crowd. He didn't try to stop nobody, he didn't say nothin'. About as peaceable a mob you could ever find, I guess. A couple of thousand, maybe more (Rhoads).

    The crowd then marched back to the courthouse square, breaking the trolley company's office windows at Jefferson and Madison. The Mayor appeared again, asking their dispersal. They refused to move unless he would intervene. The Mayor claimed he had done his best, which brought taunts of "Liar" from the crowd. Finally the Mayor agreed to mediate and the crowd dispersed, leaving the moonlit courthouse square reflecting broken glass (Pantagraph, 1).

    The next day the company still refused to negotiate. The Mayor called on the National Guard and 1,400 troops were encamped around the courthouse square, showing off their two new machine guns.

    That afternoon, July 6, at noon, the C&A rail shop workers marched en masse downtown during their lunch break. The rail workers threatened a general strike unless the strike was settled. Telegraphs shuttled back and forth between Bloomington's mayor and Congressman McKinley. Finally, McKinley responded that he "recognized the right of men to organize." That weekend the streetcar workers settled their first contract.

    With organized labor having displayed its power to a U.S. Congressman and almost winning the city government, the World War I era and its immediate aftermath seemed a time of ascendancy for organized labor in Bloomington.

    In 1917 a cooperative store was established at 529 and 531 West Main Street in Bloomington. Besides selling grocery and clothing downtown, the cooperative society also ran a coal yard and a smaller store on West Chestnut Street. Louis Salch, a carpenter and one of the 1919 candidates for commissioner, headed the society.

    The group's aim was more than inexpensive groceries. The cooperative store was seen as a testing ground for eventual worker control of industry:

    The movement offers the opportunity for all persons so inclined to become members of a great economic movement. ...With the training secured from the co-operative movement it will be possible for the people to operate any branch of industry which they care to operate (Searchlight, 1).

    The Bloomington cooperative store was the largest in Illinois through the 1920s. Seen as an alternative to capitalism, it closed during the Depression in 1935.

    Three new unions also organized in this time. Five women at Kinloch Telephone Company began Telephone Operators 78A of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on June 15, 1918, winning their first contract by 1921. In 1921 the women wrote to the Official Journal of the Telephone Operators Department, that "the operators were working for small wages, the girls would come and go, the service became poor so some of the girls decided that to organize a union would help (Roberts, 3)." The local remained through the 1950s, one of the last independent phone operators locals in the nation. Geraldine McKeon, one of the union's activists, served as a Trades and Labor Assembly trustee for over 30 years, often the only female office.

     Bloomington's telephone operators organized a small but effective female-led union. Here is the phone company's float in the 1930 McLean County Centennial Parade, featuring the phone operators. (McLean County Historical Society)

    Bloomington's city fire fighters organized as a federal labor union in 1917. Federal Labor Union was the designation for workers' organizations which had no national organization. They were directly affiliated with the AFL. In 1918 they were a charter local of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Hod Carriers, Building and Common Laborers of America Local 362, which later became Laborers International Local 362, was organized on March 25, 1919 in the building trades.

    A union support organization was chartered in 1916. Local 341 of the Women's International Union Label League was organized in the community to encourage union member's spouses to "look for the union label" and to support strikes. This active group hosted national WIULL conventions in Bloomington and supported strikes during the 1930s. The organization was one of the last in the nation, surviving into the early 1990s. The League helped boost women's participation in local union activities, Local 341 faithfully sending delegates to the Trades & Labor Assembly. WIULL member Gladys Martin, wife of Painters 209 member and Trades & Labor Assembly president Roy Martin, succeeded her husband as the Labor Assembly's president at his death, leading the local labor federation through the late 1960s and 1970s.

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