1877-2011: 134 Years of Social Struggle in Pilsen
Haymarket’s Crucible / Rodištì Revoluce:
As German immigrant August Spies made his way down Blue Island Avenue to a rally of striking lumberyard workers on May 3rd 1886, the day before the Haymarket incident, he would have heard other recent immigrants conversing in Czech (or Bohemian as it was than called). Some of them may have been carrying that day’s edition of Svornost, Chicago’s Czech language daily for “freethinkers,” or Budoucnost, the city’s Czech anarchist newspaper. He may have passed one of the Sokol Halls in the neighborhood, Czech community centers and meeting places for athletic, artistic, cultural and political activities. In the 1880’s, Pilsen, the Lower West Side Chicago industrial neighborhood sandwiched between the Union Pacific railroad tracks and the South Branch of the Chicago River, was a Czech enclave. Hence its name, a transplant from the Czech city of Plzen in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, like many of its residents. Pilsen had already earned its reputation as a home for radicals, as historian Dominic Pacyga explains: “In the 1880s and 1890s, Chicago's Protestant churches established a number of missions in Pilsen as a way to combat the influence of Bohemian freethinkers who denounced religion and advanced socialism as a means of promoting the rights of working men.”1
Spies would have seen buildings and houses, some of which remain today, lumberyards stretching along the Chicago River and, in the distance, the belching smokestacks of the McCormick Reaper Works, one of the largest manufacturing facilities in the world at the time. Chicago was in its ascendancy as the nation’s industrial capital. In the second half of the 19th century, Chicago grew more rapidly than had any other city in history to that point. The Illinois and Michigan canal, the railroad yards, meat packing plants, steel mills and more required a work force that the native population couldn't possibly supply. Immigrants, mostly from Europe, streamed into Chicago. As early as 1860, 50% of the population of Chicago was foreign born, a larger percentage than New York City.2 These immigrant workers gave the great metropolis its energy, vitality and its poorly paid labor. At the same time, these immigrant workers were despised and feared by the native elite who controlled Chicago politically and financially.
On the 3rd of May, 1886, workplaces were shutdown across the city as 80,000 workers were on strike demanding an 8 hour workday. It had to be an exciting moment for Spies, the labor organizer, political activist, and editor of Arbieter Zietung, Chicago’s German language anarchist daily. One of the leaders of International Working People's Association, Spies was at the center of organizing Chicago’s May 1st participation in a national general strike to demand a shorter working day. Nowhere else in the U.S. was the strike as successful as in Chicago. A key to its success was the radical tradition that many of Chicago’s immigrants brought with them. Some of the oldest Germans might have been refugees from the failed 1848 revolution; younger Germans could have been members of the banned Social Democratic Workers' Party fleeing persecution under Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws. The Irish came with the experience of nationalist groups like the Fenians and radical organizations of tenant farmers like the Land League. The Poles, their country non-existent at the time, would have had memories of the 1867 Uprising and their oppression under the Russian Tsars, and the Czechs, whose homeland was contained within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, would have brought with them experiences of radical labor and socialist politics and an attachment to anti-clerical “free-thinker” rationalism. The Germans and Czechs also brought with them their connections to the First International, the organization of labor unions and workers parties organized by Marx, Engles and Bakunin.
Around 3pm on the 3rd of May, Spies delivered what was no doubt a firebrand speech to striking lumber shovers. Extolling the workers to exercise their power at the point of production and praising their steadfastness in holding out for an 8 hour day on the third day of their strike. At the nearby McCormick Reaper Works, workers had been on strike for four months. After his speech, Spies went to join these strikers, heading southwest along the Black Road (Blue Island Ave), named for the cinders from nearby factories that covered the road. As scabs attempted to enter the McCormick factory, they were met by angry, hungry crowds of strikers. Rocks were thrown and the police, who often acted like McCormick’s private security force, opened fire on the strikers. Four workers were killed. The events of that fateful day would light the spark, which ignited a bomb on May 4th, 1886.
Pilsen’s central role in the history of radical politics, labor organizing and social transformation doesn’t start with 1886, nor does it end that year either. Labor agitation in Pilsen dates back at least as far as 1877, when thirty people, some of them striking workers, were killed at ‘The Battle of the Viaduct.’ at 16th and Halsted by troops of the 22nd US Infantry, called into the city by Mayor Monroe Heath. Labor struggles continue in the neighborhood to the present day. Radical politics have been a central element of every immigrant wave that has called Pilsen home. Few neighborhoods in the country can claim such a history of social struggle.
The Great Uprising / Achtung Arbeiter:
The events of May 3rd 1886 are in many ways a product of the events of July 1877. The neighborhood was more German and Irish at that point, but mostly immigrant, just like in 1886 and just like in 2011. 1877 was a tough year for the American working class. The country was in the 4th year of a deep depression. Starvation was a real possibility for the hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers. On July 16th a strike broke out in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Railroad workers were furious when the bosses of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad announced they were cutting workers wages by 10%, the second cut in eight months. News of the strike spread quickly along the rail lines. Soon workers in Baltimore, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Toledo, Louisville, St. Louis and other cities and towns across the Eastern half of the country had joined their brothers in Martinsburg, shutting down not just the railroads, but workplaces of all types across the country. The strike spread as far west as San Francisco. The general railroad strike of 1877 was the nation’s first and only national general strike.
The Great Labor Uprising of 1877, or the Great Upheaval as it is called by historians, arrived in Chicago on July 21st, beginning with a rally of a thousand workers near what is now the intersection of Halsted and Roosevelt, organized by the Workingmen’s Party. Albert Parsons, a member of the party, spoke to the crowd that day, decrying wage slavery and calling on workers to organize. Parsons was already emerging as a leading voice in the city’s labor and radical movements and earning the ire of the city’s ruling class which led to his eventual martyrdom in 1886. On the 23rd, Chicago railroad workers went out on strike. Soon other workers were also striking - Irish meat packers, Czech lumber shovers, and others. A citywide general strike was on and workers led marches across the city. Immigrant workers were in the lead and communities along the South Branch of the Chicago River like Pilsen and Bridgeport were especially active in the strike. On the 26th, at the Vorwärts Turner Hall near Roosevelt Road (12th Street at the time) and Halsted Street, German furniture makers gathered to negotiate with their employers. The police burst in, clubbing workers indiscriminately and shooting at those trying to escape. Vorwärts Turner Hall, a community center for German immigrants and birthplace of the Workingman's Party of Illinois, would have been an obvious target for the police repression let loose on the city’s working class in an attempt to scare the restive workers off the streets and back to their workplaces. Turner Halls were first and foremost gymnasiums, but the Turner movement, with its roots in the German Revolution of 1848, had a political side as well. Turner Halls were important meeting places for the German immigrant community. There were several Turner Halls in Chicago in the late 19th century.
The police violence at Vorwärts Hall and other locations around town simply enraged the strikers further. Mobs of German, Irish, Polish, Czech and native-born workers gathered to confront police near the 16th Street Viaduct, where 16th Street meets Halsted, the Northeast corner of Pilsen. There they were met by the 22nd US Infantry, called into the city by Mayor Monroe Heath. The troops had recently returned from fighting Native American tribes out West. Now they turned their guns on the working class of Chicago. The Battle of the Viaduct, as it is called, resulted in some 30 workers dead and over a hundred wounded. Fighting continued throughout the next couple of days. Workers reportedly ransacked gun stores to arm themselves as street battles between workers, the army and the police continued. But by the 28th, the strikes had mostly been broken. The events of that July would bear bitter fruit nine years later. Participants of those events, including August Spies and Albert Parsons, would point to the Chicago elite’s use of violence to suppress workers as proof that workers’ selfdefense was a necessity. It would likewise convince Chicago’s ruling class that only ruthless use of state force could prevent revolution.
1910 Garment Workers General Strike / A yunyon iz undzer makht!:
By 1900, Pilsen was undergoing another of its periodic shifts in ethnicity. As second generation Czechs began the familiar pattern of Southwest movement along Blue Island and Archer, they were gradually replaced by Poles, Lithuanians and Croatians. But on Pilsen’s Northeastern fringe, closer to Maxwell Street, Russian Jews were most prominent. Labor organizing and radical politics were certainly familiar to these immigrants: Refugees from Tsarist repression and anti-Semitic pogroms, many would have had experience with the Bund, the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party and similar Russian socialist movements.
It wasn’t seasoned radicals, however, that thrust Pilsen once again into the limelight of labor struggles in 1910. Rather it was a handful of teenage girls, fed up with the harsh conditions and low wages in Chicago’s burgeoning textile industry. When managers at Hart, Schaffner & Mark Shop No. 5 cut the piece rate by a quarter of a cent on September 22nd, 1910, sixteen women marched out of the shop to protest, lead by 19 year old Hannah Shapiro a Russian Jewish immigrant. The multi-million dollar company paid roughly 3 cents for every piece of clothing the young women produced. This action would initiate a six month long strike by some 40,000 Garment workers, virtually the entire industry in Chicago. At least two workers died: Charles Lazinskas and Frank Nagreckis, both shot by the police. The strike ended in February 1911, with workers failing to achieve all their demands, but achieving a signed union contract. Importantly, the strike set the stage for the formation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (a precursor to current union UNITE-HERE).
Aztlán of the North / Viva La Raza:
Starting in the 1950’s, Pilsen went through another demographic shift. As Eastern Europeans moved out, Mexican immigrants moved in. Some of this Mexican immigrant population was a local migration. Like nineteenth century Czech’s who moved to Pilsen after anti-immigrant Chicago Mayor John Wentworth drove them out of the Northside, so too many of the Mexicans who made Pilsen home were displaced by the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Mayor Daley the First’s grand plan to create a buffer zone between the African-American Southside and downtown. But the majority of Pilsen’s growing Mexican population were newly arrived immigrants. Once again, Pilsen performed its role as a “port of entry” introducing immigrants to life in America, and like others that had settled in Pilsen, the Mexicans brought their own brand of radical, working class politics.
Despite its ambiguous outcomes, the 1910-1940 Mexican revolution, its iconology, its mythology, and its radical vision are celebrated by many Mexicans. This attachment to radical social change takes on renewed purpose in the context of the challenges of poverty, exploitation and immigration status facing Chicago’s Mexican population. In Pilsen, one symbol of this history "en forma de un edificio" is Casa Aztlán community center (1831 S.Racine). Originally constructed in 1896 as Howell Neighborhood House, a product of the settlement house movement associated with Jane Addams, Howell House originally served the Czech immigrant community, providing English language classes and day-care. By the 1970’s, Howell House had become a relic as the organization failed to embrace and adapt to the demographic changes in the neighborhood. Run by the Presbyterian Church, the community center was staffed by elderly Eastern European women who had little interest in reaching out to the rapidly growing Mexican immigrant population surrounding the building. In 1970, the militant Latino organization the Brown Berets (modeled on the Black Panther Party) seized control of the center, occupying the building and demanding that it be reoriented to better serve the community. The building was renamed Casa Aztlán, after the mythic ancient homeland of the Aztec peoples who are believed by some to have originated in what is now the Southwestern United States.
It is hard to imagine Casa Aztlán in its Howell House form anymore. The building is wrapped with murals of radical Mexicans including Emiliano Zapata, Frieda Kahlo, Benito Juarez, and Subcomandante Marcos. The work of Ray Patlán and his students Marcos Raya and Roberto Valadez, Aztlán’s walls display the mural art that has become synonymous with Pilsen in the last forty years. Pilsen’s murals are narratives of struggle, addressing such issues as gentrification, exploitation, war, violence, and xenophobia, representations of on-going struggles in the community for social, economic and racial justice.
What Casa Aztlán and Pilsen’s murals represent in structural form, the legend of Rudy Lozano represents "en persona.” Lozano began his activist career while a student, first at Harrison High School, later at UIC. He worked with the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council (PNCC) in a struggle that led to the building of Benito Juarez High School (2150 S. Laflin), and in 1973 became an organizer in Chicago for the Raza Unida Party. A product of the growing Chicano consciousness movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s, born out of social struggles in Mexican-American communities in the Southwest, Raza Unida combined ethnic identity politics with traditional leftist demands like government funding for improved housing and education. Within a year, however, Lozano moved in a more radical direction, attaching himself to El Centro de Acción Social y Autonomo- Hermandad General de Trabajadores (CASA). CASA, unlike Raza Unida, embraced a Marxist class perspective, was internationalist in scope, and included many who had fled political persecution in Mexico and envisioned Latino immigrants as potential revolutionaries, ripe for organization.
Lozano, like his Pilsen-residing German, Czech, Polish and Jewish predecessors, recognized labor unions as an important vehicle for workers’ self-empowerment. Becoming an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), another precursor union to UNITE-HERE, Lozano tried unsuccessfully to unionize the workers at Del Rey Tortilleria on 18th Street in Pilsen and 27th Street in La Villita. Latino workers at small factories like Del Rey were largely ignored by the mainstream of the labor movement. Lozano would start a tradition of organizing ignored and vulnerable immigrant workers that continues today in the efforts of organizations like Latino Union. Despite these radical politics, Lozano’s political success came through surprisingly orthodox channels. He ran as a Democrat for Alderman of the 22nd Ward, narrowly losing to a machine candidate, but doing well enough to catch the attention of Harold Washington, who appointed Lozano his liaison to the Latino community.
On the morning of June 8th 1983, Lozano was gunned down in his kitchen by a young man with street gang affiliations. The circumstances and motivations surrounding the murder remain mysterious. What is certain is that Rudy Lozano’s name has been added to a long list of Pilsen’s martyrs to the cause of immigrant workers. Despite his early demise, Lozano’s efforts have left a lasting imprint on Pilsen. In addition to the public library named after him at Blue Island and 18th street, PNCC continues to be an important community organization, though shorn of its past radicalism, and the synergy of labor and immigrant rights organizing has only strengthened since the 1980s with unions like SEIU, UE, UFCW and UNITE-HERE placing high priority on the struggle for comprehensive immigration reform. The Independent Political Organization (IPO) he built has dominated local politics in neighboring La Villita, enabling Alderman Ricardo Munoz and former state senator and current County Commissioner Jesus Garcia’s numerous election victories. And many of the principals behind CASA continue on in the work of Pueblo Sin Fronteras and Rudy’s sister Emma Lozano.
Casa to Casa / La Lucha Continua:
The heady days of the 1960’s and 1970’s, when revolution seemed possible, are at best a much caricatured memory. But in Pilsen, the struggles of La Raza are still alive; even the anarchists have returned, organizing the Lichen Collective and Biblioteca Popular on Blue Island. Despite the diminished national strength of organized labor, Pilsen’s workers’ organizations continue to struggle for economic justice and against classbased exploitation. In the 2000s Pilsen saw the Teamsters successfully organize workers at V.&V. Supremo, a Mexican food products factory; the UFCW were less able to organize workers at Casa del Pueblo, a neighborhood grocery store. Once again, violence, or at least the threat of violence was part of the story. At V.&V., paramilitary style armed security was hired to patrol the property and videotape demonstrations held outside the newly razor wired plant gates. At Casa de Pueblo, tensions were even higher after the fire bombing of one worker’s vehicle.
More than the labor movement, however, it is the fight for immigrant rights that today marks Pilsen’s place on the national map of social struggles. In 2006, immigrant rights marches broke records for numbers of participants that had remained unchallenged since the days of Haymarket. Some 250,000 took to the streets on March 10th, followed by over half a million on May 1st, the day celebrated worldwide to remember the Haymarket martyrs, leaving 18th Street a virtual ghost town as businesses closed to allow their workers to participate. The selection of May 1st was a conscious choice of march organizers, a recognition of the thread of social struggle that links today’s struggles for justice with those of 1886. The organizations that put together the 2006 marches shared many similarities to those who planned the original May Day march on Michigan Avenue. Unions like SEIU, UE, UNITE-HERE and UFCW joined with immigrant-led community organizations like the March 10th Committee, CONFEMEX, NALACC and dozens of Mexican federciones and hometown associations. The center for organizing was Casa Michoacán, home of La Federación de Clubes Michoacanos en Illinois (FEDECMI), located on Blue Island, the old Black Road, near Plaza Tenochtitlan in the very heart of Pilsen. Reminiscent of the Czech Sokol Halls, Casa Michoacán is at the nexus of social and ethnic identity and struggle; both are community centers whose service to an exploited population makes them by necessity, if not inclination, organizing points for social change.
Is the End Near?:
A question mark hangs over Pilsen’s future. After nearly 150 years of social struggle, the community’s identity is on the precipice of another transformation. This time the transformation represents an existential threat; it is a battle for the soul of a neighborhood that has been felt since the mid-1990s. Pilsen is prime real estate as Chicago transforms from an industrial, working class city into a haven for the young professional class. Now the “yuppies” are knocking at Pilsen’s gateway (quite literally, “Pilsen Gateway” is the name of a new high end condo building at the corner of Halsted and 16th, the site of the Battle of the Viaduct where 134 years ago workers battled federal troops). University Village, the prefab post-modern monstrosity that obliterated Maxwell Street and its unrivaled historical importance to Jewish, African-American, Latino and working class histories alike, sits just to Pilsen’s north. To the south is Bridgeport, once the last bastion of the Southside Irish working-class, now a “hot” neighborhood with property prices to match. Early figures from the 2010 Census have confirmed what many have feared; Pilsen is in danger of becoming the Lincoln Park or at least the Wicker Park of the Southwest side. Gentrification has joined workplace exploitation and immigrant rights as top concerns among long time residents. But this is a foe from whom a solution is not so apparent. Unions were a clear antidote to those working long hours for low wages. Comprehensive immigration reform that would open the doors to legalization for the millions of undocumented is the ultimate goal of the immigrant rights movement. But how does one combat a global real estate market, and do homeowners really want to?
Rising home values have benefited some, but rising property taxes and rents have forced many more to abandon Pilsen for cheaper locations. A growing number of welloff residents are displacing working class Latinos. For a decade and a half, Pilsenites have been organizing to combat gentrification. The Resurrection Project (TRP) has successfully constructed some low income housing units in the neighborhood. Pilsen Alliance has spear headed this struggle with the Pilsen’s Not For Sale campaign, focusing on zoning changes and the mis-use of TIFs (tax increment financing districts). Pilsen Alliance has successful defeated a few major condo developments but lost the fight over others. No organization in the neighborhood has yet come up with a complete answer as how to win the gentrification battle.
2010 saw a powerful symbolic example of what this might mean for Pilsen’s identity. As a number of new bars and restaurants opened at Halsted and 18th Street, Decima Musa, a community institution for almost 30 years, closed its doors. Decima Musa was more than just another Cantina. Jointly owned and operated by community activists Carmen Velasquez and Rosario Rabiela, it played host to Pilsen’s progressive Latino community. Thursday nights at Decima mixed radical politics with Nueva Canción, Latin America’s music of resistance and revolution. A favorite song of the weekly crowd at Decima Musa is the Nueva Canción classic, Todo Cambia...
Cambia lo superficial
Cambia también lo profundo
Cambia el modo de pensar
Cambia todo en este mundo
What is superficial changes
What is profound also changes
The mind changes
Everything changes in this world
Pilsen has changed many times before, but every other time, one community in struggle has replaced another. The song goes on to say...
Pero no cambia mi amor
Por mas lejo que me encuentre
Ni el recuerdo ni el dolor
De mi pueblo y de mi gente
But my love does not change
Regardless of the distance
or the memory or the pain
Of my land and my people
Chilean Julio Numhauser, wrote these words while living in exile in Sweden after fleeing Pinochet’s brutal regime. Through all its changes, Pilsen has remained a welcoming home for exiles and refugees like Numhauser. A place were immigrants fleeing injustice in one land, despite often finding it again in the United States, could build their futures. Whether the change looming for Pilsen will preserve this essential element of the community’s spirit remains to be seen.
1Pacyga, Dominic A. and Ellen Skerrett. Chicago: City of Neighborhoods: Histories and Tours (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1986), 242.
2Spinney, Robert G. City of Big Shoulders: A History of Chicago (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000), 128.
Other recommended sources...
Adelman, William J. Pilsen and the West Side. Chicago: Illinois Labor History Society, 1983.
Schneirov, Richard. Labor and Urban Politics: Class Conflict and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1864-1897. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
Schneirov, Richard. "Free Thought and Socialism in the Czech Community in Chicago, 1875-1887." In “Struggle a Hard Battle": Essays on Working-Class Immigrants. Edited by Dirk Hoerder, DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1986.
Roediger, Dave & Franklin Rosemont, editors. Haymarket Scrapbook. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1986.
Keil, Hartmut & John B. Jentz, editors. German Workers in Chicago: A Documentary History of Working-Class Culture from 1850 to World War I. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, Research Dept. The Clothing Workers of Chicago, 1910-1922. Chicago: The Chicago Joint Board, Amalgamated Clothing workers of America, 1922.
Bae, Youngsoo. Labor in Retreat: Class and Community among Men's Clothing Workers of Chicago, 1871– 1929. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
Gilberto Cardenas, editor. La Causa: Civil Rights, Social Justice, and the Struggle for Equality in the Midwest. Houston: Arte Publico, 2004.
Taller de Estudios Comunitarios. Rudy Lozano: His Life, His People. Chicago: Taller de Estudios Comunitarios, 1991.
Nicholas De Genova and Ana Yolanda Ramos-Zayas. Latino Crossings: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and the Politics of Race and Citizenship. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Ismael Cuevas, “Latino Political Organizations in Chicago: The Independent Political Organization of the 22nd Ward and the Rise of Latino Political Representation,” A Journal of Chican@ & Latin@ Experience and Thought (Winter 2009-Spring 2010): 41- 50.
Chicago Historical Society. “The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago.” Last modified 2005 http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/
1877-2011: 134 Years of Social Struggle in Pilsen by Jerry Mead-Lucero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at pilsenprole.blogspot.com.