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The Ordeal of the Jungle

The Ordeal of the Jungle

Race and the Chicago Federation of Labor, 1903–1922

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David Bates


Paperback (Other formats: E-book)
268 pages, 6 x 9.25, 9 illustrations


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  • Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

About the Book

Between 1910 and 1920, the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) inaugurated a massive organizing drive in the city’s meatpacking and steel industries. Although the CFL sought legitimately progressive goals, worked earnestly to organize an interracial union, and made major inroads among both black and white workers, their efforts resulted in a bitter defeat. David Bates provides a clear picture of how even the most progressive of intentions can be ground to a halt.
By organizing workers into neighborhood locals, which connected workplace struggles to ethnic and religious identities, the CFL facilitated a surge in the organization’s membership, particularly among African American workers, and afforded the federation the opportunity to aggressively confront employers. The CFL’s innovative structure, however, was ultimately its demise. Linking union locals to neighborhoods proved to be a form of de facto segregation. Over time union structures, rank-and-file conflicts, and employer resistance combined to turn the union’s hopeful calls for solidarity into animosity and estrangement. Tensions were exacerbated by violent shop floor confrontations and exploded in the bloody 1919 Chicago Race Riot. By the early 1920s, the CFL had collapsed.
The Ordeal of the Jungle explores the choices of a variety of people while showing a complex, overarching interplay of black and white workers and their employers. In addition to analyzing union structures and on-the-ground relations between workers, Bates synthesizes and challenges previous scholarship on interracial organizing to explain the failure of progressive unionism in Chicago.


David Bates is an assistant professor of history at Concordia University Chicago. He is a regular contributor to the Illinois Reading Council Journal and has also contributed to the Journal of Interdisciplinary History and The Encyclopedia of American Reform Movements.


"Author David Bates examines the CFL's tenure with scholarly precision, offering a complex, nuanced portrayal of race relations in Chicago a century ago."—James A. Cox, Midwest Book Review
The Ordeal of the Jungle is a timely contribution to the ongoing conversation between the past and the present not only in the fields of labor and African American history but also in movements for the advancement of working people and people of color.”—Peter Rachleff, author of Black Labor in Richmond, 1865–1890

“In this absorbing study, David Bates charts the spectacular rise and equally dramatic fall of the Chicago Federation of Labor’s World War Iera campaign to organize the city’s stockyards across lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and skill.”—Paul Michel Taillon, author of Good, Reliable, White Men: Railroad Brotherhoods, 1877–1917

The Ordeal of the Jungle deftly blends perspectives of union leaders, rank-and-file workers, strikebreakers, and employers to show how aspects of class and race determined the fate of ambitious organizing drives in Chicago’s stockyards and steel mills. Bates’s methodology and nuanced interpretation exemplify the promise of a new generation of labor historians.”—Michael K. Rosenow, author of Death and Dying in the Working Class, 1865–1920

“Bates offers a vivid account of the Chicago labor movement’s failed attempts to promote a progressive brand of interracial unionism early in the twentieth century. Through a masterful synthesis of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ labor histories, Bates illuminates how employer predation, union miscues, and rank-and-file conflict worked together to undercut solidarity and with it hopes of racial change and economic justice. A vital retelling with important lessons for both historians and labor organizers.”—Kerry Pimblott, author of Faith in Black Power: Race, Religion, and Resistance in Cairo, Illinois