Your Ward Room Blogger visited Occupy Chicago this weekend. It’s a permanent protest at the corner of LaSalle and Jackson streets, outside the Chicago Board of Trade. Just after I arrived, on Saturday afternoon, one of the organizers announced a march: first, to the Congress Hotel, where workers have been striking for higher wages for over eight years. From there, they marched to Trader Joe’s on Roosevelt Road, where they urged the supermarket to increase the wages of Florida farm workers by paying a penny a pound more for tomatoes.
As the 40 or so marchers walked south on Michigan Avenue. I fell in line behind, just to see what this was all about. Occupy has been called a revival of the 1960s protest movement. But as I listened to them chant anti-corporate, anti-banking slogans, I heard voices from an even earlier era: the 1880s and the 1890s, when anarchists and unionists demonstrated against the hoards of wealth held by robber barons such as Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller.
The Gilded Age, as Mark Twain called it, was the last time so few Americans held so much wealth. One of its most famous battles, the Haymarket Square affair, took place in Chicago. During a strike for an eight-hour day, a bomb went off, resulting in the deaths of eight policemen and four workers. The labor unrest was nationwide, and it was violent. During an 1892 steel strike in Pittsburgh, unionists and company-hired Pinkertons shot it out with Civil War weapons, and an anarchist attempted to assassinate U.S. Steel’s Henry Clay Frick. Nine years later, in Buffalo, an anarchist succeeded in assassinating President McKinley.
Two of the Progressive Era’s most famous protest novels were also set in Chicago: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, about the horrible working conditions at the Stockyards, and Frank Norris’s The Pit: A Story of Chicago, about wheat speculation at the Board of Trade, which 110 years later is again the focus of protests against economic inequality. Eventually, the industrialist were forced to accept reforms that brought about a fairer distribution of wealth: a federal income tax, direct election of U.S. Senators, child labor laws, the right to unionize, and the break-up of monopolies.
Because the Occupy movement was rousted from Grant Park, they’ve been compared to the demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. But the two groups have very different concerns: in 1968, young people who had grown up in a time of unprecedented economic equality were protesting against social inequality and militarism. In 2011, young people who grew up in a time of unprecedented social equality are protesting against economic inequality. These aren’t the grandchildren of Grant Park. They’re the great-great-great grandchildren of Haymarket Square.
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