Unite Here Local 1 forgot organized labor's racist and xenophobic past

Unite Here Local 1 forgot organized labor's racist and xenophobic past
Robert R. McCormick (Chicago Tribune photo)










"As a Chicagoan, I will be damned in hell if I allow any neighborhood in Chicago where our union members work to be named, in 2016, after Trump's forefather—Robert McCormick," she said. "Shamefully, today's convention center authority wants to repeat the mistake it made in 1960." (Unite Here Local 1 President Karen Kent /Crain's Chicago Business)

Unite Here Local 1 represents people working in the hospitality sector. Their president, Karen Kent, claims naming the proposed development around McCormick Place, McCormick Square, is racist. Of course she had to throw in Donald Trump's name for good measure. That is guaranteed to get coverage and people excited enough to sign the petition demanding a name change.

Since no one interviewed any members of the union, who stand to benefit from jobs the development will create, it is unknown if they agree with their president.

This is Chicago. There is always a high level of hypocrisy in Chicago. Historical interpretation is not the strong point of many people.

Robert R. McCormick, owner and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, said and advocated many things from the 1920's to his death in the 1950's. He was a man of his time. His opinions were shared by many, including the leaders of organized labor.

The quotes Ms. Kent attributes to Mr. McCormick were made 80 or 90 years ago. It was a different time. People held different views.

Xenophobia was rife in Chicago. It was not only leveled at Hispanics and blacks. Germans, Italians, Greeks, Irish, Poles, Jews, and groups who came from someplace else or were born from immigrant stock, were victims of xenophobia in this "Most American of American cities".

If any group of people  was racist and xenophobic through the first half of 20th Century Chicago, it was organized labor. Organized labor shut blacks out of union manufacturing and trade jobs during the 1920's and 30's. About the same time quotes attributed to Col. Robert R. McCormick were made.

Blacks were not allowed to join unions, get middle class union jobs, and achieve the American Dream. The unions practiced the same racism as employers. When Mexicans emigrated to Chicago, they faced the same xenophobia from the unions and their partners in commerce and industry.

It wasn't until the onset of World War II when blacks were able to make strides in union membership. It was not because the unions changed their racist attitudes. It was due to the ramping up of war time industries and the need for workers. They had to admit blacks to the unions because commerce and industry needed people to work.

The same was true of Hispanics. They too were shut out of good paying middle class union jobs. The unions had to protect their "white" membership at all costs.

Organized labor in Chicago acted on their racism and xenophobia by denying people good paying middle class jobs. Robert R. McCormick verbalized his opinions. Opinions held by a majority of the population at the time. History changed. People changed, at least a vast majority did. New history was made.

We no longer live in the early part of the 20th Century. We no longer think like that. We, for the most part, evolved.

Unite 1's Karen Kent is ignorant of more Chicago History. Robert R. McCormick founded the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The school was founded to produce high quality ethical journalists. Many of those journalists went on to cover and editorialize on the Civil Right's Movement. Many went into public relations. It is a good bet they wrote speeches for union leaders like Ms. Kent.

Robert R. McCormick left the bulk of his estate, over $50 million dollars, to an eponymous charitable trust. The Northwestern School of Law named their building McCormick Hall after a donation from the foundation enabled its construction, providing good union jobs.

A donation from the foundation enabled the renovation of the Northwestern Technological Institute provided good union jobs. The Robert R. McCormick School of engineering and Applied Science was named in his honor.

Since its inception, the McCormick Foundation contributed over one billion dollars in funding for journalism, early childhood education, arts, culture, citizenship, assistance to the needy, and other economic and social services.

Mr. McCormick also left scholarship endowments to two military schools, The Citadel and the Military College of South Carolina.

The foundation funded the now defunct McCormick Freedom Museum, the first museum dedicated solely to the First Amendment. It operated between 2006-2009. When the Tribune Tower was built, McCormick had quotes on freedom of the press and free speech engraved in the walls.

What exactly has organized labor contributed to Chicago, other than rhetoric? What foundations have they formed? What projects have they funded? What buildings did they pay for, other than union halls? How many schools did they found? What have they done to protect the First Amendment, other than to shut people out and shut people down if they did not agree with their point of view?

Actions speak louder than words. Robert R. McCormick used words. Organized labor in Chicago acted on its racism and xenophobia.

Mr. McCormick and organized labor, during the first half of the 20th Century, were no different in their views.

The only difference is organized labor actively practiced racism and xenophobia, keeping the" other" out of good paying middle class jobs for decades. They just did not verbalize or publicize their racism and xenophobia.

Then, there is the sordid past of Chicago Organized Labor's close association with the Chicago Outfit. The Organized crime group was not known for being racially tolerant. Organized labor willingly, cheerfully, and obediently allowed organized crime to profit from the dues of its hard working members.

Organized labor conveniently forgets its own participation in racism and xenophobia in Chicago. If Karen Kent wants to sling mud, she better be prepared to have it thrown right back in her face.

The Haymarket Memorial sits on South Desplaines Street. Union Park sits at Ashland and Randolph. Both are monuments to the labor movement. Maybe a petition should be drawn up to remove the memorial and rename the park. It can be claimed they are ugly symbols of organized labor's racist and xenophobic past.

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