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Social Science History 24.1 (2000) 183-222

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Unionized Teamsters and the Struggle over the Streets of the Early-Twentieth-Century City

David Witwer


IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= Two political cartoons from the 1905 Chicago Tribune portrayed how some elements in society viewed the rise of a powerful Teamsters Union. On 29 April 1905, the front page cartoon depicted a husky teamster engaged in a sympathetic strike while the caption read, “The Dictator in His Old Act of Blocking Commerce” (Figure 1). A month later, on 3 June 1905, a cartoon played on the coincidence of the June 1905 uprising in Russia and a grand jury investigation of Teamster strike leaders in Chicago. The title caption read, “The [End Page 183] Grand Dukes of Russia and the Grand Dukes of Chicago” (Figure 2). Both cartoons emphasized the theme of irresponsible power—either that of a dictatorship or of an unprincipled grand duke. Teamster leaders were tyrants, these images said. The sphere in which this irresponsible power was wielded extended beyond the realm of union affairs, and there lay the true menace conveyed by these images. They asserted that Teamster leaders held it in their power to stop the flow of business activity in Chicago. One sign in the June cartoon explained that at the headquarters of these labor leaders one could find “strikes arranged on short notice,” “commerce blocked,” and “business ruined with neatness & dispatch.” Some newspaper reporters, in the Chicago [End Page 184] Daily News, 20 January 1907, captured the whole comparison and its argument in a nickname when they referred to the leader of the Teamsters Union as a “Czar.”

In this article, I will look at how the growth of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in the first decade of this century gave rise to these types of concerns. While rank and file members of the Teamsters Union focused on the improvements brought to their lives by a powerful new labor organization, business leaders and other influential segments of society worried about the nature of the power exercised by this union. Their concerns reflected a now often ignored reality: men who drove horses and wagons, an age-old technology, played a critical role in the streets of the new twentieth-century city, and with that critical role came influence for their union.

The union’s importance stemmed from long-term changes in America’s cities. Over the course of the nineteenth century urban centers had evolved [End Page 185] , growing in geographic size, as well as population, and playing a central part in the industrial and commercial transformation of the country. The new metropolis of the turn of the century was no longer a walking city, but one dependent on a number of intraurban transportation networks (Mohl 1985: 27–66; Jackson 1985: 103–14; Warner 1962: 1–34). Streetcars, the most frequently described element of these transportation networks, moved commuters from distant residential neighborhoods to downtown commercial districts.

1 A variety of horse-drawn vehicles, however, supplied the bulk of the remaining transportation needs of the city. Buggies, cabs, and carriages conducted passenger traffic not conveniently served by streetcars, for instance at weddings and funerals. A web of delivery wagon routes carried store-bought items, along with milk, ice, coal, groceries, and laundry out to residential districts. Industrial and commercial institutions, drawn to central urban locations by the intersection of interstate railroad lines, depended upon horse-drawn vehicles to move raw materials and finished goods within the city. Wagons hauled freight to and from railroad terminals, warehouses, commercial districts, and factory gates. Indeed the actual physical transformation of the city depended upon this same transportation network as building supplies traveled to construction sites on wagons, trucks, and drays. This horse-powered, intraurban transportation network then played a vital role, knitting together the city’s disparate parts.

By organizing the men who labored in this transportation network, the Teamsters Union acquired great strategic power. Its strike actions, supported by other wagon drivers, streetcar operators, and sympathetic crowds, blockaded the city’s streets and brought commerce...


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