A Brief History of the Architectural and Ornamental
Iron Workers Union of Chicago
In 2013, we celebrated our 110th anniversary as Ironworkers Local #63. Our Union is actually much older. Our story begins with an event that also is remembered in October, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Chicago was a rapidly growing city at the time of the fire. When the city was rebuilt it was decided that only fireproof construction methods would be used. Workers with masonry and metal working skills came from Eastern U.S. cities and Europe to help rebuild the city. As the city was rebuilt it became a great city of “haves” and “have-nots.” Workers toiled long hours for little pay. An economic depression in 1873 made matters worse. this was an era of great labor unrest and workers began to form unions for their own protection. In 1877 there was a nationwide railroad strike. This was the closest our country ever came to a workers revolution. Federal troops were called in and many Chicago workers were gunned down.
Sometime in the early 1880’s our union was formed as the Architectural Ironworkers Union of Chicago. This independent union had three locals, one German, one bohemian, and one English speaking. Exact records of the date of origin do not exist. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (F.O.T.L.U.), a forerunner of the AFL, called for a nationwide general strike to commence on May 1, 1886. Workers were striking for the eight-hour day. Chicago had the largest demonstrations in the country as most workers in city answered the call to strike. On the evening of May 4, 1886 a large labor rally, protesting the police brutality during the strike, was held at Haymarket Square on the corner of Halsted and DesPlaines. As police moved in to disperse the crowd someone unknown to this day threw a dynamite bomb killing one police officer. In the resulting melee six more officers and several workers were killed. The blame was put on the labor unions that organized the rally. The following day all union halls were raided and their records confiscated. This is the reason we do not have records of our exact date of origin. All Business Agents and labor leaders were arrested and brought in for questioning.
Eventually eight of Chicago’s most prominent labor leaders stood trial for the murder of the seven policemen even though they had nothing to do with the bomb throwing. Five of the eight were given the death sentence. One of the convicted men died from mysterious causes. On November 11, 1887 the four Haymarket Martyrs were hung in a public execution on the corner of Hubbard and Dearborn streets. They died because they supported labor unions. They died for their ideas, not their deeds.