"A Plucky Thing to Do": Jane Addams Befriends the Workers

By Knight, Louise W. | Humanities, November/December 2005 | Go to article overview

"A Plucky Thing to Do": Jane Addams Befriends the Workers


Knight, Louise W., Humanities


In 1889 Chicago was no ordinary metropolis but the second largest city in the United States and the sixth largest in the world. Economically, socially, and politically, it was a dynamo. With the establishment of their settlement house, Hull-House, Jane Addams and Ellen Starr had seized a roaring bull by the tail.

The streets were full of people rushing about making and spending money. Matthew Arnold, visiting in 1884, thought the city "too beastly prosperous." Rudyard Kipling declared after his 1889 visit, "I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages."

Its meatpacking, liquor, steel and iron, clothing, railroad car, and agricultural machinery industries were thriving. Twenty-one railway lines converged on its six major railroad stations. It was also one of the nation's largest ports. In 1888 the Port of Chicago had more arrivals and clearances (twenty-two thousand) than the ports of Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Portland, Falmouth, and San Francisco combined. For all these reasons, the city was rich with jobs.

As Chicago produced jobs, it attracted workers, including immigrants in large numbers. This led to an oversupply of labor, which in turn brought cutthroat wages and poverty, especially among the 29 percent of the city's workforce that was unskilled.

Addams's education in industrial working conditions began at the settlement's first Christmas party. She was shocked when a group of little girls turned down an offer of candy because, as one explained to her, they worked in a candy factory and could not "bear the sight of it." The children, Addams discovered, had been working fourteenhour days and eighty-two-hour weeks during the six-week Christmas rush.

It was not only children whose labor conditions were difficult and it was not only at Christmas. Many older workers had similar hours on and off throughout the year. Addams asked one man what it was like to work so many hours every day. He said that after three or four weeks he did not "feel at all." She watched exhausted workers attending Hull-House events fall asleep in their chairs. She was impressed by their determination. "I am touched every night in the week," she wrote in 1893, "by the fact that the people think it worthwhile to eat their suppers and change their clothes and come to HullHouse-and perhaps they do not get there until eight or nine o'clock-for the sake of the very meager feast we are able to spread for them-so very meager I am ashamed of it." If nothing else, she was seeing the educational benefits of labor's call for the eight-hour day.

At first Addams tried to solve labor problems by her own efforts. An early case involved three boys who worked at a nearby factory and were all members of an evening club at Hull- House. One after the other, they were injured at the same machine because it did not have a guard on it. The third one died from his injuries. Horrified, Addams paid a visit to the owners of the factory, confident, she writes in her biography Twenty Years, that they would "do everything possible to prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy." To her surprise, they did nothing.

Addams dealt with the next labor dispute by turning to voluntary arbitration-the use of a neutral third party to settle disputes. When twelve girls from a nearby factory approached her in 1890 about a disagreement they were having with their foreman over a wage cut, she asked Judge Murray Tuley of the Cook County District Court to arbitrate the disagreement. The employer agreed to participate and the matter was resolved. From then on, she urged voluntary arbitration whenever possible.

At first, Addams contributions to labor issues were merely reactive and centered on the resolution of specific disputes. But sometime during the spring of 1890, she sought out a woman bindery worker, Mary Kenney, as someone with whom she could cooperate. Kenney was not just a worker but a union organizer for the industry, which was well represented in the Nineteenth Ward where Addams had her settlement house.

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