History Matters: A Look Back at the Champaign County Labor Movement of the 1920s

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For the past two years, newspaper headlines across Illinois have carried grim reports of budget impasse and inadequate funding for core state services and institutions, including for our flagship University in Urbana-Champaign.  Unfortunately, such dire reports are nothing new.

“University’s Progress Being Held in Check Because of Lack of Funds”

This headline was published not last week, or last year, but all the way back in 1921.  It was a report in the Twin City Review, a Champaign County labor newspaper that ran for nearly a decade. The reporter went on to explain, “It is sad, indeed, that in the great commonwealth of Illinois, its chief seat of learning must be held back because of the lack of funds…Unionists realize the necessity of higher education, that their children may become better prepared to combat the battles of life.” Four years later, the newspaper ran a story titled “Labor Pleads for Full U. I. Appropriation.” This article described how Illinois labor leaders were lobbying the legislature to fund the University.

They say the more things change…the more they stay the same. At different points during the last century, local residents have had to navigate through economic recessions, depressions, funding cuts and attacks on unions. Throughout this history union members have organized and stood up for a more fair and just economy for Urbana and Champaign.

The local labor newspaper helped foster communication between the different unions and the local community. Much like today’s alternative news outlets such as the Public I, the Twin City Review provided in-depth reporting on issues that mattered to local working people. Such issues were often ignored or scantily covered by the mainstream media. The newspaper focused on stories important to both trade unionists and farmers. It gave unions a forum to share their struggles and successes, build solidarity, and celebrate a shared sense of labor community.

Labor Day Parade and Celebration

One way that the local labor movement built a sense of community during the 1920s was through the annual Labor Day parade and celebration. The parade gave local workers a chance to show off their union pride while hosting a family-oriented event.

In 1921, the Twin City Review ran ads for a “Monster Labor Day.” The Musicians Union promised to bring out the “best in the land” to play some “real classy music.” There would also be free watches and fountain pens for children. The parade route began at West Side Park in Champaign, and then marched down Green Street, ending with a celebration in Crystal Lake Park in Urbana.

The parade lineup included some unions that are still around today, and some that no longer exist in Urbana and Champaign. This reveals both the incredible continuity of local organized labor, as well as how unions have vanished from certain job sectors. The Women’s Label League marched at the front of the parade, followed by the Janitors, the Laborers, Stagehands, Carpenters, Printers, Barbers, Meat Cutters, Letter Carriers, Sheet Metal Workers, Bricklayers, Musicians, Teamsters, Plumbers and Steam Fitters, Machinists, Plasterers, and several railway unions. The Auto Mechanics brought up the end of the parade.

Buy the Union Label

Having the Women’s Label League kick off the Labor Day Parade demonstrates the importance of these women to the local labor movement in the 1920s. During this era, women and people of color were often marginalized or altogether left out of organized labor. The Women’s Labor Union League is an example of how women found ways to make their presence felt in the movement. The purpose of the league was to encourage local retailers to carry union-made products, and then convince consumers to purchase those goods. In 1921, the League held an Oyster Supper to raise funds to support their work.

The women found an ally in the Twin City Review. The paper spent considerable ink on stories and ads aimed at getting readers to “buy the union label.” A union label is an easily identifiable stamp that lets consumers know that workers from a particular union have produced an item. During the 1920s store shelves were filled with goods bearing union labels, from women’s clothing and shoes to batteries and even ice cream. There were so many different labels that the Twin City Review ran a contest, where readers could win cash prizes for correctly identifying the dozens of different union labels that were stamped on local products. Another prize was offered for the best 100-word essay on “Why I should demand the Union Label.”

The proliferation of union-made goods is one tangible difference between our current era and the 1920s labor movement. Today, with the growth of globalized capitalism, many goods are produced overseas or in states with low union density—where both wages and workplace safety standards lag behind unionized regions. It has become increasingly hard to find products stamped with the union label.

The Twin City Review also periodically provided more in-depth coverage of why consumers should consider certain union-made projects. A 1921 column on the Bakers and Confectionary Workers Union warned that non-union bread might be filled with “filler and substitutes.” According to a Bakers Union representative, “Local bread is pure, wholesome and nourishing. Every union bakery in the Twin Cities is sanitary…Every unionist and believer in the trade-at-home slogan should eat more local made bread.” During the early twentieth century concern about food safety was on the rise. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, had brought readers a harrowing glimpse into the often unsavory world of food manufacturing in Chicago’s meatpacking district. As the public clamored for improved food safety standards, the Bakers Union tapped into that concern to frame the importance of their labor in providing wholesome foods for area households.

Unions’ Importance to the Community

The Twin City Review made an effort to explain the tangible importance of union members to their local community. The paper included columns and advertisements aimed at quantifying the impact of union members for Champaign County. One ad published in 1928 declared that the 2,500 local union members represented more than $4.5 million in earning power. The ad also explained that 75 percent of union members owned their homes. Finally, the ad emphasized the union’s role in local philanthropic work with the statement, “Labor is always back of any cause or movement for the betterment of the community.” Ads like this attempted to portray the investment of union members in Urbana-Champaign.

That investment included advocating for a fully funded public university, creating family-oriented public events, urging consumers to buy local, advocating for safer food standards, and building a membership that put down roots in the local community.

By the end of the 1920s, the paper ceased to operate, possibly a casualty of the Great Depression. Although it was short-lived, the Twin City Review gives a glimpse into how the labor movement became woven into the tapestry of community life in Urbana-Champaign.

Stephanie Seawell Fortado has just began work as a lecturer for the University of Illinois Labor Education Program, focusing on providing workshops and extension programming for unions and the general public. She completed her PhD at the University of Illinois, where she studied African American working class and social movement history. She is a past Executive Director of the Illinois Labor History Society, and past President, Treasurer, Bargaining Team and Strike Committee member of the Graduate Employees Organization 6300, of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and former delegate to the Champaign County Labor Council. She is currently a member of newly formed Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition, Local 6546.

Interested in reading more from the Twin City Review? Visit the Champaign County Historical Archives at the Urbana Free Library. 



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