John Fitzpatrick was born in Athlone, Ireland on the 21st of April, 1872. There he spent a good portion of his early childhood, attending Irish grammar schools for five years. His mother died before he was a year old, so he was raised by his father alone. As a result, upon his father’s death, Fitzpatrick was taken to America by his uncle in 1882. At the age of eleven, however, his uncle passed as well, leaving Fitzpatrick an orphan in an unfamiliar world.
Fitzpatrick was thrust into the realm of labor, beginning his new journey on the killing floor of the Chicago Union Stock Yards, and later learning the more specialized trades of blacksmithing and horseshoeing. He joined various labor unions and organizations, including the International Union of Journeymen Horseshoers as a stockyards organizer, and later other groups such as the Drop Forgers and Helpers Union.
John Fitzpatrick’s greatest achievements and contributions came during his presidency of the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) from 1905 until his death in 1946. The CFL was formed by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1896 in order to “curb the activities of corrupt labor leaders,” placing the guardianship of Chicago’s legitimate unions in the CFL’s hands. Yet, it was no easy process to get Fitzpatrick elected, the organization being held hostage by Martin "Skinney" Madden.
Madden used violent tactics to control the ballot box, running the organization much like a political machine. He was not brought down until the election of 1905, which, even then, resulted in the election needing to be moved elsewhere with the Chicago police overseeing things. Once Fitzpatrick was elected, he was able to hold presidency for the next forty years, working towards “cleaning up the Chicago labor scene and to organizing as many workers as possible.” Once Fitzpatrick had disposed of the corruption plaguing the organization, the CFL was able to briefly become a force for progress.
Blending together with Fitzpatrick’s ideologies, the CFL broke away from the other organizations in its structure, approach, and progressive nature. He believed in industrial unionism, yet with the nature of equal eligibility. He desired a labor organization that allowed all workers to be able to obtain union membership, regardless of skill, race, or even gender. Fitzpatrick had begun to restore power to local unions rather than centralizing them into national or international bureaucracies, like many other organizations were doing at the time. He carried this mentality further, aiming to be far more inclusive of other organizations and voices. CFL meetings were made into forums of democratic debate and discussion, which was quite the contrast to the iron-fisted rule of Madden before him.
By 1917, the CFL was uniquely progressive in comparison to any other labor council in the country. Led by Fitzpatrick, it “advanced a militant, class-conscious style unionism.” By embracing this democratic reform, he recruited the support of many other influential figures. Together with these new allies, Fitzpatrick was able to spread the influence of the CFL, advocating a “moderate evolutionary change within the labor movement and American society.” This progressiveness and political activity came to head in the formation of CFL’s first published newspaper, the New Majority, in 1919. It grew to be the voice for the struggles of labor in Chicago, hoping to reach out to society and present the needs of labor in a way that it would be appreciated. It could be said that the organization reached a peak of activity during the years of World War I, which was particularly important era for Fitzpatrick’s CFL, the organization becoming “a center for pacifist politics as well as for major industrialization drives.” Under Fitzpatrick, the CFL became a massive center for a diverse range of contemporary issues. Not only did he seek to open up labor to this diversity, but he also actively aimed to address the political and social questions surrounding labor, becoming a source extending far beyond Chicago alone.
Fitzpatrick, although integrated quite successfully into American society, did not entirely forget his roots. Alongside his activeness in the realm of labor issues, he also forged alliances with immigrant leaders, hiring immigrant labor organizers and making the labor movement into a center for immigrant nationalist activities, as well. On the 21st of January 1922, Fitzpatrick wrote a cablegram to Dail Eireann regarding Irish prisoners convicted before a truce had been made between Great Britain and Ireland, urging them to be freed. He wrote that the Chicago Federation of Labor, representing three hundred thousand union men and women in this city, requests the release of James Larkin, an Irish political prisoner. As demonstrated by this excerpt of the CFL’s newspaper, the organization under Fitzpatrick contained many different tones and functions. He had lived the immigrant experience and recognized that it was something significant in the labor movement. It also shows how he retained his Irish identity amid his progression towards diversity and multi-ethnicity within the political sphere and labor movement.
His later years as president of the CFL encountered some difficulties and set-backs. In 1919, the CFL under Fitzpatrick played a leadership role in establishing independent parties such as the Illinois Labor Party and the National Farmer Party. His progressive unionism had begun to become a hinderance in the eyes of the head of the AFL, Samuel Gompers, who had been placing a great deal of pressure on Fitzpatrick. His beloved party had also begun to move towards more radical ideas, which increased pressure from the AFL. Still, in the 1920s, Fitzpatrick pushed to unite the Labor Party with other independent political movements. During the 1923 AFL convention, however, the hopes for independent action on the part of labor were defeated. This forced Fitzpatrick to abandoned his advocacy for the Labor Party and other independent, progressive causes in order to remain within the AFL. After this, along with other failed attempts running for mayor, led his influence and progressive ambitions to deteriorate as he was forced to moderate himself.
Despite the difficulties he faced, he remained the president of the CFL until his death in 1946, providing a prime example of an immigrant who climbed the ranks and integrated into his new surroundings via a progressive wave of ambitions for a better, more hopeful future of labor. Unfortunately, his efforts were unraveled after his era had passed. With the election of William Lee after Fitzpatrick’s death, the CFL’s focused shifted dramatically, growing closer ties with the democratic political organizations of Chicago. Eventually the CFL fell back into the mechanics of politics, with CFL representatives being “awarded seats on the board of nearly every major public body of Chicago.” The result was that much of Fitzpatrick’s hard work was undone, leading the CFL to undermine the independence and militance that the Chicago labor movement once had under him. Corruption once again reigned free while dishonest parties fell to their temptations once again.
The life of John Fitzpatrick carries with it the dreams and ambitions of an Irish immigrant who had hoped for the best of his new home. He not only saw America as a place for new opportunities, but also as a place to make a difference. He led a progressive wave through a corrupt Chicago, which, although it did not last, provided inspiration and hope during a time of great struggles and hardship. Fitzpatrick’s life and achievements demonstrate the strength and power of diversity, socially and politically. He provides a glimpse into the Irish-American experience; a moment in between an Irish nationalistic desire for a free homeland and a new American desire to embrace diversity and forge a better world for all.
Arnesen, Eric, Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-class History, Volume 1, Routledge, 2006.
Cayton, Andrew; Sisson, Richard; Zacher, Chris, ed, The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia, Indiana University Press, 2006.
Chicago Historical Society, ”Chicago Federation of Labor Records." Chicago Federation of Labor Records. Accessed April 19, 2016.
Halpern, Rick, Down on the Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Chicago's Packinghouses, 1904-54 University of Illinois Press, 1997.
Newton-Matza, Mitchell, Intelligent and Honest Radicals: The Chicago Federation of Labor and the Politics of Progression, Lexington Books, 2013.
Newton-Matza, Mitchell, There’s a Rumble in the Air: The Importance and Influence of the Labor Press in Chicago, Labor Press Project. Paper presented at Illinois History Symposium, December 1999.
The New Majority (Chicago), January 21, 1922, Vol. 7, No.3 ed.