The American Dream in Chicago

So for my spring break I went to visit my dad in Chicago. We were right in the city and I talked with many other professionals in Chicago that he works with. First of all, I think it’s important to note that Chicago is a very segregated city, at least right within downtown. According to an article, available here: from last year, Chicago is the fourth most segregated city in the U.S. This article specifically mentions the different neighborhoods and the racial connotations attached to each, but even spending time in the city, the segregation is painfully obvious. While eating at a restaurant in the Loop for example, the waitresses and hostesses were white and the cooks and busboys were black or Latino. Or take another example, in our hotel, the concierge was white and all of the maids I have seen are black or Latino.

In class we have talked a lot about the evolution of the labor movement and its relation-or lack thereof-to the civil rights movement. For me, it was really interesting now having that background and seeing some of the effects of it within the city of Chicago. While talking to one of my dad’s friends, the manager of an upscale hotel, I saw many relations between the background we had been talking about in class and the relationship between worker, specifically a non white worker, and manager. For example, this person explained that her experience with a union is that it has gotten a tad out of hand. Apparently unions are now asking for more benefits that aren’t necessarily fitting within what some proprietors consider fair. This individual explained that unions weren’t created for a person working an entry level job at McDonald’s for example, to be able to support himself or herself and his or her four children without the desire to move up and earn a better living. Unfortunately the timing wasn’t right or I would have to loved to have had a conversation about this while bringing race into it.

This is an idea that I have and am currently struggling with voicing and explaining because, for one thing, my personal background influences it a lot and second of all, my brief times spent in Chicago have been the first opportunities I have had to really see this type of labor segregation and its effects on society. Because of the American idea that anyone can work their way up if they just work hard enough is so ingrained in our society’s mentality, having conversations about unions gets very controversial very quickly. I personally believe that the safety that unions offer, or at least initially did (I am solely speaking from what we have explored in class and my limited knowledge of how unions function now) is a very helpful and vital aspect to U.S. Labor; ensuring fair treatment and manager and worker relationships are all elements that should be guaranteed to workers but, perhaps, as the individual I conversed with seems to believe, they have become too lax and have only enabled people to demand greater benefits not fitting for their job. It makes sense to me that the more professional, complex job such as a lawyer or an accountant should have better benefits and protection than entry level jobs such as the one at McDonald’s mentioned above. Otherwise the incentives of the American ideal of working your way up are gone aren’t they? But then I guess is that American ideal even possible any more? How much does that depend on race? I think within this class we can already answer that.


2 thoughts on “The American Dream in Chicago

  1. I think what you bring up in this piece is really interesting in looking at the American Dream in relation to unions. I had never really thought to look at the two they way you explore here especially in terms of those ranking higher receiving better benefits in order for those at entry level jobs to work their way up to the top. I, too, am struggling in understanding how this process works. I definitely agree that in provides incentive but there are race components embedded in the discussion between businesses and unions. To that extent, I am unsure all the details and statistics but I think it is interesting to look further into the American ideal of equality and how we have already discussed that it is not equal specifically in the hospitality field.


  2. Unions are sooo complicated. The argument FOR unions goes against the assumptions of free market capitalism: that workers and employers approach one another as equals. As a result of this assumption, the Supreme Court consistently overturned state limits on working hours and conditions during the beginning of the 20th century. The Court argued that if individuals agreed as individuals to work 12 hours a day in dangerous conditions, then their decisions should be respected and another layer need not be inserted between the worker and the employer.

    Trades unions, on the other hand, argued that workers and employers are NOT on equal footing: that given the structural unemployment that makes capitalism work by keeping prices of production (and thus wages) low, the worker was in fact the weaker party in the negotiations over the terms and conditions of employment. To address that power differential, unionists argued that workers needed to band together to bargain over terms and conditions of employment: hence, “collective bargaining” agreements.

    To the point you raise, Leah, trades unions originally organized the least rather than the most skilled laborers, because it was the most dangerous trades that had the least control over the terms of their labor: think coalminers, railroad workers, ironworkers, bakers. These trades literally cost you your life if conditions weren’t safe, and so unionizing began around basic safety issues. That eventually extended to hours, pay, benefits, etc. But unions often began because the work was dangerous. And the people who had the least power (often recent immigrants or people of color) not infrequently ended up in those trades.

    Today, the state has taken over that role by regulating safety practices and setting a standard workweek. But there are lots of jobs that don’t fit well into that model (say, being an academic, for instance).

    I myself have had few good relations with unions (that’s another subject for another time) but then again one I worked with had just come out of federal receivership (not a good sign!) and the other was a new effort by the UAW to organize TAs at my former university. Both of them were organizing highly-educated crowds of people in jobs that were consistent but very low-paying. Anyway. Just a couple of thoughts.


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