When Chicago stood still: the CTW strike of 1968

7/20/2020 Jacob K. Friefeld

On July 6, 1968, Mayor Richard J. Daley met with officials from the Concerned Transit Workers (CTW), Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), and the Chicago Federation of Labor Representatives. Seven hours of negotiations produced a deal that ended a five-day CTW strike, which had attempted to address the grievances held by many Black bus drivers.

Earlier that year, frustrated that their concerns weren't being heard, Black members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and a small number of white allies created the CTW. The CTW's main frustration was that Black members constituted a majority of the ATU, but the leadership was completely white.

This unbalanced leadership was due to retired members, who were mostly white, still being allowed to vote. On June 30, 1968, the Local 241 of the ATU met in Chicago and members demanded changing the voting rules. Union President James Hill adjourned the meeting rather than hear the grievances. Eugene Barnes, an African American ATU member, insisted that the meeting be reopened or else the CTW workers would go on strike. Hill left the hall, and thousands of Chicago bus drivers went on strike the next day.

The CTW succeeded in bringing South Side transit to a halt, causing Daley to broker the July 6 deal. However, the ATU had not been present at the meeting to end the strike, and they criticized the deal as condoning "unlawful conduct of a reckless band of self appointed dissidents." Daley, caught between the ATU and CTW, claimed the provisions of the agreement reached on July 6 were only suggestions.

At the early August meeting of the ATU local 241, the union again refused to consider curtailing voting privileges of retired members or hearing any motions regarding CTW reforms. In response, the CTW announced it would renew its strike to "end this dictatorship" on August 24, the same day the Democratic National Convention (DNC) was set to begin.

The CTW walked out on August 24 and immediately faced a backlash from the media and elsewhere. The Chicago Tribune drummed up fear with assertions that the strike was organized by violent, professional agitators. The CTA even succeeded in getting a judge to file an injunction against the strikers, making the strike illegal.

This concerted action against the CTW strike only served to broaden its scope. Strikers gained support from Jesse Jackson, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Black Panther Party, and Muhammad Ali. Historian Erik S. Gellman has documented how the combination of Black Power ideology and Civil Rights strategies added cohesiveness to the movement.

The strike fell apart for a number of reasons. Police violence against protesters in the streets, many of whom had come to the DNC to voice opposition to the Vietnam War, disrupted large scale demonstrations in support of the CTW. Largely white North Side garages also failed to support the strike, leaving North Side bus service mostly intact. Cohesiveness among the strikers also broke down as some leaders argued in favor of taking a deal, and many rank and file members began returning to work.

Bobby Seale cofounded the Black Panther Party and led a march in support of the CTW strikers in 1968. He was charged with crossing state lines to incite a riot in the aftermath of demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention. At trial, he was held in contempt of court and sentenced to four years in prison. An appellate court later overturned that sentence (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress).

While it failed in the short term, the strike resulted in sustained activity among CTW members who eventually secured union leadership positions and encouraged the ATU's national Black Caucus to become more assertive in its leadership demands. However, the CTW strike was more than an effort to secure union leadership for African Americans. It demanded a more democratic city and exposed the structural and systemic challenges to achieving that goal.

Jacob K. Friefeld
Research Historian

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