Every Chicagoan has heard the legend of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern and sparking the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Though the fire ravaged our city, claiming lives and destroying thousands of buildings, it was not the end of Chicago’s story.
The Great Fire was followed by a “Great Rebuilding,” a period of rapid growth and important reforms to protect our city and its working people.
After the fire, the Chicago City Council reformed the city’s building code to protect Chicagoans, prohibiting the use of wood in downtown buildings and promoting the use of fire-resistant materials like brick and marble. These requirements, along with other construction advances, made possible the invention of the skyscraper in Chicago.
Because of collective action and policy change stemming from the disaster, our city emerged stronger than ever. In fact, the American Labor Movement’s spirit was in some ways born in the struggles that emerged from the Great Chicago Fire.
Though the challenge we confront today with the COVID-19 outbreak is very different from a fire or natural disaster, we must all mobilize with the spirit of the Great Rebuilding to persevere during these difficult times and protect working people from future disasters.
First and foremost, everyone must pay attention to public health experts about steps we all can take to keep ourselves safe. The Chicago, Cook County, and Illinois Departments of Public Health are all providing daily updates on the COVID-19 outbreak, including guidance on maintaining safe working conditions. All of us, workers and employers like, have a responsibility to follow the guidelines set forth by public health authorities.
Next, we must mitigate the mounting economic effects of this outbreak. Clearly, countless workers are going to be impacted through cut hours, temporary layoffs, and permanent job loss. The Chicago labor movement is actively working with local, state, and federal policymakers to advocate for immediate financial and health care assistance to those workers who have seen their livelihoods hurt by the outbreak.
However, this outbreak has highlighted the fact that too many Chicago workers were already living on the brink of financial disaster, without enough paid sick leave, steady health insurance, or adequate savings. While we have to address the immediate financial impact of the outbreak on workers, this is an opportunity to push for paid sick and family leave at the state level, implement important safety reforms to keep workers healthy on the job, and strengthen collective bargaining for all. We need sustained, aggressive economic action.
After the Great Fire, British novelist Mary Anne Hardy visited Chicago to survey the damage, writing, “We expected to find traces of ugliness and deformity everywhere, crippled buildings, and lame, limping streets ... ” However, what she saw surprised her. “But phoenixlike, the city has risen from the ashes, grander and statelier than ever.”
Once the public health danger has passed, I hope we can all harness the spirit of the Great Rebuilding to fortify our great city and its people.
We can and will rise from this crisis, stronger than ever.
Bob Reiter is the president of the Chicago Federation of Labor.
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