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kc labor history





In 1992 and 1993 The Institute for Labor Studies organized The Kansas City Labor History Tour. The tour was researched and presented by The Kansas City Labor History Workshop, a group of local union members and scholars. Almost two hundred people visited ten sites around Kansas City on a day-long bus tour. The tour took place four times and was funded by two grants from the Missouri Humanities Council and a number of local and regional labor organizations.

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Kansas City began as a frontier town, providing supplies to those heading West. As farming took off in the surrounding region during the late 19th century, it sparked KC's industrial development. The agricultural and ranching economy greatly shaped industrialization here, as seen in the prominent role played by industries like milling and meat packing. Heavier industries like steel never dominated as they did, for example, in the Chicago area.

Railroads shaped our history. Lathers at Union Station.
In 1914 the old 1878 Union station in the West Bottoms was replaced by
Union Station up the hill and just south of downtown.
Here are some of the craftsmen who built Union Station.

Working people of Kansas City also experienced a distinctive history. Two key factors brought a significant number of African-Americans to Kansas City: the legacy of slavery, and the migration of southern blacks called Exodusters to this region during the late 1870s in search of land. Meanwhile railroads encouraged Mexican workers to migrate, and sizable numbers came by the early 20th century. Immigrants, especially those from southern and eastern Europe, were significant but less numerous in KC's working class than in cities farther east. Most workers here were white, native-born, and typically the children or grandchildren of farmers. Often their families had migrated to this area from the upper South, searching for fertile farmland. The complex ethnic and racial character of KC's working class has created a rich and diverse history, but at times our diversity has made solidarity difficult or impossible to achieve.

Kansas City workers, however, have shared a common history with working people in cities across the United States. During the last 150 years working men and women built this city into a center of transportation and manufacturing. They worked on the railroads, slaughtered stock in packinghouses, washed clothes in laundries, and sewed in sweatshops. And they also organized to fight for their rights. Kansas City workers created a strong labor movement and sent some of their best activists on to national leadership. They engaged in a wide range of political activities to improve their conditions, from Democratic or Republican party politics to radical movements like the Socialists and Industrial Workers of the World.

In the early years craft unions dominated the labor movement.
Kansas City Missouri Pressmen's Union c. 1910




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last updated Friday, February 10, 2006
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