Les Orear has lived through much of the history of organized labor in Chicago. He was working at the meatpacking plant Armour & Company when the National Labor Relations Act gave workers the right to organize and bargain collectively in 1935. He helped organize his plant and spent years documenting meatpacking and the labor movement in union publications. Then he watched as the entire local industry crumbled. Since then, as president of the Illinois Labor History Society, he’s been the primary custodian of the stories of all the city’s workers. “He has taught all of us about the 8-hour day, the 40-hour week, Samuel Gompers–people and events in the labor movement that a lot of us in the labor community take for granted,” says Dennis Gannon, executive director of the Chicago Federation of Labor. “His role has been invaluable.”

At the age of 93, Orear is slowing down. His slight frame doesn’t move as easily as it used to, and his eyes are clouded by macular degeneration. But he still comes to work at the ILHS’s downtown office every weekday, boarding the Jackson Park Express bus near his apartment at the Montgomery Place Retirement Community in Hyde Park.

Orear continues to write and edit the twice-yearly newsletter Illinois Labor History Society Reporter, field phone calls from students, TV producers, and historians, maintain the ILHS library and archive, man book tables at union conventions and events, and fire off letters to city officials, labor leaders, and the press. Last month Orear was inducted into the ILHS’s Union Hall of Honor.

He knows he can’t be the main reservoir for Chicago’s labor history much longer, but he has a plan–to build a new one. For the past five years he’s been trying to convince the city to erect a memorial to its workers, preferably in the form of a museum. Cities like Lowell, Massachusetts; Youngstown, Ohio; Birmingham, Alabama; and even Joliet have created historic sites or museums based on their industrial heritage–why not the City That Works, he wonders. “We’re a second city to Joliet?”

When Orear came up with the idea in 1999 he picked out a site: a parcel of south-side land formerly occupied by the United States Steel South Works plant.

In November 1998 Orear read an article in the Tribune by architecture critic Blair Kamin advocating a museum at the United States Steel South Works plant “that would focus on the story of steelworkers . . . while exploring the grander theme of work in America.” Once the largest steel mill in the world, South Works was closed in 1992 and its buildings were demolished, leaving an area bigger than the Loop vacant. Inspired, Orear spent several months developing a nine-page “concept,” which he sent off to city, community, labor, and media representatives in September 1999. He called it the Carl Sandburg Museum of Labor and Industry. “I don’t want to call it just a labor museum, because it’d get nowhere,” says Orear, “but a museum of labor and industry, like ‘science and industry’ . . .”

He already has a collection of historical artifacts to get the museum started, which he maintains on behalf of the ILHS: rare books about the labor movement, taped interviews with workers and union leaders, photographs (many taken by him), posters, leaflets, buttons, badges, all kinds of ephemera–including a paving brick from the old Crane’s Alley, where the Haymarket bomb was thrown.

The city’s plan for the site, which sprawls from 79th to 91st streets along the lakeshore, includes 100 acres of parkland as well as housing developments, a $100 million Solo Cup Company factory, small businesses, and cultural facilities–a self-contained urban village.

Orear says he’s had “some meetings” with community and labor groups, but his plan to form a grassroots committee that could mobilize broader public support has never made it out of the talking stage. “People said, ‘Sounds good, yes, very nice, we need something like that, but it’s too big of an idea,'” he says. “It’s a matter of somebody with power to say, ‘I’m gonna grab hold of this idea and go with it.’

“Mayor Daley should find this concept very appealing. He needs to receive a message from Chicago’s workers and their unions. . . . Nothing happens without the mayor, of course.”

In March Orear and three ILHS staffers met with city planning officials at City Hall. The officials were “noncommital,” says Orear.

Planning Department spokes-man Pete Scales says, “It would be absolutely appropriate to memorialize the thousands of workers who worked in South Works and made Chicago the great city that it is, because they’re not there anymore.” What about a museum? “We’re certainly entertaining that idea.”

Born in Missouri in 1911, Leslie Orear Jr. was five or six when his parents moved to Chicago and rented a house near 68th and Stony Island. His father worked as an editor and reporter for the Associated Press under the byline Crag Dale. Around 1925, after declining an offer to help set up a bureau in Santiago, Chile, Orear’s father took a job in the public relations department of the Armour plant in the Union Stock Yards.

Orear graduated from Hyde Park High School in 1928, and the following year, around the time the stock market crashed, was accepted into the Experimental College of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which had been founded two years earlier by educator and civil libertarian Alexander Meiklejohn. Its 300 or so students, all male, shared a dormitory and didn’t attend regular classes or lectures. “We were assigned the same subject, and we’d spend the whole year doing nothing but reading, writing, and talking about it,” recalls Orear. One year he studied the history and culture of fifth-century BC Athens; another year the subject was 20th-century American civilization (for which Orear immersed himself in the life of Frankfort, Kentucky).

He dropped out in 1932. “The Depression pulled me out of it,” he says. “I had to come back to the city and look for work.” The Experimental College was soon abandoned, but its civic-education ideals were later absorbed by the university’s surviving Integrated Liberal Studies program. “We were thoroughly convinced we had the greatest education any young person could have,” says Orear.

Orear’s father helped him get a job as a laborer at the Armour plant. The largest packinghouse in the world, it employed some 5,000 people, one-tenth of the stockyards’ labor force. Orear was assigned to the sweet-pickle shipping department, where workers took hams from curing vats of salt water and sent them to tables to be washed, trimmed, and branded. He made 32 and a half cents an hour as the floor’s “string tier,” tying string onto hams and slabs of bacon, which were then hung on metal “trees” and moved into refrigerated railcars that took them to branch houses around the country.

Growing up on the south side, Orear had visited the yards and had seen the killing floor, which fascinated him. He was used to the stink that permeated the air. He’d read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the novel about the industry that led to meat-inspection and food-safety legislation. Orear also knew about the yards’ legacy of labor and racial and ethnic strife, and how divisions between black and white workers caused national strikes to fail in 1904 and 1921-’22. (Employers hired blacks and immigrants as strikebreakers.)

Soon he was swept up by the policies of the New Deal era. In 1935 the National Labor Relations Act gave workers the right to organize; it also outlawed practices used by employers to bust unions. A year later the Committee for Industrial Organizations (CIO) was formed, and in 1937 the CIO launched the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee.

Orear volunteered to write leaflets and sign-up cards for the Armour drive. He’d stuff dozens of them down his big boots and hand them out during his lunch hour. He says the unionizing drive was haunted by the failed strike of 1921: workers were reluctant to join, fearing they’d be fired. Some of the old racial and ethnic hostilities lingered–no one really knew who could be trusted. But Orear and other organizers persuaded their fellow workers that the drive would strive to unite everyone–Germans, Irish, eastern Europeans, blacks, women–on an equal basis.

Orear’s writing and organizing skills drew the attention of the CIO’s administration, and in 1937 he got a call from the local headquarters at 205 W. Wacker. “They felt they needed a national newspaper, a monthly edition of the CIO News, for the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee,” he says. “So I got this little job as editor because I was the college boy who could spell and write things.” That same year Orear got married. Living in Morgan Park, he and his wife, Hermine, raised three kids. In the meantime the CIO won contracts from Chicago’s big meatpacking plants that improved wages, working conditions, and benefits. It changed its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1938.

The United Packinghouse Workers of America was formed in 1943, and Orear worked as an organizer until 1952, when he became editor of its Chicago-based monthly paper, The Packinghouse Worker. He held that job until the union’s ’68 merger with the AFL’s Amalgamated Meat Cutters, which in turn became part of the United Food and Commercial Workers union several years later. He was transferred to the union’s headquarters at 2800 N. Sheridan, where he worked as an assistant communications officer. By the time of the merger, Orear says, “the handwriting was on the wall” for the Chicago meatpacking industry. Interstates and refrigerated trucks allowed packinghouses, once dependent on railroads, to move out of the city. There was increased competition from corporate farming and modernized, mostly nonunion, plants in rural areas closer to livestock ranges.

Orear says the “events of 1968”–civic upheavals, protests, and free-speech movements–spurred him and a group of educators, lawyers, historians, and union types to stage a well-attended memorial rally on the near west side at the site of the Haymarket riot in 1969. Later that year the group would form the Illinois Labor History Society. He’s been its only president. “Nobody’s ran against me,” he says. “Who else would work for nothing?” And he’s still the driving force behind the 300-member group.

“We realized that all that great history of the labor movement, and before that, would be lost on today’s people,” Orear says. “They didn’t know about the struggles guys and gals went through, and the achievements. They didn’t know the story of blood, sweat, and tears. Unfortunately we’re not raising mind readers who can read the minds of their parents. We said, ‘Somebody’s got to be the teachers, somebody’s got to be the voice.'”

The stockyards officially closed in 1971. It was a “very bitter pill,” Orear said during an interview for the WTTW documentary Chicago Stories: The Union Stockyards. “This industry had finally been turned into a real good place to work. We had built a great union, a great democratic institution.” Orear retired from the union in 1977.

While Orear and the ILHS worked on getting the city to go ahead with a museum at South Works, another intriguing opportunity arose. In 1998 Acme Metals (parent company of Acme Steel) filed for bankruptcy. Three years later it closed its Calumet Harbor facilities, the last remnants of Chicago’s early steel industry, including the 1905 Acme Furnace Plant blast furnace near 107th and Burley and the Acme Coke Plant at 112th and Torrence (also from 1905). Near the blast furnace are the decommissioned twin ten-story Hulett iron-ore unloaders built for Republic Steel in 1912 and thought to be the only operable machines of their type in the world.

This past April, representatives from community, environmental, historical, and steelworkers’ groups formed a committee to save the structures. Orear joined the committee, which calls itself Chicago’s Steel Heritage Project (CSHP) because it advocates turning the entire Acme Coke Plant into a museum park. The plant’s 50 coke ovens, 15 brick buildings, and several pieces of coal-handling equipment–including a 1950 quench tower in which hot coal was cooled with water–“are well suited for housing a comprehensive steel-making and labor history museum and exhibit area,” according to the group’s plans.

On May 14, committee organizer Aaron Rosinski along with Orear and others toured the plant, finding it eerily preserved. Boots, coats, time sheets, union notices, playing cards, and hundreds of tons of coke awaited work crews that would never arrive.

By June CSHP, representing the members of 14 organizations under the auspices of the nonprofit Calumet Heritage Partnership, was negotiating with Salrecon LLC, a demolition firm based in Rock Falls, Illinois, that owns the scrap contract for Acme sites.

The blast furnace was dismantled in early July, but the Beemsterboer Slag Corporation, which owns the land near 107th and Burley on which the furnace sat, has agreed to store and transport the pieces for future display at the proposed museum, according to Rosinski. (It’s likely that the company will reuse the Hulett unloaders.)

The Acme Coke Plant is valued at $250,000. The Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois recently donated $10,000 toward CSHP’s purchase; district seven of the United Steelworkers of America donated $40,000, and the steelmaker Ispat Inland has pledged $10,000. An additional $5,000 has come in from individual donors and small businesses. CSHP is exploring options to set up a public-private partnership to build, manage, and maintain the coke plant, as well as to contribute to decontaminating the site, says Rosinski. According to Mark Farina, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Environment, the city is open to the idea.

Orear says that “it’s nice to have something in your sights,” and he still hopes South Works will have a “suitable memorial” to Chicago’s hog butchers, toolmakers, wheat stackers, and freight handlers.

“Why do we have a colonial Williamsburg? Why do we have a Greenfield Village? It’s so that you can imagine yourself entering your grandfather’s or grandmother’s world,” he says. “It’s so that you can have some kind of continuity of human endeavor, of the human effort of trying to find a way to cope, a way to deal. What did they do to survive? What did your grandparents do to survive here in Chicago? And what were the tools they used–not only to build their own lives but to build the houses that we live in?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.