Past Event

Grassroots Democracy: Illinois Labor Journeys

A Road Scholar Program by Mike Matejka

Madeline Piller (L), who started the interest in the ‘Radium Girls’ five years ago – and whose father created the statue – and two original workers from the factory, Pauline ‘Toots’ Fuller (C) and June Menne (R), after the statue is unveiled, September 2, 2011

Illinois was critical to workers’ finding their democratic voice through labor organization. From Chicago’s Haymarket Square to southern Illinois coal mines, workers struggled to build unions, create safe work environments, and find a community voice through their united efforts. In building these organizations workers often faced state repression and learned how to organize across ethnic, racial and gender lines.

Workers like the Ottawa IL Radium Girls fearlessly stood up after their occupational exposure doomed them, helping create legislation to protect all workers. Women workers found their own voice and often built alliances with middle class women to ensure their rights.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters faced discriminatory unions and built their own organization over a 12-year struggle to ensure representation.

Democracy is not just elections; it is “small d” democracy, too—workers finding their voice through organization and becoming critical community participants and workplace advocates.

This event is Free and Open to the public. For more information, please contact Emma Marston at

Des Plaines History Center COVID-19 Policy

Masks and vaccines are recommended, but not required. Social distancing while seated in the audience is encouraged, space permitting. If anyone is uncomfortable or unable to attend History Center events due to COVID-19, we will record the presentation with Mike’s permission for our YouTube page so that it can be accessed from home afterwards. Learn more about Mike Matejka, this program, and how to book it.