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Margaret A. Haley

Margaret A. Haley

Margaret A. Haley (1861-1939) was a labor activist and leader of the Chicago Teachers' Federation who fought to improve public education and the working conditions of Chicago's elementary school teachers.

Margaret A. Haley headed the most militant teachers' organization in the United States, the Chicago Teachers' Federation (CTF), in the early decades of the twentieth century. Becoming leader of the group in January 1900, she continued in that position until her death thirty-nine years later. As labor advocate and social reformer, Haley fought for the cause of public education in Chicago and battled mightily to improve working conditions and pay for Chicago's elementary-school teachers. Haley's autobiography, Battleground, began with the words "I never wanted to fight;" but the slight but fiery "Maggie" never backed away from machine politicians, unscrupulous businessmen, inept school administrators, or anyone who sought to frustrate her efforts to improve schools for students and teachers.


Haley was born in the town of Joliet, Illinois, on 15 November 1861 and spent her early childhood on a farm on the Illinois prairie. At sixteen, to help alleviate her family's financial troubles, Haley went to work as a teacher in a one-room country school. Finding she had a knack for teaching, she moved at age nineteen to Chicago and shortly thereafter began to teach in the urban Chicago public-school system. Securing a job as a sixth-grade teacher, Haley remained in that position until 1900, when, at thirty-eight, she became the business representative for the Chicago Teachers' Federation.

The Tax Fight

Haley's first battle as head of the Chicago Teachers' Federation was waged because of her concern about insufficient revenues for Chicago's public-school system. An agreement between the Chicago Board of Education and the CTF in 1898 promised to grant teachers pay raises in three yearly installments. The board paid the first on time but failed to pay the second and third installments on the agreed dates. Even worse, in late 1899 the board threatened to cancel the earlier raise and close Chicago schools for two weeks because of a lack of funds. Wondering why the city was in such financial straits, Haley discovered that many of Chicago's major corporations were evading city taxes. With proof in hand, Haley and the CTF took five major utility and street-railway companies to court. The corporations lost, and new tax reassessments brought roughly $600, 000 in back taxes to the city. Annual revenues available to Chicago increased by $250, 000. Haley's fight with corporate scofflaws eventually made more money available for schools and ensured higher salaries for Chicago public-school teachers.

Affiliation with Labor Union

Following the tax fight, Haley urged the Chicago Teachers' Federation to join the most powerful labor union in the city, the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL). Many people in Chicago—including many in the CTF—opposed such a step. The CTF was a voluntary organization of elementary-school teachers, 97 percent of whom were female; the labor union represented men who were teamsters, carpenters, horseshoers, and other blue-collar workers. Knowing that many teachers were uneasy about joining the union, Haley reminded the women in her organization that they could not legally vote in elections and that in any future political battles they would suffer a decided disadvantage. In Haley's words, "We realized that we had to fight the devil with fire, and, if we were to preserve not only our self-respect but the basic independence of public schools, we must make powerful political alliances." After weeks of deliberation the CTF finally agreed with Haley and joined forces with the labor union on 8 November 1902, thereby uniting the women of the CTF with the two hundred thousand working men of the CFL, all of whom could legally vote. The CTF became the first large body of teachers to affiliate with labor; and, in turn, organized labor became a strong supporter of public education in Chicago.

New Political Battles

After her success in 1902, Haley struggled for the rest of the decade to develop a partnership with working people whose interests included the factory, the home, and the school. During this period the CTF's influence on the civic life of Chicago grew. According to Haley, writing in 1903, "the Federation itself is as much an accepted fact and as essential a part of the business of Chicago now as the Board of Trade, the City Hall, or even the Board of Education itself." In 1905 the CTF energetically campaigned for reform candidate Edward F. Dunne in the city's mayoral election; following Dunne's victory, Chicago's public-school students and teachers continued to make new gains. Under Chicago's charter Mayor Dunne could appoint seven new members to the twenty-one-member school board each year. In his first year three of the seven appointees were women—one of whom was Jane Addams, head of the world-renowned Hull House settlement. In the second year Dunne's appointees were a majority of the board, and these appointees implemented needed reforms in school governance. Although Dunne failed to gain reelection for a second term, Margaret Haley and the CTF remained a vibrant organization fighting for school reform through the rest of the decade. Haley then continued to lead the Chicago Teachers' Federation for thirty more years. In the mid 1930s, she began devoting most of her energy to writing her autobiography, which she hoped would inspire continued faith in the teachers' union movement. Margaret Haley died on 5 January 1939 at the age of seventy-seven.

Further Reading

Margaret A. Haley, Battleground:The Autobiography of Margaret A. Haley, edited by Robert L. Reid (Urbana:University of Illinois Press, 1982). □

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