Benevolent and Mutual Aid Societies, Fraternal Orders, and Labor Unions and Salt Lake City’s West Side

Salt Lake West Side Stories: Post Twenty
by Brad Westwood and
Cassandra Clark

Above image caption: The Salt Lake City office of the Modern Woodmen of America, a workers’ fraternal life insurance organization, was located in 1911 in an upper floor office of the Bamberger Building (163 South Main Street). Photo courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society, Shipler Photographic Collection (Neg. 12947).

The growth of Utah’s industries, and the influx of economic immigrants, created a demand for new community-based services including churches, stores, taverns, and boarding houses. Benevolent and mutual aid societies were part of these services too.

Another common aspect of life on the west side were mutual aids or benevolent societies, known also as fraternal organizations or work clubs. Memberships centered on the countries of origin, reflecting many different languages and cultures. As nearly all of Utah’s immigrants initially found only low paying employment, these organizations offered needed aid, including housing assistance, widow and death benefits, translation services, and much needed like-minded camaraderie.

Many religious organizations and other private groups also offered aid, including food and educational services to the city’s immigrant and impoverished populations. However, in an age where both small businesses and large corporate employers saw no reason to offer injury/medical care or death benefits, it was the benevolent organizations, which assisted Salt Lake City’s working poor and the jobless. These societies made it possible for immigrants to make a better life in foreign surroundings.

Nearly all west side immigrants participated in one of these societies. Most were branches of larger regional, national, and international organizations. Some fraternal organizations that flourished in Utah included the Chinese Bing Kung Tong, the Italian Società Di Beneficenza, Stella D’America (Star of America), and Fratellanza Minatori (Miners Brotherhood). Others included the Greek Panhellenic Union and the Western Slavonic Association. Nearly all of these groups had services and rituals that incorporated language, cultural traditions, and outward public expressions of membership.

Benevolent and mutual aid societies offered a number of social services to Salt Lake City’s working class. For instance, many immigrants received food when needed, clothing, temporary housing, English and civic lessons, injury/medical care, unemployment assistance and widows’ and orphan’s benefits. Benevolent and mutual aid societies functioned in nearly every city, state, and territory across the nation. Such organizations are the unintentional nineteenth century ancestors of today’s medical and insurance benefits, linked to employment.

Benevolent and mutual aid societies offered vital ‘life preserver’ services no other organizations or entities offered to Utah’s immigrant working classes.”

Utah’s working-class white laborers also received benefits from such organizations. The Modern Woodmen of America (as seen in the photo above), the Ancient Order of Foresters and the Improved Order of Red Men, the latter being a predominately German-American club, were all groups that provided aid directly to Utah’s working-class whites. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) also provided aid to the members and operated from prominent office blocks in Utah’s cities and towns. As historian Ben Carter explains, these organizations created a “spirit of reciprocity between donors and recipients who often came from the same or similar socioeconomic background.” 

Benevolent, fraternal, and mutual aid societies also provided places to assemble, receive legal aid, and enjoy country of origin entertainment, and to prepare to participate in public events and parades. Generally, these organizations were successful in meeting the needs of the immigrants and impoverished people who sought the company of similar people, and the opportunity to serve and be served. Many of these organizations continue, even today, among Utah’s immigrant communities.

Labor Unions also functioned to serve Utah’s working class. Union representatives worked to secure employment and later, by following the model of mutual aid societies they were able to offer life and disability insurance. Both types of organizations clearly improved the life of Utah’s industrial workers. Too often, however, Utah’s government and Mormon leaders viewed these organizations as a threat to the territory and state’s public good. They believed that the union’s membership, which was made up of many people from foreign countries, threatened the interests of large influential businesses, democracy or the American “self-sufficiency” ideal. As a result, mutual aid societies, and even more so unions, faced a significant amount of hostility from church, government and especially influential corporate interests.

One of the largest concerns regarding the spread of labor unions was potential “socialist” sentiments. Many American citizens, though not all, feared socialism because of grassroots-based movements that occurred in Russia and other countries around the world. Utah had a strong Socialist Party until World War II. During the Gilded Age, many corporations kept wages low by exacerbating conflicts and competition between different immigrant groups. For example, many business administrators hired cheaper immigrant laborers to replace higher paid or striking employees, knowing such actions would create inter-ethnic tensions.

A street scene of strikers in downtown Salt Lake City, April 28, 1907; photo courtesy of Shipler Commercial Photographers, Utah State Historical Society.

As mentioned earlier, church organizations also offered medical services to the west side’s working poor. The Anglican Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Roman Catholic Church established hospitals and clinics to serve the poor. One strategy used to combat health issues was the dissemination of information about hygiene, germ theory, immunizations, and preventative medical care. Most hospitals opened to serve a specific group of people. For example, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church Hospital served miners, and the Deseret Hospital focused primarily on members of the Mormon Church; however, these hospitals did see patients from all religious affiliations and backgrounds.

Mutual aid and benevolent societies, fraternal organizations, and labor unions all worked to improve the lives of Utah’s working population. Through their efforts, many immigrants and other working poor had access to much-needed economic and medical care and to the education they needed to survive in the west side and the other towns and cities across Utah.

In the next seven installments of Salt Lake West Side Stories we will discuss the lives and experiences of Salt Lake City’s immigrant populations who lived and worked in Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Park neighborhood.

Would you like to read the next post (Post 21)? Economic Immigrant Communities’ Impact on Salt Lake City.

Click here to return to the complete list of posts.

Related Activity: Read Phillip Notarianni’s Utah Historical Quarterly article “Italian Fraternal Organizations in Utah, 1897-1934 for an in-depth journey into one of the west side’s most prominent immigrant related fraternal organizations.

Contributors: A special thanks to Phil Notarianni and John Sillito for their contributions to this post. This post was researched and written by Brad Westwood and Dr. Cassandra Clark, with a whole lot of help from friends. Thanks to our sound engineer and recording engineer Jason T. Powers, and to his supervisor Lisa Nelson, both at the Utah State Library’s Reading for the Blind program. Thanks also to yours truly, David Toranto, for narrating this post.

Selected Readings:
J. Kenneth Davies, “Utah’s Labor Movement,” Utah’s History Encyclopedia, Allen Kent Powell (editor).

Benjamin M. Carter, Health, Medicine, and Power in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah, 1869-1945, dissertation, (Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 2012), 87-79, 199-200.

Marilyn J. Field and Harold T. Shapiro, eds., “Origins and Evolution of Employment-Based Health Benefits,” in Employment and Health Benefits: a Connection at Risk, Committee on Employer-Based Health Benefits, Division of Health Care Services, Institute of Medicine (Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993), 49-86.

Do you have a question or comment? Write us at “ask a historian” – [email protected]