December 2 The Example of Corporate Greed

December 2, 2016

On this day in Labor History the year was 2001. 

That was the day that the energy trading giant Enron filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. 

It was the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history up to that time. 

At its peak, the Houston based Enron was the seventh largest company in the country.   

A combination of mismanagement and all-out greed sank Enron.

The company used numerous accounting tricks and loopholes to hide billions of dollars of debt from its shareholders.

In August of 2000 shares in the company were worth $90.75. 

By November 30, 2001, they had plummeted to just 26 cents.

After filing bankruptcy thousands of Enron employees were left to go down with the ship. 

Many employees and retirees held thousands of dollars’ worth of Enron stock. 

Employees were told the company would recover. 

They were encouraged not to sell off their stock, and even to buy more.

At the same time top executives were dumping their stock holdings.

When the company went under, the employees’ retirement accounts were wiped out. 

Some who had already retired had to reenter the workforce.

The following January, a New York Times report shared the stories of some of the 4,000 employees laid off in the immediate aftermath of the bankruptcy. 

One was told he lost his job by voicemail. 

Another was told he had 30 minutes to clear out his desk. 

Multiple law suits won a portion of the money back for Enron stockholders. 

But employees lost more than $2 billion in retirement funds.

More than twenty top executives were found guilty for the crimes they committed while running the company. 

Enron became synonymous with the corporate greed that has been the hallmark of twenty-first century America.



December 1 Standing Up for Themselves and Their Patients

December 1, 2016

On this day in Labor History the year was 1966. 

That was the day the registered nurses of the Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association walked out of their jobs. 

Nursing could be a grueling profession, with long hours of physical labor for low pay. 

In Youngstown, the nurses were frustrated because there were inconsistencies in pay. 

Some recently hired nurses made more than those who had been working for years. 

Part time nurses did not receive the same wage increases as full time employees.  

They also did not feel that they had enough say in delivering quality care for their patients.

When they asked to meet with the hospitals executive director to discuss their concerns, the nurses were rebuffed. 

They then contacted the Ohio Nurses Association union and asked for help. 

Youngstown was a steel town, a union town, and the nurses were ready to join in the local labor movement. 

At first the Youngstown Hospital Association refused to bargain with the union. 

But when the nurses threatened to walk out, negotiations began. 

After two months of talking at the bargaining table, major issues remained unsettled, including pay and union recognition. 

Fed up, the nurses called for a mass resignation. 

305 of 433 nurses turned in their resignations. 

Two thirds of them were part time nurses.

They formed informational picket lines outside the hospitals. 

A federal mediator was brought in to settle the dispute. 

The nurses won significant gains. 

They received a more than 25 percent over two years. 

A grievance procedure was established for the first time.   

But most importantly, the union gained recognition and the right to bargain for better wages, hours, and work conditions for nurses and their patients.



November 30 Birth of a Champion for Workers

November 30, 2016

On this day in Labor History the year was 1854. 

That was the day that Mary McDowell, known as the Angel of the Chicago stockyards was born. 

Mary’s father brought the family to Chicago from Cincinnati after the Civil War. 

Her family was friends with US President Rutherford B Hayes, and as a young woman she spent a month in the White House as a guest. 

Mary received her college degree and worked as a teacher for a wealthy family in New York.

But living and working among the wealthy was not be the course of her life. 

She returned to Chicago and became a kindergarten teacher at the famed Hull House.

Then she became the head of the University of Chicago Settlement House in the back of the yards.

The settlement house served the diverse neighborhoods around the Chicago Stockyards. 

The community center included a library, play lots, gymnasiums and classrooms. 

Mary and her settlement house supported the rights of workers to form unions and to have safe working conditions.    

In 1903, Mary became the head of Illinois chapter of the National Women’s Trade Union League. 

The Pittsburgh Press reported on an incident that captured the spirit of Mary McDowell. 

The city of Chicago had a practice of using garbage to fill holes in the streets surrounding the stockyards. 

Mary showed up at the Mayor’s office with a group of women from the neighborhood and demanded, “All right, we want the rest of it dumped on Lake Shore drive. 

It it’s good enough for the stockyards it’s good for the drive, too.” 

The city stopped using garbage for street repairs.


November 29 The Fight for $15 and a Union

November 29, 2016

On this day in Labor History the year was 2012. 

That was the day that more than 100 fast food workers in New York City walked off the job. 

They held a one-day strike for better wages and the right to form a union.

It was the biggest fast food worker strike up to that time. 

The movement soon grew to be much, much bigger. 

Their demand was simple and memorable, a fifteen-dollar minimum wage.  

The slogan became the Fight for Fifteen and a Union. 

The campaign found an ally in the Service Employees International Union. 

By August of 2013, the movement held a “National Strike Against Low Pay” day of action.

Fast food workers and their supporters held demonstrations in 60 cities.  

Today the movement has spread to 300 cities, and beyond the United States. 

While protestors have gathered at many fast food chains, McDonalds has become a focus of the campaign. 

Protestors have held annual one-day demonstrations at McDonalds headquarters, just outside of Chicago.

The campaign has seen victories. 

Both New York and California have passed a $15 minimum wage. 

So has the city of Seattle. 

Although it is a national, and even international movement, it is also a grassroots effort. 

In each city different local groups are involved. 

In Kansas City, fast food women workers have formed the Fannie Lou Hamer Women’s Committee. 

They named their group after the Civil Rights champion.

They take inspiration from her famous quote that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” 

For many involved in Fight for Fifteen, this sums up their involvement. 

It is a movement for the respect and dignity of workers, and the right to earn a living wage.


November 28 Disaster in the Mine

November 28, 2016

On this day in Labor History the year was 1908. 

That was the day that an explosion at the coal mine in Marianna, in Washington County Pennsylvania claimed the lives of 154 miners. 

It was one of the deadliest disasters in US mining history. 

The Marianna mine was on the Pittsburgh coal seam, one of the richest coal deposits in the country.

The mine was operated by the Pittsburgh-Buffalo coal company. 

It was considered by many to be a model operation.  

The company houses that surrounded the mine were made of yellow brick, had hot and cold running water and electric lights.

This set them apart from other mining homes of the day. 

By the early 1920s ninety percent of all mining homes were wood frame and less than twenty percent had electricity.

Yet even though Marianna was considered a model, disaster still struck.  

Mining inspector Henry Louitt had been on site for two days leading up to the disaster. 

On Saturday morning, he had just left a mine shaft.

According to newspaper reports he had found the mine “in perfect condition.”  

Then shortly before 11 came a horrific explosion that left experts puzzled. 

It was believed that a vein of natural gas caused the deadly blast. 

Only one man, Fred Elinger, was rescued from the mine.

He gave a harrowing account of what happened to the Washington Observer.

He said, “I was working at laying brick in one of the entries and the first thing I knew a terrible explosion took place, which threw me some distance.  My two buddies were also tossed some distance away.  I heard them for a while and then all was quiet.” 

Elinger was rescued, but 154 other men were not.


November 27 Tragedy in Newark NJ

November 27, 2016

On this day in Labor History the year was 1910. 

That was the day when thousands of people came to see the location where a fire had ravaged a sweatshop in Newark, New Jersey. 

The day before, at least twenty-six women perished in the inferno.

The workers of the Alfred & Irving Wolf    Muslin Undergarment Company made nightgowns. 

On the morning of the fire there were more than 100 women crowded into the fourth floor workspace.

The fire broke out when a can of gasoline was knocked over in the lamp company located below the sweatshop. 

The floors of the garment shop were wooden and strewn with fabric. 

The fire spread quickly. 

It roared up so fast—even though there was a fire station across the street, the fire crew could not get there in time.

It would become the worst fire in Newark’s history. 

Desperate women tried to escape. 

But the fire safety exits were not adequate. 

Some of the women leapt to their deaths from the fourth story windows. 

The fire became national news.

No one was ever held legally accountable for the conditions that led to the fire. 

Less than a year and half later tragedy would strike again in the garment industry when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire would claim the lives of 146 workers. 

The events of the Newark fire faded into annals of history.

For years, no memorial marked the location.

Richard Greenwald, a dean at a nearby university, thought that the women who died deserved to be remembered. 

As the 100th anniversary approached he found the graves of twenty-five of the women and organized a memorial ceremony. 

He also helped create a bronze plaque to remember the site.



November 26 The Birth of William Sylvis

November 26, 2016

On this day in Labor History the year was 1829. 

That was the day that William Sylvis was born in Armagh, Pennsylvania. 

Growing up he was one of twelve children. 

His father was a wagon maker and taught him the trade. 

At the age of eighteen he became an iron working apprentice. 

His skill took him to Philadelphia, where he found work. 

But iron work was changing. 

More and more foundries were hiring unskilled labor, or helpers, to assist in production. 

They could pay these workers significantly less, and undercut the wages of the skilled iron moulders. 

In response William joined his local iron moulders union. 

But he knew if they were to really have any power as workers, they would need to join together with other locals. 

In 1863 he brought together 21 locals to form the Iron Moulders International Union. 

Three years later, he embarked on an even more ambitious project—forming a national labor organization for workers across the trades. 

Under his leadership the National Labor Union grew to 300,000 members strong. 

William shared his thoughts on the importance of labor in a speech to the Iron Moulders Union in 1864 saying quote,

“If workingmen and capitalists are equal co-partners, composing one vast firm by which the industry of the world is carried on and controlled, why do they not share equally in the profits?  Why does capital take to itself the whole loaf, while labor is left to gather up the crumbs?  Why does capital roll in luxury and wealth, while labor is left to eke out a miserable existence in poverty and want?”  

Sadly after all these years, William’s questions are still being asked today.


November 25 Printers Strike

November 25, 2016

On this day in Labor History the year was 1947. 

That was the day that front page of the Chicago Tribune printed a banner headline “Newspaper Printers Quit!”

1,600 members of the International Typographical Union Local 16 had gone out on strike against six Chicago newspapers. 

The key reason for the strike was wages.

The union also wanted the publishers to agree to only hire union labor.

The walkout was part of a wave of printers’ strikes in the United States and Canada. 

In all, union members from 43 newspapers from 27 cities went on strike. 

Most newspapers were able to keep printing during the walkouts.

But many had to reduce the number of editions or make changes in how the paper was produced. 

According to the an article published by the Associated Press, “Some are using a photoengraving process to circumvent their composing rooms while others continue to the use of normal methods.” 

The Chicago strike wore on for twenty-two months. 

The strike also became an important labor struggle after the passage of the Taft-Hartley legislation. 

The legislation, approved by Congress earlier that year over President Harry Truman’s Veto, restricted the rights of labor unions including outlawing the closed shop. 

Since the typographical unions were some of the oldest trade unions in the country, the strike became an important battleground over how Taft-Hartley would be interpreted. 

The American Newspaper Publishers Association hoped that Taft-Hartley could be a tool in smashing the strike. 

The courts sided with the publishers and demanded the union drop their demand for a closed shop. 

The union did win a ten-dollar raise, a little more than two-thirds the amount they asked for during the strike.



November 24 The Red Scare Hysteria Strikes

November 24, 2016

On this day in Labor History the year was 1947 that was the day that the US House of Representatives found ten Hollywood writers and directors in contempt for their alleged ties to Communism. 

The decision was based on the House Un-American Activities Committee’s finding the ten to be in contempt the week before. 

More than forty screenwriters, directors and producers were brought before the committee to testify about allegations of rampant Communist activities in the movie-making industry. 

During the Cold War fear of Communism reached a fevered pitch. 

This included the fear that Communists were infiltrating Hollywood to spread their message to the public through the movies. 

Ten refused to answer the committee’s questions or to name names of other potential Communists. 

Each of the ten was fined $1,000, sentenced to a year in prison, and blacklisted from working in Hollywood. 

Perhaps the most well-known of the ten was one of Hollywood’s leading screenwriters, Dalton Trumbo. 

He served 11 months in federal prison for refusing to cooperate with House Un-American Activities Committee. 

While he was blacklisted he wrote the screen play for Roman Holiday, the romantic film starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn.  

Since Trumbo could not take credit for the film, another screenwriter friend put his name on it. 

Roman Holiday won the 1953 Academy Award for best screenplay.

Three years later another Trumbo script, The Brave One also received the Academy Award. 

Finally, in 1960 Trumbo worked on Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed film Spartacus. 

Kubrick refused to remove Trumbo from the credits—busting the blacklist. 

In 2015, actor Bryan Cranston starred in a film about Trumbo’s life. 

During the House Un-American Activities Committee’s hearings, the Screen Actors Guild passed a resolution that members had to disavow any ties to the Communist Party. 

They also elected actor Ronald Regan president of their union. 


November 23 Murdered for Fighting against Slave Labor

November 23, 2016

On this day in Labor History the year was 1887. 

That was the day of the Thibodaux Massacre, in Louisiana just southwest of New Orleans. 

Thousands of African American sugar cane workers had gone out on strike. 

Before the Civil War, sugar cane, like other southern crops had been harvested by enslaved labor. 

After the war, planters put laws and practices into place to control and repress the newly freed labor force. 

By the late 1880s one of those practices was paying sugar cane workers in scrip. 

Instead of actual money workers received scrip only redeemable at the planters’ stores. 

This let planters set the prices for goods and keep their workers in debt.

The Knights of Labor began to organize the bayou sugar workers through their Local Assembly 8404.

The union presented the Louisiana Sugar Producers Association, which represented 200 of the largest planters, with a list of demands.

The list included the end of scrip payment and a small wage increase. 

The planters refused. 

The union called a strike to begin on November first, during a key time in the sugar harvest. 

Outraged planters brought in scabs to replace the strikers and militia troops to protect the scabs. 

They evicted strikers from their plantation homes.  

Many evicted black workers made their way to the black section of Thibodaux. 

White armed men began to picket around the black neighborhood. 

Two of these white picketers were fired on by an unknown person.

In retaliation, for more than two hours the vigilantes rained gun fire on black strikers and their families. 

At least thirty people, and possibly many more were killed. 

The strike was crushed.