March 20, 2017 Another Deadly Explosion

March 20, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1905.

That was the day a boiler explosion destroyed the R.B. Grover Shoe Factory in Brockton, Massachusetts.

The boiler exploded as workers arrived for the day shift.

58 workers were killed and another 150 were injured.

The boiler reportedly shot up through all three floors, and the roof of the building.

The floors collapsed and walls caved in.

Those who survived the initial explosion were fatally trapped by debris and machinery.

Fires spread rapidly throughout the plant, ignited by broken gas lines and industrial solvents.

The entire block, including nearby homes and businesses were leveled to the ground.

Many of the dead were never positively identified.

The leatherworkers union provided financial assistance.

So did civic leaders and R.B Grover, who was ruined financially by the disaster.

Boiler inspectors concluded the explosion was caused by a manufacturing defect that was virtually impossible to detect.

The courts held no one liable.

By 1890 over 100,000 boilers providing steam heat were in use.

Over 2000 had exploded during the 1880s alone.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers had been in existence for some 25 years by the time the boiler exploded at Grover.

They had released some guidelines.

But it was clear that inspections were rare and standards were needed.

The public outcry only grew in Massachusetts after another industrial boiler explosion occurred the next year.

The state passed measures establishing rules of operation.

By 1914, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers had successfully pushed back against manufacturers and railroad managers who opposed boiler regulations.

They published the first edition of the National Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code. 

A national board of inspectors soon followed.

Since then, regulations ensuring safe operation and maintenance have saved countless lives.

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March 19 President Wilson Pushing for Labor Peace

March 19, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1917

That was the day the United States Supreme Court upheld the Adamson Act. 

The Act had initially been passed and signed into law the previous September to avoid a nationwide railway strike. 

It established the eight-hour day and overtime pay for interstate railroad workers. 

The four railroad brotherhoods--the Engineers, Fireman, Brakemen and Conductors had been pushing for these terms since at least 1915. 

When the railroads refused to budge, the unions prepared to strike.

 It was the first federal law that sought to determine minimum wages and maximum hours for private industry. 

The railroads were furious with President Woodrow Wilson for demanding quick passage of the law. 

They filed the case, Wilson v. New, which challenged the constitutionality of the Act. 

The railroads refused to abide by the new law while they waited for their case to be heard, ultimately by the Supreme Court. 

The four railroad brotherhoods grew tired of waiting and organized for another strike. 

The Court rejected the railroad’s claims and upheld the Act. 

President Wilson had hoped to ensure labor peace, as the United States was on the cusp of entering World War I. 

Seen as a powerful victory for the unions, other railway employees pressed for similar demands. 

When the industry looked as though it was headed for yet another strike, President Wilson exercised the Army Appropriations Act and issued an executive order at the end of 1917 that placed the railroads under federal control.

This nationalized the railroad industry into three divisions under the newly established United States Railroad Administration between the years 1917 and 1920.

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March 18 Workers End Strike

March 18, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1918. 

That was the day workers at Wagner Electric in St. Louis ended their twelve-day walkout, in exchange for promised negotiations regarding union recognition, higher wages and fewer work hours. 

Wagner held defense contracts to provide detonators and firing pins for munitions. 

With the U.S entrance into World War I, the orders increased, as did the labor shortage. 

In this instance, more women entered the workforce. 

Wagner was no exception. 

During this period, nearly a quarter of the St. Louis factory workers were female. 

Yet the unionized industries made no attempt to organize them. 

Amid a strike wave that rocked the city, about 1000 men and women struck Wagner on March 6. 

They demanded the reinstatement of coworkers who had been fired for attending a Machinist’s Union meeting. 

A week later, close to 2700 workers were on strike. 

The male workers at Wagner made less than half of their counterparts in the unionized industries, while their women coworkers made half of that! 

Workers contended that Wagner violated federal contracts by refusing to honor the eight-hour day and equal pay for equal work. 

Historian Rosemary Feurer notes the Ordnance Department reached a tentative deal to get workers back to the job and then spiked negotiations by smearing strikers as unpatriotic.

The company refused to address longstanding grievances.

According to Katharine Corbett, Wagner Electric also “required workers to sign loyalty pledges to the company.”

Over half the workforce would walkout the following month, with the support of Mother Jones.

Workers appealed to a more sympathetic War Labor Board, but found they could not get the agreements they demanded until the years of industrial organizing in the 1930s.

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March 17 The Hoggs Hollow Tragedy

March 17, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1960. 

That was the day five Italian immigrant workers were killed in Toronto, Ontario in what is known as the Hoggs Hollow Tragedy. 

Referred to as sandhogs, workers sought to connect a pumping station to the water distribution network. 

They were building a water main in a tunnel under the Don River.

The project was already far behind schedule and over budget.

Workers were welding in a compression chamber when smoke began to overwhelm the main shaft.

Some workers made it out.

Firefighters were prevented from releasing water into the tunnel to extinguish the fire over concerns that it would cause a collapse.

There was no backup safety equipment at street level. 

The tragedy shed light on the appalling wage and working conditions immigrant workers faced just outside the city borders. 

The persistent public outcry prompted exposes and investigations that revealed just how bad conditions were.

It was truly a tale of two cities. 

Within the city, union requirements guaranteed breaks and enforcement of safety regulations.

But just outside it was a different story.

According to Jamie Bradburn, who wrote for the Toronto Historicist in 2010, “workers on suburban projects faced conditions that included lack of proper sanitation, poor safety inspections, illegal withholding of vacation pay, unpaid overtime, cheques that often bounced, and groundless threats of deportation. The coroner’s inquest determined that callous management, incompetent foremen, inexperienced workers, a disorganized rescue, and inefficiency at the Department of Labour caused the disaster... Though no criminal charges were ultimately laid, the sacrifice of the five men at Hogg’s Hollow brought about improvements in the conditions that had led to their demise.”

 

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March 16 Big Bill Haywood Talks General Strike

March 16, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1911.

That was the day Big Bill Haywood of the Industrial Workers of the World gave his speech on “The General Strike.”

He presented it in New York City, at a fundraiser for the Buccafori Defense Fund.

Vincent Buccafori was the shop representative for his union.

He faced repeated harassment and discharge by his foreman for executing his union duties. 

Finally, as witnesses described, the foreman fired Buccafori and punched him, drawing blood.

Then, he came at Buccafori with a heavy object. 

Buccafori shot and killed him in self-defense. 

He was charged with manslaughter, convicted and sentenced to ten years at Sing Sing prison. 

The IWW raised money for his defense and fought for his acquittal and release.

Haywood arrived at the fundraiser to deliver a key speech titled, “The General Strike.” 

In it, he reviewed the rich history of workers actions since the days of the Paris Commune in 1871. 

He also raged against electoral reform.

He stated: “…the broadest interpretation of political power comes through the industrial organization; it gives the vote to women, it reenfranchises the black man and places the ballot in the hands of every boy and girl employed in a shop, makes them eligible to take part in the general strike, makes them eligible to legislate for themselves where they are most interested in changing conditions, namely, in the place where they work…” 

He continued, “You have all the industries in your own hands at the present time. There is this justification for political action, and that is, to control the forces of the capitalists that they use against us. That is the reason that you should fully understand the power of the ballot.”

 

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March 15 The Grapes of Wrath opens in theaters

March 15, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1940. 

That was the day The Grapes of Wrath opened in movie theaters. 

Adapted from John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, John Ford directed the film, which starred Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. 

Pleased with the adaptation, Steinbeck stated, “it pulled no punches and was in fact harsher than the book.” 

It is considered one of the greatest films of all time. 

Like the book, the film focused on the plight of poor white tenant farmers fleeing Oklahoma for a better life in California 

The Joads were devastated by dust bowl conditions, bank foreclosure and mechanization during the Great Depression.

They joined thousands of other families heading west on Route 66 to advertised farm jobs that never materialized.

The family gets stuck in New Deal Resettlement Administration camps and ends up on both sides of agricultural workers struggles. 

They narrowly escape starvation and state police. 

At the time of its release, The Grapes of Wrath was critically acclaimed for its depiction of the poor. 

But the Associated Farmers of California condemned it as Communist propaganda. 

Steinbeck visited resettlement camps as part of his research. 

Union organizing and police violence unfolded during the Salinas Lettuce Strike, which began as he wrote. 

Woody Guthrie’s classic “Ballad of Tom Joad,” soon followed the movie release. 

Recent critics contend that Agricultural Adjustment Administration policies were more to blame than banks. 

Others assert it presents a sympathetic portrayal of white tenant farmers at the expense of black sharecroppers. 

Historian Erik Loomis adds that Steinbeck and Ford both disappear the plight of the non-white, exploited labor already in California.

Nonetheless, the film and movie both provide a deep look into the misery created by the Great Depression.

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March 14 Walter Crane Died

March 14, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1915. 

That was the day British socialist illustrator Walter Crane died. 

You have probably seen his Art Nouveau style illustrations. 

Many celebrate International May Day, memorialize the Haymarket Martyrs of Chicago or commemorate the Paris Commune. 

He also published a series of illustrations titled, “Cartoons for the Cause.” 

That series was produced to commemorate the International Socialist Trade Union Congress of 1896. 

Born in 1845, Crane apprenticed with the Chartist radical, William James Linton.

He started his career illustrating children’s books, nursery rhymes and fairy tales. 

He later traveled to Italy with his wife, Mary, to continue with book illustrations and portraiture.

Upon his return to Britain, he became friends with artist William Morris, whose pamphlet, Art & Socialism deeply impacted him.

Crane soon joined the Art Workers’ Guild and the Arts and Crafts Society.

Together, he and Morris joined the Social Democratic Federation. 

Crane provided illustrations for its journal Justice. 

From there, he helped to found the Socialist League and illustrated its journal, The Commonweal. 

When the League failed to gain popularity, he moved on to the Fabian Society, whose members included George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. 

Crane produced wildly popular images like the Angel of Freedom, and published The Claims of Decorative Art. 

In it, he asserted, “art could not flourish in a world where wealth was so unfairly distributed… Only under Socialism could Use and Beauty be united.”

He continued to publish and became principal of the Royal College of Art in 1898.

A strong critic of the British Empire, Crane supported the Labour Party and produced posters each year to celebrate May Day.

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March 13 Ending Jim Crow on the Job

March 13, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1963.

That was the day Transport Workers Union Local 260 negotiated its first contract with the Pioneer Bus Company in Houston Texas.

It came after months of fighting to build an integrated union there.

The local had learned the previous year that Pioneer was organized by an “independent union” that maintained Jim Crow bargaining units.

The Drivers, Dispatchers and Shop Employees Union maintained separate and unequal bargaining units, one for white workers and one for black workers.

They also had separate seniority lists, representation and levels of promotion.

The TWU filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board, against the drivers union.

They demanded an election.

The existing union argued that collective bargaining agreements already existed, which precluded any possibility of holding a new election for representation.

The TWU pushed back.

They contended that the contract-bar rule could not apply to discriminatory agreements that divided workers along racial lines. 

The TWU also argued that it would be unconstitutional for the Board to uphold Jim Crow contracts. 

The Board agreed with the TWU and threatened to decertify the drivers union on the basis of racial discrimination. 

They concluded that, “Where the bargaining representative of employees in an appropriate unit executes separate contracts, or even a single contract, discriminating between Negro and white employees on racial lines, the Board will not deem such contracts as a bar to an election.” 

In the days before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Board drew from Brown v. Board of Education to issue its ruling, which came in December 1962. 

The TWU won the election by a 3-1 margin and championed the end of Jim Crow at Pioneer.

 

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March 12 “Employer Safety Incentive and Disincentive Practices.”

March 12, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 2012.

That was the day OSHA released its memorandum titled, “Employer Safety Incentive and Disincentive Practices.”

It addressed compliance officers and whistleblower investigators. 

It touched on employer practices that discourage the reporting of injuries and illnesses on the job.

The memorandum stated that employee reporting is a protected right.

It also asserted that employer discouragement could constitute a violation of whistleblower statutes like Section 11(c) of the OSH Act and recordkeeping regulations.

OSHA emphasized that the likelihood of discouragement and discrimination increases when safety programs are linked to lower reported injuries and illnesses.

The memorandum outlines four common scenarios:

1) When an employer disciplines workers injured on the job. Employees must have a way to report injuries and illnesses.

2) When an employer disciplines workers for the time or manner in which they report an injury.

3) When a worker is disciplined for an injury as a result of violating a safety rule. OSHA asks: does the employer monitor the workplace regularly for safety compliance? Does the employer mete out discipline equally, regardless of injury?

And finally, the memorandum stresses the need to examine the kind of safety program implemented.

Does the program provide incentives to dissuade workers from reporting injuries and illnesses?

Are prizes or bonuses awarded when reported injuries decrease?

Discouraging and disciplining workers for reporting could be considered unlawfully discriminatory.

It also violates the employer’s obligation to document injuries and illnesses.

OSHA notes there are positive ways to implement safety practices.

Examples include rewarding workers who identify hazards, participate in investigations, and offer suggestions on how to make the job safer or complete safety training.

 

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March 11 Raising Conditions for an Industry

March 11, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1950.

That was the day 4600 baggage handlers, mechanics and store personnel ended their strike against American Airlines.

The 11-day strike affected airports in 34 cities, crippling 80% of American’s operations.

Transport Workers Union leader Mike Quill demanded wage increases, job-security and guarantees against the subcontracting out of maintenance work.

TWU had been locked into negotiations and mediation for months leading up to the strike at the beginning of March.

In her book, On the Ground: Labor Struggle in the American Airline Industry, Liesl Miller Orenic notes that the strike was an example of cross skill solidarity within the union.

Union baggage handlers were the first to walk out.

Quill hoped to garner support by emphasizing that the planes were improperly maintained.

He demanded that President Truman take over the airlines on the basis that “the planes were unsafe for public transportation.”

Support for the strike remained strong in larger cities.

But in smaller cities, strikers looked to return to work. Miller Orenic adds the strike victory resulted in industry firsts: “A severance package for laid-off workers and a company policy pledging only to subcontract mechanical work that American Airlines employees did not have time to do.”

Though they did not gain wage raises, they did win significant increases in sick leave, three weeks paid vacation after 12 years of service instead of 15, and paid mealtime for night shift workers.

TWU members at PanAM were inspired to strike over similar demands two months later.

The victory at American spurred national mediators to hammer out a settlement in favor of PanAm strikers some 17 hours after the strike was called.

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