Labor History in 2:00
January 27 - Bans on Yellow Dog Contracts Ruled Unconstitutional

January 27 - Bans on Yellow Dog Contracts Ruled Unconstitutional

January 27, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1908.

That was the day the United States Supreme Court ruled that bans on “yellow-dog” contracts were unconstitutional in the case, Adair v United States.

The case served to nullify the Erdman Act of 1898, which had banned such contracts for those who worked on moving trains in the railroad industry.

The Erdman Act had been a response to the 1894 Pullman strike.

At that time, the federal government smashed workers striking against deep wage cuts and for union recognition with Eugene V. Debs’ American Railway Union.

Seeking to prevent any disruption along the railroads, the Erdman Act banned any contracts that required workers to renounce unions in order to gain employment, recognized the right of union organizations as a means of collective bargaining and established mechanisms for the arbitration of grievances.

In 1906, William Adair, a supervisor with the Louisville & Nashville Railroad fired a member of the Order of Locomotive Firemen for his membership.

Adair was indicted under the Erdman Act, found guilty and fined.

He then appealed to the Supreme Court and won.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Erdman Act violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment and served to supersede the Commerce Clause in the Constitution.

The court argued that the railroads’ employment decisions were a protected right so long as they did not injure the public interest.

Congress could not criminalize the firing of an employee because of union membership.

Dissenting opinion centered on the potential for renewed labor conflict.

Workers would have to wait almost 25 years for yellow-dog contracts to be banned in all industries with the passage of the 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act.

January 26 - Sid Hatfield Stands Trial

January 26 - Sid Hatfield Stands Trial

January 26, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1921.

That was the day Sid Hatfield and 22 other defendants went on trial for the murder of detective Albert Felts.

Hatfield was Chief of Police in Matewan, West Virginia when the United Mine Workers came to Mingo County to organize coal miners.

The Stone Mountain Coal Company moved to smash union activity.

They brought in Baldwin-Felts detectives to evict union miners from company housing.

Hatfield supported the miners’ right to organize and urged locals to arm themselves.

He confronted the detectives at the train depot as they were leaving town for the evening about the evictions they had just carried out.

The detectives presented Hatfield with a phony arrest warrant.

Surrounded by armed miners, a gun battle ensued, leaving at least 7 detectives and 4 townspeople dead, in what is referred to as the Matewan Massacre.

The trial was set in the Mingo County seat of Williamson, where Baldwin-Felts agents lined the streets to intimidate those sympathetic to Hatfield and the others.

The prosecution hoped to prove that Felts’ murder was premeditated and used the testimony of paid spies who had previously attempted to gain Hatfield’s trust and friendship.

According to historian James Green, author of The Devil Is Here In These Hills, “the ACLU had advised defense attorneys to turn the trial into a prosecution of the coal operators by introducing in evidence the entire record of their conspiracy to deny the citizens of West Virginia of their legal rights.”

The defense successfully discredited these paid agents and won acquittal.

When Hatfield and his deputies arrived back in Matewan, they were greeted as heroes by the entire town.

Hatfield however had a target on his back and would be gunned down a year later, sparking a coal war which ended with The Battle of Blair Mountain.

January 25 - Solidarity Works!

January 25 - Solidarity Works!

January 25, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1937.

That was the day workers at the Kent Avenue Power Plant in New York City struck at Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit.

The power plant served as the sole source of electrical power for the entire New York City subway system.

Transport Workers Union Local 100 had been trying to beat back the company’s push to form a company union through an educational organizing drive there.

Out of the 505 workers at the plant, only 35 were TWU members.

On this day, two boiler room engineers with 10 years on the job each were fired for their union activity and given 3 minutes to leave the plant.

Inspired by the Flint sit-down strike then in progress, TWU president Mike Quill called for a sit-down to protest the dismissals.

31 workers locked themselves in and Quill announced that if the two fired workers were not reinstated by 6 am the next morning, all switches would be pulled, shutting down the entire transit system.

He insisted that the BMT had long abused its workforce and was in violation of the new Wagner Act.

Newspaper headlines screamed of a workers insurrection at the power plant and the BMT quickly called in company goons to threaten the hundreds of picketers surrounding the plant. 

Workers stood their ground and prevented strikebreaking forces from breaking through the barricaded entrances.

They organized food brigades and gained support even from the newspaper reporters who helped with food deliveries.

By 5:30 the next morning, the BMT gave in to the demands of Quill and the TWU and reinstated the fired workers.

Impressed by the victory of the job action, the power plant was fully organized two days later.

January 24 - Arturo Alfonso Schomburg is Born

January 24 - Arturo Alfonso Schomburg is Born

January 24, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1874.

That was the day Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born.

Schomburg was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

He is also considered a premier historian and collector of material on black life in America.

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, he arrived in the United States in 1891 and soon settled into the Cuban and Puerto Rican working class neighborhoods of New York City.

Schomburg initially involved himself in the Cuban and Puerto Rican Independence movements.

When he traveled to New Orleans, he experienced Jim Crow discrimination and witnessed black disenfranchisement firsthand.

He reacted strongly to the increased racial tensions, lynchings and race riots of the period and believed that “history must restore what slavery took away.”

In 1911, Schomburg and his friend, John Edward Bruce founded the Negro Society for Historical Research and established lasting friendships with intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois.

He worked for the inclusion of black history into the educational system and continued to amass a wide collection of literature, art, books, pamphlets and manuscripts on black life and history.

His collection spanned material from across the world.

It included letters of Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, poetry by Phyllis Wheatley, artifacts from Fredrick Douglass and other black leaders.

Schomburg’s private collection became the basis for the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library’s Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints, which opened in 1925.

The division served as a pivotal resource for Harlem Renaissance writers, poets and artists.

Known today as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, it is recognized as a leading repository for materials and artifacts on black cultural life.

January 23 - If Poison Doesn’t Work, Try Briggs!

January 23 - If Poison Doesn’t Work, Try Briggs!

January 23, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1933.

That was the day 6,000 workers at Briggs Manufacturing in Detroit walked off the job and sparked a strike wave of 15,000 auto body workers.

Briggs made auto bodies for Ford, Chrysler and Hudson in four Detroit-area plants.

Their pay and working conditions were considered among the worst in the nation, inspiring the adage, “if poison doesn’t work, try Briggs.” 

Earlier in the month, workers at the Waterloo plant, under the leadership of the short-lived Automobile Workers Union, struck against company-wide wage cuts and won.

Their victory encouraged workers at the Highland Park and Mack Avenue Briggs plants to walk out over additional demands, which they joined in solidarity.

Workers demanded the recognition of shop committees and pushed back against starvation wages.

They also protested the hated “dead-time” policy, which required workers to stay on the job, unpaid, waiting for material or production lines.

They wanted an end to pay deductions for tools and a worthless health insurance policy that left some with bi-weekly pay as low as 49 cents!

Briggs quickly conceded to a wage increase and the end of “dead-time.”

But they would not budge on recognizing the union.

As the strike dragged on, strikebreaking under police escort increased, as did the redbaiting of union organizers.

Workers gained nothing more and ended their walkout in early May. 

According to historian Joyce Shaw Peterson, the walkout had been the most significant auto strike up to that point.

Worker militancy and public support were impressive.

As one worker recalled, after the Ford Hunger March the year before, workers took to the picket lines, facing down fears of physical injury or even death to fight for a better life.

January 22 - Tragedy in the Mines and the Union Hall

January 22 - Tragedy in the Mines and the Union Hall

January 22, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1959.

That was the day the Susquehanna River flooded several mines throughout the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania.

It marked the virtual end to coal mining in the Northern Anthracite Region, whose coalmines provided some 11,000 jobs.

Knox Coal Company, owned by reputed mobster, John Sciandra, ordered workers to illegally excavate underneath the river to get at new coal seams, near Port Griffith.

The company hit the jackpot, and mined rich new veins.

Even though state regulations mandated a rock cover of 35 feet when tunneling underneath a waterway, theirs was only about six feet thick.

The roof of Knox Coal’s River Slope Mine soon collapsed and a reported 10 billion gallons of water, ice and debris from the river came smashing through.

The collapse created a whirlpool and dams were built to divert the river.

81 miners were trapped and many desperately searched for hours for an escape.

Some were able to get out through an abandoned airshaft.

The bodies of another 12 miners were never recovered.

Audrey Baloga Calvey recalled in an interview that her father, a miner who died in the flooding, predicted trouble at the mine before his death.

Saying  "When the water would get high, he'd say, 'God, if that river ever breaks in, we'll be drowned like rats,.

Ten were indicted, including the mine’s president, Louis Fabrizio, Knox’s superintendent, and incredibly, UMWA District 1 president AND secret partner in the mine, August Lippi. 

Several would serve prison time.

Four owners were convicted of tax evasion and four local union 8005 officials were convicted of taking bribes in sweetheart deal contracts, including Lippi.



January 21 - On Strike for Health & Dignity!

January 21 - On Strike for Health & Dignity!

January 21, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1973.

That was the day Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers struck Shell Oil over health and safety issues.

OCAW had been involved in lobbying for the passage of OSHA and other environmentally related Acts.

Their members worked in some of the most dangerous, most toxic industries in the country.

By 1972, they demanded contract language for health and safety committees on the job.

The oil companies countered with accusations that improved safety proved too expensive and that OCAW used the issue to assert union control over the production process.

The other oil companies eventually settled in OCAW’s favor.

But Shell would not budge.

And so, the OCAW called a strike at eight facilities and a boycott of all Shell products.

They also successfully enlisted the support of environmental organizations by stressing toxic chemical exposure and hazards faced by workers and the public alike.

Picket lines were solid and thousands honored the boycott.

Sales for Shell fell by 25%.

After four months, the strike fund was nearly drained.

Shell exploited internal divisions among members at a Texas plant and negotiated a separate settlement.

What health and safety language Shell agreed to, was non-binding.

The union was broke and the strike ended in compromise in early June.

Despite this, as historian Robert Gordon notes, OCAW was able to “gain strong health and safety language at all other oil companies for the first time, heightened public awareness of health hazards confronting millions of workers…and pressured OSHA into adopting stricter standards. Perhaps more importantly, the strike solidified the tentative labor-environmental alliance.”

Having merged with the United Steelworkers, the union continues to secure safe working conditions through contracts and alliances today.



January 20 - The Flint Womens Emergency Brigades

January 20 - The Flint Womens Emergency Brigades

January 20, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1937.

That was the day the Flint Women’s Emergency Brigades was founded.

Genora Johnson, a socialist, was a main leader of the Women’s Auxiliary Number 10 throughout the strike.

A different kind of auxiliary, it built the leadership skills of women through classes in labor history and public speaking.

It also set up a first-aid station and child-care center, raised strike funds and walked picket lines.


According to Janice Hassett, “the women moved beyond supporting the strike to participating in it.”

Fifty women signed up the next day.

By the end of the strike, over 300 women would join.

The women adopted an official uniform of red berets and red armbands.

They were armed with clubs to smash factory windows when police gassed sit-downers.

Their participation in the strike was heroic and their work continued after victory.

They sought to represent the interests of women autoworkers, who often found coworkers less than welcoming and experienced sexual harassment and occupational discrimination at the hands of supervision.

Many women autoworkers formed the core leadership of several chapters.

Historian Nancy Gabin notes that this was not always the appropriate arena for advocacy saying; “By encouraging women workers to participate in the auxiliaries, the UAW abdicated its responsibility to these workers.” 

However, Johnson emphasized, “It was a radical change.... To give women a right to participate in discussions with their husbands, with other union members, with other women, to express their views... that was a radical change for those women at that time.”



January 19 - A Snapshot in Misery

January 19 - A Snapshot in Misery

January 19, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1909.

That was the day Lewis Hine photographed child workers standing on spinning frames to mend threads and replace empty bobbins at the Bibb Mill No.1 in Macon, GA.

It was just one example of the appalling use of children in industrial labor.

Hine built his career on photographic portraits of young miners and mill workers, child cotton pickers and factory workers.

In 1908, he was hired by the National Child Labor Committee to document child laborers across the country.

For the next fifteen years, Hine would contribute over 5000 photographs to the cause of ending child labor.

Photo historian Daile Kaplan described the ways in which Hines captured these images writing: “…Hine the gentleman actor and mimic assumed a variety of personas--including Bible salesman, postcard salesman, and industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery--to gain entrance to the workplace. When unable to deflect his confrontations with management, he simply waited outside the canneries, mines, factories, farms, and sweatshops with his fifty pounds of photographic equipment and photographed children as they entered and exited the workplace.”

NCLC investigators referenced the photographs in reports on particular industries and locations.

The NCLC used the photos to illustrate its own publications and succeeded in placing them in newspapers, progressive publications and exhibits.

One NCLC poster that featured Hine’s portraits read,  “Making Human Junk: Shall Industry Be Allowed To Put This Cost On Society?”

By 1912, the NCLC persuaded Congress to create a United States Children’s Bureau.

The two organizations worked together to investigate abuses of child laborers.

Years of legislative and judicial battles followed, until finally in 1938 Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act.


January 18 - Is Colorado in America?

January 18 - Is Colorado in America?

January 18, 2021

On this day in labor history the year was 1909.

That was the day the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Moyers v. Peabody.

The case grew out of the Colorado Labor Wars, a series of back-to-back strikes in 1903 and 1904 in precious metals mines and ore mills.

The Colorado National Guard meted out violent assaults, arrests and deportations against strikers, often on orders from Governor James Peabody.

The state militia routinely rounded up strikers and union leaders, detained them for weeks in bullpens and ignored habeas corpus petitions.

Western Federation of Miners president, Charles Moyer arrived in Telluride during a strike to find these repressive conditions.

He signed a poster that read, “Is Colorado in America?”

The poster included an image listing the many violations of basic democratic rights on the American flag.

Moyer was arrested in March 1904 for desecration of the American flag on the poster.

He was detained on the grounds of military necessity, even after the courts ordered his release.

His case traveled through the state and federal courts until the Supreme Court ruled.

They held that “the governor and officers of a state National Guard, acting in good faith and under authority of law, may imprison without probable cause a citizen of the United States in a time of insurrection and deny that citizen the right of habeas corpus.”

The ruling radicalized the labor movement.

Many concluded there could be no justice through the court system.

A later case successfully challenged the ruling on the basis that claims of insurrection were subject to judicial review.

The ruling, however controversial, still stands and was invoked after 9/11 in the 2004 ruling Hamdi v Rumsfeld.

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