April 26 CEO Ousted by National Guard

April 26, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1944.

That was the day the Army National Guard seized the Chicago property of Montgomery Ward and removed its chairman, Sewell Avery.

The Chicago-based company repeatedly refused to accept a National War Labor Board order to recognize the workers’ union and abide by Board-negotiated collective bargaining agreements.

After refusing the second Board order, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the Army National Guard to seize the company’s central mail order house, retail store and other related properties in the city.

Avery was physically carried out of his office.

Wartime no-strike pledges were in effect to avoid strikes or any disruptions in war production.

From a distance, it looked as if the President had triumphed the cause of labor in forcefully implementing the Wagner Act.

Workers of the CIO United Mail Order, Warehouse and Retail Employees Union had walked off the job over recognition issues April 12.

Montgomery Ward officials argued again, as they had two years earlier, that they were not engaged in war production, held no government contracts and that “the dispute is not one which might impede the prosecution of the war,” by the Board’s own terms.

But the government feared strike activity would only spread to other industries in Chicago and elsewhere.

Local Teamsters and Railway Brotherhoods all supported the strike and refused to handle shipments to and from Ward facilities.

The CIO union agreed to end the strike on the eve of the seizure.

Others in the labor movement called FDR’s move a hoax and a device to break strikes and get workers back on the job without any gains.

Roosevelt issued a third seizure of Ward’s facilities nationwide by year’s end.


April 25 Autoworkers Back on the Job After Protesting Union Busting Bill

April 25, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1947.

That was the day hundreds of thousands of Detroit area autoworkers returned to their jobs after bringing car production to a complete standstill.

They walked off the job to protest the union-busting Taft-Hartley bill, then pending in Congress.

Chrysler, Ford, Hudson and Kaiser-Frazer Corporation were all shut down.

George Romney, head of the Automobile Manufacturers Association decried the work stoppage as a contract violation, costing the industry millions.

The UAW called 350,000 of its members out in protest the day before.

As many as a half-million area workers walked off the job.

Two marches were organized from the east and west sides of the city that brought as many as 275,000 workers, black and white, men and women, AFL and CIO converging onto Cadillac Square.

A reported 65,000 workers from the Ford River Rouge plant alone marched as a contingent to the rally.

Planes flew overhead, trailing banners that read “Oppose Anti-Labor Legislation in Washington,” “Down With Jim Crow Legislation,” and “Fight Repeal of the Wagner Act.”

UAW leaders addressed the crowd at the five-hour rally, stating, “the measures, if passed, would cut the heart of our unions into a thousand tattered, bloody pieces.”

They declared the anti-labor bills are “nothing more than proposals to punish the innocent and reward the guilty, for the record establishes that responsibility for recent major strikes rests without exception on the shoulder of industry.”

Briggs Local 212, which spearheaded the protest, marched with banners that demanded an independent labor party, while veteran autoworkers carried placards that read, “We Veterans Didn’t Fight For Union-Busting.”

The rally ended with the crowd singing ‘Solidarity’ and joining picket lines at nearby Bell Telephone, to support striking phone workers.



April 24 The California Spinach Riot

April 24, 2017

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

That was the day a truce came in the Stockton cannery workers strike.

It was a pivotal moment that embodied the conflicts of the 1930s labor movement.

The AFL initially wrote agricultural workers off as unorganizable.

They soon raced to unionize California canneries ahead of the International Longshoremen’s Association’s march inland to organize warehouse workers.

By early April, Agricultural Workers Union 20221, representing five canneries demanded higher pay, better working conditions and a closed shop.

The canners and growers refused on the basis they had just granted a 25% raise to the workers.

They then attempted to spike union support among workers, whether AFL or CIO, by arguing, “one was dominated by Communists, the other by Racketeers, so take your choice.”

Soon they formed a Citizens Labor Investigating Committee to thwart the impending strike.

Picket lines went up in the early hours of April 15.

Growers and canners appealed to law enforcement to ‘do something’ and appealed to the public to enlist in the forcible reopening of the canneries.

Dubbed the pick handle army, anti-union forces joined the sheriff’s department in confronting strikers on the 23rd.

There they battled with picketers for over 3 hours in what is referred to as the ‘Spinach Riot.’

Picketers confronted scabs and spinach delivery trucks and were beaten, gassed and shot by sheriff’s forces, resulting in 1 death and 58 injuries of strikers.

Considered one of the worst labor battles in California’s history, the State Federation moved to strip the union of its charter once the truce was called.

They reorganized workers as Cannery Workers Union 20676 and won sole recognition. 

But agricultural workers would remain unorganized for years to come.


April 23 Sitting Down in California for Dignity

April 23, 2017

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

That was the day 1800 autoworkers sat down at the Ford Motor plant in Richmond, California.

It was the largest Ford plant on the West Coast.

The UAW organizing drive at Ford had just begun a few weeks earlier with a sit-down strike in Kansas City.

Company manager Clarence Bullwinkle, reported he had returned from lunch only to find the plant occupied and all power shut off.

Workers began their occupation after 12 workers with seniority rights had been transferred from the assembly plant to the loading department and then discharged.

Strikers voted to allow company officials and office workers to leave the plant but not to return.

Bullwinkle was told to “get out and stay out until you meet our demands.”

He refused to budge and holed up in his office.

Demands included recognition of the union, seniority rights and regular pay instead of discharge for workers who are out sick or injured on duty.

As the night shift arrived and then left, they passed their lunch buckets in solidarity to the striking workers.

Within 12 hours the strike was reportedly called off after Ford officials agreed to meet with strikers.

Seeing this as tantamount to winning union recognition, workers paraded through the streets in the early hours of Saturday morning.

But they hit the picket lines later that day, when Ford officials failed to appear.

By Monday, they were back on the job. Fearing another day’s loss of production, Ford officials met with union leaders.

While workers did not win formal recognition, they did win seniority rights and recognition of the shop stewards committee in a first step towards union recognition, which would come four years later.


April 22 Red Jacket Mine Explosion

April 22, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1938.

That was the day Keen Mountain Coal mine exploded near Grundy, Virginia.

Described as a flame-belching volcano, the explosion killed 45 and injured three more.

It is considered one of the worst mining disasters in the history of Virginia.

One surviving miner described the scene: “I saw coal carrying cars, motors, slate and timber spouted as if from a cannon.”

The state mine inspector determined the miners had been killed instantly.

The mine had just opened the year before and produced 40 railroad cars of coal a day.

But the mine was also owned by the Red Jacket Coal Company.

In Mingo County, West Virginia years earlier, Red Jacket had been a key player in keeping the UMWA out, making its employees sign yellow dog contracts and winning injunctions against UMWA organizing.

As a member of the Williamson Coal Operators Association, Red Jacket contributed to the hostile, anti-union environment that created the conditions for the Matewan Massacre and the Battle of Blair Mountain in the early 20s.

They called in Baldwin Phelps detectives to start evicting Matewan strikers from company housing.

In the aftermath of the 1938 explosion, new mine safety regulations were demanded.

While inspectors were finally given the legal right to conduct inspections over the protests of mine owners in 1941, there was no power to enforce new regulations.

The Phipps Family commemorated the disaster in its 1965 song, Red Jacket Mine Explosion:


April 21 Law to Restrict Workers Rights Goes into Effect

April 21, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1967.

That was the day the Taylor Law went into effect in New York State.

It was celebrated for granting public employees the right to organize and elect union representation.

But it is also roundly criticized for stripping public sector workers of their right to strike.

It was crafted and enacted in response to the militant, victorious New York City transit strike of January 1966.

The Taylor Law amended key points of the 1947 Condon-Wadlin Act, which first prohibited public sector strikes in the aftermath of a teachers strike in Buffalo.

But strikes persisted and the Act was seen as largely unenforceable.

In the aftermath of the 1966 transit strike, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller appointed a committee, chaired by labor relations professor George Taylor to make “proposals for protecting the public against the disruption of vital public services by illegal strikes, while at the same time protecting the rights of public employees.”

In addition to granting the right to organize, the Taylor Act also establishes impasse procedures for dispute resolution, defines and prohibits improper practices, prohibits strikes by public employees; and established the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB).

But public sector unions argue the law gives no incentive for employers to settle disputes or negotiate contracts in a timely manner or in good faith.

While public sector unions have struck since its enactment, Transport Workers Union 100 was subjected to harsh fines in both the 1980 and 2005 transit strikes.

During the 2005 walkout, TWU 100 was issued a $1 million a day penalty, its automatic dues collection was suspended and its leader, Roger Toussaint was jailed for 10 days.

The union continues to push for changes to the law.


April 20 Deepwater Horizon Explosion Kills 11

April 20, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 2010.

That was the day the Deepwater Horizon oilrig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and injuring 17 more.

The rig experienced an initial blowout releasing an uncontrollable flow of oil and gas from the well.

Hydrocarbons then ignited, causing the explosion and fire.

It caused a massive offshore oil spill of over 4 billion barrels and is considered the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

British Petroleum was the main operator responsible for the well design.

The drilling contractor, TransOcean owned and operated the rig.

A handful of smaller companies were also involved.

While company and governmental officials initially argued the explosion was unforeseeable and then subsequently blamed each other, there were warning signs in the months leading up to the explosion.

Multiple equipment failures, design deficiencies, poor preventative maintenance, bad engineering decisions and a chase for profits that emphasized low worker injuries at the expense of process safety, all combined to create the disaster.

As well, regulations and standards enforcement were weak in an almost totally deregulated industry.

One phrase used by investigators to characterize the explosion was the Normalization of Deviance.

From workers, to managers to executives, none saw the explosion coming.

There were dozens of contributing factors as the Chemical Safety Board investigation noted.

They listed 57 key technical, human and regulatory factors in their 2016 final report.

However, engineers had raised concerns about the potential failure of key equipment.

Workers were sensitive to the fact they could be fired for raising safety concerns that delayed drilling.

BP was found ultimately responsible and racked up over $70 billion in fines, clean up and settlement costs.



April 19 Daughters of Mother Jones

April 19, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1989.

That was the day Edna Sauls and 38 women walked into the Virginia headquarters of the Pittston Coal Group, sat down in the lobby and sang “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

Their occupation lasted 36 hours.

The women were mostly relatives and friends of 1,700 UMWA miners, then on strike against Pittston.

The women, when questioned by police and the media, refused to give up their names.

They called themselves the Daughters of Mother Jones.

Though Sauls had never worked in the mines, six of her brothers and two of her sisters had.

She and many family members would sit down in front of Moss 3 Preparation plant just weeks later.

As the strike wore on, her husband Doug would be one of the UMW strikers who took over and occupied Pittston’s Moss 3 plant later that fall.

Sauls noted the high personal stakes at Pittston stating,  “My husband is 42 years old.

He’s worked in the mines for 24 years. Who’s going to hire him for another job?”

Sauls also rose to local fame during the strike when she began writing strike solidarity songs.

One such song was “Let Me In,” also referred to as the Camo Song, for the strikers who wore camouflage.

Sauls composed the song after she found a child crying whose striking grandfather had been jailed.

In the song, the child asks to go to jail too.

The Daughters picketed Pittston offices twice a week and organized strike support that included housing, food drives and fundraising.

Their role inspired miners to occupy the mines and roads, persevere throughout the winter and eventually win back health benefits.


April 18 IWW’s Little Red Songbook

April 18, 2017

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

That was the day the song “We Have Fed You All A Thousand Years,” first appeared.

Originally titled “The Cry of Toil,” it was printed in the Industrial Workers of the World publication, the Industrial Union Bulletin.

It was initially attributed to British colonialist writer, Rudyard Kipling.

The song is now understood as an anonymous reworking of Kipling’s 1893 poem, “The Song of the Dead.”

The song was wildly popular and reprinted in many union journals.

‘We Have Fed You All’ was an early example of how the IWW used music and songs in its work. IWW songs projected labor history, struggles and politics.

From union organizing, to strike activity to defense cases, Wobblies sought to create a working class culture and community.

The IWW is well known for its ‘Little Red Song Book,’ which contains some of the most popular anthems of the labor movement.

The first verse of ‘We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years’ reads:

We have fed you all for a thousand years, 
And you hail us still unfed, 
Though there's never a dollar of all your wealth. 
But marks the workers' dead. 
We have yielded our best to give you rest 
And you lie on crimson wool. 
And if blood be the price of all your wealth, 
Good God! We have paid in full! 


April 17 West, TX Plant Explodes

April 17, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 2013.

That was the day the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas caught fire and exploded, killing 15 and injuring more than 260.

Of those killed, 12 were emergency responders, many from local voluntary fire departments.

Three others were nearby residents.

40 to 60 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated at the fertilizer distribution facility.

It damaged more than 150 nearby buildings, including schools, residences and a nursing home.

It also damaged key city water supply infrastructure.

The Chemical Safety Board issued a number of findings and recommendations in its final report of January 2016.

Heat from the initial fire likely caused the ammonium nitrate to explode as it was stored in combustible material.

The facility had no fire detection or sprinkler systems and had not been inspected by OSHA since 1985.

West’s previous insurer did conduct inspections and dropped the company over its lack of a positive safety culture and its refusal to clean up several electrical hazards.

The Board also found local fire departments lacking in incident command systems and proper training in multiple areas.

The explosion revealed the lack of zoning regulations in many cities like West, which allowed for the construction of residences, schools and commercial buildings near such hazardous sites.

Recently, the Bureau of Alcohol, Fire and Tobacco ruled the incident an act of arson.

Former OSHA official, Jordan Barab argues there is no evidence of arson and regardless, the facility exploded due primarily to improper storage and management of combustible material.

He notes the BATF conclusion served to fuel industry opposition to President Obama’s Executive Order 13650, improving safety at Chemical facilities.

The EPA’s Scott Pruitt recently granted a 90-day stay of the final rule.