June 24 Strikes Begin to Protest Taft-Hartley Poison

June 24, 2017

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

That was the day spontaneous protest strikes began against the new Taft-Hartley Act. 

250,000 soft coal miners walked out of the pits. 

132,000 shipyard workers of the CIO’s Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers followed the miners’ example, on the East and Gulf coasts. 

The Greater Akron Area Council of Labor Unions, a joint AFL & CIO council representing 185,000 workers, demanded that top union leaders call a general strike in defense of labor’s civil liberties. 

Workers at Chrysler’s Kercheval plant walked out in protest even as the nations’ steel mills and auto plants began to slow from the absence of coal. 

Congressman Fred Hartley, co-author of the slave labor bill denounced the UMW as mutinous citizens and demanded immediate enforcement of the Act against the walkout. 

Millions of trade unionists, white-hot with anger at the repressive, union-busting legislation were ready for job actions. 

But in this instance, William Green, head of the AFL and Philip Murray, head of the CIO were agreed in their opposition to general strike action. 

William Green reported that he had been flooded with appeals from AFL unions across the country calling for a general strike.  

He feared taking strike action would invite lawsuits and favored fighting through the courts and private contracts. 

Murray echoed Green and rejected any talk of a general protest strike. 

He invited leaders of the AFL and the Railroad Brotherhoods to join the CIO in a two-pronged fight against Taft-Hartley. 

Murray looked to challenge the Act’s constitutionality in the courts and hoped to unseat the congressmen who passed it in the 1948 elections. 

70 years later, unions are still hamstrung by many of the Act’s provisions.

 

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June 23 Legislating Labor’s Destruction

June 23, 2017

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

That was the day the despised Taft-Hartley Act became law. 

It was a direct retaliatory response to the 1946 post-war strike wave, where millions walked off the job after waiting years for basic demands. 

The labor movement mobilized against the slave labor bill through numerous rallies.  

The AFL joined the CIO in threatening 24-hour strikes across whole industries in protest, as the bill wound its way through Congress. 

11,000 soft coal miners in Pennsylvania walked out in a spontaneous protest strike earlier in the month. 

The bill passed over the veto of President Harry S. Truman, who would invoke it a dozen times over the course of his presidency.

Many union leaders hailed Truman as a friend of labor for his 11th hour veto.  

Labor party advocates were incensed that of 219 congressional Democrats, 126 voted in favor of the bill.

Practically overnight, the labor movement had been pushed back 25 years.

Taft-Hartley was nothing short of disastrous for the American labor movement. 

With the stroke of a pen, the Act criminalized many of the actions key to historic union victories in the thirties and forties. 

Jurisdictional strikes, secondary boycotts, solidarity strikes, closed shops and mass picketing were just a few of the most basic trade union activities now outlawed. 

The Act helped fire the first shots of the McCarthy Red Scare by mandating that union officers file non-Communist affidavits with the government, later found to be unconstitutional. 

The Act also provided the ammunition needed to strangle strikes by empowering the president to easily acquire strikebreaking injunctions.

And it allowed for the rapid growth of right-to-work laws at the state level. 

The union movement has suffered ever since. 

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June 22 A Long Road to Victory

June 22, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1999. 

That was the day 5000 textile workers at six Fieldcrest Cannon Mills in North Carolina began voting for representation by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, better known as UNITE. 

The victory, later validated by the NLRB, was a significant win for Labor in the anti-union South.

The union’s organizing director, Bruce Raynor stated, “It feels like we just organized G.M. Suddenly, we’ve got a beacon to show other textile workers that they can do it.” 

Labor historian Leon Fink noted that, “It’s a stunning victory for the union. It’s the biggest breakthrough in a traditional Southern industry for probably the last quarter century.” 

Then AFL-CIO president, John Sweeney remarked that it was the largest union victory in a Southern textile mill in history. 

The election and victory came after a 25-year struggle and four previous attempts to organize at Fieldcrest Cannon Mills. 

Many noted that the young, immigrant workforce made the difference. 

Conditions had been worsening at the mills.   

Workers fed up with production line speedup, punitive decreases in piecework premiums and company harassment, were compelled to vote union. 

One worker stated he and many others were sick of lies management told, to keep workers from voting yes in previous elections. 

Supervisors routinely intimidated workers to vote no with promises of higher wages or when that failed, threats of deportation.

Workers were barraged with various forms of antiunion propaganda. 

They found antiunion videos mailed to their homes. 

Some were paid extra to distribute ‘Vote No’ t-shirts on the shop floors. 

The company finally recognized the union and negotiated a first contract that guaranteed higher wages, pensions and other benefits.

 

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June 21 John L. Lewis calls for Massive Miner Strike

June 21, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1943. 

That was the day United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis issued strike orders at the nation’s mines, calling out more than half a million miners. 

The third general coal strike in three months defied the wartime ‘no strike’ pledge. 

Miners raised several demands, including wage increases, an end to the dangerous third-shift and portal-to-portal pay. 

High wartime inflation only worsened miners’ already low wages. 

Early that spring, Lewis denounced the mine owners, the War Labor Board and the Little Steel formula, used to calculate wartime wages.   

He warned the Formula meant starvation for workers and the end of collective bargaining.  

By April, President Roosevelt ordered wage freezes. 

Miners began walking out of the pits, even before the strike call, as soon as the War Labor Board handed down their decision on June 19. 

The Board had rejected ALL of the miners’ demands. 

The UMW responded, stating, “No member and no officer of the United Mine Workers of America would be so destitute of principle and so devoid of honor as to sign or execute such an infamous yellow dog contract.” 

Though the UMW were forced to call off the strike the next day, some miners continued to stay out in protest. 

Four days later, Congress passed the dreaded Smith-Connally Act, dubbed the ‘slave-labor’ bill, in response to the strike. 

Throughout the summer, miners across the country would rage against the government for threatening them with conscription and jail time if they dared refuse the terms of the decision. 

By November, the miners would walk out a fourth time and finally win many of their demands, at least from the War Labor Board.

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June 20 Ford and UAW Sign First Contract

June 20, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1941.

That was the day Ford Motor Company finally signed with the United Auto Workers.

Ford was last of the Big 3 to sign with the UAW. 

The hard-won victory came after nearly three decades of struggle to organize there.

Anyone attempting to build a union had been met with the full force of Ford’s Service Department, led by thug Henry Bennett.

Intimidation, Jew-baiting, redbaiting, firings, and beatings were common in the years leading up to unionization.

Some unionists had even been murdered. 

The company finally caved after a solid strike shut down production at the massive River Rouge complex in April. 

Several union committee members had been fired and the UAW called a strike in their defense. 

Tens of thousands of black and white workers poured out of their departments to join the picket lines. 

They blocked all plant gates with their cars 

Strike bulletins, press statements and radio broadcasts kept workers updated on the latest decisions. 

A week into the strike, the NLRB ruled an election be held within 45 days. 

Strikers went back to work on guarantees their coworkers would be reinstated. 

The following month, the UAW won union certification, after 60,000 rallied in Detroit’s Cadillac Square in support. 

When Ford finally signed the first contract, it guaranteed competitive wages, a closed shop, and dues check-off.

The first contract also ensured seniority rights, grievance procedures, and pensions.

The union immediately took advantage of the contract clause that prohibited racial discrimination.

They set up a commission to combat racism on the shop floor, issuing anti-racist literature and backing the elections of black committeemen and stewards. 

Labor historian Steve Babson notes, “It was a watershed in American history.”

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June 19 Standing in Solidarity

June 19, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1953.

That was the day 26,000 members of the ILWU in Hawaii walked off the job.

Their strike was a four-day protest against the witch-hunt convictions of the Hawaii Seven.

Many docks and plantations immediately shut down.

Stevedores refused to load military cargo headed to the war in Korea.

At the height of the McCarthyite Red Scare, union militants continued to be the primary targets of the anti-Communist hysteria. 

Longshoreman leader Jack Hall and six-codefendants had just been tried and convicted under the Smith Act.

The ILWU denounced the trial and verdict as a frame-up.

It was the ultimate move to bust the increasingly powerful union on the islands.

The ILWU had come under heightened surveillance after successfully organizing stevedores and many sugar and pineapple plantations. 

The real trouble began after a long and bitter dock strike in 1949.

Then Nebraska Senator Hugh Butler proclaimed the island to be firmly in the grips of a Communist attack. 

HUAC arrived the next year to investigate the ‘Red Situation.’ 

In August 1951, the FBI conducted early morning raids to arrest the Seven on charges of violating the Smith Act.

The arrests came just as the ILWU threatened a sugar strike, having reached an impasse in contract negotiations.

During the trial, it was clear the Seven were being tried not for anything they did, but for allegedly being part of a vast and secret conspiracy.

The proceedings had the quality of a show trial, designed more to terrorize the public and labor movement, than to prosecute any actual crime.

Their convictions were finally overturned with the landmark 1957 Yates decision, which rendered much of the Smith Act unenforceable.

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June 18 The Battle of Ballantyne Pier

June 18, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1935.

That was the day more than a thousand locked out dockworkers battled police forces in Vancouver, British Columbia in the ‘Battle of Ballantyne Pier.’ 

The dispute began weeks earlier when the Shipping Federation locked out dockworkers at Powell River, using scabs to load and unload cargo. 

Shipping magnates feared Communist leadership had taken over the company unions they established in the 20s. 

Workers at other ports in British Columbia now refused to handle Powell River cargo and were locked out. 

Hot cargoing was the main issue. 

But dockers also demanded higher wages, union recognition and fair dispatching.

The previous year’s West Coast Waterfront strike had put dockworkers everywhere in a fighting mood.

In Vancouver, dockers ousted management lackeys from their union and voted in a radical leadership during a recent election. 

Shipping bosses, local politicians and businessmen all cried ‘Bolshevik Menace.’ 

They formed a Citizens League and prepared for battle. 

On this day, striking dockers marched to Ballantyne Pier, where they had been denied the right to picket.

They were determined to stop the scabbing and intended to confront scabs directly. 

Led by World War I veteran, Mickey O’Rourke, dockers were abruptly stopped at the pier entrance by Vancouver Police. 

Immediately, they were beaten and tear gassed by club-wielding police and despised specials. 

Soon British Columbia Provincial Police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police emerged to join in on the assault. 

The fighting continued for three hours. 

Police horses trampled many as they tried to escape. 

Scores were hospitalized and arrested. 

The strike dragged on for months and ended in defeat. 

But dockers would win the war through ten years of hard, dedicated organizing that culminated with an ILWU charter in 1945.

 

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June 17 IWW Strikes Studebaker

June 17, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1913.

That was the day the Industrial Workers of the World led a strike at Studebaker in Detroit.

IWW organizers Matilda Rabinowitz, Jack Walsh and others arrived in Detroit to organize.

They gave lunchtime speeches outside the auto plants. 

Their speeches were so popular with Ford workers that managers at the Highland Park plant stopped allowing workers to take their lunches outside and had organizers arrested. 

They moved on to try to organize Studebaker, where they had supporters inside. 

Workers there had complaints similar to those at Ford, namely long hours and endless speed-up. 

At Studebaker, workers were also angry when management changed the way they were paid--from weekly to every other week. 

IWW supporter Dale Schlosser was fired from Studebaker’s #3 plant as he tried to circulate a petition for a return to weekly paydays. 

Word spread like wildfire and 3500 workers walked off the job in the first auto strike in Detroit. Rabinowitz and Walsh led a seven-mile march of thousands to Studebaker #1 and then downtown to Studebaker #5, calling workers out on strike. 

By the end of the day nearly 6,000 workers speaking a number of different languages voted for IWW representation and put together a list of grievances. 

IWW organizers envisioned an industry wide strike and 2000 strikers marched to the Packard plant the next day to call those workers out to join the strike.  

There they were met and beaten by police.

The strike and organizing drive was quickly crushed. Rabinowitz remarked that workers returning to Studebaker were even more determined to fight. 

IWW organizer Frank Bohn observed, “the strike was not for a few days or weeks, but maybe twenty or thirty years.”

 

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June 16 Eugene V. Debs gives anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio.

June 16, 2017

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

That was the day Eugene V. Debs, leader of the Socialist Party gave his legendary anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio.

It was the speech for which he would eventually be arrested, tried and convicted under the Espionage Act. 

Though he avoided explicitly criticizing World War I or President Wilson, he made clear his views. 

He gave the speech at a park near the jail where Charles Baker, Charles Ruthenberg and Alfred Wagenknecht, three prominent socialists, were being held on Espionage Act related charges.

Debs noted, “it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.”

Debs was defiant.

He unloaded his rage against the judicial system and the conviction of Socialist leader Kate Richards O’Hare for her anti-war views.

He railed against the suppression of Max Eastman’s Socialist press and the ongoing persecution of Socialists Tom Mooney and William Billings.

Debs briefly reviewed the history of wars in Europe and made the following observation:

“The master class has always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war… the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace…”

For this he was convicted of advocating disloyalty and draft resistance and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

 

 

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June 15 Violence erupts in the “Valley of Steel”

June 15, 2017

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

That was the day anti-union violence erupted in the “Valley of Steel.”

The Little Steel Strike was then in its 20th day.

The strike had spread to Bethlehem’s Cambria Works in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Newspaper headlines screamed: “30 Clubbed, Stabbed, Shot in Strike: Guerilla Warfare Breaks Out Anew in Pennsylvania.”

The day had been marred by hours of fighting with scabs and the police as miners joined picketers in support

Strikers lobbed rocks at scab cars attempting to drive through picket lines and successfully overturned a number of vehicles.

Steel-helmeted police attacked strikers, swinging riot clubs and launching tear gas shells.

One picketer, Tony Mandos was in critical condition after having been shot twice by police.

Mayor Daniel Shields announced he had deputized 250 special police, and was preparing to “raise an army of 3000 American Legionnaires by nightfall to protect the city of Johnstown from strikers.”

At Warren, Ohio, dynamite crippled railroad operations at a struck Republic Steel Mill on the Ashtabula-Niles Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The explosion came after carloads of raw material had been shunted in and products shipped out of the mill.

Auto plants throughout the Midwest slowed production for lack of steel-made parts.

UAW president Homer Martin dispatched a telegram to CIO leader, John L. Lewis: “We are standing by ready to refuse to use steel made in struck plants in the production of automobiles unless the steel companies make a speedy and amicable settlement with striking steel workers.”

The CIO threatened a 20,000 strong strike support rally through the streets of Johnstown to protest the violence.

They claimed victory when the Governor quickly declared martial law and padlocked the gates to Cambria Works.

 

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