Labor History in 2:00
November 26 - The Birth of William Sylvis

November 26 - The Birth of William Sylvis

November 26, 2020

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 - Chicago Printers Walk Off the Job

November 25 - Chicago Printers Walk Off the Job

November 25, 2020

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 Hollywood Ten

November 24 - The Hollywood Ten

November 24, 2020

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 - The Thibodaux Massacre

November 23 - The Thibodaux Massacre

November 23, 2020

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.    


November 22 - Uprising of the 20,000

November 22 - Uprising of the 20,000

November 22, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1909. 

That was the evening when a crowd began to gather at the Cooper Union in the heart of New York City’s shirtwaist garment making industry. 

A meeting had been called by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Local 25 to discuss whether garment workers should go out in a general strike. 

Working conditions and pay throughout the industry were abysmal.

It was common for worker to toil eleven hours a day, with only a thirty-minute lunch break seven days a week.

But organizing all of these workers was a challenge. 

Many spoke various dialects of Yiddish or Italian, so organizing had to take place in multiple languages.

But slowly the organizing efforts began to build and show results.

Pickets and walk outs were held against some employers. 

The union called a meeting to discuss what to do next. 

They voted to strike after a stirring speech in Yiddish from Clara Lemlich, a founder of ILGWU Local 25.  

The strike came to be known as the Uprising of the 20,000.  

It lasted until February. 

In a settlement more than 300 factories agreed to recognize the union.

The factory workers also won improvements in wages, hours, and conditions.  

A song from the Educational Department of the ILGWU captured the spirit of the strike. 

The lyrics begin, “In the black winter of nineteen nine, when we froze and bled on the picket line, We showed the world that women could fight and we rose and won with women’s might.”

The song continued, “And we gave new courage to the men Who carried on in nineteen ten and shoulder to shoulder we’ll win through, Led by the I.L.G.W.U.”

November 21 - Autoworkers Join the Postwar Strike Wave

November 21 - Autoworkers Join the Postwar Strike Wave

November 21, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1945. 

That was the day that 320,000 United Auto Workers went out on strike against General Motors.

The strike was part of a wave of work actions that washed over the country after World War II. 

Workers were growing more and more frustrated that company profits were soaring while workers’ wages remained stagnant.

During the war, most unions had abided by ‘no strike’ pledges. 

But once the war was over, workers wanted their fair share of the growing American economy.

In just one year 5 million workers participated in more than 4,500 strikes. 

The GM strikers demanded a thirty percent pay increase.

Walter Reuther, President of the UAW, also insisted that the company could meet this demand without raising the prices of their vehicles. 

He asked the company to open their books, so workers and the public could see the full details of company’s profits. 

GM refused. 

They characterized Reuther as a socialist for even making such an outrageous request. 

During negotiations, Harry Coen, the GM assistant director of personnel, told President Reuther, “Why don’t you get down to your size and get down to the type of job you are supposed to be doing as a trade-union leader, and talk about money you would like to have for your people, and let the labor statesmanship go to hell for a while."

The GM strike lasted for 113 days. 

The workers won a 17.5 percent pay increase, and improvements to vacation and overtime. 

But they did not get to look at the GM books or gain a say in how GM vehicles were priced.


November 20 - The Birth of the Time Clock

November 20 - The Birth of the Time Clock

November 20, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1888. 

That was the day that William Le Grand Bundy is credited with inventing something that has become a daily part of life for millions of workers.

His “Time Recorder” was a time clock that could record when workers arrived and left their jobs each day. 

The clock would record the time on a paper tape when a worker inserted his or her individualized, numbered key.

Bundy was a jeweler and inventor from New York.  

After inventing his time clock, he went into business with his brother Harlow and founded the Bundy Manufacturing Company. 

With the growth of factories, there was more and more demand for time clocks. 

They were considered more exact and efficient than human time keeping.

Keeping track of hours worked and labor costs became an essential part of squeezing every drop of profit out of the industrial workforce. 

The Bundy brothers located their company in the city of Binghamton, in southern New York. 

Business thrived.  

Other inventors put their own twist on the time clock.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Bundy company merged with several other time-keeping outfits, forming the International Time Recorder Company. 

Workers across the United States, Canada and Europe had their work hours recorded by International Time clocks. 

Later the company became part of International Business Machines, or IBM, one the world-wide leaders in workplace technologies. 

Over the years, new innovations have been introduced to employee time keeping, such as time cards and computer-linked swipe cards

November 18 - Accident or Murder?

November 18 - Accident or Murder?

November 18, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1929. 

That was the day that Viljo Rosvall and Janne Voutilainen disappeared on their way to recruit workers at a bushcamp during a strike in northwestern Ontario, Canada near Thunder Bay. 

They were both Finish-Canadians. 

Viljo Rosvall was an organizer for the Lumber Workers Industrial Union of Canada. 

The union included many Finnish lumber workers and had ties to the Canadian Communist Party. 

Janne Voutilainen was an experienced trapper. 

The two men never made it to their destination—the Pigeon Timber Company Camp, located north of Onion Lake.  

It was unknown what happened to them until the next April.

Voutilainen’s body was found in shallow water at the edge of Onion Lake. 

A few days later Rosvall was found, also drowned, in a nearby creek that emptied into the lake. 

The Finnish workers blamed the deaths of the two men on the conservative Finnish camp boss, who oversaw the Onion Lake encampment. 

The coroner’s autopsies ruled the deaths accidental drownings. 

But many remained unconvinced and suspected foul play. 

They questioned how an experience trapper such as Voutilainen could fall through the ice and drown in such shallow water. 

Thousands attended the funeral for the martyrs. 

The debate over what happened to the two men continues to this day.

An historical marker reads “The mystery surrounding the deaths of Rosvall and Voutilainen endures, sustaining them in public memory as martyrs to the cause of organized labor.”

A headstone donated by the Thunder Bay and District Labor Council was erected in 1993, to honor the graves which had gone previously unmarked. 

The deaths of the two men travelling to organize workers remains a mystery of the Canadian labor movement to this day.


November 17 - Resisting Impressment

November 17 - Resisting Impressment

November 17, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1747. 

That was the day that a crowd of Boston workers took British officers as hostage and held them for three days. 

The workers were outraged that fellow Bostonians had been pressed into service on British Navy ship against their will. 

Impressing ship crews was one of the ways the British manned their ships when there were not enough willing crew members. 

The seaport at Boston had become so notorious for this kind of worker kidnapping that other merchant vessels had begun to avoid the area for fear their crews might be taken by the British Navy. 

Bostonians became increasingly vocal against the practice, and worried about its impact on the local economy. 

In 1745 the local Selectmen petitioned for “immediate relief” from impressment.

They wrote that it was a matter that “nearest effects the Libertys of the People and is a great insult upon this government.”

Two years later, Commodore Charles Knowles sailed into Boston on his way to the West Indies. 

While he resupplied and refit his ships, some of his crewmembers escaped from service. 

To make up his diminished crew, on November 16 Knowles ordered local workers to be rounded up as replacements. 

Fed up Bostonians detained members of the British fleet including one of Knowles lieutenants. 

The Massachusetts Governor William Shirley was able to persuade Knowles not to retaliate. 

He helped facilitate an exchange the impressed Bostonians for the British hostages. 

That January a young Samuel Adams founded the newspaper the Independent Advertiser, published to “defend the rights and liberties of mankind.” 

The paper commended the mob for standing up to impressment. 

Samuel Adams would go on to become a leader in the American Revolution.

November 16 - NFL Players Association End Strike

November 16 - NFL Players Association End Strike

November 16, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year as 1982. 

That Tuesday the National Football League players ended their fifty-seven-day strike. 

The league scrambled to get the new season going, scheduling games for that very next Sunday. 

The shortened nine-game season included two games played before the walkout, and the rest after the strike ended. 

The biggest issue that lead to the strike was pay. 

The NFL had seen a surge in television revenue with a new five-year contract worth $2.1 billion. 

The players asked for 55% of the leagues’ growing profits. 

The players’ association also wanted a minimum pay scale based on years of service, and improved health and retirement benefits.

The owners flatly refused. 

On September 20, the Green Bay Packers beat the New York Giants in a Monday Night Football game. 

The next day the New York Daily News reported, “For the first time in its 63-year history, labor troubles will throw the NFL for a loss.  By a unanimous vote of its executive committee, the league’s Players Association yesterday voted to call a strike.”

The article continued by writing, “The players stressed that they had been forced to call the strike in frustration over what they termed management’s twin failures to take them seriously and to bargain in good faith.”   

Sports Illustrated summed up fan sentiments about the strike with a cover headline reading pffffft! over the image of a deflated football.

Finally, the two sides came to an agreement. 

The players won raises, bonuses based on years in the league, and severance packages for retiring players. 

But the gains were far below the union’s goals. 

Bitterness lingered, and five years later the players would be on strike again.

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