Labor History in 2:00
March 31 Hospital Workers Stand United

March 31 Hospital Workers Stand United

March 31, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1969.

That was the day Dr. Ralph Abernathy, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference arrived in Charleston, South Carolina to address striking hospital workers and their supporters.

More than 400 black hospital workers at Medical College Hospital and Charleston County Hospital had walked off the job earlier in the month.

They demanded an end to racial harassment and discrimination, wage increases, union recognition and reinstatement of fired coworkers.

It was yet another instance where workers’ struggles embodied the broader social debates of the day.

Struggles for racial and gender equality as well as the rights of public sector workers to organize, especially in the South all converged in Charleston.

Workers at both hospitals sought out Local 1199, which had already organized hospital workers in New York City.

Local 1199B was soon chartered and Mary Moultrie, a licensed nurse from Medical College Hospital was elected president.

Twelve workers were fired when the new union demanded recognition.

That’s when they voted to go on strike. Picketers were met with injunctions and arrests.

The president of MCH, William McCord stated he would not “turn a 25 million dollar complex over to a bunch of people who don’t have a grammar school education.”

He and Governor, Robert McNair cited the state’s right to work law as justification for refusal to recognize the union.

The SCLC arrived in Charleston to lend its support. Speaking to 1500 workers and their supporters Abernathy linked the struggles of Local 1199B to those of meat packers and sanitation workers.

He also charged that Congress would rather spend millions on war than to “stand people on their feet in Charleston.”

March 30  Fifteenth Amendment adopted

March 30 Fifteenth Amendment adopted

March 30, 2017

On this day in labor history the year was 1870.

That was the day the Fifteenth Amendment was adopted into the United States Constitution.

It was the third of the Reconstruction amendments.

It prohibited voting restrictions on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude.

Premier historian Eric Foner states that the Reconstruction Amendments reflected “a newly empowered national state and the idea of a national citizenry enjoying equality before the law.

These legal changes also arose from the militant demands for equal rights from the former slaves themselves.”

The bulk of Southern states refused to ratify but then capitulated. Interestingly, New York sought and failed to revoke its early ratification.

The amendment split the women’s suffrage movement for its failure to codify women’s voting rights.

Some Radical Republicans also abstained on the basis that it did not also prohibit poll taxes or literacy tests. Immediately, the 15th amendment came under attack.

The Ku Klux Klan terrorized black voters and Reconstruction governments for years.

One of the most extreme examples was the 1873 Colfax massacre.

After the Compromise of 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes refused to enforce civil rights protections.

The rise of discriminatory Jim Crow laws effectively disenfranchised Southern blacks for nearly a century.

Congress would finally enforce the 15th amendment fully through the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

However, the Act has come under attack most recently, as in the 2013 case, Shelby County v. Holder.

Jurisdictions with histories of voter restrictions no longer have to obtain preclearance before implementing changes to voting laws and practices.

Over 150 years after the end of the Civil War, African-Americans are still fighting to protect their right to vote.

March 29 West Coast Hotel v. Parrish Decided

March 29 West Coast Hotel v. Parrish Decided

March 29, 2017

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

That was the day the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling on the case, West Coast Hotel v. Parrish.

The ruling upheld a Progressive-era Washington state law that established minimum wages for women.

An example of protective legislation, it intended to guard the health, safety and morals of women workers.

Elsie Parrish had been a chambermaid at the Cascadian Hotel in Wenatchee, Washington until 1935.

She sued and won at the State level after she was paid far below the minimum wage.

The parent company, West Coast Hotel, appealed to the Supreme Court.

They argued the Progressive-era law violated the constitutional right of individuals to freely contract with one another.

This interpretation was common during the Court’s Lochner era.

The 1905 Lochner v. New York ruling against maximum hours for bakers ushered in a period of anti-labor Supreme Court rulings.

Parrish is considered the landmark case that brought an end to that era.

The Court argued that the Constitution does not speak of freedom of contract and added “the exploitation of a class of workers who are in an unequal position with respect to bargaining power… is not only detrimental to their health and wellbeing, but casts a direct burden for their support upon the community.

What these workers lose in wages, the taxpayers are called upon to pay.”

The case is also considered instrumental in “the switch in time that saved nine.”

It was a reference to Justice Owen Roberts’ surprising shift in favor of Parrish. This occurred just as President Roosevelt finalized plans to increase the number of Supreme Court justices to 15.

Though Parrish did not overturn Lochner, it did mark a period of pro-labor rulings.


March 28 Three Mile Island Partial Meltdown

March 28 Three Mile Island Partial Meltdown

March 28, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1979.

That was the day The Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor partially melted down near Middleton, Pennsylvania.

A combination of equipment failure and human error has long been attributed as the cause of the meltdown.

An initial overheating and reactor shut down had occurred.

But a pressure valve remained stuck open, allowing coolant to escape.

Design flaws in control equipment failed to indicate the position of the valve.

Workers then mistook the increased pressure as a result of excessive coolant.

They shut off the emergency water system that could have cooled the core.

Fears of radiation release and hydrogen bubbles led to voluntary evacuations that included over 140,000 residents.

Authorities assured the public that the partial meltdown had been contained.

President Carter convened a commission to investigate the causes.

It concluded that while the operators took inappropriate actions, the training they received was inadequate as were the procedures they were required to follow.

Plant designers, Babcock and Wilcox were held responsible for poor design.

The company failed to notify operators of repeated valve failure and a previous near duplicate of the potential catastrophe at the Davis-Besse plant.

Metropolitan Edison, General Public Utilities and the NRC were also held responsible for poor quality control, poor maintenance, communication lapses and poor training.

Fears regarding public health and safety intensified, fueling health studies of those exposed and the anti-nuclear power movement.

The aftermath brought about sweeping changes involving emergency response planning, reactor operator training, human factors engineering, radiation protection, and many other areas of nuclear power plant operations.

It also caused the NRC to tighten and heighten its regulatory oversight. All of these changes significantly enhanced U.S. reactor safety.

March 27 State Police Crack Heads in Indiana

March 27 State Police Crack Heads in Indiana

March 27, 2017

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

That was the day Indiana State Police began cracking heads of picketers in front of the Richmond International Harvester plant.

The Farm Equipment Workers Organizing Committee, or FEWOC, called a strike at six Midwestern plants earlier in the year.

14,000 workers walked out, demanding an elimination of piecework, wage increases, reemployment guarantees for draftees and union recognition.

Lucy Parsons addressed strikers in Chicago.

She reminded them of her husband’s frame-up and murder in 1886.

She added that the McCormicks and International Harvester had continued their unending war against labor for over 50 years.

In Richmond, workers voted 5 to 1 for a strike.

By March 27, Harvester officials there planned to reopen the plant with members of the ‘independent union.’ FEWOC battled these so-called unions at all the plants.

They were the rehashed old company unions the National Labor Relations Board had ordered disbanded.

Reports varied widely as to the number of workers ready to betray the strike at the Richmond plant.

When they marched towards the gate that morning, strikers closed ranks and sang, “Solidarity Forever.”

The battle began as strikers, armed with bricks and bats, fought police to prevent the scabbing.

More than 80 strikers were arrested on charges ranging from assault and battery to attempted murder.

The State Police and Richmond officers then raided strike headquarters and downtown CIO offices.

Records and correspondence were seized and furniture demolished. FEWOC leader Cliff Kerr avowed, “They are not going to get away with this brutal, undemocratic attack on the workers.

The union intends to fight. The combined efforts of the city… the police… and the Harvester Company are not going to break this strike.”

March 26 Police Attack Workers on Pittsburgh Picket Line

March 26 Police Attack Workers on Pittsburgh Picket Line

March 26, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1946.

That was the day Pennsylvania State Police attacked striking UE members at the gates of Westinghouse in East Pittsburgh.

200,000 UE members went on an industry-wide strike January 15 for a $2 a day raise.

They were on strike against the Big Three: GE, Westinghouse and the electric division at GM.

It was part of the post-war strike wave that brought millions out onto the picket lines nationwide.

By the middle of March, the UE had settled with GM and GE.

But 75,000 Westinghouse workers were still out on strike.

Westinghouse initially refused to negotiate at all.

When they made a first offer, they falsely claimed theirs matched the GE and GM agreements.

Federal mediators withdrew from the case in frustration, stating the company had made negotiations impossible.

Then on March 26, Alleghany County Sheriff Walter Monaghan and Governor Edward Martin called in 800 state troops.

Some were on horseback, others on foot detail. Many troops arrived in cars with machine guns and tear gas.

They patrolled the picket lines and nearby streets and set up roadblocks leading to the Westinghouse gates.

They began to forcibly disperse the crowd of 1000 picketers.

Then they ushered through several hundred non-production workers.

Some were pelted with eggs.

Others were struck in the face by some of the women strikers.

Three UE leaders were arrested for refusing to shut down their sound system they used to blast staffers for crossing picket lines.

The State Police stayed for the duration of the strike to enforce injunctions against mass picketing and ensure the crossing of picket lines.

The strike finally ended after 115 days with strikers winning an 18-cent an hour raise.

March 25 Centralia Coal Mine #5 Explodes

March 25 Centralia Coal Mine #5 Explodes

March 25, 2017

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

That was the day Centralia Coal Mine #5 exploded, killing 111 miners in Centralia, IL

The explosion occurred just as the day shift was ending.  

Those not killed instantly were trapped and died from their burns or the afterdamp.

Words scrawled on the walls of the mine read, “Look in our pockets. We all have notes. Please give them to our wives.”

State inspectors had been forewarning mine owners about the dangers of accumulated, combustible coal dust for years before the explosion, but were ignored.

Illinois Mine Inspector Driscoll Scanlan had been filing reports since 1942 about deteriorating conditions.

The demand for coal during wartime had increased production at the expense of safety.

In the aftermath of the explosion, John L. Lewis, president of the UMWA, called a work stoppage in memory of the dead miners.

He also held Secretary of the Interior, Julius Krug, guilty of criminal negligence.

Lewis accused Krug of having failed to enforce existing mine regulations.

In response, Krug ordered that 518 mines remain closed for inspection.

The House and Senate proceeded to organize hearings on mine safety.

They demanded that the Bureau of Mines continue to pass inspection findings onto the proper state agencies.

Given the power mine owners held at the state level, these instructions ensured no improvements in mine safety would occur.

It would be another 22 years before any real change occurred at the federal level.

March 24 Exxon Valdez Runs Aground

March 24 Exxon Valdez Runs Aground

March 24, 2017

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

That was the day the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil in Prince William’s Sound, off the coast of Alaska.

The ship ran aground and collided with Bligh’s Reef.

Most people remember the captain was held primarily responsible for the spill.

By his own admission, he had passed out after a night of heavy drinking.

But a number of factors also contributed to the environmental disaster.  

The National Transportation Safety Board issued its final report over a year later.

In it, the Board concluded that fatigue, reduced crews and problems with regulations and procedures regarding Exxon’s drug and alcohol program, all contributed to the spill.

Union officials reported great concern regarding chronic fatigue of its members on merchant ships, reduced crews due to greater automation and reduced scheduled ship maintenance.

Crewmembers on the Exxon Valdez routinely worked 20 or more hours a day during routine cargo handling operations.

The NTSB also concluded that Vessel Traffic Service under the U.S. Coast Guard failed to properly track the Exxon Valdez.

They had the ability to select a higher radar scale but didn’t.

The Coast Guard suffered from reduced crews burdened with increased job duties as well.

They also found that remote communications sites were inoperative on the night of the spill.

The equipment was old, deteriorating from harsh weather conditions.

Requested funding for new equipment had not been forthcoming. 

The Alyeska Pipeline Company for its part, failed to have an oil spill barge loaded and ready.

Major cleanup efforts were conducted during spring and summer months through 1992.

But marine life and the environments were devastated.

Long-term efforts at monitoring and cleanup continue today.

March 23 Refinery Explosion Kills 15 Workers

March 23 Refinery Explosion Kills 15 Workers

March 23, 2017

On this day in labor history the year was 2005.

That was the day 15 workers were killed and another 170 were seriously injured in an explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas.

Workers were re-starting a unit down for repairs.

As they filled a tower with gasoline, it overflowed, sending a geyser into the air.

The igniting hydrogen vapor cloud created a chain of explosions that destroyed the nearby trailers, housing temporary contract workers.

The explosion shed light on many key problems throughout the industry: the increasing use of contract workers, safety short cuts and qualitative lack of industrial process controls.

A 2007 Chemical Safety Board report found that “years of cost-cutting, poor worker training and a safety culture with “serious deficiencies” left the plant ‘vulnerable to catastrophe,’ but company leaders ignored the warning signs.”

OSHA fined BP $21.3 million and more, but ultimately settled for $13 million.

For years, the catastrophe was studied closely to eliminate the hazards.

But 10 years later, a 2015 joint investigative series by The Texas Tribune and Houston Chronicle found that “there is little evidence that the 15 lives lost on that March day bought much of anything: The death toll at U.S. refineries has barely slowed… At least 64 energy company employees and contractors were killed in the decade before the blast. At least 58 have died in the 10 years since…

The Department of Energy has tracked nearly 350 fires at refineries in the last eight years — almost one every week.

Refinery workers have gone on strike demanding, among other issues, an increased emphasis on safety.”

For the United Steelworkers, it is a daily fight to implement the critical safety actions the union developed in the aftermath of the blast.


March 22 ERA Passes the Senate

March 22 ERA Passes the Senate

March 22, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1972.

That was the day the Equal Rights Amendment passed the Senate and moved to the states for ratification.

It had passed the House the previous fall.

Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman of the National Women’s Party first wrote the ERA in the 1920s.

It was introduced to Congress in 1923.

The revised version that Congress passed in 1971 and 1972 stated simply “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

The amendment needed 38 states to ratify by March 1979, in order to pass.

35 states ratified the amendment, but 5 states later rescinded ratification.

The 38-state requirement was never met.

The decades long debate among women’s rights advocates often centered on formal equality vs. protective legislation for women workers.

But an amendment establishing equality meant the end to restrictive, discriminatory laws.

These included: laws imposing restrictions on a woman's right to buy or sell property or to conduct a business; the age at which women could marry; differing admissions standards for boys and girls in tax-supported educational institutions; laws establishing different jail sentences, by sex, for identical crimes; regulations denying unemployment compensation payments to pregnant women who are still able and willing to work and much more.

The far Right and religious fundamentalists of all faiths fiercely opposed the ERA, fearing it would erode traditional gender roles.

Many Progressives and the labor movement also opposed it for many years on the basis that hard-won protective legislation would be lost.

It is striking that as of  2017, there is still no clear legal codification of women’s equal status to men.


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