Labor History in 2:00
March 11 Raising Conditions for an Industry

March 11 Raising Conditions for an Industry

March 11, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1950.

That was the day 4600 baggage handlers, mechanics and store personnel ended their strike against American Airlines.

The 11-day strike affected airports in 34 cities, crippling 80% of American’s operations.

Transport Workers Union leader Mike Quill demanded wage increases, job-security and guarantees against the subcontracting out of maintenance work.

TWU had been locked into negotiations and mediation for months leading up to the strike at the beginning of March.

In her book, On the Ground: Labor Struggle in the American Airline Industry, Liesl Miller Orenic notes that the strike was an example of cross skill solidarity within the union.

Union baggage handlers were the first to walk out.

Quill hoped to garner support by emphasizing that the planes were improperly maintained.

He demanded that President Truman take over the airlines on the basis that “the planes were unsafe for public transportation.”

Support for the strike remained strong in larger cities.

But in smaller cities, strikers looked to return to work. Miller Orenic adds the strike victory resulted in industry firsts: “A severance package for laid-off workers and a company policy pledging only to subcontract mechanical work that American Airlines employees did not have time to do.”

Though they did not gain wage raises, they did win significant increases in sick leave, three weeks paid vacation after 12 years of service instead of 15, and paid mealtime for night shift workers.

TWU members at PanAM were inspired to strike over similar demands two months later.

The victory at American spurred national mediators to hammer out a settlement in favor of PanAm strikers some 17 hours after the strike was called.

March 10 Radium Girls

March 10 Radium Girls

March 10, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1925.

That was the day the first civil suit for damages was filed on behalf of the ‘Radium Girls.’

During the 1910s and 20s, Radium was all the rage.

It was considered a medical cure-all for everything from blindness to asthma.

The U.S Radium Corporation employed hundreds of young women in New Jersey and Illinois to paint radium onto watch dials and military instruments.

Women workers were instructed to shape the paintbrushes to a fine point with their lips in order to paint the numbers onto watch faces.

They soon fell ill. Many complained of losing scores of teeth and shattered and rotting jaws.

The death toll began to rise. U.S Radium and other related companies initially tried to smear the women as suffering from syphilis.

Katherine Wiley of the New Jersey Consumers League began investigating the use of radium by dial painters.

She was also concerned about how emissions affected the community surrounding the plant.

Wiley enlisted the help of Alice Hamilton, mother of industrial medicine and occupational toxicology.

The Chief Medical Examiner of Essex County determined the women suffered from radium exposure. They were exhaling radon gas.

The findings were earth shattering for the industry.

Case proceedings were highly publicized in the press.

Extremely frail and sick young women appeared in court, barely able to walk or testify.

The company agreed to settle the case: $10,000 for each woman, a $400 a year pension, and medical care.

Women at the Ottawa plant suffered for years before they finally learned the truth about their job related illnesses.

The case impacted fields related to occupational safety and health.

It also fundamentally broadened scientific understanding of radioactive elements.

March 9 Striking in the Mine Camps

March 9 Striking in the Mine Camps

March 9, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1910.

That was the day miners in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania struck for union recognition and the eight-hour day.

They hoped to beat back deep wage cuts and out-of–pocket costs for safety equipment and explosives.

As many as 15,000 miners were on strike against 65 mines.

Thousands were immediately evicted from company housing.

The UMWA helped set up tent cities.

Area coal companies all imported immigrant strikebreakers who had little understanding of English or why they were hired.

When they tried to quit and leave company housing, coal company police beat them back to work, refusing to let them leave until they paid the cost of relocation.

The situation was so bad that the House Committee on Labor held hearings as to whether workers were being forced into peonage.

Injunctions were enforced against strikers picketing on public property near the mines.

Many were arrested for simply traveling along public roads. 

Strikers were also denied access to many municipal services, whose facilities were on coal company property.

Hundreds of strikers were arrested for trespassing and their leaders held on charges of conspiracy and intimidation.

They were routinely harassed, beaten and fired upon by Sheriff’s deputies, State Troops or the Coal and Iron police.

Over the course of the strike, more than a dozen strikers and their family members were killed at the hands of security and police forces.

The strike wore on through the brutal winter of 1910-11.

Hunger and disease spread throughout the tent cities.

After 15 months, the UMWA called off the strike.

The union was broke from the disbursement of strike funds.

Many blacklisted strikers had to leave the state to find work.


March 8 Fighting For Better Wages, Hours, and Conditions

March 8 Fighting For Better Wages, Hours, and Conditions

March 8, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 2007.

That was the day that seven thousand workers at the Northrop Grumman, a shipyard company in Pascagoula, Mississippi went out on strike.

Grumman is one of the largest defense contractors in the world.

The workers were members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 733 and the Pascagoula Metal Trades Council.

They were still reeling from the ravages of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina. 

The hurricane had devastated the Mississippi gulf coast and sent prices for housing skyrocketing.

But while workers suffered, Katrina brought $3 billion in federal contracts to Northrop Grumman to repair hurricane damage.

Despite this, Grumman proposed a four-year contract for the workers with no raises and increased health care costs. For many workers this did not sit well. 

They knew the company had received massive government contracts, but still was not willing to treat workers fairly at the bargaining table.

The union members rejected the offer and voted to strike.

The company came back with a proposal offering small raises, which did not keep pace with the cost of living.

The strike was called. 

For four weeks workers marched and manned the picket lines.

During the strike the company cut off the worker’s health care coverage.

The company offered slightly higher wages and reduced the increases to health care coverage. 

Although the proposal was not enough to keep up with the soaring local cost of living, union members voted to end the strike and accept the offer. 

March 7 “Work Faster! Work Faster!”

March 7 “Work Faster! Work Faster!”

March 7, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1974.

That was the day workers at Farah Manufacturing finally ratified a first contract.

Workers went on strike in May 1972 demanding union recognition.

Owner Willie Farah had said he’d rather die than have his company go union.

It was said he rode his bicycle through the plant screaming “Work Faster! Work Faster!”

Management had imposed increasingly unattainable production quotas that bred dangerous working conditions, until finally workers had had enough.

The organizing drive to bring in the American Clothing Workers of America began in 1969.

It spread to five plants throughout El Paso, Texas. Workers often met in secret.

Though male cutters had initially sought out representation with the ACWA, the workforce was overwhelmingly comprised of Mexican-American women.

They became some of the union’s best leaders.

Workers staged a walkout in March 1972 and many were fired on the spot.

By May 1972, the firing of workers at the San Antonio plant for union activity prompted the strike.

Declared an unfair labor practice strike, the AFL-CIO began a national boycott campaign of Farah products.

The ACWA organized public support and strike relief.

Women strikers embarked on nationwide speaking tours as part of the Justice for Farah Strikers Committee, to build the boycott and public support.

By early 1974, the NLRB ordered reinstatement and union organizing.

The contract included wage increases, seniority rights and job security, and grievance procedures.

But long-term lessons of the strike proved that the work of organizing could never stop with winning recognition and a first contract.

Workers continued to battle for years against quotas, firings and weak representation in a historically Right-to-Work state.


March 6 International Unemployed Day

March 6 International Unemployed Day

March 6, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1930.

That was the day hundreds of thousands of activists and unemployed poured into the streets worldwide for International Unemployed Day.

It was a coordinated campaign to protest conditions created by the stock market crash just four months earlier.

Workers and the poor were the first to feel the most devastating impacts of what was quickly becoming the Great Depression.

Organized primarily by Communists, the day’s actions highlighted the work of the newly formed Unemployed Councils and had a mass appeal.

The Unemployed Councils worked to distribute food, prevent evictions, secure utilities and link the needs of the unemployed to the trade unions.

The councils mobilized the unemployed in support during strikes as a way to stop scabbing. They organized hunger marches and protests at relief offices. 

Tens of thousands came out in every city for Unemployed Day demonstrations.

In North America, cities like Boston, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Seattle and San Francisco all drew massive crowds estimated at 40,000 to 50,000 each.

Protesters demanded jobs and unemployment insurance.

In Chicago, tens of thousands overwhelmed the streets for over twelve hours.

In Detroit, and New York City, competing organizers challenged crowd estimates, with as many as 100,000 turning out in each city.

Confrontations broke out between protestors and police in both cities. Across the country, many of the unemployed were arrested or hospitalized.

In New York City, outraged communist activists asserted that protesters were met with water hoses, tear gas and guns as they marched down Broadway to City Hall.

Critics argued that crowd estimates were wildly exaggerated.

But the day of action forced governments around the world to acknowledge deteriorating conditions and devastating impact of the Great Depression.

March 5 Lordstown Syndrome

March 5 Lordstown Syndrome

March 5, 2017

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

That was the day autoworkers at GM’s Chevy Vega plant in Lordstown, Ohio walked out on strike.

The strike lasted for 18 days.

The issues that fueled it were reminiscent of the sit-downs and wildcats that built the UAW in the 30s and 40s.

Workers at Lordstown wanted greater control over the production process.

The young, integrated workforce of the 1960s social protest era was fed-up with long days, forced overtime, increased automation and dangerous speedup on the assembly line.

Long-standing grievances numbered in the thousands and disciplinary firings were common. Absenteeism was rampant.

Morale was so low that cars left the assembly line incomplete or vandalized.

By the time the strike ended, many felt it was called to simply allow workers to blow off steam.

There was no real change to the production process.

But jobs eliminated in the 1970 contract were restored and some 1400 disciplinary layoffs were dropped.

The worker malaise suffered there came to be known as the “Lordstown Syndrome.”

In his book Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, Jefferson Cowie notes that the strike compelled the Senate to hold hearings on alienation at work.

Its’ committee produced the report Work in America.

This report confirmed, “many workers at all occupational levels feel locked in, their mobility blocked, the opportunity to grow lacking in their jobs, challenge missing from their tasks.”

Cowie concludes that the strike and report “initiated the quality of work life movement that sought to redesign work, introduce automation differently and invest in ‘human relations’ strategies, most of which continued to empower management, not workers—albeit with a gentler hand.”


March 4 Mismanagement Killing an Airline

March 4 Mismanagement Killing an Airline

March 4, 2017

On this day in labor history the year was 1989.

That was the day Machinists struck Eastern Airlines.

After bankrupting Continental Airlines to void union contracts there, the much-hated Frank Lorenzo hoped for a repeat at Eastern Airlines.

Lorenzo bought Eastern with junk bonds and then bled the airline’s profits dry to finance the debt of his holding company, Texas Air.

12,000 jobs were lost at Eastern in just two years under Lorenzo.

Machinists had every reason to believe wages would be cut in half in the next contract.

In the weeks building up to the strike, management made its union busting clear by firing dozens of shop stewards at airports across the country.

Machinists walked out at Miami airport a month earlier over forced overtime.

Nationwide, many complained they were forced to work anywhere between 24-36 hours straight.

Five days into the strike, Lorenzo filed for bankruptcy.

Picket lines were solid and the strike was popular.

Many trade unionists joined picket lines in support.

The strike against Eastern symbolized a fight to take back everything lost during the Reagan years.

The Air Line Pilot’s Association and Flight Attendants organized by TWU voted to walk out in solidarity.

They stayed out for more than eight months with striking machinists.

But when the pilots and flight attendants went back to work, it left machinists isolated.

Many argued that with contracts expiring at many airlines soon after the walkout, an industry wide strike could only bolster chances for machinists at Eastern to win.

But by early 1991, the strike had become a devastating loss.

Eastern ceased operations altogether in January and its assets were liquidated.

March 3 Wildcat Strike Hits Chrysler and Briggs

March 3 Wildcat Strike Hits Chrysler and Briggs

March 3, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1945.

National headlines feared the growing wildcat strikes at Chrysler and Briggs auto plants in Detroit.

As of March 3, the wildcats had increased to 35,000 strikers and idled workers at two Chrysler plants and seven Briggs plants.

The strike wave started a week earlier at the Dodge Main plant in Detroit.

Eight of the union’s best leaders had been discharged for refusing to go along with production line speed-up.

Briggs management followed Chrysler’s union-busting campaign by firing seven UAW officers at the Mack Avenue plant.

Three days later, Briggs fired another eight committeemen and stewards, which then provoked the walkout.

Company officials and the War Labor Board were outraged at the halt in war production of tanks, B-29 Super Fortresses, anti-aircraft guns, ambulances, rockets, and trucks.

The Michigan legislature introduced a bill to define as a felony, any strike participation that violated a labor relations contract.

As well, the War Labor Board demanded that both sides meet in Washington to end the walkout.

Strike leaders defied the wartime no-strike pledge and ignored the International’s threats of disciplinary action.

Strikers had the full backing of local UAW presidents.

The UAW executive board conceded that management provoked the wildcatting through indiscriminate firings.

Workers argued that if the War Labor Board prioritized production over union busting, they would order the reinstatements of discharged leaders.

The Flint Labor Council passed a resolution demanding that all CIO and other union representatives resign immediately from the War Labor Board.

It considered the board as stacked against Labor.

Workers at Chrysler and Briggs would soon end their walkout with guarantees of arbitration for reinstatement of fired militants.

March 2 Greyhound Bus Strike Begins

March 2 Greyhound Bus Strike Begins

March 2, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1990.

That was the day 9,300 workers walked out at Greyhound Bus Lines.

The 1980s devastated Greyhound workers.

First, the industry had been rocked by President Carter’s deregulation of the transportation industry.

Then, a bitter 1983 strike ended in defeat for workers. Concessionary contracts, deep wage cuts and a two-tier system were firmly established by the time contract negotiations started in early 1990.

The Amalgamated Transit Union negotiated terms closer to what was lost over the past decade, but new owners at Greyhound wouldn’t have it.

They claimed $300 million in debt.

The ATU insisted the company had been turning handsome profits.

Pickets went up at depots and garages around the country, while hundreds of scab drivers were hired.

With a week’s worth of training, they were soon operating 10-ton buses unsafely.

Riders complained of replacement drivers falling asleep at the wheel.

The strike soon turned violent and deadly.

There were reports of sniper fire and bomb threats.

Many charged these were fake stories, meant to spike public support for the strike.

Early on, 59-year old Robert Waterhouse was run down by a scab driver while on the picket line in Redding, California.

Waterhouse had 30 years as a driver with the company and had planed his retirement for that summer, when he was killed.

ATU reported many more picket line injuries.

Within a month, the company was operating with 2400 replacement drivers.

The company filed for bankruptcy in June.

After three years, they would finally agree to $22 million in back pay, reinstate hundreds of drivers and raise wages.

But the number of drivers was cut in half. It would take the ATU years to rebuild its strength.

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