Labor History in 2:00
May 21 Striking to Save Their Union and Their Rights

May 21 Striking to Save Their Union and Their Rights

May 21, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1984. 

That was the day Toledo autoworkers at AP Parts plant battled police in an attempt to save their union. 

The battle unfolded on the 50th anniversary of the historic Toledo Auto-Lite Strike. 

400 members of UAW local 14 had been on strike against the parts plant since May 2. 

The company imposed a final offer that stripped workers of their seniority rights, ended 30 and out pensions, and cut wages by 40%. 

Then they laid off 175 workers and targeted the rest with a campaign of harassment and discipline. 

Workers walked off the job when the NLRB dismissed the union’s unfair labor practice charges. 

Local newspapers printed names and addresses of striking workers in a blatant attempt to blacklist them from area employers. 

Strikers had had it with AP’s union-busting tactics, which included paying the hated private goon squad, Nuckols Security, $45,000 a week to escort scabs into the plant. 

The final straw came with an injunction, restricting the number of pickets.

In an act of solidarity, area unions came together for a show of union strength. 

Thousands of UAW people from area auto plants, joined with striking OCAW refinery workers at the main gate, to challenge the new injunction. 

Police in full riot gear charged the crowd with tear gas, clubs and pellet guns, beating and arresting dozens of strikers. 

A pitched battle ensued between workers and police that lasted up to eighteen hours until the company was finally forced to eject scabs from the plant. 

While workers were jubilant, the strike served as a warning about the future of small parts plants. 

The strike dragged on for months, ending in deep concessions and outsourcing.

May 20 Workers Pummeled by Police in Vancouver

May 20 Workers Pummeled by Police in Vancouver

May 20, 2017

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

That was the day unemployed workers began a sit-down strike at the post office in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

They had been organized by the Communist–led Relief Project Workers Union during the Depression. 

In Canada, federally funded works projects were being administered at the provincial level. 

By late 1937 the Prime Minister began to cut funding.

Unable to financially sustain the projects alone, provincial premier Thomas Patullo ended the works projects for British Columbia. 

Masses of unemployed men thrown off their jobs, some driven to homelessness, organized occupations of the Hotel Georgia, the Vancouver Art Gallery and the main post office to protest the cuts.

While hotel owners paid protesters to leave, the occupation at the gallery and the post office lasted for weeks. 

Finally on Father’s Day, June 18th, gallery occupiers were driven out with tear gas.

The post office strikers were met with much more violence. 

Royal Canadian Mounted Police led the assault with tear gas and forcible dragging of sit-downers out of the building.

Once evicted, they were met with the batons of local police. 

Organizers were singled out for especially severe beatings and scores were hospitalized for their injuries. 

One striker, Arthur Redseth had his eye knocked out while his fellow sit-downer had his jaw broken for asking authorities to call an ambulance for his friend. 

Strike leader, Steve Brodie suffered permanent eye damage as well. 

News of the terror spread throughout the city and by mid-afternoon 10-15,000 protesters gathered to express outrage at what became known as Bloody Sunday in Vancouver. 

Premier Patullo denounced the strikers as having received too much sympathy. 

He nonetheless used the debacle as an opportunity to get federal funds reinstated.


May 19  Raritan River Port Explosion Kills 31

May 19 Raritan River Port Explosion Kills 31

May 19, 2017

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

That was the day thirty-one dockworkers were killed and hundreds more injured in an explosion at the Raritan River Port in South Amboy, New Jersey.

Workers were loading ammunition from freight trains onto ships.

The freight’s ultimate destination was Pakistan. 

Practically every structure in South Amboy suffered some form of serious or structural damage, with windows blown out everywhere, and debris reported as far as 25 miles away. 

5800 more unexploded anti-personnel mines had been strewn about the port. 

Demolition experts had to be called in for removal. 

A subsequent fire at a nearby agricultural phosphorus plant complicated their work. 

The blast was caused by the detonation of 150 tons of military explosives and gelatin dynamite. 

The piers, equipment and railroad cars were all demolished, over a dozen nearby barges were either on fire or sank. 

Emergency Operations went into effect and a state of emergency was declared. 

Key industries in the immediate area were seriously damaged, including the International Smelting and Refining Company, Pennsylvania Railroad maintenance shops and the power plant for Jersey Power and Light. 

According to a report by National Board of Fire Underwriters and the Fire Insurance Rating Organization of New Jersey, packing of the mines and fuses by the Kilgore Company was not in accordance with Army standards and labeling was confusing. 

The shipped mines were labeled as M1A1 though all parts but the detonator were identical to M1 mines, discontinued by the army in 1942 for their apparent defective fuse, leading to accidental firing and explosions. 

Their report refrained from drawing a certain cause or assigning blame. 

Instead the underwriters offered a number of possible scenarios and recommendations for best practices to be implemented.


May 18 FDR Signs an Act to Reshape the South

May 18 FDR Signs an Act to Reshape the South

May 18, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1933.

That was the day President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act.

The act created the TVA as a federal corporation and was tasked to address the resource development of the region, one of the poorest in the United States.

These included flood control and improved travel along the Tennessee River.

It also meant improved forestry to address soil erosion and facilitation of agricultural production.

Control of water resources required a series of dams, designed to navigate the river and reduce flooding.

Though Wilson Dam had been completed before the establishment of the TVA, the authority had embarked on the construction of sixteen more dams.

During the Depression, the TVA hired tens of thousands of workers for conservation, construction and development.

Historian Erik Loomis notes that though the TVA was one of the region’s largest employers of black workers, the authority also maintained rigid lines of segregation in its workforce.

He adds that though 14 AFL unions eventually worked on dam construction, the agency initially refused to recognize unions.

Workers would wait until 1940 to sign first contacts in the anti-union South.

Today the authority is most well known for its supply of electricity to nearby communities.

It is the nation’s largest public power company and serves about 80,000 square miles in the southeastern United States.

TVA capacity to generate electric power includes some 29 hydroelectric dams, 11 coal fired plants, 3 nuclear plants and several combustion-turbine installations.

It also has several solar and wind installations.

The authority produces more than 130 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year.

The TVA played a critical role in transforming the South by constructing infrastructure necessary for modernization and industrialization.

May 17 Fighting for Simple Dignity & Respect

May 17 Fighting for Simple Dignity & Respect

May 17, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1980.

That was the day 4000 strikers and their supporters gathered for the March for Dignity and Respect in Laurel, Mississippi. 

Over 200 mostly black women members of International Chemical Workers Union Local 882 had been on strike against Sanderson Farms chicken processing plant for 15 months.

Trade unionists from as far away as Cincinnati, Memphis and North Carolina came to march in support.

Sanderson Farms had cleared $58 million in profits but paid workers just $3 an hour.

The women demanded a contract that included more control over assembly line speed, overtime pay, and insurance. 

They complained of desperately low wages, inhumane working conditions, and even the inability to use the bathroom when necessary! 

Workers were given only gloves and an apron once a month, and a file to sharpen their often dull and rusty scissors and knives. 

They often referred to the processing plant as the plantation, where sexual harassment was rampant. 

Women workers often found themselves given dangerous assignments or even fired if they didn’t put up with sexual advances of their foremen.

Workers maintained that strikebreakers from the community were desperately poor and threatened with violence if they quit, by local Ku Klux Klansmen who worked as supervisors at the plant. 

Some were known as having been involved in the murder and/or intimidation of civil rights workers in decades past. 

The plant had been organized in 1972, but was extraordinarily weak. 

Nonetheless, women strikers understood that the union still served as an invaluable resource in the midst of a largely unorganized South. 

By the following February, the NLRB ruled that Sanderson had to resume contract negotiations and allow strikers to return to their jobs.



May 16 Striking for the Future

May 16 Striking for the Future

May 16, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1934.

That was the day Minneapolis Teamsters walked off the job. 

It was an historic strike that coincided with the pivotal Toledo Auto-Lite and West Coast Waterfront strikes. 

Local Teamsters, many of whom later founded the Socialist Workers Party, had been riding a wave of success, having organized the coal yards in February. 

Especially important was the development of the ‘Cruising Picket Squad.’ 

It became a standard in later CIO battles. 

That spring, union leaders were determined to organize all the truck drivers and warehouse workers in Minneapolis. 

By May, Local 574 had over 5000 members. 

The trucking bosses refused to deal with the union and so they walked. 

The flying pickets toured the city and shut down all trucking. 

Strikers enlisted the support of the unemployed councils. 

They also provided the structure for a Women’s Auxiliary that produced important strike literature and bulletins, ran soup kitchens that fed thousands of strikers daily, fought scabs and police on the picket lines and drove picket trucks. 

Historian Bryan Palmer, author of Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers’ Strikes of 1934, notes that strike leaders looked to the example of Illinois’ Progressive Miners of America when it came to building the women’s auxiliary.

They too sought to make women an integral part of the strike, thus “encroaching on the male world of waged work.”

Strike headquarters were established and as Palmer describes, was a beehive of activity on the eve of the strike “as union carpenters and plumbers installed stoves, sinks and serving counters. Union electricians installed communications wiring.”

Donations of money, food, vehicles, and gas rolled in as the strike revved up. 

Local 574 was poised to make Minneapolis a union town.

May 15 Bloodshed in the Streets

May 15 Bloodshed in the Streets

May 15, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1919.

That was the day the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council called a general strike. 

It is considered one of the most important strikes in Canadian history. 

Social tensions intensified as soldiers returned home in search of work, only to find skyrocketing unemployment and inflation. 

In Winnipeg, building trades and metal workers attempted to organize and bargain as an umbrella organization.

They walked off the job at the beginning of May, appealing to the city’s unions for support.

On this day in 1919, some 30,000 workers walked off the job, starting with women telephone operators. 

The general strike had begun. 

Union and non-union workers alike heeded the call. 

Factories shut down. 

Public services came to a halt, including transit, mail service and utilities. 

Having lost most of their workers to the strike, newspapers quickly branded strikers as Bolsheviks, depicting them as bomb throwers in cartoons. 

Winnipeg’s bosses formed the Citizens Committee of 1000 and declared the general strike a conspiracy led by “alien scum.”

When the police sided with strikers, they were fired and replaced in their entirety by ‘Specials,’ used to break the strike.

Workers were intransigent and by the middle of June, the federal government ordered the arrest of strike leaders.

When tens of thousands of workers gathered on June 21 for a demonstration at Market Square, they were charged at by Royal Mounted Police, armed with clubs and guns.

Two strikers were killed and scores more were injured in what is known as Bloody Saturday.

Winnipeg was under military occupation and the strike ended in heavy losses for workers.

But many strike leaders won regional political elections the following year, defeating the very forces that smashed their strike.


May 14 Wobblies Organizing on the Docks of Philadelphia

May 14 Wobblies Organizing on the Docks of Philadelphia

May 14, 2017

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

That was the day Philadelphia longshoremen walked off the job.

Led by the Industrial Workers of the World, the strike was remarkable for its militancy, its industrial unionism and its interracial organizing.

The Wobblies had been fighting to organize workers in the city for years.

Unionizing efforts included amalgamated local 57, which organized workers across whole industries.

Attracted to the IWW’s message of interracial unionism, black longshoreman Ben Fletcher joined up readily and soon emerged as an early leader of local 57 and then longshoremen’s local 8.

In his book Wobblies on the Waterfront, historian Peter Cole notes the origins of the local started with striking sugar-refinery workers on the banks of the Delaware.

Dockers made contact with the IWW during the strike and drew up a list of grievances and demands.

By May 14, 1500 longshoreman struck for a leveling of the hourly wage for all workers regardless of skill, shorter hours and union recognition.

They held strike meetings every day and elected a committee of 15 with representatives from every ethnic and racial group.

Cole notes this was crucial, given the diversity of the docks’ 4000 workers.

More than a third were black, another third were immigrant.

The committee included Poles, Jews, Blacks, Irish and others.

Strikers took on their employers and also the police. Beatings, intimidation and arrests of strikers occurred daily and intensified as the ship owners attempted to herd in scabs.

1200 coal and iron ore handlers joined in the strike.

The port was solidly shut down and by the end of the month the shippers were forced to concede to most of the Wobblies’ demands. Industrial unionism and interracial solidarity won the day.

May 13 Striking for Dignity

May 13 Striking for Dignity

May 13, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1975.

That was the day workers at Tolteca Foods in Richmond, California went on strike.

Many were undocumented Mexican women who helped organize the plant in 1969.

In his book, The Revolutionary Imaginations of Greater Mexico, historian Alan Eladio Gomez states that the women had grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of union response regarding “speed-ups, immigration raids, discretionary firings, substandard wages and unsafe working conditions and began to look elsewhere for support.”

They reached out to the organization CASA, which provided legal and social services for undocumented immigrants.

The women decided to strike without authorization form the Contra Costa Labor Council.

They packed the council’s emergency meeting, where they put their scarred bodies on display to attest to the dangerous and abusive working conditions and poor wages.

Just as the council sanctioned the strike, workers learned the company started removing machinery from the factory.

They packed the picket lines to stop the trucks from taking out the equipment.

The first driver stopped, the second plowed through several women.

The strike committee won an injunction to prevent removal of equipment and after three weeks, workers won their demands.

Gomez argues the strike was important for several reasons.

It demonstrated that a largely female and undocumented workforce could organize and win a strike against a transnational company, at a moment when unions were increasingly under attack.

They maintained a rank-and-file independence that built support for their demands from their union leaders and the broader community.

The women workers at La Tolteca fought for bread and butter issues.

They also worked to reshape their union to take on broader issues of social justice that included immigration rights and women’s rights.

May 12 ICE Raid Save Company from Union Organizing Campaign

May 12 ICE Raid Save Company from Union Organizing Campaign

May 12, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 2008.

That was the day Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents besieged the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.

At the time, it was the largest immigration raid in U.S. history.

Nearly 400 workers, mostly from Guatemala and Mexico were rounded up, detained and arrested on charges of identity fraud and entering the United States illegally.

The raid was part of a nationwide campaign targeting suspected undocumented workers.

The raid essentially killed two birds with one stone.

It quashed the union organizing campaign the UFCW had been waging for over two years.

It also dashed the hopes of Department of Labor investigators looking into allegations of substantial abuses at the plant.

UFCW leaders noted the raid served to eliminate hundreds of witnesses to labor violations at the plant.

The raid did uncover at least 29 cases of child labor violations, with children as young as 13 working on the killing floor.

But Minneapolis UFCW organizers maintained that company agents routinely followed UFCW reps on home visits and threatened workers they spoke with.

They noted that “wages are extraordinarily low, basic worker safety and protection is miserable.

It’s intensified by the fact that this employer was able to come up with a more vulnerable workforce and abuse it over the long haul.”

These workers were quickly convicted, jailed and then deported.

They were soon replaced by a fresh wave of Somali refugees, who complained of the same low wages and poor working conditions.

The company was eventually fined for countless violations and its CEO arrested. It emerged from bankruptcy under new ownership and has yet to be organized.

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