Labor History in 2:00
August 7 Love Canal

August 7 Love Canal

August 7, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1978. 

­­­­­­­­­­­­That was the day President Jimmy Carter declared a federal health emergency at Love Canal, in the city of Niagara Falls, New York. 

Premier spokeswoman, housewife Lois Gibbs became the poster child for the citizen environmental justice movement virtually overnight. 

Niagara Falls Gazette journalists broke the story two years earlier.   

Their sump pump testings and health surveys found a number of toxic chemicals and unusually high rates of cancers, birth defects, miscarriages and other serious health concerns.

Initially planned as a canal, the site remained abandoned until the 1940s. 

That’s when Hooker Electrochemical Plant and the City began using the site to dispose of toxic chemical and municipal waste. 

More than 20,000 tons of toxic sludge containing more than 21,000 chemicals were buried there. 

Then, in 1953, the City School Board bought the site and built two schools on the property. 

Soon, about 1,000 families settled nearby.

By the early 70s, residents complained of foul odors, health issues, substances filling their basements and leaky waste disposal drums popping up in back yards, killing all plant life.

Class and racial tensions soon emerged among working class white homeowners and black renters, both of whom sought compensation and relocation. 

Carter’s initial declaration provided limited funding. 

But the disaster led to the passage of the Superfund Act. 

The neighborhood was demolished and residents were compensated and relocated.

The new owner of Hooker Chemical, Occidental Petroleum settled with the EPA for $129 million. 

Despite 21 years of remediation and residential redevelopment, new residents complained in 2011 of foul odors and ruptured sewage lines oozing toxic sludge. 

By 2014, 1,000 new complaints had been filed contending the area had never been properly remediated.



August 6 Refinery Explodes in California

August 6 Refinery Explodes in California

August 6, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 2012.

That was the day release of flammable vapor led to a fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California.

A Level 3 Community Warning System Alert was issued for the cities of Richmond, San Pablo and North Richmond.

Toxic black smoke could be seen for miles while the fire burned for hours.

Nineteen workers were nearly incinerated trying to escape the fire.

More than 15,000 area residents sought medical treatment for chest pain, breathing problems, headaches and sore throats.

The Chemical Safety Board found that the release was caused by a leaking pipe that eventually ruptured.

The pipe, made of carbon steel, suffered sulfidic corrosion.

The CSB noted that for 40 years, the refinery industry had known that carbon steel corrodes at a much faster rate than higher chromium content steel pipe.

The pipe in question had no shut off valve to isolate the leak. In its final report, the CSB issued a number of findings.

They found that Chevron knew of the corrosion but did nothing to prevent it.

As well, Chevron not only failed to perform 100 percent component inspections, but also rejected earlier recommendations to inspect and replace the pipe that would eventually fail.

When it came to Emergency Response, Chevron failed to identify and communicate process controls or damage mechanisms in the incident command structure.

They also had no leak response guidance or formal protocol to determine how to handle a process leak.

The CSB found the Safety Culture lacking. Workers were reluctant to use their Stop Work Authority and were often encouraged to continue operations despite hazardous conditions.

The CSB issued a number of recommendations, including more stringent regulatory enforcement.

August 5, Labor Martyr Buried

August 5, Labor Martyr Buried

August 5, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1917.

That was the day IWW leader Frank Little was buried in Butte, Montana.

Little had been lynched on August 1, by police agents thought to be working for the despised Anaconda Copper Company.

He had arrived in town to help organize 14,000 striking copper miners.

Devastated by the deaths of 168 miners in the June fire at Granite Mountain & Speculator Mines, mine workers formed the Metal Mine Workers’ Union and walked off the job.

Frank Little had previously worked as a hard rock miner and organizer for the Western Federation of Miners. He also took part in the free speech campaigns on the West Coast.

Little was involved in early drives to industrially organize oil workers and lumberjacks.

He voiced his opposition to the First World War and sought to stop workers from enlisting. 

When Little arrived in Butte in July, he worked to build strike support, picket lines and spread the strike to other trades across the city.

Early on August 1, six masked men broke into the boardinghouse where he was staying. He was beaten and taken from his room.

His assailants tied him to the bumper of their car and dragged him through the granite streets of Butte to Milwaukee Bridge, where he was hanged.

An ominous note was pinned to his bullet-ridden body, with the words “Others Take Notice.

First and Last Warning.” It included the numbers 3-7-77 as well as the initials of other union organizers in the area.

As many as 10,000 marched in the funeral procession.

Days after his lynching, martial law was declared.

Labor radicals were rounded up and charged with espionage. The miners strike and union were crushed.


August 4 The Night the Lights Went Out on Broadway

August 4 The Night the Lights Went Out on Broadway

August 4, 2017

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

That was the day Michael Siegel, Business Agent for New York City’s Local 3, IBEW announced the lights would be going out on Broadway for an half an hour.

Electricians had been on strike for nearly a week to protest Consolidated Edison’s refusal to employ union electricians for work on its new Waterside plant.

The company claimed it could only use members of the Brotherhood of Edison Employees, an ‘independent union.’

The walkout also affected electricians at area construction sites and at 25 defense contractors across the city.

The union had just agreed to exempt electricians at the Brooklyn Navy Yards, where the strike held up work on four battleships.

And the IBEW allowed electricians at Ford Instrument to return to work, given they had orders for $100,000,000 in defense instruments.

Siegel announced that at 9 p.m. the following evening, maintenance men not on strike, would pull the switches on all signs in Times Square in sympathy, to bring attention to their plight.

After the half-hour blackout, the IBEW continued to fight injunctions brought by the New York Electrical Contractors Association.

Harry Van Arsdale Jr., business manager for Local 3, declared the blackout had been more successful than they had hoped.

He characterized the switch-off as a “blackout for enlightenment.”

Naval officials complained however that the strike held up vital defense projects.

Newspapers noted that Broadwayites suddenly noticed the moon when an estimated 10 million watts of super-lighting was turned off.

A Times Square veteran noted it was darkest since 1918, when a Zeppelin raid alarm caused a blackout.

The strike was called off a week later when ConEd acknowledged its previous agreement with IBEW.

August 3 PATCO Members Strike

August 3 PATCO Members Strike

August 3, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1981 

That was the day 13,000 workers in the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or PATCO, went on strike. 

Highly stressed workers had been driven to nervous exhaustion by long hours, problematic technology and brutal management.

They wanted better pay and working conditions, and a 32 hour work week. 

PATCO workers had proven that militancy bred victories throughout the early 1970s. 

But public sector employers went on the offensive as the decade drew to a close. 

By the time Ronald Reagan was elected to office, automation, deregulation and inflation had taken its toll.

As Joseph McCartin details in his book, Collision Course, controllers found new technology unreliable.

They experienced on average, a computer outage a day, in critical moments of take offs and landings. 

As well, the Airline Deregulation Act and the Civil Service Reform Act became laws in October 1978, serving to restrict union rights and worsen working conditions. 

By the late 1970s, inflation had tripled. 

Federal workers, unlike those in the private sector, lacked any COLA protections.

Emboldened by their skill level, solidarity and previous victories, the controllers walked. 

Invoking Taft-Hartley, President Reagan issued a 48 hour back-to-work ultimatum. 

In a historic move, he fired the strikers, jailed their leaders and forced costly injunctions that spelled doom for the union and the labor movement. 

Many labor activists hoped the Teamsters and Machinists would walk out in support. 

Instead the strike was a pivotal moment for labor. 

It ushered in an era of unprecedented attacks not seen since the 1930s. 

As Robert Weir notes, PATCO’s defeat “touched off a new wave of downsizing, decertification and concessions strikes.”

The labor movement continues to suffer its impact today.


August 2 Teamsters Defy Martial Law

August 2 Teamsters Defy Martial Law

August 2, 2017

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

That was the day striking Teamsters in Minneapolis defied martial law. 

They stopped scab trucks, forcing the release of their strike leaders.

Armed with bayonets and machine guns, the National Guard had patrolled the streets for nearly a week.

They seized scores of strikers and union leaders and threw them into military stockades. 

Drivers were outraged. 

They defied Governor Olson and Major General Walsh who, on behalf of the Citizens Alliance and trucking bosses, were determined to break the strike.

Soon after strikers were imprisoned, drivers began chasing scab trucks across the city. 

Multiple reports poured in of pickets forcing trucks to stop. 

Some unloaded their cargo onto bridges.

Others chased, captured and damaged trucks. 

Strikers ripped ignition wiring out, forced scabs from the wheel and then disappeared before police and the National Guard could arrive to retaliate. 

In just three hours, strikers had overturned nearly 70 trucks. 

Unable to stop the superior force of striking drivers, Bill Brown, Vincent and Miles Dunne were ordered unconditionally released from the military stockades. 

Now employers, the governor, and other strike breaking agencies were eager to propose peace to federal mediators. 

But they proposed to scrap the terms of their early May agreement. 

In response, the leaders of Local 574 issued a General Strike call. 

In it they asked, “Is there one man so blind as not to see that if 574 is allowed to go down to defeat, under the brutal hammering of military despotism, the whole labor movement of the city will have been dealt a mortal blow?

Union men, brothers, sisters, fellow workers! 

What are you going to do about it? 

We appeal to you for solidarity!”


August 1 Teamsters Fighting for a Future

August 1 Teamsters Fighting for a Future

August 1, 2017

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

That was the day National Guard troops in Minneapolis raided Teamsters local 574 headquarters. 

Over 150 were arrested, including top strike leaders Bill Brown and the Dunne Brothers, who were imprisoned in military stockades.

Troops also seized union records and files. 

Then they raided the Central Labor Union, seizing records and forcing out dozens of area labor leaders. 

Teamsters had been battling the trucking bosses and the Citizens Alliance throughout the spring and summer in what would be a turning point for industrial organizing. 

Finally, drivers agreed to a tentative settlement on the 25th, but the bosses rejected any deal, refusing to negotiate with ‘Reds.’

Farmer-Labor Party Governor Floyd Olson declared martial law the next day. 

4,000 troops arrived, issuing unlimited military permits to scab drivers. 

By month’s end, over 7,500 scab trucks were rolling throughout the city! 

Local 574 challenged the martial law: they demanded that peaceful picketing and open-air meetings be reinstated; they wanted troops withdrawn from the city; and they wanted all truck movement halted for 48 hours.

When Olson rejected these demands, a mass rally was called for the 31st to mobilize strike support. 

25,000 turned out to the Parade Grounds, cheering strike leader Bill Brown, who declared, “the Farmer-Labor Party is the best strikebreaking force our union has ever gone up against!” 

Historian Bryan Palmer notes the loudest and longest applause was reserved for Albert Goldman, who thundered, “If we submit without a struggle, then we deserve the fate of submissive slaves. We cannot, we dare not, submit. We call upon the workers, organized and unorganized, to clench their fists, shout defiance of the bosses, and struggle until victory or death.”

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