Labor History in 2:00
September 17 The “Southern Differential”

September 17 The “Southern Differential”

September 17, 2017

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

That was the day workers at the International Harvester plant in Louisville, Kentucky had had enough. 

They had just rejected a pay scale lower than that of Harvester workers elsewhere.  

In her recent article for Leo Weekly, historian Toni Gilpin refers to the lower pay as the “Southern Differential.” 

Harvester workers walked off the job in a 40-day strike.

Black and white Louisville workers were united in a rare form of solidarity. 

International Harvester had had a long labor-hating history. 

Its forerunner had been the McCormick Reaper Works, the site that sparked the 1886 Haymarket incident in Chicago. 

Harvester had been able to keep the unions out until the Farm Equipment Workers/CIO finally organized there in 1941. 

And the FE followed Harvester as they attempted to escape to the union-free South. 

The FE successfully organized the new Louisville plant, just two months before the strike. 

Workers learned quickly that they were paid much less making the same equipment as their brothers in Chicago, Indianapolis and elsewhere. 

Gilpin adds that FE literature forthrightly stated, “Once the Negro and white workers were united, the low-wage system of the South would collapse.” 

Workers pressed for their demands, and appealed to area farmers for support. 

They stressed that farmers would not pay less for equipment, simply because local workers were paid less.

Black and white workers picketed together, ate together and planned their strike together at their new union hall.

Harvester initially tried to redbait FE leaders. 

When that failed, the company was forced to grant steep wage increases.

Gilpin cites FE News, which reported “two smashing victories in hand, one over International Harvester, the other over the Mason-Dixon, low-wage line.”

September 16 Demanding 52 for 40

September 16 Demanding 52 for 40

September 16, 2017

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

That was the day oil workers walked off the job. 

The strike soon spread to 20 states and involved more than 43,000 workers at 22 oil companies. 

After years of wartime wage freezes, the union’s demand was 52 for 40—fifty-two hours pay for 40 hours work. 

Workers demanded a 30% pay increase, shift differentials and an eventual return to the 36-hour workweek. 

The strike began in Michigan at the Socony-Vacuum refinery in Trenton. 

From there it spread to Gulf, Sinclair and Shell. 

By October 4, President Truman signed executive order 9639, allowing the Secretary of the Navy to seize petroleum operations.  

The Oil Workers International Union/CIO immediately called off the strike and ordered its members back to work.

A month later, the Navy had still not relinquished control of operations. 

The union considered Truman’s seizure a betrayal. 

There was no mechanism put in place to settle the dispute or consider workers demands. 

By January 1946, the Oil Panel, created by the Secretary of Labor, finally awarded oil workers an 18% wage increase.   

Though disappointed, the union considered it a victory.

They asserted the strike action was significant on a number of levels. 

The first nationwide industry strike had just forced the oil companies to meet with the union for the first time. 

The OWI believed the groundwork for industry-wide bargaining had finally been established.

It had been the first post-war strike and had forced the government to begin moving away from wartime wage controls. 

Of the post-war strikes, it won the largest pay increase. 

And importantly, it broke the power of Standard Oil to dictate wages to the industry through its dealings with its “independent union.”


September 15 350,000 GM Workers Strike

September 15 350,000 GM Workers Strike

September 15, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1970. 

That was the day 350,000 GM workers kicked off a 67-day strike. 

It was the largest auto strike since the end of World War II. 

According to historian Jefferson Cowie, it was likely the costliest. 

In his book, Stayin’ Alive, Cowie notes that the strike cost GM a billion dollars in profits and nearly bankrupted the union.   

But he adds it “lacked the proletarian drama that fired journalists’ hearts.” 

For Cowie, it was an example of labor-management cooperation, “a civilized affair.” 

But historian Jeremy Brecher points out that The Wall Street Journal drew different conclusions about the strike at the time. 

In a series of articles, the paper noted that labor-management cooperation during the strike served ironically, to get workers back to work.

A long and costly strike served a number of functions. 

It wore down strikers’ expectations. 

After eight or ten weeks, workers would be amenable to terms they initially rejected. 

It also provided an escape valve for built up frustration over working conditions. 

And a long strike served to coalesce internal union factions around a common enemy, strengthening the union’s leadership in the process. 

For management, a long and costly strike leant hope that workers would be reluctant to strike in the future. 

But Brecher notes, these ideas about workers motives nearly backfired. 

Strikers simply wouldn’t budge on their demands. 

They made gains in wages, pensions and cost of living allowances.

And they were finally able to retire after 30 years.  

But critics argued the agreement fell short of initial demands. 

And workers lacked more say in the workplace.  

This would be a key issue in the many strikes and wildcats in the years to come.


September 14 General Strike in Illinois

September 14 General Strike in Illinois

September 14, 2017

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

That was the day Illinois Governor Frank Lowden hoped to meet with striking streetcar men in an effort to end their strike.  

Transit workers in Springfield, the state’s capitol, had been off the job since July 25th. 

But the strike had gained so much support that Springfield had now erupted into a full blown general strike. 

According to the Sangamon County Historical Society, thousands of “union members shut down mines, railroads, bakeries, restaurants, laundries and construction sites… following the violent crackdown of a pro-labor march by state police and militia.” 

That march had been scheduled for September 9. 

The unions hoped to show support for the striking streetcar men after a number of clashes between strikers and state militia. 

After they were denied a permit, many of the 50 or so unions decided to march anyway, and were attacked.

Some were shot, more than 40 suffered bayonet-inflicted injuries. 

By the 11th, most everyone in Springfield had walked off the job. 

Striking women shoe factory workers stopped a streetcar, pulling the scab drivers off by force. 

By the end of the week, as many as 12,000 members of 34 unions in the city were on strike. 

When telephone operators walked off the job, they paralyzed communications of the scab streetcar drivers and the State National Guardsmen. 

The streetcar strikers refused to meet with the governor until troops were withdrawn from the city. 

The governor insisted disloyal, pro-German forces were at fault for the “labor troubles.” 

By the 16th, the streetcar men agreed to negotiate and the general strike was called off. 

But the company refused to meet striker demands for recognition and higher wages or even to take them back.

September 13 Rhode Island Governor Orders Shoot to Kill

September 13 Rhode Island Governor Orders Shoot to Kill

September 13, 2017

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

That was the day Rhode Island Governor Theodore Green demanded that federal troops be sent to crush a textile strike in his state. 

The General Textile Strike, then in its second week, stretched across the Piedmont from New England to Georgia. 

Green declared, “We are face to face, not with a textile strike but with a communist uprising.” 

His demands came after days of pitched battles between thousands of strikers and the Rhode Island National Guard in Saylesville and Woonsocket. 

Secretary of War George Dern assured the governor and the press that 3,000 combat troops were ready and available for immediate duty in Rhode Island.   

President Roosevelt declined to send federal troops.

But the state assembly authorized the governor to close the mills and appropriated $100,000 in funds to beef up state police forces. 

The governor then directed Rhode Island’s police chiefs to round up all communists on charges of inciting riots in textile centers across the state. 

It gave local authorities the pretext to round up and arrest over 200 alleged agitators, strike leaders, militants and radicals. 

Over the course of four days, three strikers had been killed, including Charles Gorcynski at Saylesville and Jude Courtemanche, at Woonsocket. 

Hundreds had been seriously injured in the two cities. 

Seven of the sixteen strikers who had been shot by state troops were near death. 

State National Guardsmen had been given “shoot to kill” orders to protect textile mills and scabs.

Once the Governor shut down the mills, police forces easily arrested dozens of flying squadron picketers and established martial law like conditions, though it was never officially established.

Within days, the strike would be quelled in Rhode Island.

September 12 United Rubber Workers Union Founded

September 12 United Rubber Workers Union Founded

September 12, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1935. 

That was the day the United Rubber Workers was founded in Akron, Ohio. 

Akron was the rubber capital of the world.

All the major companies were there—Goodyear, Firestone, Goodrich and General Tire. 

In Akron alone, there were more than 40,000 rubber workers and thousands more throughout the country. 

After 30 years of struggling to build the union, hopes of organizing the industry were finally made real. 

The founding of the international came after a successful strike the year before. 

But the union was born amid growing tensions within the AFL. 

These were years of industrial organizing that rivaled the exclusive skilled craft unions. 

Growing demands to organize the mass industries would explode the next month at the historic AFL convention in Atlantic City. 

 The tensions between AFL leaders and rubber workers delegates gave a taste of things to come.  

At the founding convention, rubber workers delegates opposed a number of AFL leaders’ demands. 

The AFL insisted on appointing officers. 

They threatened to withdraw financial assistance when the delegates demanded democratic elections. 

But AFL leaders backed off when unionists from across the city protested. 

Then, delegates voted down an AFL constitutional clause proposal to bar “communists” from the union. 

They also refused AFL orders to organize on anything less than a total industrial basis. 

Organizing skilled workers into the URW became a contentious issue at the October AFL convention.

It led to the fight between Carpenters leader Bill Hutcheson and UMW president John Lewis, which precipitated the AFL split. 

By the following spring, the new URW would lead another successful strike that put it firmly among the industrial unions of the CIO.

September 11- WTC Health Program

September 11- WTC Health Program

September 11, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 2001.

We pause to remember those who died in the 9/11 attacks.

Of those killed, nearly a quarter were union people.

Hundreds of firefighters were lost. 

Dozens of building trades people, including carpenters and electricians were also killed. 

And many other unions lost members as well, including the AFT, SEIU, UNITE-HERE, CWA, and AFSCME. 

Those lost that day will remains firmly forever in our memories. 

What is less well known is the number of those first responders who are suffering from chronic and fatal diseases related to 9/11 or those who have already died. 

It is estimated that over 400,000 people were exposed to World Trade Center contaminants. 

These include more than 70 carcinogens and other hazardous substances. 

Of those exposed, over 91,000 were first responders. 

As of June 2017, over 67,000 first responders and over 12,000 survivors had registered in the World Trade Center Health Program run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The program provides medical monitoring, health evaluations and treatment for those who qualify. 

Of those registered responders still alive, more than 45,000 suffer from certified conditions as defined by the Zadroga Act of 2010. 

And for registered survivors, nearly 10,000 suffer from certified conditions. 

Close to 700 registered first responders have already died from certified conditions. 

However, this number is considered a low estimate, given there were many who died before the program was established. 

There are also a number of illnesses believed related to the attacks but not yet certified.

If you are a survivor or were a 9/11 First Responder and would like to enroll in the World Trade Center Health Program, please visit or call toll free 1-888-982-4748.

September 10 Chicago Teachers Have Had Enough

September 10 Chicago Teachers Have Had Enough

September 10, 2017

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

That was the day the Chicago Teachers Union walked off the job for the first time in 25 years.

The historic weeklong strike resonated nationwide among trade unionists and served to reinvigorate the labor movement.

Certainly higher wages and better benefits were among the teachers’ demands.

The city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel had canceled the union’s wage increase, laid off close to 1000 teachers and went on the attack against seniority rights and working conditions.

The strike enjoyed wide public support among parents and the public.

Teachers emphasized broader educational problems they faced, namely the attacks fueled by corporate privatization.

They wanted a return to more traditional forms of education rather than simply preparing students for endless rounds of testing. 

They wanted more art, music and gym classes.

And they demanded stable funding for social support services for the most vulnerable, at risk youth.  

Union teachers understood that the Board of Education was using standardized testing to get rid of teachers and schools in order to privatize education, all in the name of turning around failing schools and “helping the kids.” 

Though the contract was far from perfect, it showed the power working people have to hold the line against continued assaults on their standards of living, especially in the public sector.

The CTU was able to beat back attempts at merit pay and increased use of student test scores in teacher evaluations. 

They won first time recall rights, supply reimbursements and liberal arts classes. 

There were concessions made on seniority rights, pay for laid off teachers and longer work days. 

But the CTU demonstrated that strikes can win in a period of extended anti-union onslaughts.

September 9 Anti-Union Vigilantes Erupt into Violence

September 9 Anti-Union Vigilantes Erupt into Violence

September 9, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1929.

That was the day a mistrial was declared in the case of sixteen textile mill unionists in North Carolina. 

The mistrial sparked five days of anti-union vigilante violence. 

Textile workers at Gastonia’s Loray Mill had been on strike since April 1.

They demanded higher wages and shorter work hours, union recognition and an end to the hated stretch out system. 

Soon, textile workers at Bessemer City’s American Mill walked off the job in solidarity and joined the National Textile Workers Union. 

Ella Mae Wiggins was one of the strike leaders at American Mill. 

She was known for her militancy but also for organizing black workers into the union. 

As the strike wore on, mill owners evicted dozens of families from company housing. 

Wiggins helped set up a tent city. 

On June 7, sheriff’s deputies attacked strikers who marched to Loray Mill to call out remaining workers. 

The police arrived at the tent colony later that evening to disarm them and Gastonia’s police chief wound up dead. 

Immediately more than seventy textile union members and leaders were rounded up and arrested. 

Sixteen stood trial for the murder of Chief Aderholt. 

The anti-union Committee of One Hundred smashed up NTWU headquarters in Gastonia and Bessemer City.

They kidnapped, beat and threatened to kill several union members. 

The rampage continued as scab forces moved onto Charlotte to raid the offices of the International Labor Defense, who had handled the strikers’ case. 

Five days into the terror, Wiggins was killed on her way to a union solidarity rally. 

Outrage over her murder forced mill owners to improve conditions and wages. 

But the fight to organize would continue for years.

September 8 The Beginning of the Delano Grape Strike

September 8 The Beginning of the Delano Grape Strike

September 8, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1965. 

That was the day the Delano Grape Strike began in California.

The strike came a year after activists had forced Congress to end the Bracero contract labor program. 

The Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, led by Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz and others called the strike against the Delano Growers and the Coachella Valley Grape Growers. 

It had been a record harvest. 

Farmworkers demanded higher wages, humane working conditions and union recognition. 

When the growers refused, thousands walked out of the fields. 

A week later, the Mexican-American National Farmworkers Association, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, joined the strike. 

It was a historic moment. 

Within a year the two unions would merge to form the United Farm Workers. 

The union sent strikers to the Oakland docks to persuade Longshoremen not to load non-union grapes. 

Many of the Filipino workers in the San Joaquin Valley worked in the Alaska fish canneries organized by the ILWU in the off season. 

And so the ILWU honored their union brothers request. 

Thousands of cases of grapes were left to rot on the docks. 

This initial victory led Chavez to organize a grape boycott against heavy weights, DiGiorgio and Schenley Industries. 

Six months into the strike, union leaders marched 300 miles from Delano to Sacramento to bring attention to their struggle. 

They hoped to pressure growers to the negotiating table and legislators to act on their behalf.

For five years, the strike and boycott continued, with marches, organizing and picket line arrests.

Gradually, the UFW began winning higher wages, union recognition and hiring halls. 

Finally in 1970, a collective bargaining agreement covering 10,000 workers was reached.

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