Labor History in 2:00
November 30 Mother Jones passes at 100

November 30 Mother Jones passes at 100

November 30, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1930. That was the day the world lost the miners’ angel, Mother Jones. She had crossed the country many times over, been involved in practically every strike that built the labor movement; stood with miners and steel workers and mill children everywhere. Mother Jones had asked to be buried with the Virden Martyrs, killed in the Massacre of 1898, at Union Miners Cemetery in Mt. Olive, Illinois. Dozens of labor leaders including AFL president William Green, attended her funeral in Maryland, where she had been living. Then, AFL representatives, several Illinois miners and others boarded the Baltimore and Ohio train to accompany her body to Mt. Olive. Historian Dale Fetherling describes the scene as her body arrived. A band played “Nearer, My God, To Thee” as onlookers bowed their heads and wept. Survivors of the Virden Riot bore the casket to the Odd Fellows’ Hall where it lay in state… The town of 3,500 with its strong and violent heritage, was thronged by thousands of coal diggers.” At least 15,000 turned out for the funeral, broadcast on WCFL, the Chicago Federation of Labor’s radio station. The labor priest, Reverend John Maguire gave the memorial address and officiated at the funeral in Mt. Olive’s Roman Catholic Church of the Ascension. He asked: “What weapons had she to fight the fight against oppression of working men? Only a great and burning conviction that oppression must end. Only an eloquent and flaming tongue that won men to her cause. Only a mother’s heart torn by the suffering of the poor. Only a towering courage that made her carry on in the face of insuperable odds. Only a consuming love for the poor.”

 

 

November 29 A Deadly Dust in the Air

November 29 A Deadly Dust in the Air

November 29, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1937. That was the day the National Labor Relations Board began hearings on an unfair labor practice brought by the International Union Mine, Mill and Smelters. Mine, Mill had been fighting the union busting tactics at Eagle-Picher Lead Company. The union had been organizing lead and zinc miners in the Tri-State area of Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. During the Great Depression, they built the union by emphasizing safer working conditions, stressing the hazards of silicosis and tuberculosis. In their book, Deadly Dust: Silicosis and the Politics of Occupational Disease, Gerald Markowitz and David Rosmer note that one of Mine Mill’s demands included the elimination of the company clinic. They argued it was used to target and fire diseased workers, rather than provide a safe work environment. Mine Mill also organized other area industries, to counteract the near total power of the mine owners in the region. When the union called a strike at area mines in May 1935, the area’s largest producer, Eagle Picher Lead moved quickly to force a lockout and establish a company union. During the hearings, the union was limited in its ability to raise health and safety issues. They did win reinstatement and back pay for workers fired during the strike. But the case brought national attention to silicosis in the Tri-State area. In a letter to Francis Perkins the following year, the head of the Cherokee County Central Labor Body hoped to secure legislation to compel the companies to install ventilation systems and safety devices. He noted the average life of a miner was 7-10 years, with many dying in 2 or 3 years. But a federal standard on silica was still decades away.

November 28 Stop the Presses Workers Demand Decent Wage

November 28 Stop the Presses Workers Demand Decent Wage

November 28, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1953. That was the day 400 photo-engravers at six New York City newspapers walked off the job. Members of the AFL’s International Photo-Engravers Union had just voted down arbitration. All but one local newspaper, The New York Herald Tribune were idled as 20,000 newspaper workers refused to cross the engravers picket lines. Six days into the strike, that newspaper suspended operations as well. Writers at The New Yorker magazine remarked they were “curled up with the Wall Street Journal, The Daily Worker and a two-day old copy of La Prense.” In the decades before digital images, photoengraving was a labor-intensive process. Highly skilled workers made metal plates from which newspaper images were printed. Photo-Engravers had been working without a contract since the end of October. They demanded a $15 a week raise. The Newspapers Association was only willing to grant $3.75. The other newspaper unions had been offered similar wage and benefit packages, far below their demands. They knew that whatever they won or lost depended on the victory of the Photo-Engravers strike. So they walked out in solidarity. Federal mediators intervened in an attempt to settle the strike. Hysteric newspaper editors across the country shrieked that the union had accomplished what the government would never dare to do: subvert the freedom of the press! They sulked that the strike had broken 35 years of industrial harmony and peace; adding that the ungrateful workers didn’t appreciate just how good they had it. After eleven days, members voted to end the walkout and let a fact-finding board solve the dispute. Three months later, that board upheld the Newspaper’s Association original offer of $3.75 a week plus benefits.

November 27 Sitting Down at Midland Steel

November 27 Sitting Down at Midland Steel

November 27, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1936. That was the day 1200 production workers at Detroit’s Midland Steel sat-down for higher wages, an end to piecework and union recognition. The strike was called just before noon. When 800 on the second shift arrived for work, they readily handed their lunches, cigarettes and newspapers through the windows to the sit-downers. The UAW had embarked on a massive organizing drive throughout the country. Days earlier, the GM sit-down strike had begun in Atlanta, spread to Kansas City and would eventually reach Flint, Michigan. But the UAW was also organizing parts suppliers like Midland, who produced car body frames for the industry. The UAW first used the tactic of the sit-down strike ten days earlier at the Bendix Products brake plant in South Bend, Indiana. There, workers had just organized with the UAW. They braved eight days in an unheated factory during winter, demanding the company union be dismantled. At Midland, workers stayed in the plant, stating they would hold out till Christmas if they had to. Within a week, the Midland strike had idled 72,000 workers at Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge, Desoto, Briggs and Ford’s Lincoln-Zephyr plants. Stakes were so high at Midland that strikers threw a suspected company spy out a second story plant window. Just as Midland workers returned victorious to their job ten days later, thousands of others began sitting down at their jobs. Rubber workers in Akron, glass workers in Ottawa, Illinois, bus drivers in Flint, Kelsey Hayes brake workers and aluminum workers just two blocks from Midland were all sitting down for union recognition, wage increases and better working conditions. The massive strike wave had begun.

 

November 22 Murdered for Organizing

November 22 Murdered for Organizing

November 22, 2017

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

That was the day four leaders of the Carpenters union were shot dead in Bogalusa, Louisiana. 

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and the International Union of Timber Workers had embarked on an organizing drive of white and black workers at Great Southern Lumber Company.

Bogalusa functioned as a company town.

Lumber bosses controlled company housing, local politicians and ruled the town with an iron fist.

By 1919, the two unions began organizing among loggers and sawmill workers in the region. 

The Carpenters initially organized among white skilled workers, while the Timber workers organized among unskilled, mostly black workers. 

They soon stepped up efforts to organize jointly. 

Historian Stephen Norwood notes that when Great Southern threatened to forcibly break up a union meeting among black workers, armed white union men arrived to defend the meeting. 

By September 95% of the workforce was organized when the company instituted a lockout. 

On November 21, a posse of local businessmen fired on the home of leading black organizer, Sol Dacus, who narrowly escaped.  

The following day, armed white union carpenter leaders, Stanley O’Rourke and J.P. Bouchillon escorted Dacus to the Central Trades and Labor Council offices. 

150 special policemen were immediately dispatched. 

They began firing upon union headquarters, killing O’Rourke, Bouchillon and two other union leaders, Thomas Gaines and Lem Williams. 

Dacus was nearly lynched and escaped with his life to New Orleans. 

Norwood concludes the gun battle “represents probably the most dramatic display of interracial labor solidarity in the Deep South during the first half of the twentieth century.”

For historian William P. Jones, the anti-union violence and racial terror would culminate in 1923 with a massacre in the Florida lumber town of Rosewood.

November 21 The Alaskan Highway Completed

November 21 The Alaskan Highway Completed

November 21, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1942.

That was the day the completion of the Alaskan Highway or Alcan, was celebrated at Soldier’s Summit. 

There had been proposals for a highway connecting the United States to Alaska since the early 1920s.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt moved quickly to organize its approval and construction.

By March 1942, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers broke ground on the $138 million project. 

More than 10,000 troops were assigned to highway construction. 

Over a third were comprised of newly formed black regiments.

Thousands of pieces of construction equipment were moved through the railroads, including steam shovels, blade graders, tractors, trucks, bulldozers, snowplows, cranes and generators.

In a matter of eight months, workers carved out 1700 miles of road between Dawson Creek, British Columbia, through the Yukon to Delta Junction in Alaska, under the most treacherous environmental conditions. 

Workers arrived in wintery Dawson Creek, pitching their sleeping quarters in snowdrifts. 

By spring , workers battled flooding rivers, equipment sinking into thick mud and fears of Japanese bombers. 

By summer, mosquitoes, dubbed “bush bombers,” were so bad workers had to eat under netting. 

Black workers also battled relentless racism.

The Army was still segregated. 

Black troops faced racist presumptions about their capacity to carry out hard labor. 

They were determined to break down stereotypes. 

By fall, white and black bulldozer drivers coordinating the work together were celebrated in the pages of the Army’s Yank magazine, Time and the New York Times. 

Some historians consider the integrated work crews a factor in President Truman’s later move to desegregate the armed forces. 

According to The New York Times, the Federal Highway Administration calls the Alcan “the road to civil rights.”

November 20 Rose Pesotta is Born

November 20 Rose Pesotta is Born

November 20, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1896.

That was the day anarchist and labor activist Rose Pesotta was born.

Her name, Rakhel Peisoty, was changed, like so many others’, at Ellis Island.

She had fled tsarist Russia in 1913 as a teenager and soon found work in New York City’s garment shops.

She readily joined the ILGWU, becoming a national organizer by 1920.

In the late 1920s, Rose went to Los Angeles in an attempt to organize Latina sweatshop workers.

There she helped women workers establish a bilingual labor journal and assisted them in winning a key strike for recognition and higher wages in 1933.

She soon ascended to the position of union vice president and worked closely with the newly formed CIO. 

Rose traveled far and wide to organize garment workers.

She led successful strikes throughout the United States and in Montreal and Puerto Rico.

By 1936, she was on the picket lines with striking rubber workers in Akron, Ohio and autoworkers in Flint, Michigan.

She increasingly found herself at odds with ILGWU head, David Dubinsky and other top male union officials over persistent sexism, her radical politics and her opposition to the no-strike pledge during World War II. 

Rose resented the fact that though women comprised the overwhelming majority of the union’s membership, she continued to be the only woman union officer. 

Frustrated by the chauvinism she experienced, Rose resigned from her post as vice president and later from the ILGWU executive board in 1944. 

She continued as a sewing machine operator, remained active at the local level and published two memoirs.

Later in life, she aligned herself with the Civil Rights Movement. 

Rose Pesotta died of cancer in 1965.

 

 

November 19 Lincoln Delivers the Gettysburg Address

November 19 Lincoln Delivers the Gettysburg Address

November 19, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1863. 

That was the day President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. 

It is considered one of Lincoln’s greatest speeches. 

Generations of students have been assigned to commit it to memory. 

The two-minute speech carries a deep significance in our country’s history. 

Lincoln delivered the speech at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. 

Four months earlier, the Union had defeated Confederate forces at the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. 

Casualties on both sides totaled nearly 50,000 over the course of the three-day battle.

This battle, coupled with the fall of Vicksburg, is often considered a turning point in the war to end the slave labor system. 

Lincoln’s speech served to redefine the war’s purpose.

Originally, the emphasis had been one of preserving the Union.

Now, Lincoln drew upon the Declaration of Independence to also highlight the national struggle for human equality.

Lincoln began his speech with the acknowledgment that the nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” 

He ended the Gettysburg Address stating, “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.” 

Most Republicans praised the speech. 

But historian Eric Foner notes in his biography of Lincoln, that “many Democrats denounced Lincoln for unilaterally redefining the war’s purpose, which they insisted, had nothing to do with equality.” 

In 2015, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation published an edited volume, Gettysburg Replies. 

It features 272-word essays by presidents, historians, poets, actors, scientists and others about the lasting influence of the Gettysburg Address.

 

November 18 Making the Friendly Sky Better

November 18 Making the Friendly Sky Better

November 18, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1993.

That was the day 21,000 attendants, mostly women, caught American Airlines by surprise in their first strike ever against the company.

80% of all fights were cancelled a week before Thanksgiving as solid picket lines formed at forty airports across the country.

CEO Robert Crandell, who commanded a $ million a year salary and preferred the nickname “fang,” was at a loss when flight attendants refused to be bullied by threats of scab replacements.

Hoping to smash seniority and scheduling rights, he cancelled all vacations for months. 

Crandall’s claims to company losses could hardly be believed after the company reported third-quarter profits of $118 million. 

Attendants were fed up with years of concessionary contracts that reduced their wages by as much as 40%.

One woman picketer summed up the company’s attitude: “We’re just a bunch of skirts.” 

The strike was so popular that pilots and Teamsters often joined picketers. 

In New York City, 200 members of Local 1199 hospital workers walked the picket line in solidarity. 

Fed up machinists at United Airlines in Denver were so inspired, they staged a solidarity sickout the first day of the strike. 

Four days later, President Clinton intervened to end the strike and force binding arbitration. 

While many saw this as a victory, workers returned to their jobs under the same conditions that forced them to strike while they waited for arbitrators to render a decision. 

Two years later, arbitrators finally rendered a decision.

They awarded American the right to reduce staffing on some flights.

But attendants would win a 17% wage increase and retain most work rules.

 

 

November 17 “By Hammer and Hand All Arts Do Stand”

November 17 “By Hammer and Hand All Arts Do Stand”

November 17, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1785. 

That was the day the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York was founded.

Twenty-two skilled craftsmen, with the motto, “By Hammer and Hand All Arts Do Stand,” met on Pine Street to form a benevolent organization that could provide cultural, educational and social services to craftsmen and their families. 

Two months later, founders met for their annual meeting. 

They represented many of the city’s trades including hatters, butchers, sail makers, bolters and comb makers. 

In his book, Chants Democratic, historian Sean Wilentz states, the General Society was “intended to be a semi-political umbrella organization for all of the city’s independent mechanics, to help oversee the trades and secure favorable legislation from local and national government. The group captured the ideal of mutuality and craft pride essential to artisan fraternities since the Middle Ages.”

The General Society opened one of the city’s first free schools at a time when there were no public schools.

It established a tuition-free Mechanics Institute, the General Society Library and Lecture Series.

The Mechanics Institute, founded in 1858, continues to provide free evening trades-related instruction.

The Library, established in 1820 is the second oldest library in New York City.

It is also one of the few remaining membership circulating libraries.

Its collections and archives span two centuries. 

The General Society continues its tradition of public lectures in the form of The Labor, Literature and Landmarks Series.

More recently, it has added the Artisan Lecture Series that features lectures by master artisans.

The series also promotes the work and art of skilled craftsmen.

The General Society has been at its current location at 20 west 44th Street since 1885.

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