Labor History in 2:00
January 31 - New Orleans Fires 7,000 Teachers

January 31 - New Orleans Fires 7,000 Teachers

January 31, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 2006.

That was the day 7,000 teachers and staff at the Orleans Parish School District in New Orleans, Louisiana were fired.

The public schools were considered some of the worst in the country.

The school district was also bankrupt.

It was unable to account for $71 million dollars in federal funds.

After Hurricane Katrina, the school district lost nearly its entire tax base.

The district cancelled all pay and health insurance for its teachers and staff.

Then, the state of Louisiana seized control of most of the city’s 128 schools.

A majority were either closed or turned over to charter school operators.

The school district fired its remaining teachers and staff.

It was a union-busting maneuver against the United Teachers of New Orleans.

The union was an AFT affiliate.

Organized in 1972, it was the first integrated education union in the South.

Its membership overwhelmingly consisted of African-American women.

After the schools were turned over to the charters, they were replaced by inexperienced Teach for America workers.

Many of these new teachers did not have any teacher certification.

A class-action lawsuit followed.

In 2014, Louisiana’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that teachers and staff were not given due process and had the right to be rehired as schools reopened after Katrina.

The damages could amount to $1.5 billion.

Ten years after Katrina, a New York Times article asked, “Was Hurricane Katrina ‘the best thing that ever happened to the education system in New Orleans,’ as Education Secretary Arne Duncan once said?”

The answer has been resounding, no.

In the years since, the union has fought successfully to organize many of the charter schools in New Orleans.

January 30 - A Day for Remembering

January 30 - A Day for Remembering

January 30, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 2011.

That was the day California first celebrated its state holiday, known as Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution.  

Born on January 30, 1919, Fred Korematsu was among those victimized by President Roosevelt’s wartime Executive Order 9066, mandating Japanese-American internment.

Born in Oakland, California, Korematsu worked as a shipyard welder.

He was arrested and eventually convicted after refusing to report to authorities for internment.

The ACLU took his case, hoping to test the legality of 9066.

Korematsu and his family were relocated to the Central Utah Wars Relocation Center in Topaz, Utah.

There he worked eight hours a day for $12 a month and waited for his case to travel through the legal system.

It eventually reached the Supreme Court.

In Korematsu v. United States, the Court held that compulsory exclusion, though constitutionally suspect, is justified during circumstances of "emergency and peril.”

After his release, Korematsu worked odd jobs, and faced discrimination and wage theft.

He eventually resettled in Oakland with his wife and children.

In 1983, Korematsu’s conviction was finally vacated.

Fifteen years later, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

He became a tireless activist for civil liberties and worked to ensure internment could never happen again.

Before his death in 2005, he served on the Constitution Project’s Liberty and Security Committee.

He warned, "No one should ever be locked away simply because they share the same race, ethnicity, or religion as a spy or terrorist. If that principle was not learned from the internment of Japanese Americans, then these are very dangerous times for our democracy.”

Fred Korematsu Day is also celebrated in Hawaii, Virginia and Florida.

January 29 - Bread & Roses Striker, Anna LoPizzo, Shot Dead

January 29 - Bread & Roses Striker, Anna LoPizzo, Shot Dead

January 29, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1912.

That was the day striking worker, Anna LoPizzo was shot and killed by local police during the pivotal Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

In what is considered one of the most important strikes in American labor history.

The Industrial Workers of the World had organized a strike that brought out more than 30,000 textile mill workers at the American Woolen Company.

Workers had been on strike for most of the month, picketing, marching, giving speeches and stopping scabs.

Their banners demanded a living wage and dignity: Bread and Roses.

That day, there were workers parades among pitched battles between strikers, police and scabs.

Gunfire erupted.

According to Big Bill Haywood, nineteen witnesses saw Police Officer Oscar Benoit shoot Anna LoPizzo.

But the shooting provided the mill owners with an opportunity to crack down on the strike.

Martial law was instituted and all public meetings and marches were banned.

The leading IWW strike organizers, John Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti were arrested for her murder, despite the fact that they were two miles away from the scene.

Though they were eventually acquitted, their imprisonment removed them from directing the day-to-day work of the strike.

But who was Anna LoPizzo?

According to Bruce Watson, author of Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream, “If America had a Tomb of the Unknown immigrant paying tribute to the millions of immigrants known only to God and distant cousins compiling family trees, Anna LoPizzo would be a prime candidate to lie in it.”

And indeed she was for 88 years until retired IBEW 2321 business manager, David Morris worked to get a headstone, decorated with the Bread and Roses symbol–grain stalks and a rose, for her pauper’s grave.

January 28 - The 1917 Bath Riots

January 28 - The 1917 Bath Riots

January 28, 2021

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

That was the day Carmelita Torres led the Bath Riots at the El Paso/ Juarez border.

Mexican workers traveled daily across the Sante Fe Bridge from Juarez, Mexico into El Paso, Texas for work.

As a condition of entry, workers were required to strip naked and be sprayed with a toxic mixture of chemicals.

U.S. Health officials insisted they were stopping the spread of typhus through this type of delousing campaign.

They were just as motivated by racist typecasting of Mexicans as dirty.

David Dorado Romo, author of Ringside to a Revolution, tells the story of 17-year old Carmelita Torres.

Amid rumors that health workers secretly photographed and then distributed photos of the naked women as they were being sprayed, Carmelita crossed into El Paso everyday where she worked as a maid.

On this day, instead of stripping down, she refused fumigation and convinced the other women to demonstrate with her against this humiliating, daily procedure.

Within an hour, she and 200 other women had blocked all traffic coming into El Paso.

Newspaper reports claimed several thousand protesters by the end of the day.

The women marched to the disinfection camp, hoping to convince those undergoing “disinfection” to join them.

When health officials tried to disperse the crowd, they were met with rocks and bottles.

The women then laid down on the trolley car tracks to stop the delivery of more workers and wrestled with motormen for control of the cars.

The riots lasted for three days, but the spraying of Mexican workers with DDT and other toxic chemicals continued for more than 40 years.

January 27 - Bans on Yellow Dog Contracts Ruled Unconstitutional

January 27 - Bans on Yellow Dog Contracts Ruled Unconstitutional

January 27, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1908.

That was the day the United States Supreme Court ruled that bans on “yellow-dog” contracts were unconstitutional in the case, Adair v United States.

The case served to nullify the Erdman Act of 1898, which had banned such contracts for those who worked on moving trains in the railroad industry.

The Erdman Act had been a response to the 1894 Pullman strike.

At that time, the federal government smashed workers striking against deep wage cuts and for union recognition with Eugene V. Debs’ American Railway Union.

Seeking to prevent any disruption along the railroads, the Erdman Act banned any contracts that required workers to renounce unions in order to gain employment, recognized the right of union organizations as a means of collective bargaining and established mechanisms for the arbitration of grievances.

In 1906, William Adair, a supervisor with the Louisville & Nashville Railroad fired a member of the Order of Locomotive Firemen for his membership.

Adair was indicted under the Erdman Act, found guilty and fined.

He then appealed to the Supreme Court and won.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Erdman Act violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment and served to supersede the Commerce Clause in the Constitution.

The court argued that the railroads’ employment decisions were a protected right so long as they did not injure the public interest.

Congress could not criminalize the firing of an employee because of union membership.

Dissenting opinion centered on the potential for renewed labor conflict.

Workers would have to wait almost 25 years for yellow-dog contracts to be banned in all industries with the passage of the 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act.

January 26 - Sid Hatfield Stands Trial

January 26 - Sid Hatfield Stands Trial

January 26, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1921.

That was the day Sid Hatfield and 22 other defendants went on trial for the murder of detective Albert Felts.

Hatfield was Chief of Police in Matewan, West Virginia when the United Mine Workers came to Mingo County to organize coal miners.

The Stone Mountain Coal Company moved to smash union activity.

They brought in Baldwin-Felts detectives to evict union miners from company housing.

Hatfield supported the miners’ right to organize and urged locals to arm themselves.

He confronted the detectives at the train depot as they were leaving town for the evening about the evictions they had just carried out.

The detectives presented Hatfield with a phony arrest warrant.

Surrounded by armed miners, a gun battle ensued, leaving at least 7 detectives and 4 townspeople dead, in what is referred to as the Matewan Massacre.

The trial was set in the Mingo County seat of Williamson, where Baldwin-Felts agents lined the streets to intimidate those sympathetic to Hatfield and the others.

The prosecution hoped to prove that Felts’ murder was premeditated and used the testimony of paid spies who had previously attempted to gain Hatfield’s trust and friendship.

According to historian James Green, author of The Devil Is Here In These Hills, “the ACLU had advised defense attorneys to turn the trial into a prosecution of the coal operators by introducing in evidence the entire record of their conspiracy to deny the citizens of West Virginia of their legal rights.”

The defense successfully discredited these paid agents and won acquittal.

When Hatfield and his deputies arrived back in Matewan, they were greeted as heroes by the entire town.

Hatfield however had a target on his back and would be gunned down a year later, sparking a coal war which ended with The Battle of Blair Mountain.

January 25 - Solidarity Works!

January 25 - Solidarity Works!

January 25, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1937.

That was the day workers at the Kent Avenue Power Plant in New York City struck at Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit.

The power plant served as the sole source of electrical power for the entire New York City subway system.

Transport Workers Union Local 100 had been trying to beat back the company’s push to form a company union through an educational organizing drive there.

Out of the 505 workers at the plant, only 35 were TWU members.

On this day, two boiler room engineers with 10 years on the job each were fired for their union activity and given 3 minutes to leave the plant.

Inspired by the Flint sit-down strike then in progress, TWU president Mike Quill called for a sit-down to protest the dismissals.

31 workers locked themselves in and Quill announced that if the two fired workers were not reinstated by 6 am the next morning, all switches would be pulled, shutting down the entire transit system.

He insisted that the BMT had long abused its workforce and was in violation of the new Wagner Act.

Newspaper headlines screamed of a workers insurrection at the power plant and the BMT quickly called in company goons to threaten the hundreds of picketers surrounding the plant. 

Workers stood their ground and prevented strikebreaking forces from breaking through the barricaded entrances.

They organized food brigades and gained support even from the newspaper reporters who helped with food deliveries.

By 5:30 the next morning, the BMT gave in to the demands of Quill and the TWU and reinstated the fired workers.

Impressed by the victory of the job action, the power plant was fully organized two days later.

January 24 - Arturo Alfonso Schomburg is Born

January 24 - Arturo Alfonso Schomburg is Born

January 24, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1874.

That was the day Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born.

Schomburg was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

He is also considered a premier historian and collector of material on black life in America.

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, he arrived in the United States in 1891 and soon settled into the Cuban and Puerto Rican working class neighborhoods of New York City.

Schomburg initially involved himself in the Cuban and Puerto Rican Independence movements.

When he traveled to New Orleans, he experienced Jim Crow discrimination and witnessed black disenfranchisement firsthand.

He reacted strongly to the increased racial tensions, lynchings and race riots of the period and believed that “history must restore what slavery took away.”

In 1911, Schomburg and his friend, John Edward Bruce founded the Negro Society for Historical Research and established lasting friendships with intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois.

He worked for the inclusion of black history into the educational system and continued to amass a wide collection of literature, art, books, pamphlets and manuscripts on black life and history.

His collection spanned material from across the world.

It included letters of Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, poetry by Phyllis Wheatley, artifacts from Fredrick Douglass and other black leaders.

Schomburg’s private collection became the basis for the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library’s Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints, which opened in 1925.

The division served as a pivotal resource for Harlem Renaissance writers, poets and artists.

Known today as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, it is recognized as a leading repository for materials and artifacts on black cultural life.

January 23 - If Poison Doesn’t Work, Try Briggs!

January 23 - If Poison Doesn’t Work, Try Briggs!

January 23, 2021

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

That was the day 6,000 workers at Briggs Manufacturing in Detroit walked off the job and sparked a strike wave of 15,000 auto body workers.

Briggs made auto bodies for Ford, Chrysler and Hudson in four Detroit-area plants.

Their pay and working conditions were considered among the worst in the nation, inspiring the adage, “if poison doesn’t work, try Briggs.” 

Earlier in the month, workers at the Waterloo plant, under the leadership of the short-lived Automobile Workers Union, struck against company-wide wage cuts and won.

Their victory encouraged workers at the Highland Park and Mack Avenue Briggs plants to walk out over additional demands, which they joined in solidarity.

Workers demanded the recognition of shop committees and pushed back against starvation wages.

They also protested the hated “dead-time” policy, which required workers to stay on the job, unpaid, waiting for material or production lines.

They wanted an end to pay deductions for tools and a worthless health insurance policy that left some with bi-weekly pay as low as 49 cents!

Briggs quickly conceded to a wage increase and the end of “dead-time.”

But they would not budge on recognizing the union.

As the strike dragged on, strikebreaking under police escort increased, as did the redbaiting of union organizers.

Workers gained nothing more and ended their walkout in early May. 

According to historian Joyce Shaw Peterson, the walkout had been the most significant auto strike up to that point.

Worker militancy and public support were impressive.

As one worker recalled, after the Ford Hunger March the year before, workers took to the picket lines, facing down fears of physical injury or even death to fight for a better life.

January 22 - Tragedy in the Mines and the Union Hall

January 22 - Tragedy in the Mines and the Union Hall

January 22, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1959.

That was the day the Susquehanna River flooded several mines throughout the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania.

It marked the virtual end to coal mining in the Northern Anthracite Region, whose coalmines provided some 11,000 jobs.

Knox Coal Company, owned by reputed mobster, John Sciandra, ordered workers to illegally excavate underneath the river to get at new coal seams, near Port Griffith.

The company hit the jackpot, and mined rich new veins.

Even though state regulations mandated a rock cover of 35 feet when tunneling underneath a waterway, theirs was only about six feet thick.

The roof of Knox Coal’s River Slope Mine soon collapsed and a reported 10 billion gallons of water, ice and debris from the river came smashing through.

The collapse created a whirlpool and dams were built to divert the river.

81 miners were trapped and many desperately searched for hours for an escape.

Some were able to get out through an abandoned airshaft.

The bodies of another 12 miners were never recovered.

Audrey Baloga Calvey recalled in an interview that her father, a miner who died in the flooding, predicted trouble at the mine before his death.

Saying  "When the water would get high, he'd say, 'God, if that river ever breaks in, we'll be drowned like rats,.

Ten were indicted, including the mine’s president, Louis Fabrizio, Knox’s superintendent, and incredibly, UMWA District 1 president AND secret partner in the mine, August Lippi. 

Several would serve prison time.

Four owners were convicted of tax evasion and four local union 8005 officials were convicted of taking bribes in sweetheart deal contracts, including Lippi.

 
 

 

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