Labor History in 2:00
April 13 - The Colfax Massacre

April 13 - The Colfax Massacre

April 13, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1873.

That was the day the single-most deadly incident of the Reconstruction Era occurred, known as the Colfax Massacre.

As many as 150 black Republicans in Colfax, Louisiana were slaughtered by white supremacists determined to destroy advances made by the formerly enslaved.

Results of the 1872 gubernatorial election in Louisiana had been hotly contested.

President Ulysses S. Grant ordered federal troops in, to support the Republican winner, William Pitt Kellogg.

A number of black Radical Republicans had also won or retained local and state political positions.

William Ward, a black Civil War veteran and militia leader, had won a seat in the state legislature.

By the beginning of April, he and others were being threatened with attacks on the Grant Parish Courthouse in Colfax and lynchings by defeated white Southern Democrats.

Desperate for back up, Ward and others left for New Orleans to appeal for federal reinforcement.

On the holy Easter Sunday, ex-Confederates, Klansmen and Democrats rode into Colfax, armed with guns, rifles, knives and a cannon.

150 black Republicans were ready to defend the Courthouse. 

Fighting raged on for hours but eventually black Republicans were forced to retreat and then were massacred.

97 whites were indicted on federal conspiracy charges under the 1870 Enforcement Act, designed to enforce civil rights and root out Klan terror.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in the ruling United States v. Cruikshank, which essentially gutted the Enforcement Act.

Of the 97 indicted, nine were tried, and three were initially found guilty.

The Cruikshank ruling eventually overturned their convictions, and effectively marked the legal end of Reconstruction.

April 12 - The Wagner Act Stands

April 12 - The Wagner Act Stands

April 12, 2021
April 12, 2017

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

That was the day the United States Supreme Court decided the case, National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation.

This case declared that the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was constitutional.

Also known as the Wagner Act, it is a key statute that provides the legal basis for private sector workers to organize, collectively bargain and strike.

Jones & Laughlin Steel, the fourth largest steel producer in the country at the time, had fired several workers trying to organize with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania in 1935.

The NLRB had originally ruled against the company and ordered the workers reinstated with full back pay.

But J&L refused, arguing that the Act was unconstitutional on the basis that the federal government did not have the right to regulate interstate commerce.

In a five to four decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that labor-management disputes did affect interstate commerce and thus, were subject to federal regulation.

Historian James Pope notes that the statute was upheld only after a “massive wave of worker militancy, punctuated by the spectacular six-week sit-down strike at General Motors’ plants in Flint Michigan, demonstrated what might have happened if the court decided the case differently.”

And in his book, The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, The CIO, and The Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America, legal scholar Ahmed White adds that “the case was decided only after two years of legal uncertainty… Before Jones & Laughlin was decided, CIO unions were already negotiating and signing collective bargaining agreements.”

Ruling the Wagner Act constitutional has nonetheless benefitted millions of workers for decades.

April 11 - Fed Up Transit Workers Walk Off the Job

April 11 - Fed Up Transit Workers Walk Off the Job

April 11, 2021

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

That was the day New York City transit workers in TWU Local 100 ended their 11-day walkout.

The strike occurred in the context of hard times for New York City workers.

The city had teetered on the edge of municipal bankruptcy just a few years earlier.

Unrelenting inflation and austerity measures against municipal workers had taken its toll.

Years of recession meant freezes in hiring and promotions.

It also meant increasingly dangerous working conditions.

The MTA cutback funding for basic maintenance, investment and service.

Derailments, accidents and fires were common and crime soared at stations and bus stops.

Transit workers found themselves operating malfunctioning equipment and confronted by frustrated, angry riders.

With wages frozen, Cost of Living Adjustments, or COLA, capped and the establishment of a three-tier pension plan, workers had had enough.

They walked out on the first of the month, demanding a 30% wage increase, quarterly COLA and increased vacation time.

Mayor Ed Koch opposed the workers demands, fearing any victory for the union would ruin upcoming contract negotiations with the city’s 300,000 municipal workers.

He also used the strike as an occasion to whip up anti-union sentiment more generally.

While the contract was voted up by a three to one margin, labor historian Joshua Freeman notes that, “the 1980 strike ended up in victory that many transit workers saw as a defeat.”

Workers won a 17% wage increase over two years, a 3% cost of living adjustment and increased contributions to the health and welfare fund.

But they also had to concede to reduced breaks, two-tiered wages, and increased job duties across classifications.”

April 10 - Explosion at Eddystone

April 10 - Explosion at Eddystone

April 10, 2021

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

That was the day as many as 139 workers, mostly women, were killed in an explosion at the Eddystone artillery shell plant, just outside Philadelphia.

The plant, owned by Baldwin Locomotive works, opened in 1916 and produced munitions for the Russian Army.

Baldwin also manufactured Enfield rifles and armored tanks for American forces.

The United States had just entered World War I days before.

Munitions production soared along with the number of new hires.

About 400 women worked in the F building at Eddystone, which was blown to bits.

F building was where powder fuses were manufactured, loaded into artillery shells and then inspected.

On this fateful morning, about 18 tons of black powder ignited, setting off thousands of shrapnel shells.

This caused a series of detonations felt as far as 10 miles away.

The blast blew some workers through the roof.

Others were found nearby in the Delaware River.

Of the dead, 55 were never identified.

Hundreds more survived, and were badly burned or seriously injured.

Immediately, German and then Russian immigrants were scapegoated as responsible for the blast. 

The press shrieked in hysteria over alleged sabotage by German agents opposed to U.S. entry into the war.

Others charged that Russian Revolutionaries at odds with the Russian White Army were at fault.

However, a guard testified that in fact there had been problems with electrically powered powder-loading devices that had been malfunctioning for some time.

He claimed the wires must have short-circuited and caused the spark.

One woman worker insisted, as she lay dying that a shell hit the powder and sparked the explosion.

The cause of the explosion remains a mystery to this day.


April 9 - Lee Surrenders to Grant

April 9 - Lee Surrenders to Grant

April 9, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1865.

That was the day Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia.

Grant’s Union army successfully cut off Confederate forces at the village of Appomattox Court House in Virginia.

Historians agree the terms were generous to the Confederacy.

The surrender marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War, with three more key surrenders before the end of May.

Half the country was in ruins, with as many as 750,000 dead.

In the North alone, millions more lay seriously injured.

At least 40,000 formerly enslaved blacks died fighting for their freedom.

It was considered the country’s turning point.

The Civil War ended the slave system, forged a centralized federal government and created a national structure for the institutional development of public health, veteran care and aid programs.

The Era of Reconstruction ushered in a period of hope and opportunity for black freedom, equality and prosperity.

But historian Gregory Downs argues in his book, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War that the war did not really end in 1865.

The South was essentially under military occupation until at least 1871.

Downs states “By severing the war’s conflict from the Reconstruction that followed, it drains meaning from the Civil War and turns it into a family feud, a fight that ended with regional reconciliation… Once white Southern Democrats overthrew Reconstruction, they utilized the Appomattox myth to erase the connection between the popular, neatly concluded Civil War and the continuing battles of Reconstruction.”

For Eric Foner, the period was one of revolution and counterrevolution, “a massive experiment in interracial democracy without precedent.”


April 8 -John L. Lewis Takes on Henry Ford

April 8 -John L. Lewis Takes on Henry Ford

April 8, 2021

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

That was the day sparring between Henry Ford and John L. Lewis spilled over into the press.

The CIO formally declared their organizing drive of some 150,000 workers at Ford Motor Company.

John L. Lewis addressed a crowd of 25,000 the night before at the Detroit State Fair Grounds Coliseum, celebrating the recent organizing victory at Chrysler.

Lewis thundered, “Henry Ford will change his mind.”

He added that victories at Chrysler and General Motors came as a result of workers dissatisfaction with their conditions.

Lewis also noted that Ford Motor Company prevented workers from joining unions through a system of intimidation and coercion.

Ford insisted he would never recognize the UAW or any other union in response to sit-downs at Ford plants in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Notoriously anti-Semitic, he then alleged that international banking interests financed CIO organizing drives.

Ford maintained workers had no reason to celebrate organizing victories, claiming workers had lost through joining unions. 

“They’ve had their freedom taken away. They pay money to the unions and get nothing in return.”

But Ford was also one of the few industrial employers that hired blacks. Organizing at Ford meant organizing black workers.

It meant bringing black workers on as organizers and staffers in the UAW.

The UAW waged a pointed campaign to attract black workers at Ford and concentrated efforts at the massive River Rouge Complex.

UAW leaders Homer Martin and Wyndham Mortimer urged black workers to join up with them.

“We must solve together, not pitted against one another, all discrimination.”

It would take more than four years to finally organize at Ford, but black workers were at the forefront of that struggle.

April 7 - Flora Tristan is Born

April 7 - Flora Tristan is Born

April 7, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1803.

That was the day Utopian Socialist and women’s rights activist Flora Tristan was born.

She is also remembered as the grandmother of painter, Paul Gauguin. Mario Vargas Llosa most recently popularized her life in the 2003 novel, The Way to Paradise.

Her family was aristocratic but she grew up in poverty outside Paris.

The young Flora found work in an engraving shop and married the shop artisan, Andre Chazal.

Together they had three children.

When the marriage became violent, she left him, though divorce was impossible.

By some accounts, she became a maid for the wealthy and traveled Europe.

It was through her travels that she became a socialist.

She witnessed abject poverty and inequality in too many countries and was drawn to the works of the Utopian Socialists.

Tristan campaigned for the right of divorce and wrote at length of workers struggles on the cusp of industrialization.

Her novels, which confronted women’s inequality and workers rights, appeared in the late 1830s.

She regularly visited feminist and socialist salons in Paris where ideas linking social transformation and women’s rights were popular.

Her most well known work of non-fiction is The Workers’ Union, which appeared in 1843.

In it, Tristan argues that craft guilds could no longer adequately represent workers in an era of industrialization.

She envisioned an international union of workers that organized regardless of skill level, a union that took on broader issues of social justice.

Tristan also tied the advancement of women to the advancement of workers.

She believed that discrimination against women only strengthened anti-worker forces.

Workers and women had to take up each other’s causes in order to win true justice.


April 6 - Rose Schneiderman is Born

April 6 - Rose Schneiderman is Born

April 6, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1882.

That was the day trade union leader and suffragist Rose Schneiderman was born.

She arrived from Poland and settled in New York City with her family as a child.

Her father died soon after, and Rose entered the workforce at the age of 13. 

She sewed caps and organized with the United Cloth and Cap Makers.

Rose became a chief organizer with the New York Women’s Trade Union League and played a prominent role in the 1909 Uprising of the 20,000.

While touring Ohio to rally support for women’s suffrage in 1912, Schneiderman said “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist–the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art.

You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

She grew frustrated with the privileged middle class women of the New York WTUL and began organizing with ILGWU.

But she soon quit, aggravated by the leadership’s indifference toward organizing women workers.

Schneiderman devoted her energies to women’s suffrage.

She would soon return to the WTUL.

By 1926, she served as its national president and became close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt.

President Roosevelt appointed her to the National Advisory Board where she wrote NRA codes for industries with women workers.

Labor historian Annelise Orleck noted “Schneiderman attacked sexual segregation in the workplace, tried to unionize women… called for state regulation of working conditions… She argued for comparable worth laws, government-funded childcare, and maternity insurance... Those ideas and dreams are the legacy of Rose Schneiderman.”

April 5 - Massey Mine Explodes, pt. 2

April 5 - Massey Mine Explodes, pt. 2

April 5, 2021

Today marks the anniversary of the Upper Big Branch disaster.

This is the second of two parts commemorating that moment in labor history in 2010.

Accumulation of explosive methane gas was so pronounced that the mine had to be evacuated several times leading up to the disaster.

A 126 page Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel report detailed the systemic failures of safety systems and at governmental agencies to enforce regulations. Lack of proper ventilation, adherence to rock dusting standards and proper maintenance of machinery were main factors.

The panel also held MSHA responsible for “disregarding the documented risk of methane outbursts at the mine, overlooking the deadly potential of a precarious ventilation system, neglecting to use its regulatory authority to force technological improvements, and allowing the U.S. mine safety system to atrophy.”

They determined MSHA could have issued flagrant violation citations and had the authority to shut the mines down, but didn’t. The report noted the cozy relations between mine owners, politicians, judges and regulators, specifically “the ease with which state mine officials move from employment with industry to government and back.”

Despised union-busting CEO Don Blankenship, who was tried and convicted to one year in jail, insisted his mines were safe. He cited three Sentinels of Safety awards received from MSHA in 2009. These awards went to surface mining and coal processing plant operations.

The company consistently contested violations and attempted to control the state’s political system in order to defeat oversight agencies. Blankenship even blamed MSHA for the explosion because the agency demanded changes in UBB’s ventilation system.

A union safety committee could have shut down the mine before methane gas and coal dust combined to cause the explosion. If only there had been a union.

April 4 - Massey Mine Explodes, pt.1

April 4 - Massey Mine Explodes, pt.1

April 4, 2021

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.

This is the first of two parts commemorating that moment in labor history.

The year was 2010.

A massive explosion ripped through Massey Energy’s mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia.

The explosion killed 29 miners.

It was the deadliest in decades.

The explosion at UBB revealed the ruthlessness of profit-driven mine executives 

Raking in $104 million in profits the year before, they callously insisted the explosion had been an act of God.

The explosion also exposed the immense pressures on federal and state regulators to look the other way or go easy on enforcement.

And it demonstrated just how deep the ties go between industry, regulators and those in seats of political power.

The UBB mine explosion served as a testament to the increasingly unsafe and non-union nature of the industry.

35 years ago, 95% of the state’s mines were union.

Walkouts over health and safety were common.

Now, less than 25% are, and workers risk their livelihoods if they dare to speak up about safety.

As well, over 70% of those autopsied from UBB were found to have black lung disease, entirely preventable with proper ventilation.

Massey executives routinely violated safety rules as a cost of doing business.

American University’s detailed study of Massey’s safety record for the years 2000-2010 concluded that no other U.S. coal company had a worse fatality record.

A total of 54 workers, including those at UBB had been killed during that time period.

They also found that Massey had been cited for 62,923 violations including 25,612 considered ‘significant and substantial.’

At the time, MSHA had proposed close to $50 million in fines. 

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