Labor History in 2:00
April 30 - Refinery Workers Walk Off the Job

April 30 - Refinery Workers Walk Off the Job

April 30, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1952.

That was the day 100,000 oil refinery workers went on strike.

The work stoppage was called by a coalition of 22 unions, including AFL and CIO affiliates and independent unions.

They demanded a 25-cent hourly wage increase with shift differentials.

Shutdowns began at once and picket lines went up as soon as procedures were safely completed.

The strike threatened to cut production in half.

Union leaders called all but California refinery workers out, who were central to the war effort in Korea.

Oil barons had given refinery workers the run around for eight months during contract negotiations.

The union had even postponed the original strike date in March to give Federal Mediation a chance at effecting a settlement.

When this failed, President Truman brought the case to the Wage Stabilization Board, which issued a ruling favorable to the industry.

Eighty companies demanded separate hearings for all 200 bargaining units involved.

The union wanted one hearing for all.

Even after this victory for the oil companies, they then refused to attend the hearings!

When the Board threw up its hands in mid-April, the new strike deadline was set.

Eight days into the strike, the Board ordered oil workers back to work, which they flat out refused.

The Oil Workers Union stated “Strikers are fighting against a stacked deck… if corporation executives are permitted to ignore workers needs, then to manipulate the government so the right to strike is denied, collective bargaining will be destroyed.”

The Board then set a 15-cent an hour wage cap and shift differentials. Workers were back on the job by the end of the month, having avoided possible Taft-Hartley actions from President Truman.

April 29 - Allis-Chalmers and the Road to Taft-Hartley

April 29 - Allis-Chalmers and the Road to Taft-Hartley

April 29, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1946.

That was the day 8,000 UAW workers at the Allis-Chalmers plant in Milwaukee voted overwhelmingly to walk off the job.

Close to 12,000 production and maintenance workers were on strike across the country.

Workers rode the post-war strike wave as whole industries moved to peacetime reconversion.

Historian Eric Fure-Slocum notes that UAW Local 248 had a historically militant left-wing leadership, was known for its support to housing desegregation campaigns in the city and was a central driving force of Milwaukee’s CIO Council.

They had built a strong shop steward and grievance structure at Allis-Chalmers and were sure victory was certain.

Local president Robert Buse insisted wage increases were not at issue but rather unresolved issues remained to be settled, now that the war was finally over.

Key points of contention were the company’s demand to eliminate maintenance of membership agreements that guaranteed the closed shop and union dues.

The company also wanted to stop paying stewards for time involved in grievance procedures.

The Allis-Chalmers strike was a harbinger of things to come.

Historian Martin Halpern states that company officials played a significant role in the crafting of Taft-Hartley legislation as the strike unfolded.

Allis-Chalmers was on a union-busting campaign and made no small effort to redbait union leaders for months in local newspapers.

By the fall, workers at the smaller plants had returned to work, but the Milwaukee local stood firm.

Area CIO workers joined picket lines in support only to be brutalized and arrested.

HUAC arrived in town to investigate the strike and the company instigated a vigorous back-to-work campaign.

After eleven months, the strike was called off with no contract and ninety-one union leaders were fired.

April 28 - OSHA Goes Into Effect

April 28 - OSHA Goes Into Effect

April 28, 2021

On this day in labor history the year was 1971. That was the day the Occupational Safety and Health Act went into effect.

At the time, it was estimated that 14,000 workers died annually on the job, 2.2 million workers were permanently or temporarily disabled and half a million developed occupational diseases each year.

It was estimated that at least 25 million serious injuries and deaths went unreported each year.

Many of the standards, regulations and enforcements OSHA now has, have come as a result of intense, continuous pressure waged by the labor movement.

The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) was the first to test out the new bill when they filed a complaint against Allied Chemical in Moundsville, West Virginia in May 1971.

Among the many hazards at the facility, pools of mercury on the shop floor were common occurrences.

OSHA issued its first citation against Allied Chemical under the General Duty clause.

The first OSHA standard issued came a year later, for asbestos.

Today, the AFL-CIO notes that for the year 2015, 4,836 workers were killed on the job, there is one OSHA inspector for every 76,000 workers and on average it would take OSHA 145 years to inspect every workplace once.

But new rules protecting workers from silica dust and beryllium have been established, as have strong reporting and recordkeeping standards.

There are stricter coal dust standards and anti-retaliation protections for workplace whistleblowers. The Trump administration is looking to overturn all of it.

You can take action this Workers Memorial Day to protect working conditions on the job.

Find an event in your area by going to: https://aflcio.org/issues/workplace-health-and-safety

April 27 - Disaster in West Virginia

April 27 - Disaster in West Virginia

April 27, 2021

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

That was the day a West Virginia cooling tower under construction collapsed, plunging 51 workers to their deaths.

It was considered the worst non-mining disaster in West Virginia and the worst accident in the history of the country’s construction industry.

Cooling towers were under construction at the Pleasants Power Station at Willow Island.

Union building tradesmen built up the walls of the tower from scaffolding bolted to it.

As each section was poured, the forms would be removed and the scaffolding raised and bolted to the new section.

The tower had reached about 168 feet when the previous day’s concrete walls began to peel away from the tower.

The scaffolding plummeted, as did the workers.

Many could only be identified by the contents of their wallets.

The Steele family was beyond devastated with the loss of 10 family members.

A 2008 retrospective by Ken Ward Jr., of the Charleston Gazette reported “…a mix of safety lapses combined to bring the tower crashing down.

Concrete in the previous day’s lift hadn’t hardened enough to hold the scaffolding.

Key bolts meant to attach the scaffolding to the tower were missing.

An elaborate concrete hoisting system was modified without proper engineering review.

Contactors were rushing to speed construction.”

Dr. Celeste Monforton of the Milken Institute School of Public Health noted that the case highlights still relevant issues: Inadequate OSHA penalties, no criminal sanctions, holding workers responsible for contractors mistakes, ignoring of previous warning signs and a disconnect between abstract calculations and real-world applications.

Ken Ward Jr. noted in his retrospective that in 2008, there was still no state public employee OSHA program in West Virginia.

April 26 - National Guard Ousts Montgomery Ward CEO

April 26 - National Guard Ousts Montgomery Ward CEO

April 26, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1944.

That was the day the Army National Guard seized the Chicago property of Montgomery Ward and removed its chairman, Sewell Avery.

The Chicago-based company repeatedly refused to accept a National War Labor Board order to recognize the workers’ union and abide by Board-negotiated collective bargaining agreements.

After refusing the second Board order, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the Army National Guard to seize the company’s central mail order house, retail store and other related properties in the city.

Avery was physically carried out of his office.

Wartime no-strike pledges were in effect to avoid strikes or any disruptions in war production.

From a distance, it looked as if the President had triumphed the cause of labor in forcefully implementing the Wagner Act.

Workers of the CIO United Mail Order, Warehouse and Retail Employees Union had walked off the job over recognition issues April 12.

Montgomery Ward officials argued again, as they had two years earlier, that they were not engaged in war production, held no government contracts and that “the dispute is not one which might impede the prosecution of the war,” by the Board’s own terms.

But the government feared strike activity would only spread to other industries in Chicago and elsewhere.

Local Teamsters and Railway Brotherhoods all supported the strike and refused to handle shipments to and from Ward facilities.

The CIO union agreed to end the strike on the eve of the seizure.

Others in the labor movement called FDR’s move a hoax and a device to break strikes and get workers back on the job without any gains.

Roosevelt issued a third seizure of Ward’s facilities nationwide by year’s end.

April 25 - UAW Mobilizes Against Taft-Hartley

April 25 - UAW Mobilizes Against Taft-Hartley

April 25, 2021

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

That was the day hundreds of thousands of Detroit area autoworkers returned to their jobs after bringing car production to a complete standstill.

They walked off the job to protest the union-busting Taft-Hartley bill, then pending in Congress.

Chrysler, Ford, Hudson and Kaiser-Frazer Corporation were all shut down.

George Romney, head of the Automobile Manufacturers Association decried the work stoppage as a contract violation, costing the industry millions.

The UAW called 350,000 of its members out in protest the day before.

As many as a half-million area workers walked off the job.

Two marches were organized from the east and west sides of the city that brought as many as 275,000 workers, black and white, men and women, AFL and CIO converging onto Cadillac Square.

A reported 65,000 workers from the Ford River Rouge plant alone marched as a contingent to the rally.

Planes flew overhead, trailing banners that read “Oppose Anti-Labor Legislation in Washington,” “Down With Jim Crow Legislation,” and “Fight Repeal of the Wagner Act.”

UAW leaders addressed the crowd at the five-hour rally, stating, “the measures, if passed, would cut the heart of our unions into a thousand tattered, bloody pieces.”

They declared the anti-labor bills are “nothing more than proposals to punish the innocent and reward the guilty, for the record establishes that responsibility for recent major strikes rests without exception on the shoulder of industry.”

Briggs Local 212, which spearheaded the protest, marched with banners that demanded an independent labor party, while veteran autoworkers carried placards that read, “We Veterans Didn’t Fight For Union-Busting.”

The rally ended with the crowd singing ‘Solidarity’ and joining picket lines at nearby Bell Telephone, to support striking phone workers.

April 24 - The California Spinach Riot

April 24 - The California Spinach Riot

April 24, 2021

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

That was the day a truce came in the Stockton cannery workers strike.

It was a pivotal moment that embodied the conflicts of the 1930s labor movement.

The AFL initially wrote agricultural workers off as unorganizable.

They soon raced to unionize California canneries ahead of the International Longshoremen’s Association’s march inland to organize warehouse workers.

By early April, Agricultural Workers Union 20221, representing five canneries demanded higher pay, better working conditions and a closed shop.

The canners and growers refused on the basis they had just granted a 25% raise to the workers.

They then attempted to spike union support among workers, whether AFL or CIO, by arguing, “one was dominated by Communists, the other by Racketeers, so take your choice.”

Soon they formed a Citizens Labor Investigating Committee to thwart the impending strike.

Picket lines went up in the early hours of April 15.

Growers and canners appealed to law enforcement to ‘do something’ and appealed to the public to enlist in the forcible reopening of the canneries.

Dubbed the pick handle army, anti-union forces joined the sheriff’s department in confronting strikers on the 23rd.

There they battled with picketers for over 3 hours in what is referred to as the ‘Spinach Riot.’

Picketers confronted scabs and spinach delivery trucks and were beaten, gassed and shot by sheriff’s forces, resulting in 1 death and 58 injuries of strikers.

Considered one of the worst labor battles in California’s history, the State Federation moved to strip the union of its charter once the truce was called.

They reorganized workers as Cannery Workers Union 20676 and won sole recognition. 

But agricultural workers would remain unorganized for years to come.

April 23 - Sitting Down for Dignity at Ford

April 23 - Sitting Down for Dignity at Ford

April 23, 2021

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

That was the day 1800 autoworkers sat down at the Ford Motor plant in Richmond, California.

It was the largest Ford plant on the West Coast.

The UAW organizing drive at Ford had just begun a few weeks earlier with a sit-down strike in Kansas City.

Company manager Clarence Bullwinkle, reported he had returned from lunch only to find the plant occupied and all power shut off.

Workers began their occupation after 12 workers with seniority rights had been transferred from the assembly plant to the loading department and then discharged.

Strikers voted to allow company officials and office workers to leave the plant but not to return.

Bullwinkle was told to “get out and stay out until you meet our demands.”

He refused to budge and holed up in his office.

Demands included recognition of the union, seniority rights and regular pay instead of discharge for workers who are out sick or injured on duty.

As the night shift arrived and then left, they passed their lunch buckets in solidarity to the striking workers.

Within 12 hours the strike was reportedly called off after Ford officials agreed to meet with strikers.

Seeing this as tantamount to winning union recognition, workers paraded through the streets in the early hours of Saturday morning.

But they hit the picket lines later that day, when Ford officials failed to appear.

By Monday, they were back on the job. Fearing another day’s loss of production, Ford officials met with union leaders.

While workers did not win formal recognition, they did win seniority rights and recognition of the shop stewards committee in a first step towards union recognition, which would come four years later.

April 22 - The Red Jacket Mine Explosion

April 22 - The Red Jacket Mine Explosion

April 22, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1938.

That was the day Keen Mountain Coal mine exploded near Grundy, Virginia.

Described as a flame-belching volcano, the explosion killed 45 and injured three more.

It is considered one of the worst mining disasters in the history of Virginia.

One surviving miner described the scene: “I saw coal carrying cars, motors, slate and timber spouted as if from a cannon.”

The state mine inspector determined the miners had been killed instantly.

The mine had just opened the year before and produced 40 railroad cars of coal a day.

But the mine was also owned by the Red Jacket Coal Company.

In Mingo County, West Virginia years earlier, Red Jacket had been a key player in keeping the UMWA out, making its employees sign yellow dog contracts and winning injunctions against UMWA organizing.

As a member of the Williamson Coal Operators Association, Red Jacket contributed to the hostile, anti-union environment that created the conditions for the Matewan Massacre and the Battle of Blair Mountain in the early 20s.

They called in Baldwin Phelps detectives to start evicting Matewan strikers from company housing.

In the aftermath of the 1938 explosion, new mine safety regulations were demanded.

While inspectors were finally given the legal right to conduct inspections over the protests of mine owners in 1941, there was no power to enforce new regulations.

The Phipps Family commemorated the disaster in its 1965 song, Red Jacket Mine Explosion:

April 21 - New York’s Restrictive Taylor Law Takes Effect

April 21 - New York’s Restrictive Taylor Law Takes Effect

April 21, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1967.

That was the day the Taylor Law went into effect in New York State.

It was celebrated for granting public employees the right to organize and elect union representation.

But it is also roundly criticized for stripping public sector workers of their right to strike.

It was crafted and enacted in response to the militant, victorious New York City transit strike of January 1966.

The Taylor Law amended key points of the 1947 Condon-Wadlin Act, which first prohibited public sector strikes in the aftermath of a teachers strike in Buffalo.

But strikes persisted and the Act was seen as largely unenforceable.

In the aftermath of the 1966 transit strike, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller appointed a committee, chaired by labor relations professor George Taylor to make “proposals for protecting the public against the disruption of vital public services by illegal strikes, while at the same time protecting the rights of public employees.”

In addition to granting the right to organize, the Taylor Act also establishes impasse procedures for dispute resolution, defines and prohibits improper practices, prohibits strikes by public employees; and established the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB).

But public sector unions argue the law gives no incentive for employers to settle disputes or negotiate contracts in a timely manner or in good faith.

While public sector unions have struck since its enactment, Transport Workers Union 100 was subjected to harsh fines in both the 1980 and 2005 transit strikes.

During the 2005 walkout, TWU 100 was issued a $1 million a day penalty, its automatic dues collection was suspended and its leader, Roger Toussaint was jailed for 10 days.

The union continues to push for changes to the law.

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