Labor History in 2:00
May 31 - The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

May 31 - The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

May 31, 2021

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

That was the day one of the worst race riots in American history began in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In a frenzy of anti-black violence, a white mob destroyed virtually the entire black neighborhood of Greenwood.

Over the course of two days, as many as 300, mostly black residents were killed. ‘Black Wall Street’ had been burned to the ground, leaving 10,000 homeless.

The day before, Dick Rowland, a young black man tripped as he boarded an elevator at his job.

 He fell against the young white woman elevator operator.

When she shrieked, nearby department store employees assumed she had been assaulted.

Rowland was arrested and newspapers fanned the flames of race violence and vigilantism.

On this day, white racist mobs surrounded the Tulsa County Courthouse where Rowland was being held and demanded he be turned over to them.

Returning black veterans had become increasingly assertive about their rights as citizens.

They marched to the courthouse, armed in an attempt to prevent Rowland’s lynching.

When the vets refused to disarm in the face of demands by the white mob, gunfire ensued, touching off 16 hours of fighting that literally decimated the community black workers and professionals had built up over the course of decades.

The National Guard was called out, mainly to disarm and round up black residents of Greenwood. Witnesses reported that Greenwood was bombed from the air by police and by Sinclair Oil company planes.

The history of the riot was buried for more than half a century.

It would take until 1997 for the Oklahoma State Legislature to set up a commission to uncover the bloody details, produce a 200 plus page report and recommend millions in reparations.

May 30 - The Memorial Day Massacre

May 30 - The Memorial Day Massacre

May 30, 2021

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

That was the day known as among the darkest days for Labor, the Memorial Day Massacre.

For days, strikers had suffered arrests and severe beatings at the hands of Chicago police, who physically prevented them from establishing picket lines at South Chicago’s Republic Steel.  

Joined by supporters from practically all walks of life, strikers decided late in the afternoon to march to the gates, determined to picket.

For Michael Dennis, author of The Memorial Day Massacre and the Movement for Industrial Democracy,“Southeast Chicago became a crucible in which a wide spectrum of social and political alternatives became possible…

The Little Steel Strike was propelled by the realization that workers lived in a country dedicated to democratic freedom, but worked under conditions of near autocracy.”

Men, women, and children, black, white and Mexican workers all chanted “CIO! CIO!” as they marched down Green Bay Avenue.

The Chicago Police waited for them, armed with revolvers, nightsticks and blackjacks.

Strikers defended their right to picket as police once again formed a solid line, preventing their passage.

The police soon launched tear gas canisters and began firing into the crowd.

The picketers turned away in a futile attempt to escape the staggering brutality.

When the dust settled, ten were killed, thirty more shot, twenty-eight others hospitalized with eight suffering permanent disability and another 20-30 injured.

Virtually all those shot had wounds in the back or side.

Michael Dennis notes that the massacre “cast the die for the strike…

Collaboration between municipal officials, corporate leaders and the military in suppressing the strike would go uncontested by federal authorities and cheered by middle-class opinion.”

The campaign to organize Little Steel had suffered a crushing blow.

May 29 - The Little Steel Strike Revs Up

May 29 - The Little Steel Strike Revs Up

May 29, 2021

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

That was the day five governmental agencies began independent investigations into the Little Steel strike, then in its third day.

The Labor and Justice Departments as well as the NLRB and Senator Robert LaFollette’s Civil Liberties Committee all inquired about Wagner Act violations.

Production at Republic, Inland and Youngstown Sheet and Tube steel mills was grinding to a halt.

Across five states, strike forces proved stronger than steel bosses had anticipated.

Subsidiaries across the Great Lakes region continued to shut down.

Weekend wrap-up reports of violent clashes on picket lines appeared in newspapers across the country.

Strikers had adopted a “Quit Work or Starve” policy against those who remained behind the gates.

They successfully turned away mail trucks and tore up railroad tracks in yards at Warren and Youngstown, Ohio facilities to stop food deliveries.

The strike was referred to as a grim siege as Republic was forced to drop food by airplane to hemmed-in scabs behind the lines.

At Inland Steel in East Chicago, Indiana, company police clubbed picketers as they stopped railroad cars headed into the plant.

In Buffalo, strikers stoned scab cars as they passed through the gates.

In Monroe, Michigan, strikers successfully prevented the night shift from crossing.

In South Chicago, three strikers were being held on conspiracy charges, following a pitched battle with police the day before that injured more than 20.

1000 strikers there had attempted to establish a picket line at Republic Steel gates. SWOC president Philip Murray demanded additional investigation against Republic, charging the company had been stockpiling ammunition and hired private gunmen.

His worries would be confirmed in the decisive battles that lay ahead.

May 28 - The 54th Massachusetts

May 28 - The 54th Massachusetts

May 28, 2021

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

That was the day the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry marched through the streets of Boston in a farewell parade and then boarded ships headed for Beaufort, South Carolina.

Thousands lined the streets for the send off, including prominent abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass.

It was the first Black regiment organized to fight in the Civil War.

Abolitionists had wrestled with Lincoln and others that the Civil War wasn’t just about preventing national disintegration but about ending the slave labor system.

They were emphatic that slaves and free black men had a right and a vested interest in fighting for their freedom and the freedom of their families.

Finally the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 codified that demand as it abolished the slave system.

The Union Army began accepting black enlistees and embarked on recruitment campaigns to enlist future black soldiers.

By May, over 1000 black men had enlisted from 24 states.

Others came from as far away as Canada and the Caribbean.

Fathers and sons enlisted together.

The Union Army was far from free of its own anti-black prejudices.

Secretary of War Edward Stanton determined white officers would lead all black regiments.

Nonetheless, black enlisted men were trained, armed and ready to fight.

A young Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was put in charge of the regiment.

Though Shaw and hundreds of troops would soon be killed in battle at Fort Wagner, the regiment forced the Confederacy to abandon the Fort altogether.

The “Swamp Angels” as they were called, would continue to exact justice throughout the South for the duration of the war.

They served as a model for other black regiments, whose fighting proved decisive for victory.

May 27 -Rubber Workers Push Back Against War Profiteering

May 27 -Rubber Workers Push Back Against War Profiteering

May 27, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1943.

That was the day 50,000 striking rubber workers ended their 5-day walkout in Akron, Ohio.  

It was World War II and the no-strike pledge was in full effect.

Bosses were awash in defense contract profits.

At the same time, they used the no-strike pledge to violate collective bargaining agreements, crank up assembly line production and ignore grievances.

As one sympathetic headline read, “Workers Forced to Strike in Defense of Their Living Standards Slashed by Soaring Prices, Taxes and Anti-Union Profiteers.”

Workers at Goodyear, Firestone and Goodrich had petitioned the War Labor Board for an 8 cent raise and shift differentials they were entitled to per the Little Steel Formula.

For a year, they waited patiently and were outraged when they learned the Board had only granted a 3-cent raise.

Firestone and Goodrich workers threw down their tools immediately and poured out of the factories.

Goodyear workers soon followed.

In a protest telegram to the Board, United Rubber Workers leaders pointed out that living costs had increased by 23% since January 1941.

They also noted that essential to maintaining the no-strike agreement was a just settlement of grievances and a $25,000 cap on executive salaries, neither of which had been adhered to.

The walkout was one of the first major challenges to the no-strike pledge.

Women took the lead as picket captains and dispatchers.

Their leadership was accepted without question.

Flying pickets cruised the city to enforce picket lines.

Black workers at Firestone, impressed by the union’s fight for equal rights, figured prominently in the strike.

Workers returned to the job with their spirits high, having forced the Board to reconsider their demands.

May 26 - SWOC Strikes Little Steel

May 26 - SWOC Strikes Little Steel

May 26, 2021

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

That was the day the Steel Workers Organizing Committee or SWOC, called a nationwide strike against three of the four ‘Little Steel’ companies, Republic, Inland and Youngstown Sheet & Tube.

The drive to organize Little Steel came on the heels of an historic agreement with U.S. Steel and J&L earlier in the year.

In his book, The Last Great Strike, legal scholar Ahmed White points out that SWOC leaders established a three-pronged strategy in their organizing efforts: to breakdown racial and ethnic differences among workers, to use the Wagner Act and newly formed NLRB to their advantage whenever possible and to take over company unions where they existed.

They hoped Little Steel would follow earlier precedent.

But mill owners wouldn’t budge on union recognition.

Firing of organizers intensified and lockouts began.

Sheriffs departments began the swearing in of deputies.

Republic and Youngstown Sheet & Tube started shipping and stockpiling munitions, including machine guns and tear gas to mills throughout the Midwest and Northeast. Scattered walkouts and wildcats began throughout the latter part of May as SWOC continued to demand recognition and first contracts.

And on this day SWOC delegates from the Little Steel locals met in a Youngstown ‘war council’ to demand a strike.

The strike began late that evening with the shift change at 11 pm.

The mills were shut down tight.

Pitched battles between strikers, scabs and police continued throughout the summer with hundreds arrested.

Anti-union violence would explode with the Memorial Day Massacre in South Chicago and the Women’s Massacre in Youngstown the following month.

After five months, the strike collapsed. It would take until 1942 before recognition was finally won.

May 25 - Striking Teamsters Triumph

May 25 - Striking Teamsters Triumph

May 25, 2021

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

That was the day trucking bosses and leading Teamsters in Minneapolis reached a tentative agreement after a tumultuous week of fighting in the City Market.

Strikers won many of their demands, including union recognition and reinstatement of all strikers.

Such thorough victory at the Battle of Deputies Run earlier in the week had shaken city elites to the core.

As the dust settled on the picket lines, Governor Floyd Olsen had called a 24-hour truce in an effort to organize negotiations.

The debacle of Ohio National Guardsmen attacking Toledo strikers had reached Minneapolis.

Fears of a growing ‘Red Menace’ fueled demands for a settlement, prompting Olsen to order National Guardsmen into the city’s armories, armed to the teeth.

Historian Bryan Palmer, author of Revolutionary Teamsters: The Minneapolis Truckers Strikes of 1934, observed that the May 25 deal settled the strike quickly enough, but final victory would be postponed.

Strike leaders had to choose which concessions to make under immense pressure from state politicians, intractable employers and federal mediators.

They also worked to avoid a potentially deadly confrontation with the National Guard.

Above all, they demanded union recognition, agreed to arbitration of future disputes and withdrew the demand for a closed shop.

There was no contract and the inclusion of inside workers proved contentious.

Palmer adds the gains were limited but real enough, as strike leaders spelled out: What had begun as a violent assault on strikers ended with workers fighting in their own interests, learning they had only their union to rely on.

The open shop offensive was defeated and union recognition was won. In the weeks ahead, it would become clear the fight was far from over.

May 24 - Operation Humanity Marching for Dignity

May 24 - Operation Humanity Marching for Dignity

May 24, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1959. That was the day Operation Humanity marched in support of New York City hospital workers fighting for union recognition and bargaining rights at area voluntary hospitals. 

Workers organizing with Local 1199 had been on strike since May 8 and called on the public to support them in their efforts. They pointed out that the 30,000 overwhelmingly black and Latino workers were fighting against economic exploitation and discrimination. 

Striking workers condemned their paltry wages, which averaged $21 less a week than workers at city hospitals. They added they had no job security or benefits and were not even eligible for unemployment. The Central Labor Council, the NAACP and area civil rights activists all supported the march. 

In their book, Upheaval in the Quiet Zone, Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg noted that “a union largely led by Jews had squared off against hospitals directed by the scions of the city’s Jewish Community…to the degree that it was a ‘family affair,’ the 1959 fight thus took on the bitterness of a civil war.” 

As well, Catholic trade union leaders decried the anti-union fervor of the hospitals run by the Archdiocese. Fink and Greenberg illustrate the support of fiery Mike Quill, president of TWU local 100, who denounced hospital trustees as worse than famed segregationist Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas. 

Weeks into the strike, area trade unions supplied reinforcements in the form of donations, loans and groceries. Local IBEW members assessed themselves $1 a week for the strikers. Many unions regularly joined picket lines in support. 

Though the strike would fail to secure union recognition and collective bargaining rights, there were minimal gains. Solidarity galvanized the membership for future battles.

May 23 - The Battle of Toledo

May 23 - The Battle of Toledo

May 23, 2021

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

That was the day the Lucas County Sheriff ordered an attack on thousands of Electric Auto-Lite strikers and Unemployed League supporters, touching off the six-day Battle of Toledo.

The Toledo Auto-Lite Strike was one of three historic strikes of 1934 that turned the tide favorably toward industrial organizing.

The Auto-Lite company had granted a wage increase but reneged on promises of a first contract that included seniority rights, a closed shop and more.

Workers walked off the job in mid-April.

As the strike was about to collapse, Unemployed League forces, organized by A.J. Muste’s American Workers Party, joined picket lines in support.

When legal wrangling failed to subdue the strike, scabs and deputized ‘specials’ were amassed.

On this day, the picket lines grew to as many as 10,000.

The deputies began arresting strike leaders and attacking picketers with fire hoses, tear and vomit gas.

Historian Bryan Palmer describes the scene this way: “Angry workers laid siege to the factory; 1500 strikebreakers were imprisoned.

The scene was one of almost medieval tumult: windows were smashed with stones and bricks, many of them launched from giant slingshots improvised from rubber inner-tubes…When every window in the factory had been smashed, one striker shouted: “now you have your open shop.”…

The next day, 900 Ohio National Guardsmen arrived on the scene… women jeered ‘the landing of the Marines,’ while soap-boxers, many of them veterans sporting First World War medals, offered impromptu lectures on how the troops were breaking the strike…

The strikers’ ranks faced a hail of Guardsmen bullets, which left two dead and scores wounded.”

The battle raged on until the end of May, when it was clear a general strike was imminent.

 

May 22 - The Battle of Deputies’ Run

May 22 - The Battle of Deputies’ Run

May 22, 2021

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

That was the day known as the “Battle of Deputies’ Run.”

The Minneapolis Teamsters strike was in full swing.

For three days, the city was peacefully paralyzed.

The wealthiest had kept the city an open shop for decades through their ‘Citizens’ Alliance,’ and now assembled an army of strikebreakers.

Strikers had been seriously injured on Saturday the 19th at the City Market.

They fought police and deputized ‘specials’ in an attempt to keep produce trucks from moving out.

Later that evening, flying pickets were ambushed in Tribune Alley after having been dispatched by an agent provocateur.

Strikers were beaten mercilessly, including several from the women’s auxiliary.

The sight of the bloodied women enraged strikers.

Another fierce confrontation was inevitable.

Hundreds of strikers waited at the Central Labor Union near the Market until Monday, when scab trucks were expected.

Fighting continued throughout the morning.

No trucks moved.

Hundreds of women marched to the mayor’s office demanding, “Take your hired thugs away!”

Anti-union violence so outraged building tradesmen that 35,000 walked off the job in sympathy.

Electricians, painters and ironworkers all reported to strike headquarters.

Then, on this day, that Tuesday, the decisive battle began.

Tens of thousands amassed in the Market on the side of the Teamsters, as ‘deputies’ would attempt to move the produce trucks out.

Strike leader Farrell Dobbs noted, “It became a free-for-all.”

The police stayed back as strikers and deputies battled it out until finally, the deputies dropped their clubs, turned tail and fled.

Union forces cleared the Market of every last scab, cop and deputy.

Historian Bryan Palmer notes, “An intense and deadly confrontation was over in short order. And it left the union in command.”

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