Labor History in 2:00
June 30 - Convict Lease System Ends in Alabama

June 30 - Convict Lease System Ends in Alabama

June 30, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1928. 

That was the day the state of Alabama outlawed the convict lease system that had been in practice for decades. 

Slave masters throughout the South had routinely loaned out enslaved people before slavery was finally abolished. 

The convict lease system continued this practice, as the South worked to rebuild in a rush of rapid industrial growth after the Civil War. 

African-Americans found themselves increasingly subject to sweeps by local and state authorities that coincided with harvest time or when labor agents arrived, looking to man the coalmines. 

Many were convicted on trumped up charges and shipped off to prison. 

Once there, they were leased to private industries and dispatched mostly to coal mines near Birmingham.

By 1890, the state profited $164,000 a year.

By 1912, prison mining brought in over $1 million in state revenues. 

In the PBS documentary, Slavery By Another Name, Douglas Blackmon and other scholars note that prisoners could be driven in a way that earlier enslaved workers and free labor couldn’t. 

Convict labor served to depress wages, curtail union activity, organizing and strikes. 

These workers could also be worked practically to death and easily replaced. 

Progressive reformers, Socialist Party leaders and UMW District 20 would wage an unrelenting war against the convict lease system for years. 

Even the 1911 Banner Mine explosion that killed 123 African American prisoners couldn’t outlaw the practice. 

Finally, newly elected Governor Bibb Graves yielded to the public outcry that condemned the practice as a relic of barbarism. 

He also ceded to workers demands for jobs. 

Graves subsequently put prisoners to work on chain gangs building roads throughout the state, making Alabama the last state to abolish the convict lease system.


June 29 - Fighting Insurmountable Odds

June 29 - Fighting Insurmountable Odds

June 29, 2021

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

That was the day SWOC leader Philip Murray beat back reports that the Little Steel Strike had collapsed. 

Even as the Steel companies were championing that the strike had been broken, Murray insisted that of the 90,000 workers involved, only 20,000 had returned to work in mills that stretched across seven states. 

He added they were mostly supervisors and foremen, not production workers. 

Murray leveled charges against Ohio governor Martin Davey, that the Ohio National Guard was being used as company police to smash the strike. 

Strike leaders added that the companies were staging ‘dummy’ back-to-work parades. 

In fact, Secretary Perkins had announced that it was the government’s efforts at mediation that had collapsed. 

But the steel magnates were on the offensive and had the backing of local politicians and police. 

George Mike, a union man and disabled veteran was the latest casualty in the anti-labor war.

He was killed the day before at Moltrup Steel in Beaver Falls, Ohio, as picketers clashed with deputy sheriffs. 

In Indiana, police rushed to plant gates at Inland Steel to guard against new battles as 20,000 strikers prepared for the imminent forced reopenings of Inland Steel and Youngstown Sheet and Tube there. 

Both mills remained closed for weeks.

In Warren, Ohio, police issued a warrant for CIO strike leader Gus Hall and two other strike leaders, on charges he was the ‘brains’ behind a ‘terrorist’ plot to blow up strike-bound steel mills. 

And at Bethlehem’s Cambria Works in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, two separate dynamitings destroyed main water supplies causing an immediate end to an attempted back-to-work movement there. 

The strike was far from over.

June 28 - Harry Bridges Act Signed into Law

June 28 - Harry Bridges Act Signed into Law

June 28, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1940. 

That was the day President Roosevelt signed the Smith Act into law. 

Some initially dubbed it the “Harry Bridges Law,” after the radical labor leader, long targeted by the FBI for deportation. 

Politicians claimed it was designed to prosecute Fascists, Nazis and Communists. 

In fact, the Smith Act was first used to prosecute and convict Minneapolis Teamsters leaders and supporters of the Socialist Workers Party, recognized for their successful 1934 strike and radical leadership. 

Named after the Virginia Democratic Representative Howard W. Smith, it was originally titled the Alien Registration Act of 1940. 

In addition to mandating the registration and fingerprinting of resident aliens, it allowed for the deportation of those resident aliens who sought to overthrow the government by force. 

But the act also extended to those citizens who advocated the overthrow of the government by force or violence or engaged in the printing, publishing or distributing of materials that advocated sedition.   

And it made it illegal for citizens to organize or belong to any association that engaged in such activity.

According to historian Donna Haverty-Stacke, author of Trotskyists on Trial: Free Speech and Political Persecution Since the Age of FDR, the Smith Act “was a peacetime antisedition law that marked a dramatic shift in the legal definition of free speech protection in America…the Minneapolis case shows how far the administration went to prosecute political dissent—even to the point of targeting the labor-liberal left.”

The Smith Act served as a prime tool for the McCarthyite Red Scare, and was used to prosecute more than a hundred Communists and labor leaders. Finally, in a 1957 landmark case, Yates v. Untied States, convictions under the Smith Act were rendered unconstitutional.

June 27 - Founding of the IWW

June 27 - Founding of the IWW

June 27, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1905. 

That was the day over 200 Socialists, Anarchists and Marxists, representing over 40 organizations, met at Brand’s Hall in Chicago to convene the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World. 

Representatives from groups like the Socialist Party, Socialist Labor Party and Western Federation of Miners joined together for an eleven-day convention to discuss the future of industrial unionism and revolutionary struggle. 

Those present included Big Bill Haywood, James Connolly, Daniel De Leon, Eugene Debs, Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, Mother Jones and many others. 

They hoped to cohere an alternative to the politically conservative, business unionism of the American Federation of Labor. 

They sought to Build on the legacy of the Knights of Labor and their motto of “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

They were determined to build an industrial union that organized workers regardless of skill level. 

They also distinguished themselves by opening their doors to men and women; black, white and all immigrant workers, including Asians. 

Big Bill Haywood opened the first day’s morning session with the following remarks: “This is the Continental Congress of the working class.

We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have as its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the slave bondage of capitalism. 

There is no organization that has for its purpose the same object as that for which you are called together today. 

The aims and objects of this organization should be to put the working class in possession of the economic power, the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution, without regard to capitalist masters.”

June 26 - Milwaukee Transit Workers Join the ‘34 Strike Wave

June 26 - Milwaukee Transit Workers Join the ‘34 Strike Wave

June 26, 2021

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

That was the day 1400 workers at the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company launched a four-day strike. 

Three unions, representing about a third of the total employees, were fighting to break the hold of the company union. 

The transit and power company had already fired 13 workers for union activity. 

IBEW, Operating Engineers and the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees unions led the walkout. 

They demanded reinstatement of their fired coworkers. 

They also wanted the right to pick their own bargaining representatives and insisted the company union rescind its policy of barring strikers from membership and further employment.

The walkout began early that morning as strikers surrounded car barns, garages and power plants.

Company agents barricaded facilities with barbed wire, supplied Pullman cars for strikebreakers and posted armed guards on streetcars.

Almost immediately, striker Joseph Urbanski was mowed down and seriously injured as he tried to stop a scab streetcar.

By nightfall, 5,000 strikers and their supporters had blocked five transit lines.

They ripped protective screens from streetcar windows and forced scab drivers to abandon their routes. 

As crowds swelled to 10,000 on the second day of the strike, a little more than half of all cars were in service. 

More than 100 streetcars had been damaged. 

Socialist Mayor Daniel Hoan placed the blame squarely on the utility company. 

Street battles with police and scabs continued into the third day of the strike.

Milwaukee’s Federated Trades and Building Trades Councils threatened a general strike in the city by July 2 if the strike was not settled.

By June 30, workers celebrated total victory when the company conceded to all of their demands.

June 25 - Congress Pushes for Wartime Labor Repression

June 25 - Congress Pushes for Wartime Labor Repression

June 25, 2021

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

That was the day the Smith-Connally War Labor Disputes Act was passed. 

In the years before Taft-Hartley, it was considered the foremost slave labor bill. 

It gave the president the power to seize and operate war industries confronted with strikes or lockouts interfering with war production. 

It also criminalized any future strikes in seized plants with $5000 fines and up to a year in prison. 

And it held unions in war-related industries liable for damages incurred if they failed to give 30-day strike notices. 

The law was passed just four days after miners struck in protest of a War Labor Board decision that denied all of their contract demands. 

Congress overrode President Roosevelt’s veto in passing the Act. 

But critics argued that FDR vetoed the bill over parts that did not go far enough to suppress strikes. 

President Roosevelt argued for a proposed amendment that would  “enable us to induct into military service all persons who engage in strikes, stoppages, or other interruptions of work in plants in possession of the United States.” 

The bill effectively criminalized any worker that dared to defy the wartime no strike pledge, even as wages and working conditions quickly deteriorated in the face of massive defense industry profits. 

Miners were outraged by threats of conscription and jail time if they dared to strike. 

UMW president John L. Lewis refused to comment on the Act. 

But other UMW leaders lamented that the bill would hurt AFL and CIO unions.  

As far as the UMW was concerned though, the bill “wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.” 

The Act expired In June 1947. 

It was superseded by the detested Taft-Hartley Act.

June 24 - Striking Against Taft-Hartley

June 24 - Striking Against Taft-Hartley

June 24, 2021

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

That was the day spontaneous protest strikes began against the new Taft-Hartley Act. 

250,000 soft coal miners walked out of the pits. 

132,000 shipyard workers of the CIO’s Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers followed the miners’ example, on the East and Gulf coasts. 

The Greater Akron Area Council of Labor Unions, a joint AFL & CIO council representing 185,000 workers, demanded that top union leaders call a general strike in defense of labor’s civil liberties. 

Workers at Chrysler’s Kercheval plant walked out in protest even as the nations’ steel mills and auto plants began to slow from the absence of coal. 

Congressman Fred Hartley, co-author of the slave labor bill denounced the UMW as mutinous citizens and demanded immediate enforcement of the Act against the walkout. 

Millions of trade unionists, white-hot with anger at the repressive, union-busting legislation were ready for job actions. 

But in this instance, William Green, head of the AFL and Philip Murray, head of the CIO were agreed in their opposition to general strike action. 

William Green reported that he had been flooded with appeals from AFL unions across the country calling for a general strike.  

He feared taking strike action would invite lawsuits and favored fighting through the courts and private contracts. 

Murray echoed Green and rejected any talk of a general protest strike. 

He invited leaders of the AFL and the Railroad Brotherhoods to join the CIO in a two-pronged fight against Taft-Hartley. 

Murray looked to challenge the Act’s constitutionality in the courts and hoped to unseat the congressmen who passed it in the 1948 elections. 

70 years later, unions are still hamstrung by many of the Act’s provisions.

June 23 - Legislating Labor’s Destruction

June 23 - Legislating Labor’s Destruction

June 23, 2021

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

That was the day the despised Taft-Hartley Act became law. 

It was a direct retaliatory response to the 1946 post-war strike wave, where millions walked off the job after waiting years for basic demands. 

The labor movement mobilized against the slave labor bill through numerous rallies.  

The AFL joined the CIO in threatening 24-hour strikes across whole industries in protest, as the bill wound its way through Congress. 

11,000 soft coal miners in Pennsylvania walked out in a spontaneous protest strike earlier in the month. 

The bill passed over the veto of President Harry S. Truman, who would invoke it a dozen times over the course of his presidency.

Many union leaders hailed Truman as a friend of labor for his 11th hour veto.  

Labor party advocates were incensed that of 219 congressional Democrats, 126 voted in favor of the bill.

Practically overnight, the labor movement had been pushed back 25 years.

Taft-Hartley was nothing short of disastrous for the American labor movement. 

With the stroke of a pen, the Act criminalized many of the actions key to historic union victories in the thirties and forties. 

Jurisdictional strikes, secondary boycotts, solidarity strikes, closed shops and mass picketing were just a few of the most basic trade union activities now outlawed. 

The Act helped fire the first shots of the McCarthy Red Scare by mandating that union officers file non-Communist affidavits with the government, later found to be unconstitutional. 

The Act also provided the ammunition needed to strangle strikes by empowering the president to easily acquire strikebreaking injunctions.

And it allowed for the rapid growth of right-to-work laws at the state level. 

The union movement has suffered ever since. 

June 22 - A Long Road to Victory

June 22 - A Long Road to Victory

June 22, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1999. 

That was the day 5000 textile workers at six Fieldcrest Cannon Mills in North Carolina began voting for representation by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, better known as UNITE. 

The victory, later validated by the NLRB, was a significant win for Labor in the anti-union South.

The union’s organizing director, Bruce Raynor stated, “It feels like we just organized G.M. Suddenly, we’ve got a beacon to show other textile workers that they can do it.” 

Labor historian Leon Fink noted that, “It’s a stunning victory for the union. It’s the biggest breakthrough in a traditional Southern industry for probably the last quarter century.” 

Then AFL-CIO president, John Sweeney remarked that it was the largest union victory in a Southern textile mill in history. 

The election and victory came after a 25-year struggle and four previous attempts to organize at Fieldcrest Cannon Mills. 

Many noted that the young, immigrant workforce made the difference. 

Conditions had been worsening at the mills.   

Workers fed up with production line speedup, punitive decreases in piecework premiums and company harassment, were compelled to vote union. 

One worker stated he and many others were sick of lies management told, to keep workers from voting yes in previous elections. 

Supervisors routinely intimidated workers to vote no with promises of higher wages or when that failed, threats of deportation.

Workers were barraged with various forms of antiunion propaganda. 

They found antiunion videos mailed to their homes. 

Some were paid extra to distribute ‘Vote No’ t-shirts on the shop floors. 

The company finally recognized the union and negotiated a first contract that guaranteed higher wages, pensions and other benefits.

June 21 - John L. Lewis Pushes Back Against Starvation Wages

June 21 - John L. Lewis Pushes Back Against Starvation Wages

June 21, 2021

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

That was the day United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis issued strike orders at the nation’s mines, calling out more than half a million miners. 

The third general coal strike in three months defied the wartime ‘no strike’ pledge. 

Miners raised several demands, including wage increases, an end to the dangerous third-shift and portal-to-portal pay. 

High wartime inflation only worsened miners’ already low wages. 

Early that spring, Lewis denounced the mine owners, the War Labor Board and the Little Steel formula, used to calculate wartime wages.   

He warned the Formula meant starvation for workers and the end of collective bargaining.  

By April, President Roosevelt ordered wage freezes. 

Miners began walking out of the pits, even before the strike call, as soon as the War Labor Board handed down their decision on June 19. 

The Board had rejected ALL of the miners’ demands. 

The UMW responded, stating, “No member and no officer of the United Mine Workers of America would be so destitute of principle and so devoid of honor as to sign or execute such an infamous yellow dog contract.” 

Though the UMW were forced to call off the strike the next day, some miners continued to stay out in protest. 

Four days later, Congress passed the dreaded Smith-Connally Act, dubbed the ‘slave-labor’ bill, in response to the strike. 

Throughout the summer, miners across the country would rage against the government for threatening them with conscription and jail time if they dared refuse the terms of the decision. 

By November, the miners would walk out a fourth time and finally win many of their demands, at least from the War Labor Board.



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