Labor History in 2:00
November 20 - Rose Pesotta is Born

November 20 - Rose Pesotta is Born

November 20, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1896.

That was the day anarchist and labor activist Rose Pesotta was born.

Her name, Rakhel Peisoty, was changed, like so many others’, at Ellis Island.

She had fled tsarist Russia in 1913 as a teenager and soon found work in New York City’s garment shops.

She readily joined the ILGWU, becoming a national organizer by 1920.

In the late 1920s, Rose went to Los Angeles in an attempt to organize Latina sweatshop workers.

There she helped women workers establish a bilingual labor journal and assisted them in winning a key strike for recognition and higher wages in 1933.

She soon ascended to the position of union vice president and worked closely with the newly formed CIO. 

Rose traveled far and wide to organize garment workers.

She led successful strikes throughout the United States and in Montreal and Puerto Rico.

By 1936, she was on the picket lines with striking rubber workers in Akron, Ohio and autoworkers in Flint, Michigan.

She increasingly found herself at odds with ILGWU head, David Dubinsky and other top male union officials over persistent sexism, her radical politics and her opposition to the no-strike pledge during World War II. 

Rose resented the fact that though women comprised the overwhelming majority of the union’s membership, she continued to be the only woman union officer. 

Frustrated by the chauvinism she experienced, Rose resigned from her post as vice president and later from the ILGWU executive board in 1944. 

She continued as a sewing machine operator, remained active at the local level and published two memoirs.

Later in life, she aligned herself with the Civil Rights Movement. 

Rose Pesotta died of cancer in 1965.

November 19 - Lincoln Delivers the Gettysburg Address

November 19 - Lincoln Delivers the Gettysburg Address

November 19, 2021

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

That was the day President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. 

It is considered one of Lincoln’s greatest speeches. 

Generations of students have been assigned to commit it to memory. 

The two-minute speech carries a deep significance in our country’s history. 

Lincoln delivered the speech at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. 

Four months earlier, the Union had defeated Confederate forces at the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. 

Casualties on both sides totaled nearly 50,000 over the course of the three-day battle.

This battle, coupled with the fall of Vicksburg, is often considered a turning point in the war to end the slave labor system. 

Lincoln’s speech served to redefine the war’s purpose.

Originally, the emphasis had been one of preserving the Union.

Now, Lincoln drew upon the Declaration of Independence to also highlight the national struggle for human equality.

Lincoln began his speech with the acknowledgment that the nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” 

He ended the Gettysburg Address stating, “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.” 

Most Republicans praised the speech. 

But historian Eric Foner notes in his biography of Lincoln, that “many Democrats denounced Lincoln for unilaterally redefining the war’s purpose, which they insisted, had nothing to do with equality.” 

In 2015, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation published an edited volume, Gettysburg Replies. 

It features 272-word essays by presidents, historians, poets, actors, scientists and others about the lasting influence of the Gettysburg Address.

November 18 - Flight Attendants Defang American Airlines

November 18 - Flight Attendants Defang American Airlines

November 18, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1993.

That was the day 21,000 attendants, mostly women, caught American Airlines by surprise in their first strike ever against the company.

80% of all fights were cancelled a week before Thanksgiving as solid picket lines formed at forty airports across the country.

CEO Robert Crandell, who commanded a $ million a year salary and preferred the nickname “fang,” was at a loss when flight attendants refused to be bullied by threats of scab replacements.

Hoping to smash seniority and scheduling rights, he cancelled all vacations for months. 

Crandall’s claims to company losses could hardly be believed after the company reported third-quarter profits of $118 million. 

Attendants were fed up with years of concessionary contracts that reduced their wages by as much as 40%.

One woman picketer summed up the company’s attitude: “We’re just a bunch of skirts.” 

The strike was so popular that pilots and Teamsters often joined picketers. 

In New York City, 200 members of Local 1199 hospital workers walked the picket line in solidarity. 

Fed up machinists at United Airlines in Denver were so inspired, they staged a solidarity sickout the first day of the strike. 

Four days later, President Clinton intervened to end the strike and force binding arbitration. 

While many saw this as a victory, workers returned to their jobs under the same conditions that forced them to strike while they waited for arbitrators to render a decision. 

Two years later, arbitrators finally rendered a decision.

They awarded American the right to reduce staffing on some flights.

But attendants would win a 17% wage increase and retain most work rules.

November 17 - By Hammer and Hand, All Arts Do Stand

November 17 - By Hammer and Hand, All Arts Do Stand

November 17, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1785. 

That was the day the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York was founded.

Twenty-two skilled craftsmen, with the motto, “By Hammer and Hand All Arts Do Stand,” met on Pine Street to form a benevolent organization that could provide cultural, educational and social services to craftsmen and their families. 

Two months later, founders met for their annual meeting. 

They represented many of the city’s trades including hatters, butchers, sail makers, bolters and comb makers. 

In his book, Chants Democratic, historian Sean Wilentz states, the General Society was “intended to be a semi-political umbrella organization for all of the city’s independent mechanics, to help oversee the trades and secure favorable legislation from local and national government. The group captured the ideal of mutuality and craft pride essential to artisan fraternities since the Middle Ages.”

The General Society opened one of the city’s first free schools at a time when there were no public schools.

It established a tuition-free Mechanics Institute, the General Society Library and Lecture Series.

The Mechanics Institute, founded in 1858, continues to provide free evening trades-related instruction.

The Library, established in 1820 is the second oldest library in New York City.

It is also one of the few remaining membership circulating libraries.

Its collections and archives span two centuries. 

The General Society continues its tradition of public lectures in the form of The Labor, Literature and Landmarks Series.

More recently, it has added the Artisan Lecture Series that features lectures by master artisans.

The series also promotes the work and art of skilled craftsmen.

The General Society has been at its current location at 20 west 44th Street since 1885.

November 16 - Justice for Janitors

November 16 - Justice for Janitors

November 16, 2021

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

That was the day mounted police charged 50 janitors and their supporters during a protest in Houston. 

SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign had been organizing for years throughout the South and Southwest. 

Modeled on success achieved in California, SEIU broadened their campaign to Houston and Miami. 

The union called a month long strike against the cities’ largest cleaning companies. 

Protests and civil disobedience actions continued throughout the strike. 

Hundreds of strikers routinely marched through the streets of Houston, beating drums and hauling bags of garbage into the middle of intersections to highlight the key services they provided to the city.

They were subject to repeated threats of firings and arrests. 

When police charged at the janitors, it served to turn public support in favor of the strikers. 

By the end of the month, Tom Balanoff and SEIU Local 1 in Chicago claimed victory for 5300 Houston janitors.

The Chicago local had been central to the three-year campaign in Houston. 

Incomes doubled and janitors finally had health insurance, paid vacations and holidays. 

The Chicago Tribune detailed the campaign in a November 25 article.

The union lobbied building owners and major corporations who held contracts with the cleaning companies. 

The union worked to gain a foothold among the janitors, sending in seasoned Latino janitors from Chicago to help with organizing. 

The SEIU also committed millions of dollars to the organizing drive, setting aside $1 million alone in strike funds. 

At a victory rally, union leader Flor Aguilar proclaimed, “No one thought that a group of poor Latinos form Houston would be able to win anything, but today we can lift our heads up very high.”


November 15 - Deadly Leak at DuPont

November 15 - Deadly Leak at DuPont

November 15, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 2014. 

That was the day four workers were killed and a fifth injured during a chemical leak at a DuPont insecticide plant near Houston.

The plant used methyl mercaptan in its production of insecticides. 

24,000 pounds of the deadly chemical were released through two valves in a poorly ventilated building onsite.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board found numerous flawed safety procedures, design problems and inadequate planning. 

Days earlier, liquid methyl mercaptan had solidified in piping, causing a blockage. 

Workers attempted to clear it by spraying the pipes with hot water. 

They didn’t realize they had cleared the blockage, which then created high-pressure buildup of the chemical in other piping. 

When two workers went to drain those pipes in a routine procedure, they were overcome by toxic vapor.

Another two workers answering the subsequent distress call were also killed.

DuPont blamed workers for the release of the toxic gas. 

But the CSB found a number of violations. 

The building where the release occurred had an inadequate toxic gas detection system, ventilation fans were not working and workers were not required to wear additional breathing protection for tasks they performed there. 

Line-clearing procedures were faulty, routinely exposing workers to toxic fumes. 

The Board also found that DuPont worked to conceal from environmental regulators, as many as four major releases of methyl mercaptan two days before workers were killed. 

The CSB asserted that design flaws prompted months of clogs before the deadly incident. 

More generally, they noted the design of the building that housed the pesticide unit inherently increased the threat of exposure to workers and the public. 

DuPont opted to close the plant in 2016 rather than meet recommendations of federal regulators.

November 14 - Fighting Lead

November 14 - Fighting Lead

November 14, 2021

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

That was the day OSHA published its lead standard. 

The standard reduced permissible exposure by 75% to protect nearly a million workers from damage to nervous, urinary and reproductive systems. 

As early as 1908, Alice Hamilton, the mother of occupational medicine, noted that lead had endangered workers as far back as “the first half-century after Christ.”

In their book, Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution, historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner add that “throughout her distinguished career, Hamilton was deeply involved in uncovering the relationship between lead and disease in the American workforce.” 

Hamilton’s groundbreaking research on the effects of lead paved the way for a growing uproar against its continued use. 

After the Occupational Safety and Health Act passed in 1970, occupational and public health activists pushed hard for a lead standard. 

A new generation of industrial hygienists emphasized how unsound, industry-driven conclusions regarding “safe lead levels” impacted women workers and workers of color. 

Industry had long asserted that women and African-Americans were simply more susceptible to lead poison, which served to justify discrimination in hiring. 

Some unions accepted these terms, if only to demand a stringent lead standard that included immediate implementation of engineering controls.

But leading hygienists like Jeanne Stellman blasted these arguments. 

Stellman insisted such conclusions reflected racial and gender bias rather than any credible scientific evidence. 

She added that men, women and children, regardless of race or ethnicity, were all adversely affected by lead exposure. 

The final standard adopted was considered a compromise. 

Discrimination in hiring has continued and enforcement proves difficult.

But even a watered-down standard was too much for the lead industry.

They have been fighting it ever since.

November 13 - Workplace Safety Hero, Karen Silkwood, Dies in Suspicious Crash

November 13 - Workplace Safety Hero, Karen Silkwood, Dies in Suspicious Crash

November 13, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1974. 

That was the day Karen Silkwood was killed in a mysterious car crash. 

Though her death was ruled a one car accident, some maintain she was forced off the road. 

Silkwood was a union activist and representative for Local 5-283 of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers.

She worked at Kerr McGee’s Cimarron plutonium plant in Crescent, Oklahoma, making plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods.

Meryl Streep popularized her life in the 1983 film, Silkwood. 

Karen’s union loyalty only grew after the company crushed a strike in 1972. 

She was elected to the union bargaining committee just as the company moved to force a decertification election. 

She also served as a union health and safety rep. 

Silkwood found a number of apparent violations: routine contamination exposure, faulty respiratory equipment, falsified inspection records, and improper storage of radioactive material.

She met with OCAW leader, Tony Mazzocchi to highlight safety issues in a campaign to beat back decertification.

It worked.

Then Karen testified before the Atomic Energy Commission, worried about her own contamination. 

It was clear her home was contaminated too. 

She worked tirelessly to gather the documentation and the evidence, detailing the company’s life-threatening negligence. 

And on this day, Karen Silkwood was headed to Oklahoma City to meet Mazzocchi’s assistant, Steve Wodka and a New York Times reporter to present evidence she collected. 

She never made it. 

Her car was found with rear end damage, near skid marks, in a ditch along Route 74.

While the company attempted to smear her as a drug addicted lesbian who deliberately contaminated herself, they would eventually settle with her family for nearly $1.4 million. 

Karen Silkwood became a model and a hero for women workers and all those who fight for safe workplaces.

November 12 - Ellis Island Closes

November 12 - Ellis Island Closes

November 12, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1954. 

That was the day Ellis Island closed its doors. 

More than 12 million immigrants had passed through its gates since its opening in 1892. 

Those steerage and third-class passengers coming to America were processed at the island between 1892 and 1924.

They were routinely subject to medical inspections to determine they were free of disease. 

Legal inspections included questions regarding birth, occupation, destination, finances and criminal record. 

Its busiest year was 1907 with more than a million arriving to enter the United States. 

During World War I, the Island was used as a detention center for presumed enemies and those considered foreign-born subversives. 

After Congress passed the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, arrivals entering the country slowed to a trickle.

Then Ellis Island became primarily a detention and deportation center. 

During World War II, thousands of Germans, Italians and Japanese made up the majority of those detained, awaiting deportation. 

It also served as a military hospital for returning servicemen and training center for the Coast Guard. 

By 1950, Ellis Island served as a holding center for arriving Communists and Fascists, who were prevented entrance under the recently passed Internal Security Act. 

A Norwegian seaman who had overstayed his leave was released the day the Island closed and told to catch the next ship back to Norway. 

In 1965, President Johnson made Ellis Island part of the National Park Service.

A massive restoration of the Island began in 1984, organized by Lee Iacocca’s Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. 

It reopened as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1990, featuring numerous exhibits, publicly accessible immigration records and the award-winning film documentary, “Island of Hope, Island of Tears.”

November 11- Haymarket Martyrs Executed

November 11- Haymarket Martyrs Executed

November 11, 2021

On this day in Labor History the year was 1887. 

That was the day that four men were hung in Chicago for their alleged role in the bombing at a labor rally at the city’s Haymarket Square a year earlier.

Eight men were put on trial.

Although the prosecution did not prove any of the men had ties to the bombing, five were sentenced to die.

Louis Lingg died in jail before the execution could take place.

The others were martyred for their support of the labor movement and the fight for the eight-hour day.

Three of those executed were born in Germany. 

August Spies and Adolph Fischer, worked for a Chicago German-language, worker’s newspaper. 

George Engel owned a toy store.

Backlash against foreign-born anarchists helped stoke public hysteria over Haymarket.

The final martyr was southern-born Albert Parsons, the editor of The Alarm, an English-language workers paper.

The day after they died, the Chicago Tribunereported on the brutality of their execution, “Then begins a scene of horror that freezes the blood. The loosely-adjusted nooses remain behind the left ear and do not slip to the back of the neck. Not a single neck is broken, and the horrors of a death by strangulation begin....” 

Thousands of mourners joined the funeral procession of the five slain men.

In 1893, Governor John Peter Altgeld granted the three defendants still a jail a full pardon. 

The monument to the Haymarket eight stands at Forest Home Cemetery, just west of Chicago—drawing visitors from across the world to remember these martyrs for the eight-hour movement. 

May Day is celebrated as the worker’s holiday around the world in commemoration of the events in Chicago.

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