July 9 The Squeegee Strike

July 9, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1935. 

That was the day transit workers in the Bronx walked off the job in what is referred to as the Squeegee Strike. 

These were the days when New York City public transit was barely organized.

Two of the three transit companies in New York City were privately owned, with entrenched company unions. 

Up to this point, transit bosses had successful crushed every previous strike. 

Now, six car cleaners at the Jerome Avenue barn had just been fired for refusing a management imposed speed-up. 

Supervisors had replaced their 10-inch squeegees with those that measured 14 inches. 

They expected workers to clean more in a shorter period of time. 

According to historian Joshua Freeman, author of In Transit, when word spread that the six cleaners had been fired, others downed their tools in protest. 

They demanded unsuccessfully to meet with the shop foreman. 

After several hours of waiting, they discovered that management had removed their time cards.

That’s when the two-day walkout began. 

As many as seventy workers stormed off the job. 

Pickets went up at the barn and at Interborough Rapid Transit Headquarters. 

The regional NLRB office quickly mediated a settlement that forced the IRT to reinstate the discharged workers and strikers, and answer their grievances. 

Freeman notes this first strike, though small in scale and brief, was significant.

The victory of the Squeegee Strike immediately built the TWU’s authority citywide. 

It quickly brought several hundred new members into the union. 

New dues paying members provided a financial base for full-time organizers needed to organize New York City transit. 

The union would grow rapidly and soon enjoy a number of organizing victories.



July 8 Labor Leaders Call for Prevailing Wages on WPA Projects

July 8, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1939. 

That was the day AFL president, William Green called all affiliates to meet in Chicago.

Green sought to mobilize union leaders in a fight to restore prevailing wages on federal relief projects. 

Building tradesmen on WPA construction sites had started walking off the job in spontaneous strikes across the country three days earlier. 

The strike spread rapidly to 36 states, quickly turning into a nationwide walkout of over 150,000.

Workers were outraged by provisions in the latest federal relief bill, titled the Woodrum Act. 

New terms established the 130-hour rule, essentially slashing wages by more than half. 

It also called for a 30-day dismissal of all workers who had been on WPA rolls for 18 months. 

The AFL Building Trades Department stated the act would “destroy national wage standards established through 50 years of collective bargaining.” 

IBEW leader Daniel Tracy added that forcing a lower wage on federal relief workers would only aid building contractors in private industry to do the same. 

From St. Louis to Rochester, from Minneapolis to Akron, picket lines were solid. 

Organizers worked to build solidarity among unskilled WPA workers affected by the new starvation bill. 

Tens of thousands of strikers were fired in WPA-ordered dismissals. 

President Roosevelt declared there could be no strikes against the federal government. 

Attorney General Frank Murphy, former Michigan governor during the Flint sit-down strike, declared that striking against the government would build a fascist psychology. 

WPA administrators also threatened organizers with federal prosecution, fines and jail time. 

But New York’s Building and Construction Trades Council leader, Thomas Murray authorized a strike of 32,000.

He avowed, “This will be a strike to the finish.”


July 7 Pullman Strikers Attacked

July 7, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1894. 

That was the day thousands of Pullman strikers confronted state militia forces at the Grand Trunk Railroad Crossing in Chicago. 

The strike began May 11 after George Pullman slashed wages but refused to lower rents in his company town. 

In late June, Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union called for a national boycott of all Pullman trains. 

The boycott spread to 27 states, involving more than 150,000 workers.

Attorney General Richard Olney issued an injunction, declaring the strike illegal on July 2. 

The injunction failed to break the strike. 

But it did prevent union leaders from communicating with strikers. 

The next day, President Cleveland ordered troops into Chicago rail yards to crush the strike.

Workers were furious. 

They flooded the yards, stopping trains, smashing switches and barricading themselves with baggage cars. 

Fighting continued for several days as angry strikers stormed rail yards and overturned empty freight cars. 

Thousands of workers impacted by the Depression joined in, including those stranded in the city after the Columbian Exposition. 

Two strikers were shot dead on the Illinois Central railroad July 6. 

Workers responded by setting fire to hundreds of rail cars. 

Now, on this day, the militia attempted to run a work train, to clear the rail yard at 49th and Loomis. 

Thousands followed the train, showering it with bricks and stones. 

The troops returned gunfire, killing at least four and injuring dozens. 

Chicago unions soon voted in favor of a citywide sympathy strike, but the railroads quickly hired replacement labor. 

Federal troops and state militia cleared the railways for business. 

Main strike leaders were arrested.

By the beginning of August, Pullman rehired only those strikers who agreed never to join a union.


July 6 When Profits are Put Ahead of Safety

July 6, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1988. 

That was the day 167 oil workers were killed in the Piper Alpha oilrig explosion in the North Sea.

It is considered the world’s deadliest oilrig accident ever. 

Around 10 p.m., the platform essentially turned into a fireball so massive, rescue helicopters couldn’t get near it.

Gas lines ruptured when the night crew accidentally activated a gas pump, down for repairs.

Immediately, the platform was rocked with explosions, first wiping out the control room, then engulfing it in flames.

The platform split in two, its oil derrick toppled. 

Most were killed instantly, as the crew quarters were directly above the gas compression module. 

Toxic fumes overcame others.

Some jumped 100 feet into the sea. 

The platform was completely destroyed. 

It took three weeks to bring the fire under control. 

Occidental Petroleum later admitted the rig’s design was fundamentally flawed. 

But many considered the explosion nothing short of industrial murder. 

The rig was notorious for fatalities and near misses. 

Jake Malloy, head of the offshore trade union, OILC recalled, “Piper was synonymous with accidents. People would say Piper? Oh, you don’t want to go there. That place is ready to go.” 

Conditions were so bad the union pulled its reps off the safety committee.

The next day 115 offshore oil workers in Humberside walked off the job demanding better health and safety conditions. 

Subsequent investigation determined Occidental failed to enforce basic maintenance and safety procedures. 

Over 100 safety improvements were recommended.

Occidental paid out $100 million to the families, but escaped prosecution. 

Today, there is a memorial chapel at the Kirk of St. Nicholas and a memorial sculpture in the Rose Garden of Hazelhead Park, both in Aberdeen, Scotland.




July 5 “Bloody Thursday”

July 5, 2017

On this day in labor history the year was 1934.

That was the day known as Bloody Thursday. 

The historic West Coast Maritime Strike had been raging since May 9.

Longshoremen refused to cede to the Industrial Association, determined to open the ports by force. 

The shipping bosses had rejected strikers’ demands, including a union hiring hall and recognition of offshore unions.

By July 3, picketers had been fighting for hours to stop trucks sent into move cargo under police protection, as bosses attempted to open the ports. 

At 8 a.m. on this day, a line of strikebreaking trucks emerged. 

Thousands of strike squads amassed in the warehouse district.

The Battle of Rincon Hill had begun. 

The fighting continued through the afternoon in the center of the Embarcadero as strikers attempted to stop scab freight cars. 

By the time it was over, longshoreman Howard Sperry and strike supporter, Nick Bordoise lay dead from police bullets. 

30 strikers had been shot and dozens more lay in the hospital, some critically wounded. 

The San Francisco Chronicle reported, “Blood ran red in the streets of San Francisco.”  

In Workers on the Waterfront, Bruce Nelson notes, “Bloody Thursday was an epic moment. Strikers conducted themselves with remarkable precision and imagination in the face of three successive assaults by policemen who were using their firearms feely and laying down a barrage of tear gas bombs.

Donald MacKenzie Brown, the businessman eyewitness, was overawed by the workers ‘insane courage;’ “in the face of bullets, gas, clubs, horse hoofs, death; against fast patrol cars and the radio, they fought back with rocks and bolts till the street was a mass of debris. They were fighting desperately for something that seemed to be life for them.”


July 4 Founding of the National Unemployed Council

July 4, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1930. 

That was the day some 1300 labor radicals and Communist Party supporters assembled in Chicago to establish The National Unemployed Council. 

That spring, Councils in major cities across the country held massive rallies for jobs and relief.

They were responding to near catastrophic conditions created by the Stock Market crash. 

Delegates emerged from the founding convention with an organizational structure and demands for action. 

These included unemployment insurance, cash and work relief, public works at union wages, free food for children of the unemployed and a moratorium on evictions. 

Delegates acknowledged that African-Americans bore the worst of the unfolding Depression. 

They worked to address racial discrimination as part of an integrated push for jobs and relief. 

Councils were established throughout 46 states.

They were best known for massive demonstrations, hunger marches and rent strikes. 

Councils mobilized hundreds, sometimes thousands quickly to march on city halls or relief offices when benefits were threatened. 

They were also able to mobilize scores of supporters at a moment’s notice to stop evictions. 

And in a unique move, councils often mobilized the unemployed to bolster picket lines during strikes. 

This undercut employer attempts at recruitment of scabs. 

By 1935, the National Unemployed Council merged with other socialist unemployed groupings, led by the Socialist Party and A.J. Muste, to form the Workers’ Alliance. 

According to sociologist, Chad Alan Goldberg, the Workers Alliance worked to secure “more WPA jobs, higher wages for WPA workers, and application of new federal labor laws to the WPA.” 

Goldberg attributes their demise by 1941 to a combination of factors, including the rise of a powerful anti-labor coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats, red baiting and internal political conflicts.



July 3 Politicians Turn on Sit Downs

July 3, 2017

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

That was the day Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins announced that sit-down strikes were “unsuited” to America and believed labor unions would abandon using the tactic altogether. 

Her declaration came in the form of an open letter to Republican Congressman William Ditter of Pennsylvania 

In the wake of the Flint Sit-Down strike, he had insisted on clarification of her perspective towards sit-down strikes. 

1937 had been rocked by sit-downs everywhere. 

Workers made huge gains using the tactic, especially during the historic GM strike in Flint, Michigan 

During the strike, Secretary Perkins asserted that the legality of sit-downs had not yet been determined.

In her open letter, Perkins noted that she accepted the opinion of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

That court had just ruled that thousands of striking hosiery workers at Apex Hosiery in Philadelphia had acted unlawfully when they employed the tactic in their tumultuous strike weeks before.

She added, “It is not and never has been an official position of the Department of Labor or of the Secretary that sit-down strikes are either lawful, desirable or appropriate. In fact, the officers of the Department and the Secretary have urged union leaders and members not to use the method and to bend every effort to take men out of a plant where used… It is also full of hazards to the progressive, democratic development of trade unionism and to the orderly process of collective bargaining and cooperation with employers on the basis of a recognized status.”

Perkins’ statement helped provide the basis for a legal backlash against the tactic, ruled illegal just two year later.



July 2 “a foul blot upon the labor movement”

July 2, 2017

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

That was the day known as the East St. Louis Race Riot.

It is considered the worst case of labor–related violence of the 20th century and one of the worst race riots in American history.

At the time, East St. Louis, Illinois was an industrial hub along the Mississippi River, across from St. Louis, Missouri.

Production demands for World War I intensified the Great Migration. 

As African-Americans emigrated from the South, filling the demand for industrial labor, tensions grew at workplaces and in the communities in which they settled.

That spring, black and white workers had been hired to scab on a local strike. 

The violence began on May 28, when trade unionists marched to the mayor’s office, protesting the black labor they considered ‘unfair competition.’ 

It quickly turned into an anti-black riot. 

The National Guard was called out to quell the violence. 

Then on this day, two days of rioting began when a car of white men drove through a black neighborhood and fired at a group of blacks. 

Racist mobs killed as many as 200 African-Americans.

6000 more were left homeless. 

Many remarked bitterly that the police and National Guard stood by, indifferent to the race violence around them. 

The President of the Illinois Federation of Labor insisted that employers were to blame for using Southern blacks to break the back of labor.

Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs declared the riots were “a foul blot upon the labor movement.” 

Debs continued, “Had the labor movement freely opened their doors to the Negro instead of barring him, the atrocious crime of East St. Louis would never have blackened the pages of American History.”


July 1 ;The Po Boy is Born

July 1, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1929. 

That was the day 1800 streetcar drivers and motormen walked off the job at New Orleans Public Service. 

The Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees, Division 194, had been in contract negotiations for months. 

They demanded higher wages, a closed shop and an end to arbitrary discharges.

The company was looking to bust the Amalgamated with the creation of a company union.

For the first few days, the strike was quiet.

But then on July 5, the company brought in strikebreakers

10,000 union members and their supporters gathered to stop scab service.

The company attempted to run a lone streetcar down Canal Street. 

Immediately it was pelted with bricks and stones. 

The scab driver bailed. 

Another four cars attempted to leave the car barn. 

Pitched battles raged for hours with police and scabs. 

Two union men were shot and killed by scabs and hundreds more injured. 

Trade unions throughout the city threatened a general strike. 

The strike raged on for two months. 

Throughout the summer, trolleys were burned to the ground, tracks destroyed, switches cemented in place.

As the weeks wore on, conditions became more desperate. 

That’s when Clovis and Bennie Martin, former division 194 conductors, decided to help out. 

They had since left public transit to open the Martin Brothers’ Coffee Stand and Restaurant. 

They declared to their former union brothers, “We are with you heart and soul. We are with you till h—l freezes over.” 

They offered free super-sized sandwiches for the “poor boys.’

The strikers would eventually win some of their demands. 

The sandwiches would become a standard in New Orleans cuisine, better known as the po-boy.


June 30 Slave Convict Lease Ends in Alabama

June 30, 2017

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.