Labor History in 2:00
October 20 - Remembering Debs

October 20 - Remembering Debs

October 20, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1926. 

That was the day that one of the great labor leaders in U.S. history, Eugene V. Debs, died in Elmhurst, Illinois. 

In 1894, Debs gained national attention when his American Railway Union launched a boycott in support of the striking workers of Pullman Palace Car Company. 

The strike and the boycott were crushed by federal troops and a federal court.

Debs served six months in jail for his role in the boycott. 

Later Debs again would go to jail for standing up for his beliefs. 

He was convicted for speaking out against U.S. involvement in World War I.

He was among the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905.

He ran as a Socialist for President of the United States five times, receiving nearly a million votes running his campaign from a prison cell in 1920. 

In 1891 Debs wrote an article for the Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine titled “The Unity of Labor”

His words stand as an eloquent case for worker solidarity.

Debs wrote, “If workingmen were united in sympathetic bonds…if a bricklayer could comprehend the fact that he is dependent on the hod carrier;

if the locomotive engineer could grasp the fact that he is dependent on the locomotive fireman…

the interdependence of labor would at once constitute a bond of union, a chain whose links, forged and fashioned to hold workingmen in harmonious alliance, would girt them with a defense in every time of trouble and resist invasion, though assailed by all the plutocrats that ever cursed the earth.”

Debs spent his life trying to bring about this “harmonious alliance” of working people, and standing up for the causes of peace and justice.

October 19 -Tragedy on the Tracks

October 19 -Tragedy on the Tracks

October 19, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 2013. 

That was the day that two workers on California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART as it is more commonly called, were struck and killed by a train. 

Christopher Sheppard was a BART track engineer.

Laurence Daniels was a contract employee.

Both men had years of experience working on the tracks.   

They were inspecting the tracks when they were hit and killed. 

The workers who usually operated the trains were out on strike.

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 and SEIU Local 1021 had walked off the job the day before. 

The strike disrupted the daily commute of 400,000 Bay Area travelers.

The unions were striking for improved wages and safer working conditions. 

The union wanted bullet proof glass for station agent booths for worker safety. 

They also asked for improved lighting in the tunnels. 

According to an article in Mother Jones, “A BART spokesperson called the safety issues a “smoke screen,” arguing that contract negotiations were not the place to raise them.” 

In response to the strike, BART was training a replacement worker to run the trains when the tragedy occurred. 

The manager who was supposed to monitoring the unexperienced driver had left the car.  

In addition, the National Transportation Safety Board found that BART had no way for workers on the tracks to communicate with train drivers.

The family of Laurence Daniels sued BART, which settled for $300,000. 

The unions and BART settled the strike two days after the tragic deaths. 

The union won a nearly a 16 percent pay increase the over four of the year contract.

The union also won safety upgrades.

But management won concessions on employee contributions to medical benefits and pensions.


October 18 - The Voice of an Era

October 18 - The Voice of an Era

October 18, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1945. 

That was the day that Paul Robeson received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. 

The award was given annually to the African American with the “highest achievement.” 

Robeson certainly fit that criteria. 

He was born in Princeton, New Jersey. 

He attended Rutgers University, where he was an athletic standout and valedictorian. 

He earned his law degree from Columbia. 

He was a successful singer, as well as stage and film actor. 

He was an internationally recognized star, with singing engagements all around the world.

Robeson strongly supported labor and working people. 

He was also an outspoken critic of US colonialism. 

His stand for social justice made him a target of Senator Joe McCarthy during hysteria of the Cold War red-scare.

Because of his alleged Communist ties, in 1950 Robeson’s passport was revoked. 

It took him eight years to get it reissued. 

During that time, he could not travel abroad to perform. 

The International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers invited Robeson to sing at their Canadian convention in 1952. 

Since he could not travel, he sang over the telephone. 

The union then organized a concert on the Washington State-Canadian border. 

Standing on a flatbed truck parked on the US side of the border he gave a 45-minute performance to a crowd of 40,000. 

He started the concert by saying, "I stand here today under great stress because I dare, as do you -- all of you, to fight for peace and for a decent life for all men, women and children.”  

October 17 - Fighting to End Poverty

October 17 - Fighting to End Poverty

October 17, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1987. 

That was the day that more than 100,000 people gathered in Paris to stand up against poverty and hunger. 

The gathering was inspired by Father Joseph Wresinski, a French Catholic Priest.

He founded the All Together in Dignity Fourth World Movement, dedicated to addressing poverty. 

That day unveiled a Commemorative Stone to honor the victims of extreme poverty.  

The stone bears an image of two people, arms outstretched releasing a bird to the sky.  

The stones inscription read, “On this day, defenders of human and civil rights from every continent gathered here.  They paid homage to the victims of hunger, ignorance and violence.  They affirmed their conviction that human misery is not inevitable.  They pledged their solidarity with all people who, throughout the world, strive to end extreme poverty.”

The site they chose to place the stone was significant. 

The Trocadero Plaza in Paris is where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirmed the basic rights of all people, including the right “to form and to join trade unions” and the “right to equal pay for equal work.” 

Placing the Commemorative Stone at this important spot was a continuation of this legacy. 

In the years since then, on this very day, other cities around the world have commemorated replicas of the stone. 

Nearly twenty cities in France have dedicated stones. 

Cities in Canada, Mexico, Switzerland, Belgium, Ireland, Scotland, Great Britain, Italy, Poland, Portugal and the Philippines have also placed these tributes. 

In 1992, the United Nations declared October 17, the annual International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. 

October 16 - Thank a Farmer

October 16 - Thank a Farmer

October 16, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1979. 

That was the day that the United Nation’s established the idea of holding an annual “World Food Day.” 

The aim of the day is to bring global attention to the problem of hunger and to build international solidarity to fight the problem. 

The first World Food Day was observed two years later. 

One feature of the day is a teleconference, that brings together some of the world’s top experts in the fields of agriculture, nutrition and human rights.

Each year a different theme is chosen for the day. 

For the first two years the theme was simply, “Food Comes First.” 

In 1984, the chosen theme was “Women in Agriculture.”

Women were again the focus in 1998, with the theme “Women Feed the World.” 

In 1986, the day featured “Fishermen and Fishing Communities.”

“Small Farmer” were the theme in 1987, and in 2014, the theme was “Family Farming: Feeding the World, Caring for the Earth.” 

That year the United Nations declared 2014 “International Year of Family Farming.” 

A UN report found that 500 million family farms “make up over 98% of farming holdings” and were responsible for “at least 56% of agricultural production.” 

In the United States family farmers produced “84 percent of all produce.” 

The website for the 2014 World Food Day in the United States and Canada, recognized the importance of family farm workers. 

It stated, “And yet, despite their critical importance, a large majority of family farmers are among the world’s most vulnerable populations. Ironically, it’s not uncommon for many of the families who produce food to actually go hungry themselves.”

Today, on World Food Day take a moment and thank a farmer

October 15 - Meager Compensation for the Loss of Life

October 15 - Meager Compensation for the Loss of Life

October 15, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1990. 

That was the day that President George H. W. Bush signed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. 

Worker safety at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site had been sacrificed during the Cold War era, as the United States rushed to keep pace with the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal.

The result was an increase in cancers including leukemia from workers being exposed to deadly radiation. 

For more than a decade these workers tried to get congress to pass legislation for compensation for radiation sickness. 

Uranium miners from states including Nevada, Utah, Arizona,New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming also joined the effort filing a suit against the government. 

The courts ruled against the workers, ruling that national security needs trumped worker safety.

Democratic Representative Wayne Owens, from Utah, sponsored a bill to give the workers compensation. 

In a statement carried by the New York Times, Representative Owens called the bill “an apology to those people and their heirs on behalf of the Government and the American people that they were subjected and sacrificed for the Cold War nuclear weapons.”  

President Bush explained the scope of the act at the signing ceremony saying quote, “The bill provides compassionate payments to persons with specified diseases who fear that their health was harmed because of fallout from atmospheric atomic testing at the Nevada test site, regardless of whether causation can be scientifically established. The bill entitles each person meeting specific criteria to a payment of $50,000. Uranium miners meeting separate criteria will be entitled to compassionate payments in the amount of $100,000.”

The bill established a $100 million fund for workers and residents who lived down wind of the Nevada test site.

October 14 - Marching for Equality

October 14 - Marching for Equality

October 14, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1979. 

That was the day that the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights took place in Washington D.C. 

Estimates of marchers ranged from as few 75,000 to as many as 200,000.

The year of the march was significant. 

It marked the ten-year anniversary of the police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. 

When police raided Stonewall it sparked a series of protests that helped launch the modern LGBT rights movement. 

Ten years later, gay and lesbian Americans still faced significant employment and legal discrimination. 

Many also faced violence.

The published program for the event included a tribute to Harvey Milk, the openly gay Member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who had been assassinated a year earlier. 

Lyrics to the song “Harvey Milk’s Body” was written for the tune of “John’s Brown Body.”

The program also included an article urging march participants to lobby Capitol Hill for justice. 

A sample letter to congress was printed as a template. 

It noted that that “Many lesbians and gay men face unjust discrimination in employment,” and called for change. 

The march organizers issued five demands. 

The second demand was that President Carter issue an “order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the Federal Government, the military and federally-contracted private employment.” 

The program included a list of organizations that supported the march. 

Not many labor unions endorsed, with a few notable exceptions such as Actors Equity Association, three AFSCME locals, and one American Federation of Teachers local. 

More demonstrations in Washington D.C. followed. 

A march held in 1993 drew crowds estimated at one million—a powerful gathering for the movement to end LGBT discrimination.

October 13 - We Whipped the Ivy League and You Can Too!

October 13 - We Whipped the Ivy League and You Can Too!

October 13, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1985.  That was the day that clerical and support staff at Columbia University went out on strike.

More than 1,000 staff members were represented by United Auto Workers District 65.  The workers wanted improvements to benefits and wages. They were also concerned by pay discrimination for women and minorities.  

Two days before the proposed strike was set to begin the workers held a rally.  Trade union leaders spoke out in support of the clerical staff.  Members of the clerical staff union from Yale University also made the trip to support the Columbia workers.  The Yale union had won its first contract just the year before after a ten-week strike.

The Yale delegation changed, “We love you 65, oh yes we do, we whipped the Ivy League and You Can too.”  The strike lasted for five days. Some of the students formed “Students for a Fair Contract” and helped pass out leaflets on the picket lines.  The Teamsters refused to cross the picket lines, stopping deliveries to campus. 

According to the Columbia Spectator newspaper, the final contract including significant gains for the members.  They won “a six percent pay increase with retro-activity and additional hikes for minority workers, lower deductibles on medical insurance, and non-discriminatory clause, and new technology language.”

The union victory at Columbia was part of a wave of strikes by clerical workers at some of the nation’s top schools.  Stanford staff went on strike in 1974 and 1982.  Cornell staff held three strikes during the 1980s. The workers who helped to run these elite, well-funded institutions were standing up for their rights as workers.


October 12 - Workers Begin to Come Together

October 12 - Workers Begin to Come Together

October 12, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1845. That was the day that the first Industrial Congress of the United States met in New York.  People interested in the problems facing working people—including long hours, low pay and unsafe conditions gathered together.

The labor movement was just beginning in this country.  These were the years when early trade unions were formed.  Women played an important role in this early movement.

Female textile mill workers in Lowell Massachusetts began to organize for the ten-hour day.  In 1844 they established the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association.  Their goal was to improve conditions in the mills.  The Lowell women’s group sent a representative to New York for the labor congress.

Another important development of the fledgling labor movement was the establishment of labor presses. George Henry Evans, a labor newsman, also attended the congress.  He was the editor of a series of U.S. labor papers, starting with the Workingman’s Advocate in 1829. He had come to the United States from England, where he had been involved in the trade labor movement. He also attended the labor congress.

The meeting recommended the formation of three organizations.  The first was an “Industrial Brotherhood,” for workers including farmers.  The second was an “Industrial Sisterhood” for women workers.  The third was a group for friends of labor.  The congress met again in New York in 1847.  It next met in Chicago in 1950. 

These early efforts to establish larger labor groups did not gain much traction.  But they began to lay the framework for workers to come together to discuss their challenges and imagine how they could work together to bring about change.

October 11 - Born into Privilege, But…

October 11 - Born into Privilege, But…

October 11, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1874.  That was the day that Mary Heaton Vorse was born in New York City. 

She grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts in a well-off family.  She traveled across Europe with her parents, receiving her education and learning to speak multiple languages fluently. 

She then worked as a book reviewer for the Criterion magazine.  In 1912 Mary and the man who would be her husband witnessed the Massachusetts’s textile strike.  The experience was a turning point in her life. She later wrote: “Both Joe O’Brien and I had come a long road to get to Lawrence…Together we experienced the realization of the human cost of our industrial life.  Something transforming happened to both of us.  We knew now where we belonged—on the side of the workers and not with the comfortable people among whom we were born…Some synthesis had taken place between my life and that of the workers, some peculiar change that would never again permit me to look with indifference on the fact that riches for the few were made by misery of the many.  It was in Lawrence that we realized what we must do, that we could make one contribution—that of writing the workers’ story—as long as we lived.”  

For more than fifty years after Lawrence, Mary travelled the United States, reporting and participating in strikes and the labor movement.  She wrote about the 1919 steel strike, and the lumber workers in the Pacific Northwest.  She wrote about the struggles of auto workers and textile workers and child labor.  In 1962 the United Auto Workers honored Mary with the Social Justice Award.  

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