October 11 The Woman Behind the Lens Passes On

October 11, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1965. 

That was the day acclaimed photojournalist Dorothea Lange died.

She is celebrated for her work documenting the Great Depression for the Farm Security Bureau. 

Lange’s photos captured images of migrant workers, sharecroppers and the rural poor.

Her iconic photo, Migrant Mother, is probably her most well known image.

It depicts a despondent, Dust Bowl mother surrounded by her hungry children. 

Lange was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895.

She suffered the effects of polio as a child, which left her with a permanent limp. 

She studied photography at Columbia University in New York, and eventually settled in the Bay Area. 

When the Great Depression hit, she began photographing labor strikes, breadlines and soup kitchens, the homeless and unemployed.

The Resettlement Administration hired her soon after. 

Nowadays, we can access images from around the world at a moment’s notice that broaden our understanding of current events. 

But until the 1930s, few Americans could access media that adequately depicted the desperate social conditions engulfing the nation. 

Federal programs that funded projects like Lange’s brought Depression-era images into the public eye. 

Americans soon realized their suffering wasn’t caused by personal failure; that millions across the country were experiencing destitution brought on by broader economic forces. 

During World War II, Lange worked for the War Relocation Authority, where she documented forced evacuation and internment of Japanese-Americans. 

Her images, especially of Manzanar, were withheld from the public until after the war and were accessible to the public through the National Archives. 

After the war, she taught at San Francisco’s Art Institute and cofounded the magazine Aperture

She has been heralded as an innovator and has influenced generations of documentary photography.

 

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October 10 Mill Workers Strike

October 10, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1912. 

That was the day mill workers began to walk off the job at the Phoenix and Gilbert Knitting Mills in Little Falls, New York.

The strike was sandwiched between the Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts and the 1913 Paterson textile strike.

American, Hungarian, Polish and Italian workers, over 70% of them women, struck against wage reductions. 

Their hours had just been cut from 60 hours a week to 54, and their wages adjusted accordingly. 

A recent factory inspection commission investigation revealed deplorable working and living conditions, among the worst in the state.

As a result, state legislators passed protective legislation restricting women’s work hours.

Many social reformers pushed for laws like these in the hopes of improving women’s quality of life by minimizing their exploitation on the job. 

But the reduction in hours spelled disaster for these mill women, who then faced a loss of income that ranged from 75 cents to $2 a week.

Socialists in nearby Schenectady, including the socialist mayor George Lunn, arrived in town and were promptly arrested for giving open-air speeches in support of the strikers. 

IWW organizers soon followed to help organize picketing, daily strike parades and strike committees at each of the factories. 

They quickly established IWW Local 801, National Industrial Union of Textile Workers. 

By the end of the month, mounted police closed in on the women strikers and began clubbing them, many into unconsciousness. 

The police raided strike headquarters and arrested IWW strike committee leaders.

But the women strikers stood strong and were celebrating victory by the beginning of the year. 

They won full reinstatement and 60 hours pay for 54 hours work.

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October 9 Mary Ann Shadd Cary is Born

October 9, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1823.

That was the day abolitionist and women’s suffragist, Mary Ann Shadd Cary was born. 

Her parents were free blacks of color in the slave state of Delaware.

They were involved with many prominent abolitionists and active in the Underground Railroad.

The family moved to Pennsylvania, where Mary and her siblings were educated in Quaker schools.

As a young woman, Mary became a teacher and returned to Wilmington, Delaware where she opened a school for black children. 

Once the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, Mary and many other free blacks fled to Canada to safely continue their abolitionist work.

She opened a school for fugitive slaves in Windsor, Ontario just across the river from Detroit. 

Mary soon came under fire in the local press for insisting the school be racially integrated. 

She responded by starting her own newspaper, The Provincial Freeman.  

She and her husband, Thomas often traveled to the United States to continue their anti-slavery work. 

They were present at John Brown’s 1858 Constitutional Convention.

Mary worked with Osborne Perry Anderson to publish his 1861 memoir, A Voice from Harper’s Ferry.

Anderson had participated in Brown’s raid and was the lone African-American survivor. 

After her husband’s death, Mary returned to the United States with her children to help recruit black soldiers to the Union Army.

Once the Civil War was over, Mary moved to Washington D.C to teach.

She enrolled in Howard University where she earned a law degree.

There she joined the National Woman Suffrage Association and worked with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

She continued to advocate for civil rights and women’s equality until her death in 1893.

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October 8 Locked Out and Ready to Fight

October 8, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1933. 

That was the day garment factory owners locked out dressmakers in several shops throughout Los Angeles.

The women garment workers, overwhelmingly Mexican, had been organizing with the ILGWU for over a month.

They began conducting strikes at selected shops the previous month to press their demands. 

The women wanted union recognition, a thirty-five hour workweek, an end to homework, shop floor committees, a guaranteed wage and more.   

Historian Douglas Monroy observes that their demands reflected the harsh working conditions they faced. 

It was a volatile, competitive, seasonal industry. 

Businesses worked tirelessly to undercut each other and job out the work. 

Women workers were routinely unemployed or underemployed, subject to widespread wage theft and discrimination.

They were frustrated by promises of the new National Industrial Recovery Act, which promised the right to organize but held no provisions for enforcement. 

Employers flaunted the new legislation and continued to discharge workers for union activity. 

When the employers forced a lockout, Local 96 looked to the AFL’s Central Labor Council to sanction a general dressmakers strike, which started four days later on October 12.

As many as 3,000 Latina strikers maintained solid picket lines, despite dozens of arrests. 

ILGWU organizer Rose Pesotta arrived from New York to help with food distribution and packing the picket lines.

The rank and file leadership produced a bilingual strike bulletin and made daily radio announcements. 

The strike ended in arbitration that conceded few gains to the garment workers.

But the women of Local 96 continued to organize throughout the Los Angeles area. 

They led a series of strikes that finally won the closed shop in 1936.

 

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October 7 Joseph Labadie Dies

October 7, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1933.

That was the day Detroit anarchist labor leader, Joseph Labadie died. 

Born in Paw Paw in 1850, Jo was born to descendants of French immigrants and grew up among Native Potawatomi peoples in southwest Michigan. 

He became a printer, joined the local Typographical Union No.18 and worked for the Detroit Post and Tribune

He was an early leader of the Socialist Labor Party. 

By 1878, Jo organized the first Knights of Labor Assembly in Detroit. 

He served as the first president of the Detroit Trades Council and founded the Michigan Federation of Labor. 

He wrote tirelessly for a number of labor and socialist newspapers across the country. 

He embraced anarchism and soon produced a popular column titled, “Cranky Notions.” 

Labadie enjoyed the company and correspondence with radical labor leaders like Emma Goldman, Albert and Lucy Parsons, Eugene V. Debs, Benjamin Tucker, Terrance Powderly and others of the Progressive Era. 

He was often referred to as ‘The Gentle Anarchist’ for his insistence on non-violence and distancing from those Anarchists who advocated the use of violence as an acceptable tactic.

Labadie was also known to never throw out any printed material relevant to labor or radical causes. 

His biographer, Carlotta Anderson notes that, “the story of his life, deeds and thoughts is abundantly revealed through the treasure trove of letters, periodicals, clippings, manuscripts, booklets, photos and circulars once stored in his attic and now housed in the Labadie Collection of the University of Michigan. His stockpile of documents of social protest has proved a boon to scholars, enabling them to study the early labor movement in detail.” 

When he died at the age of 83, he considered this to be his legacy.

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October 6 Fannie Lou Hamer is Born

October 6, 2017

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

That was the day Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi. 

She was the youngest of 20 children.

Her parents were sharecroppers and she began working the fields at the age of six. 

At the age of 12, Fannie had to drop out of school to sharecrop to meet the needs of her family.

Marrying in 1944, she and her husband continued to work as sharecroppers on a plantation near Ruleville. 

After decades of abject poverty and Southern political repression, Fannie Lou Hamer joined up with voter registration activists in 1962. 

When she and seventeen others traveled to Indianola to register, Fannie was fired from her job and driven from the plantation she had worked at for decades. 

She began working with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and played a central role in organizing Freedom Summer. 

In a short time, Fannie was repeatedly arrested, beaten and shot at for her activism. 

She suffered kidney damage after police beat her nearly to death in a Winona, Mississippi jail as she traveled home from a literacy workshop. 

By 1964, she helped to found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the all-white delegation to the Democratic Convention. 

President Lyndon Johnson was so threatened by live testimony she was giving before the Convention’s Credentials Committee, that he orchestrated an emergency press conference to preempt the broadcast. 

When the Committee attempted a backroom deal to seat just two MFDP delegates with no voting rights at the convention, Hamer and other delegates left in disgust. 

Hamer continued her activism but her life was tragically cut short in 1977 from hypertension and breast cancer. 

She was just 59.

 

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October 5 Labor Candidates Step Up

October 5, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1886. 

That was the day Henry George accepted the nomination to run for mayor of New York on the United Labor Party ticket. 

In cities across the country, trade unionists met to found state labor parties and to hammer out political platforms for local and state elections.

In New York City, ULP advocates issued the Clarendon Hall platform and nominated Henry George as the ULP candidate for the mayoral race. 

George had gained prominence with the 1879 publishing of his book, Progress & Poverty.  

In it, he addressed private land ownership as the basis for inequality and advocated for a single tax system. 

At New York’s Cooper Union that evening, where thousands of supporters gathered, George addressed the crowd. 

He presented the ULP platform: higher pay, shorter hours, better working conditions, government ownership of railroads and communications and an end to police repression. 

Burrows and Wallace describe the scene that night in their book, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.  

During his speech, George declared that, “this government of New York City—our whole political system is rotten to the core.” 

He argued that “politicians had made a trade out of assembling votes and selling them to powerful interests; what business got in return was police protection, lax enforcement of housing and health codes, friendly judges and fat franchises. To purify the political order, working class voters had to sever ties to all the established parties and choose from their own ranks.” 

For a party that had just been founded weeks before, George came in second. 

But like its sister organization in Chicago, the New York ULP would split over the issue of socialism within a year.

 

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October 3 The Father-Son Strike

October 3, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1932. 

That was the day the State Militia was called into Kincaid, Illinois. 

164 high school students had just walked out of the classroom, declaring themselves on strike.

They were protesting the school board’s use of coal from the Peabody Coal Company.

The students walked out in solidarity with their fathers, who were on strike against the Peabody Coal mine in nearby Langleyville over wage concessions. 

The father-son strike, as it was referred to, was one more in a series of protest actions that came on the heels of the founding of the Progressive Miners of America a month earlier.

Thousands of Illinois miners had just voted with their feet to repudiate John L. Lewis’ UMWA over wage concessions.

After their founding conference, new PMA leaders began aggressively organizing non-union mines.

They marched into mining towns and ordered non-union diggers out of the mines. 

They also struck UMW mines, picketing against the industry standard of $5 a day that had been set by the latest concessionary contract. 

At some mines, the PMA was able to win the old $6.10 a day wage. 

Throughout the month, the State National Guard had been called out to a number of mining towns to quell armed conflicts between PMA and UMW supporters. 

The Peabody Coal mine at Langleyville had been shut down for months by ongoing PMA/UMW conflict. 

Now it had reopened under heavy National Guard protection and was the only mine operating in Christian County. 

The striking fathers were PMA miners picketing the continued mine operations under the UMW concessionary contract.

The years-long Illinois mine wars had just begun.

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October 2 Striking for a Future

October 2, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1949.

That was the day Americans awoke to fears the nationwide steel strike would spread rapidly to include key fabrication plants.

Half a million steel workers had joined 400,000 coal miners on strike the morning before.

 The miners’ resolve to defend their $100-a month pensions, instituting what John L. Lewis called the “no-day work week,” emboldened the steel workers to walk out of the mills.

Within 24 hours, 96% of all steel production in the country was completely shut down. 

USW contracts were due to expire on the 15th, But the writing was on the wall. 

The mill owners decried anything close to mine pensions as nothing short of socialistic and refused to budge in negotiations. 

USW president Phil Murray thundered that those companies that failed to agree to demands for non-contributory pensions and insurance would be shut down. 

But militants warned that President Truman’s Fact-Finding Board had already watered down strike demands. 

The President’s Board had been established to put off two previous strike deadlines. 

The ‘guidelines’ it issued only encouraged steel magnates to stand tough against USW demands.

These included a 30-cent raise plus increased company insurance and pension contributions.

Now it had become a defensive struggle over whether steel workers would have to begin contributing to health and pension plans through wage cuts.

By the time steelworkers ended their strike forty-two days later, they had won the $100 a month pension, minus what they would receive from social security. 

And they had to begin contributing to a health insurance plan with no wage increase at all.

Still, workers celebrated that they had successfully defended the USW against the all out union-busting drive.

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September 17 The “Southern Differential”

September 17, 2017

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

That was the day workers at the International Harvester plant in Louisville, Kentucky had had enough. 

They had just rejected a pay scale lower than that of Harvester workers elsewhere.  

In her recent article for Leo Weekly, historian Toni Gilpin refers to the lower pay as the “Southern Differential.” 

Harvester workers walked off the job in a 40-day strike.

Black and white Louisville workers were united in a rare form of solidarity. 

International Harvester had had a long labor-hating history. 

Its forerunner had been the McCormick Reaper Works, the site that sparked the 1886 Haymarket incident in Chicago. 

Harvester had been able to keep the unions out until the Farm Equipment Workers/CIO finally organized there in 1941. 

And the FE followed Harvester as they attempted to escape to the union-free South. 

The FE successfully organized the new Louisville plant, just two months before the strike. 

Workers learned quickly that they were paid much less making the same equipment as their brothers in Chicago, Indianapolis and elsewhere. 

Gilpin adds that FE literature forthrightly stated, “Once the Negro and white workers were united, the low-wage system of the South would collapse.” 

Workers pressed for their demands, and appealed to area farmers for support. 

They stressed that farmers would not pay less for equipment, simply because local workers were paid less.

Black and white workers picketed together, ate together and planned their strike together at their new union hall.

Harvester initially tried to redbait FE leaders. 

When that failed, the company was forced to grant steep wage increases.

Gilpin cites FE News, which reported “two smashing victories in hand, one over International Harvester, the other over the Mason-Dixon, low-wage line.”

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