April 16 Jacob Coxey is born

April 16, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1854. 

That was the day wealthy Populist and labor advocate Jacob Coxey was born. 

He grew up in Danville, Pennsylvania and worked as a stationary engineer in an iron mill. 

Soon, he moved to Ohio and opened a sand quarry. 

He entered politics and initially campaigned as a candidate for the Greenback Party. 

By the 1890s he had thrown his lot in with the Populists. 

When the Panic of 1893 hit, workers flooded the industrial Midwest in search of jobs. 

Cities across the country were overwhelmed with the newly unemployed, begging on the streets. 

Coxey proposed a Good Works Bill, which demanded $500 million for federal jobs. 

He supported paper currency, public works projects, transportation for rural areas and full employment. 

He decided to take his proposal directly to Congress by organizing a protest march on behalf of the unemployed. 

Hundreds joined him on his march from Ohio to Washington D.C., forming Coxey’s Army.

They set off from Massillon, Ohio on Easter Sunday 1894, supported by Populists and organized labor. 

Estimates of marchers ranged into the tens of thousands. 

His army was stopped along the way by court injunctions preventing them from commandeering trains and seizing railway lines as they traveled. 

About 500 eventually reached Washington D.C. 

As Coxey climbed the steps of the Capitol to demand the Good Jobs Bill, he and his Army were met by police forces, which attacked the crowd and beat them back from the Capitol steps. 

Years later, his campaigning finally paid off and he was elected Mayor of Massillon. 

In 1944, he was invited back to the Capitol to deliver his Good Jobs Bill, which by that time had become official policy.


April 15 Women Stand in Solidarity

April 15, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1919. 

That was the day the telephone girls, as they were called, walked out on strike against New England Bell, essentially crippling communications in five New England states. 

It was considered the most massive strike of women workers since the ‘Uprising of the 20,000’ in 1909. 

They were members of the all-women National Telephone Operators’ Department of the IBEW. 

Historian Stephen Norwood devoted many pages to the strike in his book, Labor’s Flaming Youth.

The government had taken over the nation’s telephone and telegraph industry during World War I and placed it under the control of Postmaster General Albert Burleson. 

Just days earlier, thousands of angry women who worked in the Boston exchanges packed Faneuil Hall, demanding immediate strike action. 

Julia O’Connor, the leader of the telephone operator’s union, called the strike at 7 a.m. 

The union demanded a 60% wage increase and full scale to be reached after four years instead of seven. 

Union and non-union alike responded to the strike call and walked off the job, establishing 24 hour picketing. 

On the second day of the strike, over 1000 striking telephone operators marched through the streets of Boston and were cheered on by returning soldiers. 

O’Connor organized picketing around the Boston hotels where out-of-town strikebreakers were housed. 

Unionized service workers across the city denied services to the strikebreakers. 

Postmaster Burleson smeared the striking women as unpatriotic and threatened to replace them with returning soldiers. 

The soldiers however, sided with the telephone operators.

After five days, the union won direct bargaining rights and a $4 a week raise.

The strike was considered one of the few postwar World War I strikes to end in victory.



April 14 A Job or Be Sterilized

April 14, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1975.

That was the day union representatives at Bunker Hill Mining Company in Kellogg, Idaho were notified of a policy change.

The lead and zinc producer had decided to exclude fertile women from working in lead-exposed environments.

Women workers had to provide a doctor’s note stating they were infertile, post-menopausal or had been sterilized.

Otherwise they would be transferred to ‘safer’ departments at a substantial loss in pay.

Twenty-nine women took the transfer while at least 3 opted for sterilization.  

During World War II, companies like Bunker Hill promised millions of women workers they would eliminate hazards through engineering controls.

In the 1970s, a new wave of women gained work in several industries that used occupational safety language to implement exclusionary policies like the one at Bunker Hill.

These took the form of outright bans on hiring of women, either altogether or in many departments considered too toxic for women of childbearing age.

It meant the real loss of well over 100,000 potential industrial jobs for women.

Employers could have provided actual protection through better medical coverage and benefits, installation of engineering controls or protections to include men’s reproductive health.

Instead, these policies served to rollback economic and civil rights of women workers, regardless of whether they were mothers or ever planned to be.

The women appealed to their union, state and federal commissions and OSHA but faced an uphill battle.

OSHA initially fined Bunker Hill for outstanding violations and its sterilization policy, but dropped the case once Ronald Reagan took office.

The women eventually won wage equivalency in their new jobs, but women working in heavy industry would continue to battle such policies for more than a decade.



April 13 Colfax Massacre

April 13, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1873.

That was the day the single-most deadly incident of the Reconstruction Era occurred, known as the Colfax Massacre.

As many as 150 black Republicans in Colfax, Louisiana were slaughtered by white supremacists determined to destroy advances made by the formerly enslaved.

Results of the 1872 gubernatorial election in Louisiana had been hotly contested.

President Ulysses S. Grant ordered federal troops in, to support the Republican winner, William Pitt Kellogg.

A number of black Radical Republicans had also won or retained local and state political positions.

William Ward, a black Civil War veteran and militia leader, had won a seat in the state legislature.

By the beginning of April, he and others were being threatened with attacks on the Grant Parish Courthouse in Colfax and lynchings by defeated white Southern Democrats.

Desperate for back up, Ward and others left for New Orleans to appeal for federal reinforcement.

On the holy Easter Sunday, ex-Confederates, Klansmen and Democrats rode into Colfax, armed with guns, rifles, knives and a cannon.

150 black Republicans were ready to defend the Courthouse. 

Fighting raged on for hours but eventually black Republicans were forced to retreat and then were massacred.

97 whites were indicted on federal conspiracy charges under the 1870 Enforcement Act, designed to enforce civil rights and root out Klan terror.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in the ruling United States v. Cruikshank, which essentially gutted the Enforcement Act.

Of the 97 indicted, nine were tried, and three were initially found guilty.

The Cruikshank ruling eventually overturned their convictions, and effectively marked the legal end of Reconstruction.



April 12 Major Court Decision for Workers

April 12, 2017

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

That was the day the United States Supreme Court decided the case, National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation.

This case declared that the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was constitutional.

Also known as the Wagner Act, it is a key statute that provides the legal basis for private sector workers to organize, collectively bargain and strike.

Jones & Laughlin Steel, the fourth largest steel producer in the country at the time, had fired several workers trying to organize with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania in 1935.

The NLRB had originally ruled against the company and ordered the workers reinstated with full back pay.

But J&L refused, arguing that the Act was unconstitutional on the basis that the federal government did not have the right to regulate interstate commerce.

In a five to four decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that labor-management disputes did affect interstate commerce and thus, were subject to federal regulation.

Historian James Pope notes that the statute was upheld only after a “massive wave of worker militancy, punctuated by the spectacular six-week sit-down strike at General Motors’ plants in Flint Michigan, demonstrated what might have happened if the court decided the case differently.”

And in his book, The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, The CIO, and The Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America, legal scholar Ahmed White adds that “the case was decided only after two years of legal uncertainty… Before Jones & Laughlin was decided, CIO unions were already negotiating and signing collective bargaining agreements.”

Ruling the Wagner Act constitutional has nonetheless benefitted millions of workers for decades.


April 11 Transit Workers Fed Up

April 11, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1980.

That was the day New York City transit workers in TWU Local 100 ended their 11-day walkout.

The strike occurred in the context of hard times for New York City workers.

The city had teetered on the edge of municipal bankruptcy just a few years earlier.

Unrelenting inflation and austerity measures against municipal workers had taken its toll.

Years of recession meant freezes in hiring and promotions.

It also meant increasingly dangerous working conditions.

The MTA cutback funding for basic maintenance, investment and service.

Derailments, accidents and fires were common and crime soared at stations and bus stops.

Transit workers found themselves operating malfunctioning equipment and confronted by frustrated, angry riders.

With wages frozen, Cost of Living Adjustments, or COLA, capped and the establishment of a three-tier pension plan, workers had had enough.

They walked out on the first of the month, demanding a 30% wage increase, quarterly COLA and increased vacation time.

Mayor Ed Koch opposed the workers demands, fearing any victory for the union would ruin upcoming contract negotiations with the city’s 300,000 municipal workers.

He also used the strike as an occasion to whip up anti-union sentiment more generally.

While the contract was voted up by a three to one margin, labor historian Joshua Freeman notes that, “the 1980 strike ended up in victory that many transit workers saw as a defeat.”

Workers won a 17% wage increase over two years, a 3% cost of living adjustment and increased contributions to the health and welfare fund.

But they also had to concede to reduced breaks, two-tiered wages, and increased job duties across classifications.”



April 10 Baldwin Locomotive Explosion

April 10, 2017

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

That was the day as many as 139 workers, mostly women, were killed in an explosion at the Eddystone artillery shell plant, just outside Philadelphia.

The plant, owned by Baldwin Locomotive works, opened in 1916 and produced munitions for the Russian Army.

Baldwin also manufactured Enfield rifles and armored tanks for American forces.

The United States had just entered World War I days before.

Munitions production soared along with the number of new hires.

About 400 women worked in the F building at Eddystone, which was blown to bits.

F building was where powder fuses were manufactured, loaded into artillery shells and then inspected.

On this fateful morning, about 18 tons of black powder ignited, setting off thousands of shrapnel shells.

This caused a series of detonations felt as far as 10 miles away.

The blast blew some workers through the roof.

Others were found nearby in the Delaware River.

Of the dead, 55 were never identified.

Hundreds more survived, and were badly burned or seriously injured.

Immediately, German and then Russian immigrants were scapegoated as responsible for the blast. 

The press shrieked in hysteria over alleged sabotage by German agents opposed to U.S. entry into the war.

Others charged that Russian Revolutionaries at odds with the Russian White Army were at fault.

However, a guard testified that in fact there had been problems with electrically powered powder-loading devices that had been malfunctioning for some time.

He claimed the wires must have short-circuited and caused the spark.

One woman worker insisted, as she lay dying that a shell hit the powder and sparked the explosion.

The cause of the explosion remains a mystery to this day.



April 9 Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant

April 9, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1865.

That was the day Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia.

Grant’s Union army successfully cut off Confederate forces at the village of Appomattox Court House in Virginia.

Historians agree the terms were generous to the Confederacy.

The surrender marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War, with three more key surrenders before the end of May.

Half the country was in ruins, with as many as 750,000 dead.

In the North alone, millions more lay seriously injured.

At least 40,000 formerly enslaved blacks died fighting for their freedom.

It was considered the country’s turning point.

The Civil War ended the slave system, forged a centralized federal government and created a national structure for the institutional development of public health, veteran care and aid programs.

The Era of Reconstruction ushered in a period of hope and opportunity for black freedom, equality and prosperity.

But historian Gregory Downs argues in his book, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War that the war did not really end in 1865.

The South was essentially under military occupation until at least 1871.

Downs states “By severing the war’s conflict from the Reconstruction that followed, it drains meaning from the Civil War and turns it into a family feud, a fight that ended with regional reconciliation… Once white Southern Democrats overthrew Reconstruction, they utilized the Appomattox myth to erase the connection between the popular, neatly concluded Civil War and the continuing battles of Reconstruction.”

For Eric Foner, the period was one of revolution and counterrevolution, “a massive experiment in interracial democracy without precedent.”



April 8 Workers Standing with Their Leader

April 8, 2017

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

That was the day sparring between Henry Ford and John L. Lewis spilled over into the press.

The CIO formally declared their organizing drive of some 150,000 workers at Ford Motor Company.

John L. Lewis addressed a crowd of 25,000 the night before at the Detroit State Fair Grounds Coliseum, celebrating the recent organizing victory at Chrysler.

Lewis thundered, “Henry Ford will change his mind.”

He added that victories at Chrysler and General Motors came as a result of workers dissatisfaction with their conditions.

Lewis also noted that Ford Motor Company prevented workers from joining unions through a system of intimidation and coercion.

Ford insisted he would never recognize the UAW or any other union in response to sit-downs at Ford plants in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Notoriously anti-Semitic, he then alleged that international banking interests financed CIO organizing drives.

Ford maintained workers had no reason to celebrate organizing victories, claiming workers had lost through joining unions. 

“They’ve had their freedom taken away. They pay money to the unions and get nothing in return.”

But Ford was also one of the few industrial employers that hired blacks. Organizing at Ford meant organizing black workers.

It meant bringing black workers on as organizers and staffers in the UAW.

The UAW waged a pointed campaign to attract black workers at Ford and concentrated efforts at the massive River Rouge Complex.

UAW leaders Homer Martin and Wyndham Mortimer urged black workers to join up with them.

“We must solve together, not pitted against one another, all discrimination.”

It would take more than four years to finally organize at Ford, but black workers were at the forefront of that struggle.


April 7 Flora Tristan is born

April 7, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1803.

That was the day Utopian Socialist and women’s rights activist Flora Tristan was born.

She is also remembered as the grandmother of painter, Paul Gauguin. Mario Vargas Llosa most recently popularized her life in the 2003 novel, The Way to Paradise.

Her family was aristocratic but she grew up in poverty outside Paris.

The young Flora found work in an engraving shop and married the shop artisan, Andre Chazal.

Together they had three children.

When the marriage became violent, she left him, though divorce was impossible.

By some accounts, she became a maid for the wealthy and traveled Europe.

It was through her travels that she became a socialist.

She witnessed abject poverty and inequality in too many countries and was drawn to the works of the Utopian Socialists.

Tristan campaigned for the right of divorce and wrote at length of workers struggles on the cusp of industrialization.

Her novels, which confronted women’s inequality and workers rights, appeared in the late 1830s.

She regularly visited feminist and socialist salons in Paris where ideas linking social transformation and women’s rights were popular.

Her most well known work of non-fiction is The Workers’ Union, which appeared in 1843.

In it, Tristan argues that craft guilds could no longer adequately represent workers in an era of industrialization.

She envisioned an international union of workers that organized regardless of skill level, a union that took on broader issues of social justice.

Tristan also tied the advancement of women to the advancement of workers.

She believed that discrimination against women only strengthened anti-worker forces.

Workers and women had to take up each other’s causes in order to win true justice.