August 28 Filipino Lettuce Workers Strike

August 28, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1934. 

That was the day 7,000 white and Filipino lettuce workers in California’s Salinas Valley walked out on strike. 

Salinas was the lettuce capital of the world. 

The division of labor in the Valley was largely ethnically based. 

Filipinos did much of the field labor, while whites worked in the packing sheds. 

At the time, Filipinos made up 40% of the total agricultural workforce in the Salinas Valley. 

They had founded the Filipino Labor Union a year earlier.

White packing shed workers had organized into the AFL’s Vegetable Packers Association.

While the VPA had been reluctant to work with the FLU, they now sought to join forces in strike action. 

Both unions agreed neither would return to work until both had achieved victory. 

Together, they demanded wage increases, union recognition and better working conditions. 

Losing $100,000 a day, the growers soon imported scabs of all races. 

They enlisted California Highway Patrols to arrest striking Filipinos on incitement and vagrancy charges. 

Soon the VPA agreed to arbitration, leaving the FLU to continue the strike alone. 

Some speculated the members were threatened with the loss of their charter if they refused to return to work. 

The striking Filipino workers continued to organize job actions and experienced increased retaliation as a result. 

VPA leaders publicly distanced themselves from the Filipino strikers and racially charged vigilante violence intensified. 

It culminated in the burning down of the labor camp where hundreds of Filipino workers lived a month after the strike began. 

Vigilantes then drove as many as 800 Filipinos from the Valley at gunpoint. 

The strike was officially called off and those that remained returned to work.

By October, both unions had won wage increases.

 

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August 13 Miner’s Rise up Against Convict Lease Scheme

August 13, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1892.

That was the day miners in Tracy City, Tennessee rebelled against the state’s convict lease system.

Miners had been forced to work side by side with convict labor.

The convicts, overwhelmingly African-American, were forced to live in deplorable stockade conditions.

Their presence in the mines served to minimize paid labor, keep wages low and stunt union organizing throughout the state.

Miners demanded that Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad give them the same hours of work as the convicts. 

When they refused, the miners marched on the stockades where convicts were housed. 

They released the convicts and marched them onto trains bound for Nashville, burning the stockades to the ground. 

The revolt at Tracy City followed armed uprisings of thousands of miners the previous year in nearby Briceville and Coal Creek. 

Here it is thought that Knights of Labor leaders led miners to surround stockades, disarm guards, and release convicts onto Knoxville bound trains over the course of several days. 

By August 1892, hundreds of miners would confront state forces in armed shootouts across Grundy, Marion and Anderson counties, releasing convicts when they could onto trains bound for Nashville. 

Miners were eventually arrested and convicted. 

But these revolts would lead the Tennessee General Assembly to end its convict lease system four years later, making it one of the first Southern states to do so.

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August 12 Teamster Organizer Kidnapped and Beaten

August 12, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1955. 

That was the day Teamsters organizer, 28-year old William Grami was kidnapped and beaten. 

Grami had arrived in Sebastopol, California to help organize about 350 workers in local canneries, drying plants and fruit sheds.

The Teamsters had been on campaign footing for months, in an attempt to win union recognition, higher wages and benefits. 

They had lost a union representation election the previous fall, after Sebastapol Apple Growers moved quickly to lay off union supporters. 

By January, cannery workers at Oscar Hall and Sons voted for union representation, though workers at Barlow Company would vote against the union just two months later. 

But by early August, the strike wave hit. 

Workers walked off the job at the Sebastopol Cooperative Cannery. 

More at seven other area canneries joined them on strike in the days that followed. 

Grami would later testify that he had heard reports weeks earlier of a grower threatening to have him killed within three hours, should any strike actually take place.

During the strike that would ultimately prove victorious, three men kidnapped Grami outside the union hall. 

He was driven along a rural road, tied to a pole, gagged and beaten with a bicycle chain. 

Left for dead, he was found the next day and hospitalized immediately. 

But the union and the strikers remained undeterred. 

Before the strike was over, scab trucks attempting to haul apples to market were vandalized or burned, and scab drivers were beaten. 

Eight months later, the apple industry finally came to the negotiating table. 

By May 1956, area apple growers signed with the Teamsters.

 

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August 11 International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union founded

August 11, 2017

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

That was the day the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union was founded. 

After the victorious strike of 1934 that established the union hiring hall, 

West Coast union leaders embarked on an inland campaign to organize the thousands of warehouse workers who handled shipped goods. 

But West Coast dockworkers overwhelmingly chose to join the CIO after it was expelled from the AFL earlier that year. 

They found the ILA planned to abandon the warehouse workers they had worked so hard to organize. 

They also opposed dues assessments to fight the CIO and disagreed with the ILA’s hostility to minimum wage laws, social security and unemployment insurance. 

Radicals like Harry Bridges and others had established themselves not only as workers leaders but also led attacks on Jim Crow racism in the ranks and in the industry. 

The success of the 1934 strike was due in part to the welcoming of blacks into the ranks of the union. 

In his Workers on the Waterfront, historian Bruce Nelson notes that, “the ILWU’s well-known opposition to racial discrimination was an important factor in the union’s expansion into Hawaii, not only on the waterfront but among sugar and pineapple plantation workers. The triumph of the ILWU in Hawaiian agriculture brought about a degree of fraternization across racial lines that few had thought possible.” 

Since then, the union has beat back numerous Taft–Hartley and McCarthy era attacks. 

More recently, the ILWU has been in the forefront of broader social justice struggles, leading walkouts and work stoppages for various political causes. 

Today it represents close to 60,000 workers, including those locals that initially refused to affiliate.

 

 

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August 10 Four Railroad Brotherhoods walk off the job in IL

August 10, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1922. 

That was the day 1300 workers from the four railroad brotherhoods walked off the job in Joliet, near Chicago. 

The walkout threatened to paralyze freight service for steel mills in nearby Gary and other regional industries. 

Four hundred thousand railroad shopmen had been on strike across the country for nearly seven weeks. 

Newspaper headlines that day warned a general strike of two million trainmen loomed on the horizon. 

Brotherhood leaders promised sympathy strikes in response to threats made against their members by troops on duty at railroad centers and yards. 

There were also real concerns about the health and safety of trainmen, given rolling stock was no longer being maintained. 

In Joliet, workers stayed away under threats from troops. 

Additionally, Illinois Central trainmen faced threats from striking miners throughout Kentucky and Illinois, who warned: 

“Stop transporting non-union coal or suffer the consequences.” 

Resentment had been building against state guard troops stationed in Illinois yards. 

Earlier in the week, striking shopmen had engaged in a fatal confrontation with Joliet sheriffs that left a striker and railroad detective dead and scores injured. 

Riot orders were called when authorities sought to arrest striking shopmen who had stormed the home of a scab. 

Brotherhood workers refused to return to work unless troops were removed. 

Warren Stone, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers stated: “We are not going to have our men shot up or beaten up or threatened by armed guards at railroad shops and yards.

When the men cannot go to work without having irresponsible armed guards endangering their lives, they may go home and stay there.

There will be 100 more cases soon if conditions are not changed.”

 

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August 9 53 Workers Killed in Explosion

August 9, 2017

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

That was the day fifty-three construction tradesmen were killed in a fire at the Titan II ICBM launch complex near Searcy, Arkansas. 

It is considered one of the worst industrial accidents at a U.S. nuclear weapons facility. 

The complex was one of four sites containing Titan II missiles. 

Each missile weighed 340,000 pounds, measuring 103 feet in length and 10 feet in diameter. 

President Johnson had just committed more troops to the Vietnam War.

The Air Force hoped to strengthen the silo against a possible Soviet attack. 

They had contracted with Peter Kiewit and Son of Colorado to bring in electricians, carpenters, millwrights, painters and pipefitters for a number of tasks. 

Crews worked to shore up the silo, improve the blast doors, adjust hydraulics and install emergency lighting. 

52 of 55 workers on all nine levels of the silo were almost immediately asphyxiated when it suddenly filled with smoke and heat. 

The Air Force determined a welder on level 2 accidentally pierced a high-pressure hydraulic line, igniting the fire. 

Investigators also concluded the silo lacked adequate ventilation, alternative exits and independent power sources. 

The contractor was held responsible for numerous safety violations, contributing to unsafe working conditions. 

The welder was found drowned in hydraulic fluid. 

Two survivors suffered burns and smoke inhalation. 

They contested the Air Force’s findings. 

One worker insisted no one had been welding on level 2. 

The other survivor stated he saw flames burst from the diesel engine just before the power went out. 

Both men insisted the fire started from below. 

By 1981, two more deadly accidents involving Titan II missiles would prompt President Reagan to order their deactivation.

 

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August 8 First Black Labor Leader Elected in MN

August 8, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1902. 

That was the day more than 100 trade union delegates representing thousands of working people in St. Paul, Minnesota elected Charles James to be the president of the city’s Trades and Labor Assembly. 

Virtually forgotten by history, James is considered to be the first African American elected to a city labor council anywhere in America.

He was born in 1866 in St. Paul and began working as a leather cutter for local shoe manufacturers at age 15. 

This was at a time when most African Americans were excluded from skilled trades.

His biographer, Dave Riehle, asserts that it is unclear when James became involved in union politics and organizing. 

Shoe making was the largest mass production industry in St. Paul, employing thousands. 

Riehle notes the Knights of Labor had been active in the city during the 1880s and shoe workers were among the first to organize. 

By 1899, James had become the first president of a newly formed shoe workers union in Minneapolis and helped to found three more locals in St. Paul. 

By 1902, James was well known and well respected throughout the Twin Cities as a strong union leader. 

He served three terms as president of the Trades Assembly and then as secretary for seven more years. 

Riehle states that James continued as full time organizer and district business agent, traveling to cities across the Midwest to organize shoe workers. 

When he died in 1923, the Boot and Shoe Workers Union eulogized him in their national journal.  

Though James had been obscured from local labor history for decades, Riehle and others have worked to write Charles James back into the history books.

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August 7 Love Canal

August 7, 2017

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

­­­­­­­­­­­­That was the day President Jimmy Carter declared a federal health emergency at Love Canal, in the city of Niagara Falls, New York. 

Premier spokeswoman, housewife Lois Gibbs became the poster child for the citizen environmental justice movement virtually overnight. 

Niagara Falls Gazette journalists broke the story two years earlier.   

Their sump pump testings and health surveys found a number of toxic chemicals and unusually high rates of cancers, birth defects, miscarriages and other serious health concerns.

Initially planned as a canal, the site remained abandoned until the 1940s. 

That’s when Hooker Electrochemical Plant and the City began using the site to dispose of toxic chemical and municipal waste. 

More than 20,000 tons of toxic sludge containing more than 21,000 chemicals were buried there. 

Then, in 1953, the City School Board bought the site and built two schools on the property. 

Soon, about 1,000 families settled nearby.

By the early 70s, residents complained of foul odors, health issues, substances filling their basements and leaky waste disposal drums popping up in back yards, killing all plant life.

Class and racial tensions soon emerged among working class white homeowners and black renters, both of whom sought compensation and relocation. 

Carter’s initial declaration provided limited funding. 

But the disaster led to the passage of the Superfund Act. 

The neighborhood was demolished and residents were compensated and relocated.

The new owner of Hooker Chemical, Occidental Petroleum settled with the EPA for $129 million. 

Despite 21 years of remediation and residential redevelopment, new residents complained in 2011 of foul odors and ruptured sewage lines oozing toxic sludge. 

By 2014, 1,000 new complaints had been filed contending the area had never been properly remediated.

 

 

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August 6 Refinery Explodes in California

August 6, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 2012.

That was the day release of flammable vapor led to a fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California.

A Level 3 Community Warning System Alert was issued for the cities of Richmond, San Pablo and North Richmond.

Toxic black smoke could be seen for miles while the fire burned for hours.

Nineteen workers were nearly incinerated trying to escape the fire.

More than 15,000 area residents sought medical treatment for chest pain, breathing problems, headaches and sore throats.

The Chemical Safety Board found that the release was caused by a leaking pipe that eventually ruptured.

The pipe, made of carbon steel, suffered sulfidic corrosion.

The CSB noted that for 40 years, the refinery industry had known that carbon steel corrodes at a much faster rate than higher chromium content steel pipe.

The pipe in question had no shut off valve to isolate the leak. In its final report, the CSB issued a number of findings.

They found that Chevron knew of the corrosion but did nothing to prevent it.

As well, Chevron not only failed to perform 100 percent component inspections, but also rejected earlier recommendations to inspect and replace the pipe that would eventually fail.

When it came to Emergency Response, Chevron failed to identify and communicate process controls or damage mechanisms in the incident command structure.

They also had no leak response guidance or formal protocol to determine how to handle a process leak.

The CSB found the Safety Culture lacking. Workers were reluctant to use their Stop Work Authority and were often encouraged to continue operations despite hazardous conditions.

The CSB issued a number of recommendations, including more stringent regulatory enforcement.

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August 5, Labor Martyr Buried

August 5, 2017

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

That was the day IWW leader Frank Little was buried in Butte, Montana.

Little had been lynched on August 1, by police agents thought to be working for the despised Anaconda Copper Company.

He had arrived in town to help organize 14,000 striking copper miners.

Devastated by the deaths of 168 miners in the June fire at Granite Mountain & Speculator Mines, mine workers formed the Metal Mine Workers’ Union and walked off the job.

Frank Little had previously worked as a hard rock miner and organizer for the Western Federation of Miners. He also took part in the free speech campaigns on the West Coast.

Little was involved in early drives to industrially organize oil workers and lumberjacks.

He voiced his opposition to the First World War and sought to stop workers from enlisting. 

When Little arrived in Butte in July, he worked to build strike support, picket lines and spread the strike to other trades across the city.

Early on August 1, six masked men broke into the boardinghouse where he was staying. He was beaten and taken from his room.

His assailants tied him to the bumper of their car and dragged him through the granite streets of Butte to Milwaukee Bridge, where he was hanged.

An ominous note was pinned to his bullet-ridden body, with the words “Others Take Notice.

First and Last Warning.” It included the numbers 3-7-77 as well as the initials of other union organizers in the area.

As many as 10,000 marched in the funeral procession.

Days after his lynching, martial law was declared.

Labor radicals were rounded up and charged with espionage. The miners strike and union were crushed.

 

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