Labor History in 2:00
December 6 - Breaking Through the Racial Divide

December 6 - Breaking Through the Racial Divide

December 6, 2020

On this day in labor history, the year was 1869.

That was the day black workers met in Washington D.C. to found the Colored National Labor Union.

214 black trades people hoped to work towards equal representation in the workforce.

They also demanded antidiscrimination legislation, federally funded education and fulfillment of the promise of forty acres and a mule for Southern farmers.

34-year old black caulker, Isaac Myers, was elected president.

He had organized black caulkers in the Chesapeake shipyards.

Myers hoped to lead black workers into the National Labor Union, an early effort and building a national labor movement.

NLU founder William Sylvis insisted there should be no “distinction of race or nationality” among the ranks.

Myers added that white and black workers must come together in solidarity and organize for higher wages and living standards.

Many members of the NLU were not so progressive when it came to integrated unions.

Some of these organizations had whites-only clauses in their by-laws.

Others feared competition from black workers and voted not to extend membership. Myers understood the need to organize black workers.

While the NLU did not live up to its stated ideal of inclusion,

Myer’s effort welcomed all workers regardless of race, gender or occupation and represented workers across 21 states.

They were soon confronted with the full weight of resistance and hostile bosses, media and the government brought down upon them when they tried to push for reforms of any kind.

Though the CNLU soon fell into decline, black workers carried on its ideals of interracial solidarity, during the Great Strikes of 1877.

So did the new Knights of Labor who insisted, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

December 5 - Striking in Solidarity

December 5 - Striking in Solidarity

December 5, 2020

On this day in labor history, the year was 1944.

That was the day seven employees at Detroit’s Dodge Truck plant stopped working to protest the firing of a union brother.

When five of the seven were fired for the stoppage, it sparked a wildcat strike. 

Another 320 workers downed their tools and left the plant. It was World War II.

The Dodge Truck plant had been converted to wartime production.

Workers there built heavy trucks to ship to allies in China.

The unions had signed onto a no-strike pledge after Pearl Harbor was bombed.

President Roosevelt demanded labor peace to aid the war effort. Leaders of the AFL and CIO agreed to no strike, no lockout clauses.

The CIO went further and agreed to give up overtime pay.

Most union members were not consulted on the pledge and did not vote on it.

When they learned about the pledge after the fact, many workers, who had just come off victorious organizing drives, were in no mood to make concessions.

They witnessed surging wartime profits for their employers and no cap on executive salaries, while they had to deal with wage freezes and inflation.

Many were confronted with increasingly unsafe working conditions, violations of newly won contracts and arbitrary discipline and firings. Despite the no-strike pledge, wildcat strikes were common.

During the war, there were over 14,000 strikes involving more than 6 million workers. In 1944 alone, when workers walked out at Dodge Truck, there had been more strikes in auto plants than at any other time in the industry.

Workers found that short, spontaneous walkouts quickly resolved their grievances, regardless of the no-strike pledge

December 4 - Organizing to End Slavery

December 4 - Organizing to End Slavery

December 4, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1833.

That was the day prominent abolitionists convened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to found the American Anti-Slavery Society.

They drew up a constitution, demanding an immediate end to slavery.

They also demanded full civil rights for people of color.

These activists distinguished themselves from the American Colonization Society, which advocated repatriation of free blacks to Liberia.

Coming off the heels of the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831, much of the Societies’ work consisted of organizing petitions, meetings, and lecture tours.

These activities emphasized slavery’s brutality and inhumanity, and its immoral nature.

They also printed and distributed anti-slavery literature, like The National Anti-Slavery Standard newspaper.

The Society claimed 250,000 members by 1840.

They formed 2000 local chapters and published 20 journals.

Founders included prominent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, Theodore Weld and many Quakers and free blacks.

Fiery orators like Fredrick Douglass and the Grimke sisters soon emerged as key leaders.

These anti-slavery fighters endured mob violence, including riots and even murder, like that of Elijah Lovejoy in 1837.

The Society split in 1840.

Garrison condemned the US Constitution for its denial of freedom to African-Americans.

He and his supporters pushed for secession from the South if they would not abolish slavery.

They also promoted women into leadership positions.

More conservative elements considered this too radical.

They split to form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society.

Despite this, the abolitionist movement grew exponentially.

Anti-slavery ideas gained traction in new political parties and the movement’s work culminated in the enactment of the 13th, 14thand 15th amendments to the US Constitution  in the aftermath of the Civil War.



December 3 - Learning & Labor at Oberlin

December 3 - Learning & Labor at Oberlin

December 3, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1833. 

That was the day that the Oberlin Collegiate Institute was founded in northcentral Ohio. 

Today it is known as Oberlin College. 

The college was the project of two Presbyterian ministers John Jay Sipherd and Philo Stewart.

Their goal was to form a college based on Christian principals. 

In the early days, tuition was free and students were expected to give their labor to help sustain the school and community. 

The College motto “Learning and Labor” harkens back to that time. 

From early on the college was different than many other institutions of higher learning of its day. 

In 1835. Oberlin became the first predominantly white college admit black male students. 

Two years later, Oberlin broke new ground again, letting in women and becoming the first coed college in the nation. 

By opening its doors to black and women enrollees, Oberlin gave these students a chance to study and pursue careers that might otherwise have been closed to them. 

By the turn of the twentieth century, one third of all black professionals in the United States had graduated from Oberlin. 

In 1862, Mary Jane Patterson became the first African American woman to earn her bachelorette degree from Oberlin. 

She became a teacher and principal. 

Another black graduate, John Mercer Langston, would become the first black lawyer in Ohio and the first black congressman to represent Virginia in Washington, D.C. 

Oberlin College was also known for its stance supporting the abolition of slavery and later for supporting Civil Rights. 

The school was a stop on the Underground Railroad, which helped enslaved people escape into freedom in Canada. 

Oberlin gave people the opportunity of an education. 

December 2 - 21st Century Corporate Greed

December 2 - 21st Century Corporate Greed

December 2, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 2001. 

That was the day that the energy trading giant Enron filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. 

It was the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history up to that time. 

At its peak, the Houston based Enron was the seventh largest company in the country.   

A combination of mismanagement and all-out greed sank Enron.

The company used numerous accounting tricks and loopholes to hide billions of dollars of debt from its shareholders.

In August of 2000 shares in the company were worth $90.75. 

By November 30, 2001, they had plummeted to just 26 cents.

After filing bankruptcy thousands of Enron employees were left to go down with the ship. 

Many employees and retirees held thousands of dollars’ worth of Enron stock. 

Employees were told the company would recover. 

They were encouraged not to sell off their stock, and even to buy more.

At the same time top executives were dumping their stock holdings.

When the company went under, the employees’ retirement accounts were wiped out. 

Some who had already retired had to reenter the workforce.

The following January, a New York Timesreport shared the stories of some of the 4,000 employees laid off in the immediate aftermath of the bankruptcy. 

One was told he lost his job by voicemail. 

Another was told he had 30 minutes to clear out his desk. 

Multiple law suits won a portion of the money back for Enron stockholders. 

But employees lost more than $2 billion in retirement funds.

More than twenty top executives were found guilty for the crimes they committed while running the company. 

Enron became synonymous with the corporate greed that has been the hallmark of twenty-first century America.

December 1 - Standing Up for Themselves and Their Patients

December 1 - Standing Up for Themselves and Their Patients

December 1, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1966. 

That was the day the registered nurses of the Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association walked out of their jobs. 

Nursing could be a grueling profession, with long hours of physical labor for low pay. 

In Youngstown, the nurses were frustrated because there were inconsistencies in pay. 

Some recently hired nurses made more than those who had been working for years. 

Part time nurses did not receive the same wage increases as full time employees.  

They also did not feel that they had enough say in delivering quality care for their patients.

When they asked to meet with the hospitals executive director to discuss their concerns, the nurses were rebuffed. 

They then contacted the Ohio Nurses Association union and asked for help. 

Youngstown was a steel town, a union town, and the nurses were ready to join in the local labor movement. 

At first the Youngstown Hospital Association refused to bargain with the union. 

But when the nurses threatened to walk out, negotiations began. 

After two months of talking at the bargaining table, major issues remained unsettled, including pay and union recognition. 

Fed up, the nurses called for a mass resignation. 

305 of 433 nurses turned in their resignations. 

Two thirds of them were part time nurses.

They formed informational picket lines outside the hospitals. 

A federal mediator was brought in to settle the dispute. 

The nurses won significant gains. 

They received a more than 25 percent over two years. 

A grievance procedure was established for the first time.   

But most importantly, the union gained recognition and the right to bargain for better wages, hours, and work conditions for nurses and their patients.

November 30 - Angel of the Stockyards is Born

November 30 - Angel of the Stockyards is Born

November 30, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1854. 

That was the day that Mary McDowell, known as the Angel of the Chicago stockyards was born. 

Mary’s father brought the family to Chicago from Cincinnati after the Civil War. 

Her family was friends with US President Rutherford B Hayes, and as a young woman she spent a month in the White House as a guest. 

Mary received her college degree and worked as a teacher for a wealthy family in New York.

But living and working among the wealthy was not be the course of her life. 

She returned to Chicago and became a kindergarten teacher at the famed Hull House.

Then she became the head of the University of Chicago Settlement House in the back of the yards.

The settlement house served the diverse neighborhoods around the Chicago Stockyards. 

The community center included a library, play lots, gymnasiums and classrooms. 

Mary and her settlement house supported the rights of workers to form unions and to have safe working conditions.    

In 1903, Mary became the head of Illinois chapter of the National Women’s Trade Union League. 

The Pittsburgh Press reported on an incident that captured the spirit of Mary McDowell. 

The city of Chicago had a practice of using garbage to fill holes in the streets surrounding the stockyards. 

Mary showed up at the Mayor’s office with a group of women from the neighborhood and demanded, “All right, we want the rest of it dumped on Lake Shore drive. 

It it’s good enough for the stockyards it’s good for the drive, too.” 

The city stopped using garbage for street repairs.

November 29 - The Fight for $15 and a Union

November 29 - The Fight for $15 and a Union

November 29, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 2012. 

That was the day that more than 100 fast food workers in New York City walked off the job. 

They held a one-day strike for better wages and the right to form a union.

It was the biggest fast food worker strike up to that time. 

The movement soon grew to be much, much bigger. 

Their demand was simple and memorable, a fifteen-dollar minimum wage.  

The slogan became the Fight for Fifteen and a Union. 

The campaign found an ally in the Service Employees International Union. 

By August of 2013, the movement held a “National Strike Against Low Pay” day of action.

Fast food workers and their supporters held demonstrations in 60 cities.  

Today the movement has spread to 300 cities, and beyond the United States. 

While protestors have gathered at many fast food chains, McDonalds has become a focus of the campaign. 

Protestors have held annual one-day demonstrations at McDonalds headquarters, just outside of Chicago.

The campaign has seen victories. 

Both New York and California have passed a $15 minimum wage. 

So has the city of Seattle. 

Although it is a national, and even international movement, it is also a grassroots effort. 

In each city different local groups are involved. 

In Kansas City, fast food women workers have formed the Fannie Lou Hamer Women’s Committee. 

They named their group after the Civil Rights champion.

They take inspiration from her famous quote that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” 

For many involved in Fight for Fifteen, this sums up their involvement. 

It is a movement for the respect and dignity of workers, and the right to earn a living wage.

November 28 - Disaster in the Mines

November 28 - Disaster in the Mines

November 28, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1908. 

That was the day that an explosion at the coal mine in Marianna, in Washington County Pennsylvania claimed the lives of 154 miners. 

It was one of the deadliest disasters in US mining history. 

The Marianna mine was on the Pittsburgh coal seam, one of the richest coal deposits in the country.

The mine was operated by the Pittsburgh-Buffalo coal company. 

It was considered by many to be a model operation.  

The company houses that surrounded the mine were made of yellow brick, had hot and cold running water and electric lights.

This set them apart from other mining homes of the day. 

By the early 1920s ninety percent of all mining homes were wood frame and less than twenty percent had electricity.

Yet even though Marianna was considered a model, disaster still struck.  

Mining inspector Henry Louitt had been on site for two days leading up to the disaster. 

On Saturday morning, he had just left a mine shaft.

According to newspaper reports he had found the mine “in perfect condition.”  

Then shortly before 11 came a horrific explosion that left experts puzzled. 

It was believed that a vein of natural gas caused the deadly blast. 

Only one man, Fred Elinger, was rescued from the mine.

He gave a harrowing account of what happened to the Washington Observer.

He said, “I was working at laying brick in one of the entries and the first thing I knew a terrible explosion took place, which threw me some distance.  My two buddies were also tossed some distance away.  I heard them for a while and then all was quiet.” 

Elinger was rescued, but 154 other men were not.

November 27 - Death Trap in Newark

November 27 - Death Trap in Newark

November 27, 2020

On this day in Labor History the year was 1910. 

That was the day when thousands of people came to see the location where a fire had ravaged a sweatshop in Newark, New Jersey. 

The day before, at least twenty-six women perished in the inferno.

The workers of the Alfred & Irving Wolf Muslin Undergarment Company made nightgowns. 

On the morning of the fire there were more than 100 women crowded into the fourth floor workspace.

The fire broke out when a can of gasoline was knocked over in the lamp company located below the sweatshop. 

The floors of the garment shop were wooden and strewn with fabric. 

The fire spread quickly. 

It roared up so fast—even though there was a fire station across the street, the fire crew could not get there in time.

It would become the worst fire in Newark’s history. 

Desperate women tried to escape. 

But the fire safety exits were not adequate. 

Some of the women leapt to their deaths from the fourth story windows. 

The fire became national news.

No one was ever held legally accountable for the conditions that led to the fire. 

Less than a year and half later tragedy would strike again in the garment industry when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire would claim the lives of 146 workers. 

The events of the Newark fire faded into annals of history.

For years, no memorial marked the location.

Richard Greenwald, a dean at a nearby university, thought that the women who died deserved to be remembered. 

As the 100th anniversary approached he found the graves of twenty-five of the women and organized a memorial ceremony. 

He also helped create a bronze plaque to remember the site.


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