Labor History in 2:00
October 23 - A New Voice for Labor

October 23 - A New Voice for Labor

October 23, 2021

On this day in Labor History the year was 1995. 

That was the day that the AFL-CIO Convention convened in New York City. 

At the convention John Sweeney was elected president of the federation. 

It was the first contested election for president in AFL-CIO history. 

He ran with a slate of labor leaders, including Richard Trumka, who called themselves the “New Voice” slate. 

Sweeney was the President of the Service Employees International Union. 

He was a New Yorker, born in the Bronx.

He started his career in labor working for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers, then moving to SEIU as a union rep. 

He represented SEIU Local 32B in New York City during two strikes of apartment maintenance workers during the 1970s.

In 1980 he was elected SEIU President, a post he held for fifteen years.  

Membership in SEIU nearly doubled from 625,000 to 1.1 million under his leadership.

Sweeney gave a powerful speech for his candidacy at the convention. 

He said, “Workers look at their paychecks, the political system and the public debate and wonder why nobody is speaking for me? 

Then, in fear and frustration, they look for leadership to the Rush Limbaugh’s who seek scapegoats rather than solutions for the problems of stagnant wages, corporate greed and a fractured society.” 

He pledged that under his leadership the AFL-CIO would move to commit more resources to organizing these workers. 

When he won election, Sweeney held good to his campaign promise. 

He initiated a new initiative, the Union Summer program, to involve college students in the labor movement. 

He expanded organizing efforts in the South and Southwest.

John Sweeney served five terms as AFL-CIO President.

October 22 - A Modern Day Robin Hood

October 22 - A Modern Day Robin Hood

October 22, 2021

On this day in Labor History the year was 1934. 

That as the day that the bank robber known as Pretty Boy Floyd was gunned down by federal agents in Ohio. 

He was born Charles Arthur Floyd in 1904 in Georgia. 

His family moved to Oklahoma when he was a boy. 

Like many Oklahomans during this era, he fell on hard economic times. 

Floyd turned to crime. 

He did a four year stretch in a Missouri prison for a payroll robbery. 

When he got out, he tried to get a job in the Oklahoma oil fields. 

Unable to find work, Floyd took up bank robbing. 

He robbed banks in Kentucky, Ohio and Missouri. 

He got caught and convicted in Ohio, but escaped on his train trip to prison.

He made his way back to Oklahoma. 

There he became a folk hero. 

Locals called him the “Robin Hood of The Cookson Hills.”

Legend had it that Floyd destroyed mortgage papers when he robbed banks, winning him friends among farmers reeling from the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

Floyd became a national fugitive when he was accused of killing federal agents in Kansas City.

He denied he was involved in the killings. 

J. Edgar Hoover, head of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation, named Floyd Public Enemy Number One. 

Finally, the law caught up with Floyd in an Ohio cornfield.  

His body was returned to Oklahoma, where as many as 40 thousands came to his funeral.

Woody Guthrie remembered Floyd in song. 

October 21 - Through Rain, Sleet, Snow & Terrorism

October 21 - Through Rain, Sleet, Snow & Terrorism

October 21, 2021

On this day in Labor History the year was 2001. 

That was the day that Thomas Morris Jr. died from breathing in anthrax. 

A week earlier he had been exposed to the deadly poison when an envelope containing the powdery substance was opened at the mail distribution center where he worked. 

Thomas Morris was a member of American Postal Workers Union. 

His union brother Joseph Curseen died two days later. 

Both men worked at the U.S. Postal Service Brentwood Processing and Distribution Center in Washington D.C.

The poisoned letters were addressed to Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. 

More postal workers at a distribution center in New Jersey also fell ill from exposure to anthrax poisoned mail.

In total, twenty-two people were sickened by Anthrax that fall, from letters addressed to politicians and news outlets.

In addition to the injured, five people died, including a seven-month old infant who was visiting NBC news in New York City with his mother who worked there.

Coming the month after the September 11th attacks, the anthrax poisoning sent another wave of fear of terrorism throughout the United States.  

The Brentwood distribution center was closed down for decontamination until December 2003.

When it reopened, the facility was renamed for the two fallen postal workers.

The next year, Senator Joe Lieberman gave an address to the APWU. 

He said, “the postal workers who were exposed to anthrax, and still got the mail out and kept our system running—they are all proud union members.  I know I’ll never forget that.  And America won’t forget that.  All of you at the APWU deserve our respect and our support.”

One person suspected of the poisonings committed suicide and the case was closed.

No one was ever convicted of the crimes. 

October 20 - Remembering Debs

October 20 - Remembering Debs

October 20, 2021

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, 2021

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, 2021

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, 2021

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, 2021

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 - Marching for Equality

October 15 - Marching for Equality

October 15, 2021

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 14 - A Day of Protest in Canada

October 14 - A Day of Protest in Canada

October 14, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1976. 

That was the day more than a million Canadian workers walked off the job in a Day of Protest. 

The Canadian Labour Congress called the general strike. 

Workers downed their tools against a three-year wage controls plan implemented by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. 

Trudeau had actually campaigned against wage controls during the 1974 elections.

A year later, the Liberal government introduced the C-73 Anti-Inflation Bill. 

It was considered the worst attack on labor since the 1930s, when bargaining rights were first legalized. 

Trudeau’s wage controls suspended collective bargaining rights for all workers and amounted to deep wage cuts. 

Public sector workers were hit hardest as many hospital, school and municipal workers teetered on the edge of desperation from already low wages made worse. 

But for a day at least, many industries across Canada came to a screeching halt. 

Forestry, mining and auto production all completely shut down. 

Many towns and cities were one hundred percent on strike, even among the non-union workforce. 

Saint John in New Brunswick, Sudbury, Ontario, Sept Iles, Quebec and Thompson in Manitoba were all cities where the strike was most successful. 

But elsewhere, the strike was uneven. 

Many public sector workers stayed on the job, while in cities like Vancouver, pickets successfully shut down bus service and newspaper deliveries. 

Most heralded the Day of Protest as a fierce show of power against a years’ worth of wage controls. 

But others argued that a one-day action was not enough. 

To combat the attacks on labor, any general strike would have to keep the country shut down until the program of wage controls was finally defeated.

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