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Tag: "This Day in Labor History"

This Day in Labor History: September 27, 2002

[ 21 ] September 27, 2016 |


On September 27, 2002, 29 ports on the West Coast closed when the Pacific Maritime Association, a industry group of shippers, decided to lock out their workers affiliated with the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU). The lockout, which halted the United States’ international trade continued for 11 days until President George W. Bush invokes the Taft-Hartley Act to end the lockout and call for a cooling down period. This struggle eventually led to a major victory for the ILWU.

The ILWU had been a thorn in the side of west coast shippers for decades. Once led by the radical Harry Bridges, the ILWU slowly lost its aggressive edge as Bridges aged, but it remained a strong and independent union. After a bitter strike in 1971, the ILWU and the shippers had fairly decent relations for three decades. But in 2002, employers decided to push the union hard to take back much of what they had given away. Employers wanted to introduce new technology that would track the goods as they moved. The union opposed this because it would automate out of work many of its members. The PMA wanted to severely cut back on medical benefits for employees. The ILWU rejected that entirely and wanted higher wages as well. As 2002 wound on, short contract extensions kept negotiations going but on September 27, the employers decided to shut down the ports, putting over 10,000 workers out of a job.

The PMA claimed that they had no choice because ILWU members had engaged in a work-to-rule slowdown that was costing employers profits. Work-to-rule is when employees follow rules to the precise letter of the law and nothing more. In this case, the PMA accused the union of not breaking dock speed limits and following the safety rules. The horror! The ILWU denied it and said the PMA wanted to divert attention away from its refusal to negotiate. While a couple of employers bucked the lockout and made agreements with the ILWU, the vast majority of west coast trade ended.

George W. Bush was no friend to organized labor, that is for sure. Neither were American corporations. But this was different. The lockout had the potential to shut down the rest of the economy in a way that perhaps no labor dispute had since at least the PATCO strike in 1981 and probably the 1959 steel strike. The shipping industry’s intransigence threatened the rest of American business and while they may have shared a mutual disdain for organized labor, it wasn’t enough to allow their own businesses to lose money. That businesses were preparing for the holiday season made this an even greater threat. Even with the short period of the lockout, the joint Toyota-GM NUMMI plant in Fremont, California closed, briefly laying off 5000 workers.

So the rest of American business urged Bush to use Taft-Hartley to bring the companies to heel, not the unions. No president had tried to use the Taft-Hartley Act to end the dispute and force an 80-day return to work since Jimmy Carter in 1978 and even then the courts refused the necessary injunction. The last time a president had successfully invoked it was the 1971 ILWU strike. But Bush fell in line with the rest of the business community. He issued the order and the courts granted the injunction. Said Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation, “Taft-Hartley is not the best option, but it appears to be the only option at this point.” In addition, it seems clear in hindsight that with the Bush administration preparing to invade Iraq, it viewed this labor dispute as a highly unfortunate distraction that undermined American preparedness. When Bush invoked Taft-Hartley, he called the operation of the ports “vital to our economy and the military” and he openly worried about how this would affect the movement of military supplies. Dianne Feinstein used similar language to encourage Bush to take this action. The lockout ended on October 8. Some economists projected that the 10-day lockout had already taken $10 billion out of the economy. It also took some weeks for ILWU members to unload the huge backlog of products waiting to move.

Unions were nervous about this. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka was strongly opposed, fearing the Bush administration was trying to bust the ILWU. He stated “If every employer thinks the federal government will step in, why should they negotiate and let the natural bargaining process play out?” Teamsters spokesman Bret Caldwell expressed similar misgivings: “The whole strategy of locking out the workers and urging the president to invoke Taft-Hartley was clearly an employer strategy to get around negotiating a contract with these workers. It’s a bad precedent. It gives management the upper hand.”

But with the shipping industry’s gambit undermined, they had to negotiate for real with the ILWU. Both sides agreed to mediation. Trumka became personally involved in settling the conflict while Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service chief Peter Hurtgen took the lead in the negotiations. Both sides won a bit in the final contract. The companies did get to implement their cargo tracking technology. They also got a 6-year contract, providing labor stability and some changes to the arbitration procedures. In return, the shippers agreed to pay workers a whole lot of money. Full-time wages would rise to $85,000 a year by the end of the contract, with the possibility of going into six figures with overtime. The shippers also agreed to increase their pension contributions by 58 percent. In addition, while union leaders expected that the automation would eliminate about 400 jobs from the ports, all current workers in those positions were allowed to keep their jobs until they wanted to retire. Finally, non-union jobs in the port became part of the ILWU bargaining unit, extending the union’s control over employment. The members agreed to the contract with around 90 percent voting to affirm.

Ultimately, this was one of the biggest victories of the early 21st century for a union. Odd that George W. Bush played an important role in it.

This is the 194th post in this series. Previous posts are archive here.


This Day in Labor History: September 21, 1908

[ 9 ] September 21, 2016 |


On September 21, 1908, the Industrial Workers of the World met for its 4th annual convention in Chicago. This convention would reshape the struggling nascent organization, moving it clearly from an intellectuals’ movement to a workers’ movement.

Founded in 1905, by 1908 the IWW hadn’t really done much of anything and its future was murky. This is not to blame the IWW. This is the fate of most new activist organizations. It’s fairly easy to start an organization. But giving it shape and guidance, dealing with difficult personalities, and deciding not only what course of action to take but what ideology will guide that action is always difficult. That’s especially true for the early twentieth century left, where a panopoly of intellectual currents and factions could all fight for control of a given movement. Given that the 1905 convention brought in everyone from the Western Federation of Miners to Eugene Debs to Lucy Parsons, it did not originate with any clear ideological formation.

This does not mean the IWW was completely moribund in 1908. It did have a few adherents and they were organizing workers. In 1907 for instance, the IWW arrived in Portland, Oregon and started an organizing campaign among the city’s timber workers, largely over issues of better pay. It was put down fairly quickly by a combination of employers and the American Federation of Labor, already identifying the IWW as a threat even as it had no real interest in organizing on an industrial basis. IWW miners had also organized the mines of Goldfield, Nevada until the mine owners conspired with Nevada politicians and Theodore Roosevelt to crush them.

But the leadership of the IWW was in flux. The controversial socialist Daniel DeLeon wanted to control the IWW. DeLeon wanted to be the American Lenin. In 1892, he became the editor of the Socialist Labor Party’s newspaper The People. This put him in a position to become the leader of the SLP. Once this happened, he hoped to springboard to be the head of a labor organization. He first tried to take over the dying Knights of Labor, then the American Federation of Labor. He had little support for either. DeLeon then decided to create a parallel labor organization called the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance in 1895. When the IWW formed in 1905, DeLeon saw an opportunity to control the labor movement. He wanted to turn it into an adjunct of the SLP. But he received resistance almost from the first from the rank and file, especially the western workers who made up the core of IWW support, concentrated in the Western Federation of Miners. Those workers believed the state was their enemy and that political action was worthless. DeLeon wanted to create a leftist alternative to the Socialist Party and focus on political action. He kept introducing political questions into the IWW’s annual conventions, greatly irritating other Wobblies. All of this led to a lot of dissension in the conventions and little being accomplished.

In late 1907, the feud erupted openly, as DeLeon attempted to sabotage a call from James Connolly, the future Irish martyr who was working as an IWW organizer in New York, to launch a large recruiting drive in New York City. DeLeon took over the meeting by shouting about how Connolly was a traitor to the SLP. So by the time of the 1908 convention, most Wobblies were ready to be rid of DeLeon.

Another group attended this convention for the first time. Out of Portland, a group of radicals decided to hop trains and head to Chicago. This became known as the Overalls Brigade. Led by an organizer named John Walsh, these 19 workers headed east, organizing along the way. They held 31 meetings, sold more than $175 worth of IWW literature and $200 in IWW song sheets. They had complete contempt for DeLeon and for his own elitism about revolutionary theory that was supposedly above the head of the average worker. These were men who believed in industrial organizing, direct action, and taking on capitalism in a total war. They brought that spirit of direction action to the convention floor, singing their songs, and providing a bulwark of rank and file opposition to DeLeon. The Overalls Brigade opened the convention by singing “The Marseillaise” and convention leaders openly asking them to lead the fight against DeLeon.

Others joined the anti-DeLeon fray. IWW intellectuals like Ben Williams wanted this dealt with now because they believed the future of the IWW depended upon deciding just what its ideological stances were, especially around the role of direct action, industrial organization, and politics. DeLeon was ousted in a procedural vote because he did not represent a local which he claimed to represent. The delegates then debated the role of politics in the IWW. This was more closely divided than the decision to oust the difficult DeLeon. Some wanted to keep the political clause in the IWW constitution to give it a patina of respectability that would discharge claims it was an organization of anarchist bombthrowers. But in a 35-32 vote, the delegates did eliminate the reference to political action. Although what the IWW believed in was not really articulated at this point (and in fact, the IWW would always be awfully cagey about their actual ideological details), the emphasis on direct action was in the ascendant. Like the AFL, their diehard enemy, the IWW would refuse to play in politics, believing the state to be a class war enemy of workers’ rights. This demonstrates the sheer hopelessness that workers had for state action during the Gilded Age. The only thing that both union federations could agree on was that the state was worthless for guaranteeing anything for workers. The IWW was still not a stable organization after the 1908 convention, but it had eliminated the internal divide that would prevent it from moving forward with organizing workers and fighting class warfare.

The Overalls Brigade would return to the Northwest and bring their radical direct action to the workers of the Northwest, first with the Spokane Free Speech Fight and then with a decade of worker empowerment, strikes, and challenging the timber industry, police, and political leadership of the Pacific Northwest until they were crushed in a maelstrom of violence during and after World War I.

DeLeon went on to bitterly attack the IWW, especially for the “slum proletariat” that had taken over the convention and removed him. He died in 1914, failing in his effort to become Lenin.

This post relied on Melvyn Dubofsky’s classic We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World.

This is the 193rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: September 16, 2004

[ 10 ] September 16, 2016 |


On September 16, 2004, Mt. Olive Pickles finally came to an agreement with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, ending a lengthy boycott of the company. This groundbreaking farm workers union launched one of the most successful organizing campaigns of the last 25 years in the South and demonstrate the continued vitality of farmworker unions in the present.

When we think about farm labor organizing in the United States, our thoughts almost immediately go to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California. There is of course a good reason for that. But both before and after the UFW, there has been significant organizing of some of the nation’s most exploited labor forces. In the Midwest and South, one of the leading movements involved in this is the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. FLOC was founded in 1967 by Baldemar Velasquez, the 20 year old son of Mexican migrant farmworkers in the Midwest. FLOC initially sought to organize farmworkers on individual farms, but soon realized the limitations of that strategy because the farmers themselves didn’t hold the ultimate power over wages. The farmers sold their crops to the big food conglomerates. That’s where the power lies in the agricultural world. FLOC soon turned its attention to leveraging what power it could against food corporations. That strategy became full-fledged in 1979, when after a failed strike, it called for a consumer boycott against Campbell Soup. The boycott was of course the preferred tactic of Cesar Chavez (he preferred it to actually organizing farmworkers) and because of the grape boycott’s fame, it made a lot of sense for other farmworker organizing movements to borrow this. In 1987, this boycott was successful. Campbell signed a contract with both the farmers and FLOC to double wages, improve migrant housing, and provide a grievance procedure, which doesn’t sound sexy but is tremendously important for any worker who is too scared to complain about their lives otherwise.

In organizing tomato workers, FLOC also became involved with pickle workers because the integration of the agricultural industry meant many of the companies it became involved with in fighting for tomato workers were also in cucumbers and pickles. Pickle growers relied heavily on sharecropping schemes in order to get around labor law, including child labor and the minimum wage. Given the harvest seasons, many FLOC workers were working tomatoes one week and pickles the next. The expansion made sense. Beginning in 1987, FLOC began engaging in pickle organizing and boycotts. A three-year campaign gave it a victory in the H.J. Heinz fields. In 1991, another campaign won the fields for Dean Foods. The large majority of Midwestern pickles were now picked by FLOC members.

FLOC called the boycott against Mt. Olive on March 17, 1999. The North Carolina pickle company had a different labor force than the farms in FLOC home base of Ohio and Michigan. Those farms tended to be picked by Mexican-American laborers who had been long residents of the U.S. and who lived in Texas and Florida when they weren’t picking. But Mt. Olive hired guestworkers who had very few rights and no permanent status in the U.S. This was part of a longer history of North Carolina farmers searching the world for the most exploitable labor. While some found the paperwork in the guestworker program unwieldy, with African-Americans and then Caribbean guestworkers leaving their fields for better work, Mexican guestworkers became the next exploitable labor force. About 10,000 H-2A guestworkers labored in the North Carolina fields. Mt. Olive of course attempted to avoid any responsibility for the workers, saying that they did not employ these farmworkers so they had no control over the conditions of labor, even though they set the price at which they would buy the pickles.

FLOC was successful with these workers because they became a way for workers to express their own power. For example, a man named Mamerto Chaj Garcia was working for a Mt. Olive contractor. He came down with appendicitis and his boss told him he was drunk. Finally, he took a cab to the hospital where it was removed. Then a few weeks later, Garcia and his eight trailermates were all kicked out of their housing without receiving their pay. They complained to FLOC organizers. 30 FLOC members marched up to the farm and confronted the farmer, who handed over the withheld pay. This was the sort of routine oppression farmworkers faced, and often still do face, and how farmworker unions can help alleviate the worst of their problems, even if they lack a contract.

FLOC used the guestworkers’ status though to their advantage. As those workers moved from farm to farm, they spread the FLOC message. FLOC appealed to guestworkers because it sought to organize around their specific issues. FLOC wanted to set up a grievance procedure for the guestworkers. It wanted to create seniority lists so that workers could be sure they would return when they returned to Mexico. It won these concessions on September 16, 2004, when FLOC, Mount Olive, and the North Carolina Growers’ Association whose members owned the pickle farms. The agreement also covered all farms under the Growers Association, even if they did not grow pickles. This thus covered many tobacco workers as well.

To win this campaign, FLOC built upon the UFW boycotts of the past and made connections with unions, churches, and community groups around the country. It distributed “Pickle Picket Packets” to these groups, helping for instance concerned citizens mobilize their churches to promote the boycott. They especially worked on the Methodist Church because Mt. Olive CEO Bill Bryan was an active Methodist. When the United Methodist Church not only held its worldwide convention in the U.S. but also endorsed the boycott, it was a major moment for this community organizing strategy. The campaigns against the stores that sold Mt. Olive products was somewhat successful as well. Walmart of course didn’t care, but Kroger pulled the products from at least 130 stores in the South.

The contract also created a code of conduct for Mt. Olive contractors, with mandated inspections. Of course, worker abuses are still common on these farms. Grassroots farmworker unions have almost no money or staff, even though FLOC is affiliate with the AFL-CIO. But they chronicle workplace abuses, win stolen wages, and provide a voice for the guestworkers.

Much of this post is borrowed from Ronald L. Mize and Alicia C.S. Swords, Consuming Mexican Labor: From the Bracero Program to NAFTA and David Dalton, Building National Campaigns: Activists, Alliances, and How Change Happens.

This is the 192nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: September 6, 1869

[ 8 ] September 6, 2016 |


On September 6, 1869, the Avondale Colliery mine near Plymouth, Pennsylvania caught on fire, killing 110 workers. This disaster, one of the first major coal disasters in the United States, led to some of the nation’s first workplace safety laws, but ultimately, many thousands more workers would have to die before the nation took workplace safety seriously.

By the end of the Civil War, the nation began to rely on coal as its most important fuel. During the mid-19th century, eastern cities and factories started to turn from wood to coal for fuel as transportation networks to get it from the often relatively remote coal fields to urban centers developed enough to make coal mining a profitable endeavor.

The Avondale Colliery opened in 1867 to dig anthracite, employing primarily Welsh miners. As was usually the case with hard labor during these years, employers were completely indifferent to workplace safety. Large numbers of deaths were the norm, with employers emboldened by the legal doctrine of workplace risk that had given them a free hand on these issues. There was only one exit to the mine, the shaft. This was standard for the era.

The hard work and dangerous conditions led to the Welsh miners forming a union. The Workers Benevolent Association formed in 1868. They immediately pushed to regulate the Pennsylvania mines by the same standards that existed in Britain. That included multiple mine entrances and ventilation requirements. Pennsylvania had actually enacted a weak version of this as a law, but had written in an exception for Luzerne County at the request of a local politician. So at Avondale, the mine was as dangerous as ever.

The morning of September 6, the mine caught fire with about 200 men inside. The mine’s furnace caught fire. It was about 100 feet from the entrance, but it was connected by a flue, which quickly spread it. All of this was made of wood, which of course meant an almost instant conflagration, as was also common in cities throughout the U.S. at this time. The mine was quickly engulfed, with over half the workers dying. Volunteers rushed to the mine and the fire was put out through buckets of water. Volunteers then went inside to find any survivors. Two of them died from the fumes. Of the 110 dead miners, 72 were married. They left behind 158 children.

A few days later, a coroner’s inquest launched an investigation of the fire. The mine’s managers hinted that the WBA had committed arson, as the workers had recently returned from a brief strike. WBA representative Henry Evans had a very different response, damning a system of incredible danger. In response to someone telling him he was condemning the system, he replied, “That is exactly the intention. We miners intend to prove here who is responsible for that system. We intend to prove that it is wrong – WRONG – to send men to work in such mines, and that we have known it for long years; but we must work or starve; that is where the miners stand on this question, and we mean to use this occasion to prove it.” The WBA had held meetings around the state after the fire to demand change. WBA president John Siney told workers:

Men, if you must die with your boots on, die for your families, your homes, your country, but do not consent to die like rats in a trap for those who take no more interest in you than in the pick you dig with. Let me ask if the men who own this mine would as unhesitatingly go down in it to win bread as the poor fellows who lives were snuffed beneath where you stand and who shall henceforth live with us only as a memory. If they did, would they not provide more than one avenue of escape? Aye, men, they surely would and what they would do for themselves they must be compelled by law to do for their workmen.

The inquest went on to find that the fire and the gases caused by it killed the miners and suggested more ventilation systems in the mines to prevent future disasters, but the mine owners were not charged with any crimes.

A few workers here or there would not create any sort of legal challenge to the unregulated mining system. But 110 dead workers would. With outrage pouring in from around the state and the nation, politicians were moved to act. The state of Pennsylvania responded with the passage of first comprehensive mine safety legislation in American history. First, later in 1869, it passed a law specific to Schuykill County and the next year for the whole state. It mandated at least two mine exits and better ventilation systems. It banned boys under the age of 12 from working in the mines and created a system of inspections for the state’s mines. It also criminalized actions that workers took in the mines that might make them more unsafe, which might include riding on loaded coal cars or carrying lit matches into areas with gas lamps. This fundamentally blamed accidents on workers, which has been at the base of most workplace safety law and attitudes through American history, at least up to the passage of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969. That took attention and responsibility away from employers and from work processes that were inherently unsafe in an age where profit was deified. Given that workers were often paid by the ton and that they were not paid for any safety work that they were nonetheless required to perform, it’s hardly surprising that many of them would seek to cut corners on safety when they were trying to feed their families.

Even these minimal laws were largely unenforced. Pennsylvania and the coal industry at large would suffer disaster after disaster and even continues to do so today. Some of this is the nature of mining underground, but this is almost always exacerbated by corporate indifference to workers’ lives, most notoriously in recent years by Don Blankenship, whose personal intervention in avoiding safety regulations killed 29 of his workers. Still, Pennsylvania did periodically attempt to expand upon the post-Avondale laws, including creating a state hospital for those injured in the coal mines in 1879 and an 1881 law requiring any mine with more than 20 employees to have a way to take injured miners to their homes or a hospital when they got hurt. But these laws were barely window dressing and workers continued to die. It does seem that there was a brief decrease in the death rates in the mines up until about 1875 but it stagnated for decades after that.

I borrowed from Perry Blatz, Democratic Miners: Work and Labor Relations in the Anthracite Coal Industry, 1875-1925 and David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, Dying for Work: Workers Safety and Health in Twentieth-Century America in the writing of this post.

This is the 191st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: September 5, 1934

[ 9 ] September 5, 2016 |

1934 textile general strike

On September 5, 1934, the governor of North Carolina called out the National Guard to aid mill owners in the textile strike overtaking their state and the east coast. This strike, not only mobilizing the remnant apparel workers of the northeast, but the traditionally anti-union workers of the South, was a shock to the system of the New Deal state, helping it realize the level of worker dissatisfaction and the need for meaningful union legislation.

When the New Deal began, the Roosevelt administration pushed for the National Industrial Recovery Act. The NIRA was intended to eliminate the cutthroat competition that destroyed profits in many industries of this time, including textiles. Many large manufacturers supported it, hoping it would drive out low-end competition and consolidate industries. But the NIRA also included a half-thought out provision called Section 7(a) that granted workers the right to form a union free from employer interference. Although Roosevelt and his advisors didn’t really see this as an invitation for workers to organize, workers themselves saw it that way. And in 1934, they acted on it. The textile strike was the 4th major worker rebellion of this arguably most radical year of American labor history, along with the Teamsters in Minneapolis, the Auto-Lite workers in Toledo, and the longshoremen in San Francisco. The NIRA helped spawn this by establishing minimum wages, including in textiles, but not really giving workers any way to enforce this or any of their rights. The textile industry accepted the minimum wages, but sped up work to make up for their lost profits, angering workers.

The textile strike was organized by the United Textile Workers in a rapidly changing world for the apparel industry. The socialism of the Jewish apparel workers in New York and the willingness of other immigrant workers to join radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World in places like Lawrence and Paterson convinced textile factory operators to start moving production to the South. They chose that area because white workers there already operated in a paternalistic relationship with local elites, because there was no tradition of socialism and a strong suspicion of outsiders, and because evangelical religion would reinforce pro-employer messages. As early as 1894, New England textile companies were convincing southern states like Alabama to repeal their child labor laws with promises they would move their operations south. By the early 1930s, 70 percent of American apparel production was located in southern factories.

By the late 1920s, as the nation’s economy contracted, the textile companies decided to make up for lost profits by stretching workers’ ability to the breaking point. They sped up production on the lines. The “stretch-out,” as it was called,” infuriated workers. Strikes, albeit mostly unorganized, sparked across the South. Larger strikes in Gastonia, North Carolina and Elizabethton, Tennessee in 1929 were repressed by the police. The factory owners, the police, and politicians were determined to keep their towns union-free. As still happens today in southern organizing campaigns, unions are demonized as something northern and something foreign.

So the UTW, which had organized some plants in the northern states, was desperate for victories in the South. Like the CIO a dozen years later, it knew it could not survive or thrive if it did not organize the South because capital mobility would destroy the union. The impetus for the strike was not only years of the stretch-out but also the NRA deciding to grant southern textile owners wishes to increase worker hours without increasing wages earlier that year. So it sought to make a big statement in the southern factories that would determine the fate of the strike. At first, the UTW was hesitant to go ahead with the strike as the NRA responded to the outrage by agreeing to give it a voice. But continued anger in the Southern mills forced the leadership to reevaluate their decision. The UTW developed a list of demands that included the raising of the minimum wage from $13 to $30 a week, the end of the stretch-out, union recognition, and the rehiring of fired unionists.

The workers in North Carolina were the most important because of the size of the workforce there. The strike exploded there on Labor Day, September 3, when 65,000 workers walked off the job. The UTW was well aware how hard it would be to organize these southern factories and so they employed innovative tactics to convince the workers to come out, using their smaller numbers of committed activists to create flying squadrons that went factory to factory convincing workers to walk off the job.

The strike spread quickly. 200,000 workers from Rhode Island to Georgia were on strike by September 4. 325,000 were out by September 5. Politicians and factory owners soon cracked down. On September 5, North Carolina governor John Ehringhaus called out the National Guard. That started the crackdown. Rhode Island governor T.F. Green did the same. By September 9, South Carolina had instituted a partial state of martial law. Georgia did the same under the leadership of the reprehensible governor Eugene Talmadge. Workers were ready to fight back. They armed themselves and continued striking. But the UTW had its work cut out for it in the South. The overwhelming pressure against the union began to undermine its support in the South, which simply lacked any sympathetic institutions that would bolster tired and hungry strikers. The UTW had promised to feed strikers, but did not have the resources to follow through. At its peak, about 1/2 of workers in North Carolina and South Carolina and 3/4 in Georgia, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island were on strike. But they began drifting back.

The Roosevelt administration responded quickly to the strike, held a quick investigation and issued a report. It had very moderate recommendations, such as more studies on the stretch-out and urging employers not to discriminate against strikers on the job. When the report was issued, Roosevelt urged the strikers to return to work. The UTW, seeing the strike begin to collapse, declared victory and ended it. But the UTW was finished. The southern plants would go decades before serious unionization campaigns reappeared. The employers completely ignored the report and refused to hire thousands of strikers. The UTW simply did not have the resources to build on the strike, or in any case, they did not really try. They did not see this as the beginning of a longer-term organizing campaign and seek to send more organizers to the South. The ability of the textile companies to successfully blacklist thousands of workers without union challenge was the best argument they had against future unions. It worked for a very long time.

If the textile strike did little for the involved workers, it did very much add to the pressure the federal government felt to build on Section 7(a) and pass real pro-union legislation. When the Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional in 1935, the Roosevelt administration responded with the National Labor Relations Act, which went very far to provide what many American workers demanded.

To this day, South Carolina and North Carolina are the two least unionized states in the United States.

This is the 190th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Also, Happy Labor Day!

This Day in Labor History: September 3, 1991

[ 38 ] September 3, 2016 |

On September 3, 1991, a chicken factory in Hamlet, North Carolina caught of fire thanks to nonexistent safety procedures, killing 25 workers and injuring another 55. This was the largest workplace disaster in North Carolina history. This entirely avoidable accident was reminiscent of workplace disasters of the past, with open employer contempt for safety regulations and the lives of their workers.

The building where the chicken factory was located was built in the early twentieth century and had been used in various food processing operations in the past, including as an ice cream factory. In 1980, it was purchased by Imperial Foods. This was a company was a terrible safety reputation in its other plants. Its plant in Moosic, Pennsylvania was cited for managers locking exit doors. Its Cumming, Georgia plant had a fire in 1989 that caused over $1 million in damage, although no fatalities. The corporate hostility to basic safety procedures would be repeated in Hamlet. The factory had no fire alarm system. The factory was used to process chicken for fast food restaurants and pre-frozen products for grocery stores. That meant cutting, bagging, weighing, and, most importantly for this story, frying it. About three-quarters of the workers were African-Americans. Hamlet is a small town close to the South Carolina border and the worker histories reflected that. Many of these workers had grown up doing farm work in the area and for some, this was their first factory job.

Imperial’s CEO Emmett Roe had moved from Pennsylvania to the South in order to bust the unions in his plants there and move to a state with a “more favorable regulatory climate,” i.e., the kind of state that won’t inspect your factories or enforce safety violations. Among other states, he chose North Carolina. A state in bed with the agricultural industry if there ever was one, North Carolina regulators never inspected the factory because the budget for inspections was minuscule. In 11 years of operation, it received no fire inspections. The factory did undergo repeated inspections from the company’s poultry inspector. Workers complained about the terrible smell and quality of meat, with at least one telling an inspector that the meat processed into chicken nuggets was particularly awful. According to one survivor of the fire, the plant managers locked the door to stop workers from stealing chicken. This was the same excuse sweatshop managers gave to locking the doors at Triangle when that disaster killed 146 workers in 1911.

The fire began when the deep fryer caught fire after a hydraulic line to a cooking vat failed, with obvious problems with it not found because of the company’s indifferent safety culture. It spread very quickly thanks to a combination of burning cooking oil, insulation, and exploding gas lines hanging from the ceiling. It didn’t help that all of the phones inside the building were nonfunctional. The workers at the front of the plant all managed to get out. But at the back of the plant the company did not place any fire alarms. Moreover, Imperial managers not only locked all the exits but sealed the windows as well. Those workers had nowhere to go. As an old plant, it was a maze of paths inside. The smoke meant they couldn’t find their way to the front. They were doomed. Like at Triangle, which this fire reminded many of, a few workers did get out the back by breaking open a locked loading bay, but most died. On one door, near charred bodies, blackened footprints could still be seen, signs of the desperate attempt to escape. Eighteen of the dead were women. Most of the dead were African-American.

Much later, survivor Lily Davis remembered the day of the fire:

“When I woke up that morning on the day of the fire, I had said to myself, ‘I don’t think I’m going to work today,” she said. “But I knew there was a holiday coming up and if I didn’t go to work that morning I wouldn’t get paid for the holiday. I was at the plant and had changed into my white coat. Everybody was saying they didn’t want to come to work either. They wanted a longer time off, but if we hadn’t gone in, we wouldn’t have gotten paid for the holiday.”

“I went down to the line where the fire happened before it happened,” Davis said. “That was where you weigh the chicken. And my boss man came up and said, ‘I want you to lay out tenders today.’ I told him I didn’t want to go, and he walked off. But then he came back and saw I was still there, put his hands on his hips and gave me this look, so I went.”

“It was always cold in there and those tenders come right out of the refrigerator,” she said. “After a while, your legs feel like they’re not even there. Then all of a sudden the lights went out and we heard somebody yelling, ‘Y’all need to get out of here! This place is on fire!”

Davis said the next thing she knew, the lady who managed the tenders line had gotten everyone to hold hands and told them they would all go out together.

“We were down near the floor and nobody could see,” Davis said. “But we finally got there when somebody yelled, ‘The door is locked! We can’t get out!”

Davis said that’s when the hand-holding stopped. People began to panic, running into other parts of the plant in search of a way out. But it was dark, she said.

“I said, ‘Lord, what am I going to do? How can I get out of here?” Davis said. “And I heard a voice to my right that said, ‘Just sit down right here where you are.’ So I said, ‘What in the world can I do from right here? I can’t see. If only I had some light I could get out.’ And that voice said, ‘You can pray.’”

Davis said she sat down on the floor and began to pray. She doesn’t remember how long she prayed or what she was praying.

“Then a hole opened up in the ceiling,” she said. “I remember feeling so peaceful and good, and then I just fell asleep.”

Davis does not remember anything specific to the plant after that moment.

There was both a state and a federal investigation of the fire. The state passed the buck. The state labor commissioner said that his department did not have enough money (true, thanks to the notoriously anti-labor North Carolina legislature. Even today, NC has the lowest union density rate in the nation). He also blamed the federal government for not enforcing safety standards (OK, but that is indeed passing the buck).

Three men faced charges for the fire. Imperial Foods owner Emmett Roe, his son, and the plant manager. They all took plea bargains. Since Roe had personally directed the locking of the doors, he received a prison sentence of nearly 20 years, less than a year for each of the murders he committed. He served four years in prison. Imperial Foods also received an $800,000 fine. The factory was never reopened. 215 people lost their jobs. The federal government ordered North Carolina to improve its worker safety legislation or the government would do it for them. This did lead to the passage of 14 new laws, including a whistleblower law, as well as a near doubling of state workplace safety inspectors.

Memorializing the deaths also faulted along state lines. For the survivors, this was not only a labor rights issue, but a civil rights issue. They invited Jesse Jackson to the town to speak at the memorial. For Hamlet’s conservative white elite, Jackson was anathema. So there were two memorial services with two monuments next to each other.

The factory remains were bulldozed in 2001 because of the psychological damage it caused the survivors and the firefighters who saw it. Eight survivors lived within viewing distance of it.

Here is a 22 minute film from 1994 on the fire and its survivors.

The Hamlet fire also spawned this Mojo Nixon/Jello Biafra song.

This is the 189th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: August 21, 1791

[ 36 ] August 21, 2016 |


On August 21, 1791, the Haitian Revolution began. The largest and by far the most successful slave rebellion in world history, the Haitian Revolution transformed world history, foiling French imperial aims, leading to the expansion of the United States, placing fear into the hearts of slaveholders across the Western Hemisphere, and exposing the limits of the republican rhetoric of the Enlightenment. It’s also a story of the incredible bravery of the slaves themselves.

Immediately upon arrival in Hispaniola in 1492, Christopher Columbus instituted a forced labor system. This is the model Europeans sought from the very beginning. That island quickly became a center of colonial slavery, with populations brought over from Africa after indigenous peoples who the Spanish preferred to enslave died from disease. Between 1492 and 1494, one-third of the indigenous population died. Slaves always fought back, an important point not made often enough. As early as 1519, a slave rebellion took place there with both African and indigenous people rising up in revolt. Thousands of slaves started maroon communities during the colonial period, hidden from Spanish or French forces by the isolation of their camps deep within forests, mountains, and swamps.

In 1697, the French won the western half of Hispaniola from the Spanish. Soon it would become among the richest colonies in the world thanks to the sugar grown by slaves. It also became a huge coffee producer, producing 60% of the world’s coffee in 1789. But conditions for those slaves were utterly brutal. The enormous amounts of money in the sugar trade made it worse, because the labor costs to buy new slaves, while high for a Virginia tobacco farmer, was almost nothing for these sugar barons. They brought slaves from Africa and just worked them to death. These plantations were effectively death camps. Half of African slaves died within three years. Probably 1 million slaves died in Haiti during the period of French rule. If a slave ate some sugar cane, the slave would have to wear a tin muzzle while working.

There was a lot of discontent toward the French government in what was then known as Saint Dominigue by the 1780s. It was a tremendously wealthy colony. But the white population of about 40,000, influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, were chafing at the centralization projects of Paris, including heavy import taxes. There were about 30,000 free blacks in Haiti, of which about one-half were mulattoes. Finally and most importantly, there were the 500,000 slaves whose labor created the wealth in the colony. In May 1791, the free blacks started a revolt when the island’s whites refused to acknowledge the French revolutionary decision to grant citizenship to free people of color, but it was the August slave revolt that targeted white slave owners that really brought Haiti to independence.

The slave revolt began with a signal from voudou priest Dutty Boukman on August 14, giving slaves a week to prepare. Within a few weeks 100,000 slaves had revolted. Quickly though, the revolution’s leader became Toussaint L’Overture, an ex-slave who was likely the son of a tribal king from modern Benin who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. L’Overture was freed in 1776 after his master allowed him to acquire an education. He became fairly wealthy himself. When the rebellion started in the north of the island, he was not involved, but he soon helped cement an alliance between the rebels and the Spanish in Santo Domingo. By 1792, L’Overture and his ex-slave troops controlled 1/3 of the nation. The French Revolution of course was happening at the same time. In 1794, the French abolished slavery throughout its colonies, but even earlier than this, L’Overture had invaded Santo Domingo in order to end slavery there. But by the time the rebellion ended, 100,000 of the island’s 500,000 slaves were dead, as well as 24,000 of the 40,000 whites. In 1801, he led troops to conquer Santo Domingo and ended slavery there when he succeeded.

The slave force had no hope to defeat the French in a decisive battle. But they did have a secret weapon: mosquitoes. When the French had first colonized the Caribbean, yellow fever did not exist there. But it soon migrated over from Africa. Europeans simply could not resist the diseases from these mosquitoes. In fact, effective European colonization of American tropics largely ended because of the migration of yellow fever. Malaria and especially yellow fever overwhelmed the French forces. The Haitians could just wait them out. Napoleon sent 43,000 troops to Haiti to retake the island and institute slavery. Those troops did capture L’Overture. He was sent back to France as a prisoner, where he died in 1803. But disease quickly ravaged those troops. Jean-Jacques Dessalines took over as the leader of the rebellion and defeated remnant French forces at Battle of Vertieres on November 18, 1803. This led Napoleon to come to terms and give up his dream of an American empire. He then sold his North American lands to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Meanwhile, Dessalines declared the nation of Haiti on January 1, 1804. France was the first nation to recognize its independence, although France also ensured long-term Haitian poverty by demanding incredibly high reparations beginning in 1825, when French warships showed in Haiti and forced the government to agree, effectively dooming it to long-term poverty.

The United States found Haiti an anathema. It believed in republicanism–so long as it only applied to white people. A slave rebellion? Well, this became an object lesson for southern planters, for whom this was their worst nightmare. This was literally their greatest fear and they spent the next 74 years talking about how to prevent it. When the British helped slaves escape during the War of 1812, when Denmark Vesey got angry that his church was being repressed, when Nat Turner revolted, when slaves played drums in the forests at night, slavers dreamed of the slaves rising up to massacre them in their beds. Given southern domination of the American politics through most of its history but especially before the Civil War due to the 3/5 Compromise, they made sure Haiti remained a highly isolated and impoverished nation. The U.S. forced it into international isolation and refused to recognize Haiti until 1862.

Today, due to many factors, but largely to this international isolation and enforced extreme poverty in its early decades, Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world today. The French at the very least owe Haiti reparations today.

This is the 188th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: August 16, 1819

[ 36 ] August 16, 2016 |


On August 16, 1819, British cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000-80,000 workers in a field in Manchester, England who had gathered to demand parliamentary representation and the repeal of laws making food more expensive. Approximately 15 people died and between 400 and 700 people were injured. This movement of working class radicalism was deeply intertwined with conditions of British workers during the Industrial Revolution and the early manifestations of political radicalism this created.

In the early 19th century, democratic participation was nearly non-existent in Britain. That nation had resisted the move toward democracy spawned out of the American Revolution and French Revolution, even as those nations were also dealing with the implications of it. Meanwhile, after the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Britain fell into an economic depression. Unemployment rose and hordes of the new industrial workers lost their jobs and had nowhere to go. By 1819, industry was deeply affected at the same time that food prices had risen dramatically. The region’s textile mills, the core of the Industrial Revolution, had a brief boom after the war ended, but that quickly collapsed. Free-market industrialists said there was nothing they could do but lay people off and cut wages. At the same time, they publicly opposed any form of public relief for the urban poor. Moreover, the British government instituted the first Corn Law, which imposed tariffs on imported grain, creating food shortages and near-famine conditions for the poor, particularly in the aftermath of the legendary 1816 summer that never happened after Mount Tambora exploded.

Economic-based organizing began in 1817 with a movement called the Blanketeers. They started in Manchester that March, hoping to spawn a march of textile weavers to London to present petitions demanding that the government take steps to improve the cotton trade so they could go back to work. Magistrates responded by reading the marchers the Riot Act and arresting 27 of them. Organizing for both political and economic reforms continued. Henry Hunt became the leader of this new movement. Hunt became the most famous popular radical of his day, a sort of Eugene Debs for the early 19th century, promoting broad-based political and economic reforms. He argued for universal male suffrage and Parliament held every year, without the rotten boroughs that ensured government stayed in the hands of conservatives. He was a big believer in mass rallies, believing that if large enough crowds gathered, it would place pressure on government to transform without having to engage in bloody insurrection.

For the British elite, these combined political and economic protests meant Jacobinism had crossed the Channel. Hunt began leading mass rallies in Manchester. In January 1819, one rally attracted 10,000 people. Manchester’s leaders wrote to London, fearing a general insurrection and complaining of their lack of power to shut down the rallies or repress the press reporting on these conditions and encouraging action. When Hunt decided to lead a mass rally on August 9 in St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester, the police attempted to intervene. Declaring it illegal preemptively, Hunt and the other leaders delayed it for a week, but were determined to hold the meeting. When that rally achieved an unprecedented crowd of 60,000, the police acted. As far as is known, the 60,000 protestors were completely unarmed, as Hunt and others hoped to preempt intervention by banning weapons. They also encouraged workers to wear their Sunday best clothing to present an atmosphere of respectability. Groups carried banners with slogans such as “No Corn Laws” and “Vote by Ballot.”

There was no violence from the marchers reported. The magistrates however ordered the speakers arrested. The yeomanry ordered to arrest the speakers were untrained and they panicked. Moreover, the head of the British army in the area figured that not much would happen at the rally and instead decided to go see his horses race nearby. But instead of arresting the speakers, they unsheathed their swords and charged into the crowd. The magistrates then ordered the 15th Hussars and Cheshire Volunteers to assist and a general bloodbath ensued. The Hussars especially were just seeking to kill as many people as they could. It’s surprising that only 15 or so people were killed, especially given the injury totals of probably over 500. Among the dead were Mary Heys, a pregnant mother of six run down by the charging horses, causing the baby to begin birthing. She died in childbirth. Sarah Jones, a mother of seven, was killed by being beaten in the head. John Ashton was one of the movement’s political leaders who carried a banner reading “Taxation without representation is unjust and tyrannical. NO CORN LAWS.” He was sabred and then trampled. Many of the wounded actually hid their injuries in order to escape arrest and prosecution. Riots then occurred in Manchester and nearby towns for the rest of the day, but all the violence ended a few days later, although one constable was killed by a mob on August 18.

The British government responded by cracking down on the political reform. It expressed its support for the massacre. Conservatives feared uprisings around the country. It passed the Six Acts that clamped down on public meetings, newspaper opposition, and gun ownership. Hunt was not hurt in the protest although his hat was stabbed through. In 1820, Hunt was convicted on a charge of sedition for his radical views and spent two years in prison. While there, he wrote a book exposing the horrible conditions of the prison. Eventually, Hunt’s movement and the sacrifice of the dead at Peterloo led to the parliamentary reforms of 1832. It would take much more than that to fix the poverty of the British working class. The Corn Laws were not eliminated until 1846, when the Irish famine managed to convince enough lawmakers that they should do something to alleviate it that they once again allowed for cheap imported grain. Conservatives were, of course, outraged.

This is the 187th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: August 13, 1887

[ 8 ] August 13, 2016 |


On August 13, 1887, leathermakers in Newark, New Jersey, locked out their employees as a strategy to crush the Knights of Labor. This lockout would demonstrate the lengths to which American employers would go in order to ensure their shops remained union-free, a significant departure from the accommodations made by European employers, a difference that still resonates in the American labor movement today.

Newark has become a major industrial center by the 1880s and unlike many cities, hosted a wide number of industries. One of the largest was the leather industry. This was exceedingly odious labor. As a noxious industry, leather production was banished to the outskirts of cities going back to colonial New England. Two centuries of technological advancement had not significantly decreased the odiousness of this work. By the late nineteenth century, as was happening with laborers around the country, skilled workers were increasingly replaced by unskilled, often immigrant labor, laboring in mass-scale industrial operations. Newark was also a strong union town and a Knights of Labor local began there in 1879, as the Panic of 1873 subsided. The leather workers do not seem to have been involved in its early days. The first specifically leather-based Knights hall opened in 1883. After 1884, the Knights grew rapidly in Newark, as they did throughout the country. Strikes abounded. More than twice as many strikes took place in Newark in 1886 than did between 1881 and 1885. Half of the strikes were over employers backsliding from agreements they had made to stop earlier strikes. Leather worker struck over other issues, including an end to piecework and for higher wages.

As 1886 turned into 1887, the leatherworkers, skilled and unskilled and often in different Knights’ lodges, began to coordinate their strikes more effectively. Solidarity and a more concrete sense of class identity was building. This was important. It took time for the ideology of free labor republicanism to wear off in the face of endless drudgery and exploitation. Workers didn’t see themselves as that different from employers in the first twenty years after the Civil War. Slowly that began to change. The growth of the Knights was far from what Terence Powderly had envisioned and the growing direct action tactics of many lodges demonstrated that this ideological commitment to free labor had started to fade by the mid-1880s. This hardly meant that these Knights were radicals. It took time to give up old conceits. Despite the famous connections between Knights’ actions and the Haymarket Riot in 1886, the Knights had very little tolerance for radicals, and not only at the top. Newark Knights repeatedly stated the conservative nature of their actions. They largely believed in the American Dream and respected the small employers who had risen out of the working class. They saw a big difference between that person and John D. Rockefeller or Jay Gould.

By 1887, the Knights had begun to decline. In part this was about the backlash to Haymarket and in part it was due to divisions both within the Knights and between the Knights and other labor unions. The Knights really weren’t constructed to be a mass movement. But masses of workers around the nation still held to their Knights membership. Sensing weakness, the leather manufacturers banded together and struck back. The initial issue was that in June, they had agreed that workers could only tan a limit of forty hides in a day. They resented giving up any control over the shopfloor, which the agreement had also allowed. The manufacturers began to coordinate with each other. They selected one to violate the agreement, knowing workers would strike. When this happened, the employer imported strikebreakers while the other employers took over his orders and worked them in employer solidarity. The Knights lost.

This set the stage for the August lockout, where the leather owners sought to eliminate the Knights entirely. Given the cutthroat nature of American business competition (a scenario that would continue until the New Deal) it was almost as hard to get employers to cooperate as it was for workers to try and unionize. But the success in freeing one factory from the union convinced many skeptical owners to join the employers association. The bosses announced the lockout for August 1, but waited until August 13 as rhetoric rose between the two sides and the Knights debated on whether they should strike first. But the workers simply didn’t have the resources of the bosses, even pooled together as a union. Knights’ dues were very low and though the union said it could stay out for 3 months, it ran out of money almost immediately. The Knights tried to appeal to the small manufacturers in terms of the working-class and small employer solidarity at the heart of free labor ideology, but not a single one failed to honor the lockout. By the third week, the situation grew desperate. Internal tensions between the more radical German members and more conservative English and Irish members and rapidly dwindling funds destroyed the Knights. A few went back to their old jobs but most were not rehired. Shop stewards were blacklisted and many had to move from Newark to find work. The Knights were dead in the leather industry. Unions in Newark were pushed back significantly. At the start of 1887, there were 48 workers associations in the city. By the end of 1888, there were 12.

Ultimately, the Knights failed in Newark because employers would do anything to crush them. And this has been the primary problem of American unionism. It took remarkable government action during an unprecedented economic crisis to change this scenario in the New Deal and employers have resented it ever since. That is the fundamental problem organized labor has today. It’s not bad union leadership, a lack of union democracy, not enough organizing, or the other reasons union supporters and those who critique unions from the left usually provide. These are small factors, but the fundamental issue is that American employers will stop at nothing to eradicate unions. And that’s a very different circumstance that either Britain and France during the 1880s or, say, Germany today, where employers and unions routinely work together on management decisions, up to the point of encouraging unionization of the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

This post is based on Kim Voss, The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century. This is critical reading because it provides the direct comparison to employers in England and France that I didn’t have time to explore in this post.

This is the 186th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: July 28, 1932

[ 59 ] July 28, 2016 |


On July 28, 1932, the U.S. Army 12th Infantry regiment commanded by Douglas MacArthur and the 3rd Calvary Regiment, supported by six battle tanks commanded by Major George Patton violently evicted the Bonus Army from their Washington, D.C. encampment. This violent action and horrible treatment of impoverished veterans shocked the American public and demonstrated the utter indifference of Herbert Hoover to the desperate poverty the nation faced, helping to seal his overwhelming defeat that fall that ushered in the widespread change of the New Deal that would follow.

The Great Depression absolutely decimated the American working class. Unemployment shot up to 25 percent by the winter of 1933, while underemployment affected perhaps an additional 25 percent of workers. Herbert Hoover was simply unable to deal with these problems. Hoover was a man with a long humanitarian record, but he was very much a Progressive in a period where the voluntarist response to social problems that movement valued no longer worked. Charges that the Hoover didn’t care about the poor are overstated. But he simply could not accept any large-scale state involvement in solving the problem. By the summer of 1932 he had slightly moved off his position, but widescale social programs were anathema. Even more horrifying to him was worker activism.

In 1924, Congress passed the World War Adjusted Compensation Act that granted World War I veterans a one-time pension check in 1945. Calvin Coolidge vetoed this bill because of course Coolidge would veto a bill that gave anyone a dime, but Congress overrode the veto. But by 1932, these soldiers needed that money now. They faced unthinkable poverty. They could not feed their families. What difference did it make if it was 1932 or 1945, veterans thought. So they began to demand the immediate payment of their bonus. The bonus was not a huge amount of money. It paid veterans $1 a day for service while in the U.S. and $1.25 in Europe, up to a maximum of $500 in the U.S. and $625 in Europe. That $625 is about $8000 today. This was not going to make people rich. But it was something at time when something is exactly what was needed.

As the Depression deepened, Congress did allow veterans to borrow against the value of the certificates. Originally they could borrow up to 22 percent of the total, but in 1931 Congress expanded this to 31 percent. Congressional support for paying the entire bonus grew. In January 1930, 170,000 desperate veterans applied for the loans–in 9 days. Veterans struggled with what must have been PTSD, as Veterans Administration studies in 1930 and 1931 showed that veterans had unemployment nearly 50 percent higher than non-veterans of the same age. Beginning in 1930, Congress began exploring new bills to help veterans, but none became law. On June 15, 1932, the House passed the Bonus Bill that would grant the bonuses immediately.

At the same time, veterans began descending on Washington, DC demanding the immediate payment of the bonus. Organizing this protest was an organization you might not expect today–the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The VFW was really struggling in the early 1920s. But after 1929, its membership exploded because it supported the immediate payment of the bonus, while the American Legion, a proto-fascist anti-worker organization, opposed it. They created a Hooverville in Anacostia, in what is today Anacostia Park. The veterans created a sanitary camp, despite being in Washington during the summer. The camp did not welcome non-veterans or other radicals who might want to turn the event to their purposes. To stay in the camp, people had to prove their veteran status and eligibility. They could however bring their families. Approximately 20,000 veterans traveled to Washington during the summer of 1932.

Beginning in March, the VFW aggressively lobbied for the bonus. VFW leaders presented Congress with a petition from 281,000 veterans demanding their money. Veterans camping was an annual event for the VFW. So the act of setting up in one place was not radical, nor unusual, although the official 1932 encampment was in Sacramento. But in 1932, encamping in DC had a specifically politically agenda. The movement for a specific Bonus Army came out of Oregon, where veterans began organizing for an encampment in Washington, DC. They hopped trains and headed east. Thousands joined them. The VFW did not precisely endorse the Bonus Army and it wasn’t quite affiliated with it, but there was a lot of support for it and many VFW locals sent supplies and provided other forms of support. Hoover refused to even meet with the veterans, although he spoke at American Legion conventions on at least two occasions. And while the House passed the bill, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected it, 82-18.

For the most part, the Bonus marchers accepted their defeat. Congress even passed a bill to pay for their transportation to go home. Most left, but not all. Herbert Hoover was very nervous about the remaining bonus marchers. The Washington police force had no patience for the Bonus marchers and neither did the military. The remaining marchers began squatting in government buildings. Hoover ordered them cleared. The police were happy to do so. This led to skirmishes. That led Hoover to order MacArthur to clear out the camp. But Hoover was pretty clear–this was not to be violent. MacArthur disobeyed his orders and burned the whole camp. After he demolished the camp, he told the press that the Bonus Army was full of communists. That Douglas MacArthur, what an American hero. MacArthur’s actions absolutely devastated Hoover’s re-election chances, if he still had them in July 1932. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would obliterate Hoover in November, creating a rare complete realignment of American politics. The VFW strongly supported Roosevelt, wanting revenge on Hoover for what happened to the Bonus Army.

The Bonus Army was not a movement with a radical or unionist agenda. But it was a clear expression of activism that was transforming the working classes by the early 1930s and would lead to the greater explosions of worker activism in the next few years that would force the government to pass laws like the National Labor Relations Act, Social Security Act, and Fair Labor Standards Act. Interestingly, Roosevelt was not a big supporter of paying the bonus either. There was another march in 1933. FDR provided them a camp site in Virginia and 3 meals a day but did not publicly support their goals. Finally, in 1936, Congress passed a bonus bill. FDR vetoed it. But Congress overrode it and much of the bonus was paid early.

I borrowed from Steven Ortiz, “Rethinking the Bonus March: Federal Bonus Policy, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Origins of a Protest Movement,” in the July 2006 issue of Journal of Policy History, in the writing of this post.

This is the 185th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: July 6, 1924

[ 11 ] July 6, 2016 |


On July 6, 1924, members of the Philippine Scouts, a division of Filipino troops in the U.S. Army occupying the Philippines, refused to drill to protest their poor pay and unfair treatment. This would eventually lead to their court martial. This incident shines a light on two critical and understudied issues in American labor history: the idea of the military as labor and the labor history of American imperialism.

The Philippine Scouts were a division of troops that joined the U.S. Army in defense of American colonial rule of their nation, land wrested from the Spanish in 1898 and which it then had to crush a independence movement with shocking brutality. This was instituted soon after the U.S. took control and included many Filipino members of the Spanish army. By the early 1920s, these made up the majority of occupying forces, with about 15,000 Filipino soldiers serving under 2500 white officers and additional 5000 American soldiers. Primarily they existed to protect the colony from its greatest threat–Filipino insurrection. Most served near Manila, although they were scattered around the islands. They could marry and bring their families with them, creating what was basically a steady job. Reenlistment rates were about 80 percent.

But the pay was low, especially compared to American soldiers of the same rank. A U.S. private made $21 a month. A private in the Scouts made $8 a month, a rate that had barely changed since the Scouts were first created. With the U.S. wanting to avoid international commitments and costly programs during the 1920s, replacing American soldiers with poorly paid Filipinos was appealing in Washington. The Scouts had to put their wives and children to work, often serving the white officers. Cost of living increased dramatically during the post-World War I years though and the Scouts had a harder time making ends meet. By 1924, the Scouts were making less than skilled labor in Manila. Although the benefits were still much higher than other Manila workers, the Scouts saw themselves as downwardly mobile.

There was a good bit of labor strife in Manila around wages and working conditions during these years, much of it aimed at U.S. controlled operations. By 1924, the Filipino labor movement had 145 officially registered unions or similar organizations, consisting of over 90,000 members. These included fairly conservative unions that served more like member lodges and more radical communist unions. Outside of this, there were also peasant movements heavily infused with messianic religious leadership. The response of the U.S. colonial administration, led by Colonel Leonard Wood, was, not surprisingly given how the U.S. would usually respond to labor uprisings at home and abroad, not that it was a series of responses to specific lived conditions of workers, but part of a global communist plot against colonialism. For Wood, all labor questions were attacks on colonialism. On the minds of Wood and other leaders was the Boston police strike of 1919, which for the first time called into question whether security forces would agree to crush organized labor.

Calvin Coolidge, who had risen to national prominence by destroying the Boston police union, was also responsible for what was to follow in the Philippines. In May 1924, Congress passed an omnibus military bill that raised Scouts’ rations and subsistence allowances and also created a pension system for them that gave them three-quarters of their salary after 30 years. Coolidge vetoed it. The Philippine Scouts did not know all the details, but they came to believe that Congress had granted them a pay raise and their officers were withholding it from them.

In response, the Scouts started organizing into what they called the Secret Soldiers’ Union. They were mostly young and mostly privates. They planned a demonstration for July 4, gathering on a hill near Fort McKinley and marching into downtown Manila where they would present their demands to the commander of the the U.S. Army’s Philippine Department and then go to Leonard Wood’s headquarters to make their demands to him. They decided to delay it until August 2, but on July 5, informants told the Army of the soldiers plan. Fort McKinley’s Provost Guard raided a meeting and detained 26 Scouts. The next morning, July 6, 380 Scouts refused to drill. Warned of the consequences and told their refusal would be treated not as a strike but as a mutiny, only 104 soldiers held out on July 7, but that increased to 202 on July 8.

The American community in the Philippines freaked out, fearing plots to blow up U.S bases and a general attack on Americans. One told a reporter, “Discharging these men and allowing the to return home is similar to turning smallpox into a hospital full of patients. Each man is carrying the germs of insurgence to his home province.” Army officers were more divided on how important this protest was, especially since a growing number of the protesters were veterans with long service records. But on July 9, the Army announced plans to discharge 190 of the men for mutiny. On July 29, three proceedings began, one for 17 supposed ringleaders, another for 209 charged with mutiny, and a third for 298 who had refused to obey orders.

Proceeding over the trial was Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur, head of the Philippine Division’s 23rd Brigade. Nearly all the men charged were found guilty. Tomas Riveral, identified as the mutiny’s leader, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Most of the rest were placed in convict detachments on Correigdor and released after two years. In 1928, the Army finally raised the pay of a private in the Scouts from $8 a month to $9 a month. The Secret Soldiers’ Union disappeared almost immediately after the repression. The War Department did conduct an internal study because it worried that it’s whole plan to defend the colonies from internal rebellion was worthless if the soldiers were not loyal. But the Scouts continued and no additional labor agitation came from the Scouts before the end of U.S. occupation of the Philippines.

As to the broader question of whether military service is labor, the answer is that it is a different form of labor with a different relationship to the state, yes, but it’s labor nonetheless. Like most forms of labor through American history, it is heavily gendered and racialized. And occasionally, despite structures that make protest much harder than in the civilian labor force, soldiers do rise up and protest their oppression, such as in the Port Chicago protests during World War II.

I based this post on Christopher Capozzola’s essay “The Secret Soldiers’ Union: Labor and Soldier Politics in the Philippine Scout Mutiny of 1924,” in Daniel Bender and Jana Lipman, Making the Empire Work: Labor & United States Imperialism.

This is the 184th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Finally, I will note that I started this series 5 years ago today with a relatively brief discussion of Homestead. It’s been a fun series to write over the years. And now that I’ve gotten through most of the standard events of labor history, I can write up incidents like the Philippine Scouts that basically no one has ever heard about before. Here’s to 5 more years of it.

This Day in Labor History: July 2, 1964

[ 7 ] July 2, 2016 |


On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Today’s post evaluates the impact of Title VII of the law. Title VII prohibited discrimination by covered employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, with an exception for members of the Communist Party who employers could continue to discriminate against. For the first time, they had the right to a job regardless of their race and gender. This transformed employment law and the lives of millions of American workers.

Title VII came out of a long history of employment discrimination. A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement had targeted this directly and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom had not only aimed to get the bill that became the Civil Rights Act passed but also sought economic remedies like Title VII. Civil rights and economic rights can not be separated, as much as Republicans would like to think civil rights is about one line out of one speech Martin Luther King gave and absolutely nothing more.

Title VII targeted private employers, excluding the federal government. Many feared Title VII would be toothless. The law created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but it originally had little power. Said the chair of the EEOC from 1967-1969, Clifford Alexander, “We sort of gummed them to death if we could, but we had no enforcement powers.” But when LBJ issued Executive Order 11246 in 1965 that required federal agencies to establish nondiscrimination clauses and private contractors practice nondiscrimination, Title VII slowly took on life. Requiring govenrment contractors to comply meant that the government’s significant power of the purse as it became an ever larger sector of the economy was a powerful tool that sent reverberations through the labor market.

In the long-run, Title VII had the farthest reaching impact of any clauses in the law. Civil rights groups began finding the EEOC a useful tool and assisted people who had been discriminated against in filing suit to use it. In its first year, people filed 9000 complaints to the EEOC. By 1975, there were 77,000 complaints. They could also use class action lawsuits for a much larger tool against systemic employment discrimination. More than 1200 such lawsuits were filed between 1965 and 1971. In 1972, Congress granted the EEOC the power to sue in federal court, vastly expanding its reach. Major companies sought to create consent decrees with the EEOC rather than face trial. Many of those companies agreed to major settlements with female workers and workers of color. The success of many of them gave employers the push they needed to solve their employment discrimination problems themselves.

The inclusion of Title VII contained a vitally important principle rarely recognized in the Untied States—that civil rights preempted property rights, which is why racists like Rand Paul still rail against the law today. As Barry Goldwater said when voting against the law, “Our right of property is perhaps our most sacred right.” Human rights surpassed property rights, arguably for only the second time in American history, and the first took a civil war to accomplish.

The inclusion of women in Title VII was at first seen as something of a joke, although it turns out the issue was more complicated than it first appeared. When Virginia Rep. Howard Smith, a staunch segregationist, added the category of sex to the law, he did intend to undermine it. But Smith had worked closely with Alice Paul in the past. Paul and the National Women’s Party had long opposed any liberal legislation, especially labor law, and often worked with conservatives who were interested in a broad Equal Rights Amendment. Smith was one of them. So Smith introduced the word “sex” both because he wanted to see the bill die but also because if it did pass, he wanted women to have a right under it, especially if they were competing against black men for jobs.

One of the most frustrating thing about studying justice issues is that white women are among the biggest beneficiaries from affirmative action programs, yet so many do not see themselves as benefiting or in solidarity with people of color. Title VII was arguably the biggest political victory for women’s rights since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. The EEOC’s initial reluctance to fight for women’s rights on the job helped lead to the creation of the National Organization of Women in 1966. While we might not remember NOW as a leader in the fight for employment equality, NOW frequently worked closely with civil rights groups to fight both racial and sexual discrimination.

Title VII also allowed the Supreme Court to ban sexual harassment at the workplace under the law, including same-sex sexual harassment, as decided in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services. Of course the use of Title VII to drastically change employment arrangements came under attack from the conservative movement and the Reagan administration underfunded the EEOC as it did the EPA, OSHA, and any other agency that sought to create a more equal America. Today, we are still far away from equal pay for equal work or an end to employment discrimination, despite real gains that we have made.

Some complain that the rise of a workplace fairness doctrine like Title VII has helped undermine the broader call for economic justice that the civil rights movement fought for. And there’s some real truth there. A. Philip Randolph was worried at the time that the law would ultimately do little for African-Americans because automation would throw many black workers out of a job and thus a jobs program was needed as well. But, between the 1960s and 1990s, the number of black policemen double, the number of black electricians tripled, and the number of black professionals quadrupled. The numbers of female professionals increased from 5 percent of the workforce to more than 30 percent in the same years. On the other hand, economic inequality is a major problem in society, it falls heavily by race and gender, and nothing in the Civil Rights Act even begins to solve this problem. Of course, the answer is new federal legislation to start solving it, but that’s probably far away.

I borrowed heavily from the forum on Title VII in the Fall 2014 issue of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas for this post.

This is the 183rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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