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Tag: "This Day in Labor History"

This Day in Labor History: May 3, 1965

[ 44 ] May 3, 2016 |

On May 3, 1965, Gene Bernofsky, JoAnn Bernofsky, Richard Kallweit, and Clark Richart bought a 7-acre piece of land north of Trinidad, Colorado. This would become known as Drop City, among the first and most important of the countercultural communes that dotted the American landscape during the late 1960s and 1970s and continuing, in a much diminished form, to the present. While itself not a particularly important day in American labor history per se, we can use this date to serve as a window into how work was organized in the counterculture, which is a meaningful topic on the subject.

Both then and now, there is a stereotype that hippies avoided work. The reality was far more complicated. Sure, many in the counterculture relied heavily on the welfare state to supplement their income. But most, including many of those who qualified for state benefits, valued hard work very highly. What the counterculture by and large rejected was work within the system of corporate capitalism. They weren’t going to be The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, for instance. They didn’t want to work for wages, be union members, go into middle management. But there are many forms of work. Many in the counterculture wanted to labor for themselves, often in the beautiful nature of the American West, either regenerate both the natural world and themselves through labor. One chapter in my book Empire of Timber, details the Hoedads, a group of countercultural reforestation workers in the 1970s. These people took up some of the hardest work imaginable–planting trees on the steep slopes of the Pacific Northwest. Both men and women engaged in this work that was often back-breaking. They felt they were contributing to a more just and sustainable natural world by planting trees while working for themselves outside of capitalism. This work did not make them very much money, usually less than minimum wage, and it was extremely strenuous. But it was work nonetheless.

In the communes, the work was often quite different but was still work. People such as Stewart Brand promoted countercultural work norms through the Whole Earth Catalog, focusing on self-sustaining economic and environmental projects that promoted people working for themselves. In 1971, the Whole Earth Catalog sold over 1 million copies. Believing that rural spaces were unspoiled, unlike the polluted corporate cities, many young people sought to establish themselves in the country, working on the land. The problem with this is that this work was tremendously hard and most were not ready for it. Disasters struck frequently. Communes would save money and buy a piece of relatively expensive farm equipment and then ruin it because they didn’t know how to use it. They would build unstable structures that would collapse. That they eschewed many western farming methods and instead sought authentic Native American practices, often attempting to contact Native Americans to show them the way did not help their material conditions much. Poverty was often the result. But being in touch with the earth through planting seeds by hand, harvesting farm animals, weaving, or planting trees was work well worth the effort for thousands of people during the years, despite the economic hardships they often faced.

But for all the potentially world-changing implications of countercultural work norms, one thing that is striking is how gender traditional it all was. The counterculture broadly speaking, and certainly many if not most of the communes, internalized traditional gendered work norms. In the communes, men did most of the outdoor labor of constructing buildings, killing hogs, or plowing fields, while women both planted seeds in those fields and worked inside the buildings, cleaning, cooking, and taking care of the children. Women who tried to lay bricks with men reported being ignored and facing huge social pressure to return to the house. Over time, this did begin to fade in some communes, with men being forced to take on some childcare and women doing more physical farmworking tasks.

But this depended on the commune. On The Farm, in Tennessee, founder Stephen Gaskin, considered a guru by many of his followers, set up a traditional gendered world. Because Gaskin believed in the sacred power of women’s reproductive yin and men’s creative yang, Gaskin created a sexual division of labor that largely replicated an idealized past of what was considered 19th century rural gender roles. Quickly realizing that they were in over their heads in terms of the physical creation of community and self-sustainability, 12-14 hour work days with highly specialized roles became common. When they couldn’t make enough money, men hired themselves to local farmers for cash. Women on the other hand created collectivized childcare and worked in cottage industries, financing the enterprises, cooking, farming, taught in the commune’s schools, and other tasks deemed feminine because they were seen as reproductive. In particular, the commune valued midwives as the highest form of female labor and they often played important social and political roles in these groups. Gaskin’s teachings reinforced these ideas, calling men “knights” that needed to protect and provide for women. There was an attempt to reject an unproductive animalistic masculinity in exchange for what be called the creation of the New Age sensitive man, but the gendered norms remained powerful and deeply connected to labor.


By the late 1970s, the commune movement was fading fast for a variety of reasons. Hippies were becoming old people and out of touch with the youth, or at least that’s how both the hippies themselves and young people saw it. Continued hardship and poverty was not appealing to a lot of men and women who were highly educated and even if they had taken a decade off from the rat race, still had Vassar or Columbia degrees and a lot of racial and cultural capital they could turn into future careers as lawyers or other professions. The revolutionary work ideas of the commune movement would largely go untapped, but their influence can be seen today in the organic farming and DIY work movements, both of which remain vital.

I borrowed from Tim Hodgdon, Manhood in the Age of Aquarius: Masculinity in Two Countercultural Communities, 1965-1983 and Ryan Edgington, “‘Be Receptive to the Good Earth: Health, Nature, and Labor in Countercultural Back-to-the-Land Settlements,” published in Agricultural History in the Summer 2008 edition, to write this post.

This is the 177th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.


This Day In Labor History: April 27, 1944

[ 30 ] April 27, 2016 |


On April 27, 1944, Attorney General Francis Biddle arrived in Chicago to order Montgomery Ward head Sewell Avery to either extend his workers’ contract so they would not strike during the war or have his company seized and run by the American government. When Avery refused, Biddle had the military physically remove Avery from Montgomery Ward offices and the process began that led to the government seizing the workplace. This remarkable incident shines a light on a number of major issues concerning organized labor, corporations, and government during World War II.

Many corporate heads originally embraced the New Deal, in particular the National Recovery Administration, because it offered a government-led solution to the problem of overcompetition without really forcing them to give up most control over their daily decisions. So the Blue Eagle, at least under the pro-corporate NRA chief General Hugh Johnson, was amenable to many corporations. But not all. The corporate fundamentalist ideology was that any government interference was a massive violation of liberty. A minority of corporate leaders held to this position no matter how fall the economy had fallen. Even more outrageous to these people was the idea that organized labor had a role to play in the economy. For men like Henry Ford or Montgomery Ward leader Sewell Avery, unions were organizations that sought to crush human liberty.

So Avery was at the forefront of anti-New Dealers from the moment FDR took the presidency in 1933. He was a major financier of the anti-Roosevelt forces, attempting to steer the nation back to Hooverism. This of course failed miserably in the 1936 elections, but that didn’t soften Avery’s opposition.

In 1942, Roosevelt created the National War Labor Board. The NWLB sought to build on government economic planning during World War I to, among other things, create smooth labor relations for the war’s duration so that workers could get out the materiel needed to fight the war. This was a tough challenge for the NWLB. Much of the problem came from workers who had steady, good-paying work for the first time in more than a decade. The NWLB had to keep wages and prices fairly stable but prices did rise faster than wages. Workers wanted a bigger piece of the pie. The NWLB had 12 members–four representatives of business, four of organized labor, and four named by the federal government. This theoretically even playing field brought unions into central economic planning. It also gave them incentive to keep their workers from striking. The agreement that labor and corporations had to come to was that for the duration of the war, unions would not strike if corporations would agree to mandatory NWLB arbitration of all labor disputes and abide by those decisions. Wildcat strikes however remained a consistent problem through the war, as workers desperately wanted to make good money, be consumers, and win the war at the same time.

But while most corporations went along with the NWLB, some resisted. Of course Sewell Avery led this opposition. He maintained a company union as long as possible, but those were ruled unconstitutional in 1937 when the Supreme Court upheld the National Labor Relations Act. The United Mail Order, Warehouse, and Retail Employees Union won an election to unionize Montgomery Ward under NWLB supervision in 1942. Avery refused to negotiate with the union. He hated all unions, but the Mail Order union was affiliated with CIO, which Avery thought was a communist organization seeking to undermine America. This election, which the union supporters won by a 3-1 margin, brought Montgomery Ward’s 7000 Chicago employees into the house of labor. He was most furious that labor won a maintenance of membership clause, which meant that union members couldn’t withdraw from the union for the duration of the contract, i.e., the closed shop. Avery refused to sign the contract, but gave in reluctantly when Roosevelt personally intervened to order him to do so.

In 1944, the contract expired. Avery wanted the union out. He argued that the union did not represent the majority of the employees and that the NWLB had no authority over non-defense plants. This argument made little sense. First, Montgomery Ward was a huge supplier to farmers, who absolutely were critical for American war efforts. Second, the company also supplied the federal government with a lot of goods. The NWLB asked the NLRB to hold another election but also ordered Avery to sign the contract extension in the meantime, which continued the maintenance of membership clause. He said he wouldn’t sign it, “come Hell or high water.” So the workers went on strike on April 12. During the war, this was a big no-no, but not in this case. The Teamsters started a secondary strike, refusing to make deliveries or pick-ups to Montgomery Ward stores around the nation. Even the U.S. Postal Service pulled out their 30 employees dealing with the mass of mail to the company because they had no work to do.

Given Avery’s intransigence, Roosevelt intervened directly. He had Commerce Secretary Jesse Jones plan to seize the company. He dispatched a federal marshal and several government officials to ask Avery to leave his desk. He basically laughed at them. So Roosevelt ordered Attorney General Francis Biddle to personally fly to Chicago to handle it. When Avery showed up to work on the morning of April 27, 1944, he found Biddle there with a group of soldiers. Biddle tried to reason with him and told him he was hurting the war effort. Avery responded by saying “To hell with the government.” So Biddle ordered the soldiers to pick Avery up and carry him out of the building. Avery hurled the worst insult he could think of at Biddle, yelling, “You, you New Dealer!”

The legal case against the company quickly went into the courts, but the workers also immediately stopped the strike and voted in the new contract. So on May 9, Jones returned Montgomery Ward to private management. But Avery then rejected the contract and refused to go along with its provisions. Workers went on strike in the late fall. On December 27, Roosevelt once again ordered the government to take over Montgomery Ward, both its Chicago office and its major regional centers. Avery was allowed to stay in his office this time but was banned from any running of the company’s affairs, while the military set up in an office nearby. The govenrment continued running the company until October 18, 1945. With the war over, they gave it back to Avery, who then purged any managers who had worked with the government. His hatred of labor, which continued unabated, including refusing to offer a pension, combined with Avery’s poor business decisions to start the once dominant company on its long decline.

This is the 176th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: April 9, 1865

[ 58 ] April 14, 2016 |

HH 152

This post should have gone up on April 9, but sometimes, a professor can become so convinced of a piece of trivia like a date that said professor doesn’t actually look it up and then finds out it is wrong. Speaking of a friend of course.

On April 9, 1865, the traitor Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to U.S. general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War. But while this might have ended the war, the slave labor system the Confederates committed treason to defend was already crumbling. That’s because the slaves, as W.E.B. DuBois noted in his 1935 book Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward A History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880, had already committed a general strike by walking away from the plantations. That general strike is the subject of this post.

Slaves wanted freedom from the moment they were enslaved. Whether committing suicide on the slave ships by jumping into the ocean, engaging in open rebellions like Nat Turner or the Stono Rebellion, running away, or just dreaming of a free life, slaves always wanted freedom from the hell of their lives. They took any change to get it. During the American Revolution and the War of 1812, thousands of slaves fled to British lines because of the promise of freedom. Many thousands more would have fled if they could have reached the British.

The Civil War provided another opportunity for that long-cherished freedom. As soon as U.S. troops marched south, slaves began fleeing to their lines. This most famously became an issue for the American armies to deal with when three slaves reached Fort Monroe, Virginia, which was controlled by the U.S. and where General Benjamin Butler was in charge. When the owner came back and demanded the slaves back (by the way, the sheer temerity of Confederates to complain that the U.S. was violating the Fugitive Slave Act, as they did throughout the war, is amazing), Butler refused, classifying the slaves as contraband, although he never used the word. This received the approval of Republicans in Washington, who soon passed the Confiscation Act, which stated that if the Confederacy recognized slaves as property, that the United States had the right to confiscate that property in order to win the war.

But really, even without the Confiscation Act, slaves were going to take matters into their own hands anyway. Slaves like Robert Smalls would take enormous risks for freedom, in his case stealing a boat in the Charleston harbor while dressed as a Confederate ship captain, then picking up the families of the men with him who were at a waiting point, then fleeing north until they ran into an American ship. Smalls became famous for his bravery. Many fled to McClellan’s armies in the Peninsular Campaign in 1862. Planters quickly realized the danger and attempted to move slaves into the Confederate interior, especially western states like Texas and Arkansas. Perhaps most importantly, the slaves forced American officials and the Lincoln government to take the question of slavery seriously. Much to abolitionists’ frustration, Lincoln did not use the outbreak of war to end slavery. Union was his more important issue. But the slaves self-emancipating changed that. Faced with a fait accompli that slaves were going to flee on their own, Lincoln moved toward issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. I do think that Lincoln would have eventually done such a thing anyway, but certainly not in the fall of 1862. Slaves’ desire to flee slavery and then fight for the United States was an overwhelming argument for Lincoln and it shows how slave agency is absolutely central to our understanding of the decline of slave labor as an American institution.

Often, they completely overwhelmed northern armies that were marching in the South. That was especially true of that of William Tecumseh Sherman marching through Georgia and South Carolina. These slaves were often very poor and in terrible health. With the Confederacy going hungry by 1864 generally, slaves were getting less food than ever. But their sheer determination to win their freedom moved Sherman, who was no racial radical. These people were truly starving. Later they remembered scouring the ground to find nuts, roots, or wild greens to get something in their stomachs. Sherman marching through Georgia actually made slaves more hungry, but it also gave them the opportunity to win their freedom. Thousands of refugees were following Sherman’s armies by the time he got to Savannah in December 1864. That doesn’t mean that the officers wanted them. Some embraced the self-freed slaves, others wanted rid of them by any means necessary, but the now freed people were going to do whatever it took for obtain and keep that freedom.

Many of these slaves wanted to join the American military and seek to then fight for their own freedom and that of their loved ones. For example, John Boston fled from the plantation where he was a slavery in Maryland in 1862. He joined the military and later he was able to write to his wife, still stuck in slavery. He wrote, “My Dear Wife it is with grate joy I take to let you know Whare I am i am in Safety in the 14th Regiment of Brooklyn this Day I can Address you thank god as a free man I had a little truble in giting away But as the lord led the Children of Isrel to the land of Canon So he led me to a land Whare freedom Will rain in spite of earth and hell Dear you must make your Self content i am free from all the Slavers.”

This is the promise of freedom. This is how African-Americans self-emancipated. They simply walked away. When Confederate power faded, as it did with the arrival of American armies near plantations where male authority was waning as the war went on because of military service, they took their lives into the own hands. They effectively stopped growing cotton and rice, stopped working in the house, stopped supporting the plantation system. They followed the American army to freedom. They wanted more–primarily land, education, and eventually, the vote. Most of that would be temporary or denied or granted and then repealed in the case of Sherman’s Special Order No. 15 that gave slaves 160 acres of confiscated plantation lands between Charleston and the Florida border. The promises of emancipation would not be fully implemented. But whatever happened, slavery was dead. And it was dead in no small part because the slaves themselves decided they wouldn’t be slaves any longer.

And, not surprisingly, the now-freed slaves joyously rubbed their freedom in their masters’ faces when they could. The brilliant letter from ex-slave Jourdon Anderson to his ex-master Col. P.H. Anderson when the latter wrote to ask him to come back to work on the plantation after the war is the best way to conclude:

Dayton, Ohio,

August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.

This is the 175th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 30, 1930

[ 32 ] March 30, 2016 |


On March 30, 1930, the Hawk’s Nest tunnel project near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia began. This tunnel was designed to divert the New River to help Union Carbide increase its energy efficiency at a downstream plant. However, this mountain contained an unusual amount of silica. The largely African-American workers were not given any protection. While in normal cases, it takes years for silicosis to develop and kill a worker, of the 3000 workers, perhaps up to 1000 died of silicosis, some within a year. This is one of the more horrifying workplace safety disasters in American history, one heavily conditioned by racial prejudice.

To build this project, Union Carbide contracted with a Charlottesville, Virginia construction company to recruit labor. As was common for hard labor projects, most of the workers were African-American, and they came from around the southeast. As was also common, African-American workers labored in more dangerous conditions with fewer safety protections and were housed in segregated housing. The company didn’t expect there to be this much silica in the rock. When the high silica rates were discovered, the company was thrilled because the deposits were dense enough they could be sold commercially for steel production. Thus, the radius of the tunnel was expanded to pay for the project. Drilling and blasting were the standard ways to create tunnels. It can be done with a lot of water. Wet drilling reduces the dust and thus the silica. But this did not happen at Hawk’s Nest. Moreover, the workers were immediately sent into the mine to gather the blasted rock instead of allowing the dust to settle. Once again, the employers simply did not care because these were largely black workers.

After 6-day weeks of workers breathing in silica-laden dust, their health deteriorated quickly. The tunneling work ended in September 1931 and the entire project was completed in 1934. It did not take long for workers to being dropping dead, which began happening as early as the first half of 1931. The survivors, many of whom were also horribly sick, began to file lawsuits against their employer in 1932. By mid-1933, the contractor faced lawsuits with a total liability of $4 million. It agreed to settle out of court, paying a total of $130,000, half of which went to the attorneys. The compensation was much higher for the relatively small number of exposed white workers than it was to black workers. The judge determined that a single black man would receive only $400 and a married black man $600 while a single white man got $800 and a married white man received $1000. During this whole process, there is significant evidence that the contractor worked to bribe witnesses and tamper with juries. However, this story is hard to be precise about because the contractor destroyed all the records, including any information about the afflicted workers.

By the time the tunneling was done, many of the workers were too sick to return home and they died nearby. The contractor threw their bodies into unmarked graves without identification, hiring a mortician at twice the normal rate for paupers to deal with the problem quietly. Even when families were around, the bodies were immediately buried. George Robison later testified, “I knew a man who died about 4 o’clock in the morning in the camp and at 7 o’clock the same morning his wife took his clothes to the undertaker to dress her dead husband and when she got there they told her the husband had already been buried.” In 1972, a highway project in the area uncovered 45 of these graves. Between 750 and 1000 people died of silicosis on the Hawk’s Nest project in the years after it. About three-quarter were African-American, with the rest made up of local whites.

This tragedy was so profound that even though it was mostly black workers involved, it received national attention. A few local newspapers had begun reporting on the deaths in 1931, but Union Carbide intimidated the journalists and squashed the story. But it received attention when somehow Albert Maltz, a screenwriter later blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten, became aware of the story and wrote a successful short story about it in New Masses that featured a white (unsurprisingly) worker who got sick in the tunnel. This brought it broadly to the attention of the left and then the nation. The People’s Press reported on the incident, trying to raise money for the survivors. It wrote in 1936:

In the name of greed, 476 men—at least—are dead. Another 1,500 are doomed of whom 200 probably are dead in other places.

The dying are unable to get state or federal relief.

The doomed who can still work cannot get jobs. Employers know they are doomed.

The wives and children of the dead, the families of the dying and the doomed live at the edge of the starvation line.

Greed put them there.

In the name of humanity, the People’s Press asks you to help them.

Any sum, large or small, $100 or 1¢ will make life a little easier for this Town of the Living Dead.

They will not get help from the millionaires who kill 2,000 men for a few dollars. That we know.

So we urge you to help them. Everything given will go directly to these people in desperate need.

Josh White, performing under the pseudonym Pinewood Tom, also recorded “Silicosis Is Killin’ Me,” about the dead Hawk’s Nest workers, in 1936.

That same year, a congressional committee launched an investigation. There it was revealed that the engineers and bosses knew there was a severe risk of silicosis. They protected themselves by wearing masks. But they of course gave no masks to the workers, even though this is an incredibly inexpensive form of protection. The committee was deeply critical of Union Carbide and the contractor. But they took no action against the perpetrators. The worried mining companies did what timber companies, railroads, and other employers in dangerous workplaces had done since 1911, which was lobby to include their workers under state worker compensation programs. Those programs largely existed to protect employers from lawsuits and liability, providing very limited compensation to workers that fell far below the money they made on the job. West Virginia added tunnel diggers in 1935 with relatively long employment periods that excluded short-term workers so that companies would not have high liability rates in the future.

This would not be the last time Union Carbide was involved in a massive industrial disaster.

Silicosis is still a problem in the American workplace. The Department of Labor’s recent regulations hope to move closer to solving that problem.

Much of the material for this post came from Martin Cherniack, The Hawk’s Nest Incident: America’s Worst Industrial Disaster.

This is the 174th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 15, 1940

[ 39 ] March 15, 2016 |


On March 15, 1940, John Ford’s film version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, was released to universal acclaim. This was perhaps the greatest moment of the cultural left during the Great Depression. Of all the New Deal-era art that broadly made up the Popular Front, none were more well-remembered and beloved than the book and film versions of The Grapes of Wrath, despite and possibly because neither Ford nor Steinbeck was closely associated with that movement.

Steinbeck’s powerful 1939 novel was a sensation. Its tale of the Joads and their bitter journey from Oklahoma to California in search of work and a new life was a huge hit. Produced at the tail end of the worst economic crisis in American history, it galvanized attention on the plight of the so-called Okies, even if it didn’t lead to any policy to alleviate their problems, despite the fact that the book and the film both played up the Resettlement Administration camp that treated people decently, with the film even going into a closeup on the RA logo. The plight of white migrants to California had received a good bit of attention from artists, most notably in the photographs of Dorothea Lange. These migrants, more victims of New Deal farm policy that encouraged consolidation and industrial farming than the Dust Bowl, as most, including the fictional Joads, originated well east of the Dust Bowl, were part of the national crisis of the Great Depression, which led to a lot of hand-wringing, no shortage of fear, and a belated and relatively small government response to provide relief for these small farmers. The Grapes of Wrath focused national attention on their plight, especially with the release of the film.

John Ford was a brilliant choice to direct the film adaptation. Although today best known for his often racist westerns, he was more of a broad believer in a salt of the earth white populism that simply assumed a Turnerian view of history (which was almost ubiquitous during the New Deal among intellectuals, politicians, and artists. That is on full display in the film. The original New York Times review well-summarizes the popular reception to it:

We know the question you are asking, have been asking since the book was acquired for filming: Does the picture follow the novel, how closely and how well? The answer is that it has followed the book; has followed it closely, but not with blind, undiscriminating literalness; has followed it so well that no one who has read and admired it should complain of the manner of its screen telling. Steinbeck’s language, which some found too shocking for tender eyes, has been cleaned up, but has not been toned so high as to make its people sound other than as they are. Some phases of his saga have been skimped and some omitted; the book’s ending has been dropped; the sequence of events and of speeches has been subtly altered.

The changes sound more serious than they are, seem more radical than they are. For none of them has blurred the clarity of Steinbeck’s word-picture of the people of the Dust Bowl. None of them has rephrased, in softer terms, his matchless description of the Joad family’s trek from Oklahoma to California to find the promised land where work was plenty, wages were high and folk could live in little white houses beside an orange grove. None of them has blunted the fine indignation or diluted the bitterness of his indictment of the cruel deception by which an empty stew-pot was substituted for the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end. And none of them has—as most of us feared it might—sent the film off on a witch hunt, let it pretend there had just been a misunderstanding, made it end on the sunrise of a new and brighter day.

Steinbeck’s story might have been exaggeration; at least some will take comfort in thinking so. But if only half of it were true, that half still should constitute a tragedy of modern America, a bitter chapter of national history that has not yet been closed, that has, as yet, no happy ending, that has thus far produced but two good things: a great American novel (if it is truly a novel) and a great American motion picture.

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad was classic casting. With his flat Midwestern accent and good looks, he personified the prototype of the All-American young man, an image he would build upon for his entire career (and of course play against type in Once Upon a Time in the West, nearly 30 years later). His ideological transformation from rough and tumble Oklahoma white to organizer and lefty is a story of what happens to people when they are beaten down enough. Sure, grandpa dies, the brother-in-law runs away, and the family falls apart. Preacher Casey gets murdered by the farm owner thugs. But the struggle continues. Ma keeps the rest of the family together (and Jane Darwell was brilliant in this role) and Tom builds on Casey’s legacy, not as an ideological radical but as a man seeking answers to the poverty of his life.

Steinbeck himself was thrilled with the film version, writing “No punches were pulled. In fact….it is a harsher thing than the book.” And as great as the book is, the film is better as it distills the key points with great power while rewriting the book’s dark and somewhat gratuitous ending to provide some sort of hope at the end, as opposed to the flood and endless despair of the last section of the book.

The film and the book both make one huge and regrettable error, which is erasing non-white labor from the land. California was not this agricultural paradise where everyone could eat all the oranges they wanted. Those farmers had always sought cheap, exploitable labor, whether Mexican, Filipino, Japanese, or Okie. It was to serve these farmers that Mexico was exempt from the 1924 Immigration Act. They recruited labor from the Philippines after Japanese migration ended. Those immigrants would play a key role in the history of farmworker organizing. The Bracero Program would be a solution for the disappearance of white labor from the fields during World War II. But neither Steinbeck nor Ford had any interest in these non-whites at all and their stories and histories are a very conspicuous absence.

In the past, I’ve wondered what would have happened to Tom Joad in the future. I still say that had he not been thrown in jail for life by the cops or killed as an organizer, he would have fought in the Marines in World War II. Had he survived, he and his family would be working in the California defense plants like many other Depression era migrant whites, he would have bought a home in Orange County, and probably voted for Goldwater in 1964.

This is the 173rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 4, 1933

[ 22 ] March 4, 2016 |

On March 4, 1933, the newly inaugurated president Franklin Delano Roosevelt nominated Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor. This first female cabinet member in American history (the second wouldn’t come until the Carter Eisenhower administration), Perkins was a remarkable figure who dedicated her life to improving the lives of working Americans.

Born in 1880, Perkins attended college at Mount Holyoke and became a prototypical Progressive reformer, upper-middle class, well-educated, and seeking to do well in a world that often blocked educated women from both marriage and work. Building on the legacies of older pioneering Progressive women like Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, Perkins worked in the settlement house movement after graduating from Mount Holyoke. While there, in 1902, she was involved in founding a chapter of the National Consumers League. They invited NCL founder Florence Kelley to speak and this experience changed Perkins’ life. She graduated from college in 1902 and moved to Chicago to teach at a girls’ school against her family’s wishes. There she volunteered at Hull House and Chicago Commons, gaining experience in fighting for the working class that would mark her life. In 1907, she took a job in Philadelphia with an organization dedicated to stopping newly arrived immigrants to the city from ending up in prostitution, while also studying as a graduate student in the Wharton School. She then moved to New York to complete a master’s degree at Columbia on childhood malnutrition. In 1910, she became the Executive Secretary of the New York City Consumers League, where she lobbied for all sorts of reforms to American working class exploitation.

On March 25, 1911, Perkins happened to be in the vicinity of the Triangle Fire. She ran over to the site of the fire and watched 146 people die to make clothing she may have been wearing. Already committed to improving workers’ lives, she became a national leader in fighting to ensure nothing like this would ever happen again. She became Executive Secretary of the Citizens’ Committee on Safety. There she led an investigation into workplace and fire safety, connecting it to the larger exploitation of workers’ lives. She convinced Al Smith and other leading New York politicians to enter the workplaces themselves, leading to major changes as they were shocked with what they discovered. New York City cleaned up its fire building codes, prohibited smoking in factories, and required new fire suppression techniques and technologies. Al Smith and Robert Wagner took Perkins’ suggestion to create the Factory Investigative Commission that led to the passage of 15 new bills by 1915 to make workplaces safer. This made Perkins a national leader on labor reform. Perkins became a close ally of Al Smith and was his leading labor advisor while governor of New York. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became governor after Smith, he named Perkins state Industrial Commissioner that oversaw the state’s labor department and the two of them worked together to fight against the deepening Great Depression.


When Roosevelt named Perkins Secretary of Labor it was remarkable for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that she was a woman, an unprecedented step (I don’t believe a woman had even been considered for a Cabinet position before this). She also wasn’t a union member. Most people who had held the job of Secretary of Labor had been unionists, and with the Democratic Party far closer to organized labor than Republicans, this was expected. She had a strong agenda for what she wanted to see the Democrats do while she was in the Cabinet–create a 40-hour workweek, federal unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, the abolition of child labor, federal employment of the unemployed, and national health insurance. She would be centrally involved in getting much of this passed. She brought a young Harry Hopkins from New York to help with the federal employment programs, particularly the Federal Employee Relief Administration, which he headed.

Perkins’ primary role as Secretary of Labor for FDR was helping to write much of his key legislation to benefit the millions of impoverished Americans in the Great Depression. This included the Social Security Act of 1935. She also chaired the President’s Committee on Economic Security, which oversaw all the New Deal’s economic legislation goals. She refused to deport the radical International Longshore and Warehouse Union head Harry Bridges in 1939, angering congressional conservatives, but she faced no real pressure to step down. She famously called General Motors head Alfred Sloan in the middle of the night once, yelling at him for not settling with the United Auto Workers. She said, “You don’t deserve to be counted among decent men. You’ll go to hell when you die.”

Perkins and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes were the only cabinet members to serve all 12 years of Roosevelt’s administration, although Henry Wallace served the administration as Agriculture Secretary, Vice-President, and Commerce Secretary during the entirety of the administration as well. She stepped down in June 1945. She then wrote a biography of FDR that was published in 1946. Truman named her to the United States Civil Service Commission in 1946. She worked in that role until 1953, when she became a lecturer at the new Cornell School of Industrial Relations. She died in 1965 at the age of 85.

This is the 172nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: February 17, 1992

[ 77 ] February 17, 2016 |

On February 17, 1992, graduate students at Yale University went on strike. This strike, one of the most prominent in the history of organizing graduate students, is a useful window into one of the most important sectors of labor organizing over the last three decades and indicative of the tremendous difficulty in organizing private workplaces in any sector in those same three decades.

Graduate student unionization has long been controversial on college campuses. Are graduate students primarily students or apprentices? The answer should be obvious that all graduate students getting paid for work are workers, but you would be surprised how many liberal faculty members simply cannot accept this idea. Graduate students are not only workers, but particularly vulnerable workers, in spite of their high levels of education. Especially in the sciences, where a lot of funding depends on the relationship with a single professor, students are quite vulnerable. That is especially true of women and the sexual harassment of female students has long influenced support for unionization among graduate student in the sciences.

The first move toward graduate student unionization took place in tumult of the 1960s, as a lot of politically active undergraduates went on to graduate school. Rutgers and CUNY were the first graduate school units to be covered by a collective bargaining contract, as they were covered by faculty contracts. The University of Wisconsin was the first graduate student union to negotiate their own independent contract in 1970. The University of Michigan and University of Oregon soon followed.

At Yale, the struggle would be and still is a much longer struggle. T.A. Solidarity was the original organizing group, founded in 1987. That turned into the Graduate Employees and Student Organization (GESO) in 1990. Students began organizing to demand union recognition. Yale administrators rejected this from the beginning, refusing to recognize the union as a bargaining unit for the graduate students. Among the union leaders was Gordon Lafer, today one of the nation’s most respected labor economists and activists.

By the time it went on strike in February 1992, the GESO represented 1300 of Yale’s 2200 graduate students. Its demands were union recognition, a pay raise, a grievance procedure, and the expansion of time granted to complete the Ph.D. The strike was announced for three days . It received significant support from other unions, frustrating Yale administrators who hoped to isolate the strikers. 49 percent of union members at Yale refused to work in solidarity with the striking graduate employees, with much greater support among the maintenance and cafeteria workers (75 percent did not show up for work) than the technical and clerical workers (about 30 percent did not show up). Many faculty were of course opposed.

“They really are among the blessed of the earth,” Prof. Peter Brooks, chairman of the department of comparative literature, said. “So I sometimes feel annoyed at them seeing themselves as exploited.”

Never has an employer seen their workers as exploited and thus worthy of being granted power.


Despite these labor actions, Yale still refused to negotiate with the students. The 1992 strike ended without recognition although the administration did raise the pay of the TAs and provide teacher training, showing how strikes can create real victories for workers even when the union remain unrecognized as a bargaining unit. Strikes continued from time to time, including a 1996 strike that only ended when the administration threatened to fire all the strikers because they did not submit student grades as a bargaining tool, despite an overwhelming vote in favor of unionization among the students. In 2003, another strike took place but in that year, the GESO suffered a big setback as student/workers voted against unionization by a narrow margin, giving the administration much more ammunition in its continued determination to never recognize a graduate student union. But a 2005 strike again resulted in the administration providing a lot what the students wanted, including a pay raise for graduate student teachers and new initiatives on faculty diversity and child care.

Over the years, graduate student unionization has increased significantly at public universities in non-right-to-leech states, including at the University of Rhode Island. But graduate student unionization campaigns at private universities remains almost impossible to win. The only private school with a graduate school union recognized and with a contract is at NYU. 1951 and 1972 court cases ended with National Labor Relations Board rulings prohibiting the National Labor Relations Act from covering private school graduate students because they are primarily students and although that has been loosened with the 2000 NLRB case granting NYU graduate students the ability to organize, difficult barriers remain. In fact, NYU graduate students have struggled mightily with both their administration and the Bush-era NLRB to maintain recognition. In the end, university administrations are some of the best union-busters in the nation. Given the number of self-identified liberals with backgrounds in fields where they study race, class, and gender who are in administrations, it’s sickening to see them turn on treating graduate workers with respect and use the tools of oppression they decry in their own scholarship against exploitable workers, but they do it all the time.

At present, the Yale graduate students are continuing the fight to organize. Now affiliated with UNITE-HERE, major issues include mental health care, fairness in funding, and greater diversity at Yale.

When we think about the labor movement over the last few decades, we often tend to forget about the importance of the academy. Graduate students and, to a lesser extent, faculty, have proven some of the bright spots in American labor and with the collapse of the industrial unions due to capital mobility and the decline of the building trades, public sector workers of all types have risen in importance in the world of organized labor. In the case of schools like Yale, that are not public, major barriers remain to unionization but these campaigns have also developed many important labor scholars and activists, providing key intellectual support for organized labor at large. That in itself is a tremendous benefit of this organizing, even if Yale graduate students remain without recognition today.

This is the 171st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: January 24, 1848

[ 27 ] January 24, 2016 |


“California Gold Diggers, Mining Operations on the Western Shore of the Sacramento River,” lithograph published by Kellogg & Comstock, circa 1850

On January 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, near modern Sacramento. Over the next few years, 300,000 people from around the world descended upon California in hopes of striking it rich. From a labor history perspective, the interesting story about this is not the process of panning for gold, but the way this story reflected the intersection of race, gender, and labor that helped define 19th century America.

When white Americans reached California to pan for gold in 1849, they were not expecting to see racial diversity. In many ways, California was the first time when Americans really dealt with racial diversity. But they weren’t the only people coming to the gold diggings. That word spread around the world and there was faster ways to get there than walking across the California Trail if you lived in Asia or Latin America. There were Native Americans already living in California. There was the local Mexican population too. On top of that, thousands of Mexicans came north, as well as Peruvians and Chileans. French and Germans arrived from Europe. Australians and New Zealanders crossed the Pacific from faraway. Most significant was the many, many Chinese arriving every day. All of this shocked white Americans.

On top of this was another issue–the lack of women. Early California had almost no women, outside of prostitutes and of course the indigenous and Mexican population. There certainly was not enough women to do the work women did in normal white Anglo-American 19th century households. Who would cook? Who would clean? No one really knew. At first, basically men lived like slobs in tents and in the growing city of San Francisco. But this was not really desirable. So these men tried to group together to share the domestic tasks. While white men predominated, enough other men remained around early on to exchange some cooking techniques and the like, but by and large, the domestic world was grim for these miners. Despite being in ecologically fertile California, some miners came down with scurvy because they simply could or would not replicate women’s labor in the kitchen or even go pick the abundant wild fruits. Sometimes, one man took over the cooking while others did the mining labor and proceeds were split. Said future governor Lucius Fairchild, when writing to his family about his work in a hotel, “Now in the states you would think that a person…was broke if you saw him acting the part of hired Girl, but here it is nothing, for all kinds of men do all kinds work.”

The white Americans had no intention of letting the Chinese or the Mexicans into the diggings. They routinely forced these miners out, often violently. Oddly, they did not like the French either, although the Germans and Australians were generally fine. Quickly taking over the government in the face of U.S. control over California after the Mexican War, the white American miners created mining districts where foreign citizens could not work. Miners bragged about stealing claims from the French and the Chinese, arguing that “coloured men were not privileged to work in a country intended only for American citizens.” In 1850, California instituted a foreign miners tax directed at Mexicans and French. That was soon repealed, but a new one was implemented in 1852 that was directed at the Chinese. This hefty tax moved the Chinese out of the mines and into the laundries, replacing that female labor white miners so missed.Mexican miners actually resisted the mining tax, but this led to huge parades of armed American miners intimidating the foreign miners into giving up.

So most of the foreign miners lost out, even though some continued to try and work and fight Anglo dominance. There are a number of reports of white miners being killed after the passage of the foreign miners tax, although the veracity of the stories are impossible to verify. However, that didn’t mean they had no role at all in the California labor hierarchy. The Mexicans and especially the Chinese could then fill that female role of work. This is basically where the tradition of the Chinese restaurant and the Chinese laundry in the U.S. begins. In the male-dominated West, where women usually lagged well behind men, often into the 1910s and 1920s, the Chinese played that female labor role.

The Chinese did continue trying to mine, often buying up stakes that whites thought would not play out. But the foreign miners tax, combined with the daily racism they faced, would largely force them out of the diggings entirely. With the Chinese finding a more stable economic place picking up the female labor, white miners increasingly found themselves disappointed by the gold explorations. It did not take long for the easy diggings to pan out. Corporate mining soon took over, with the use of hydraulic hoses that required significant capital to get at the gold under the ground. The ideal of the white miner finding the huge nugget and yelling “Eureka!” ended by the early 1850s. While white miners who stayed (many hoped to return to eastern states and often did) wanted to create a white man’s paradise, which helps explain why California completely rejected being a slave state after the Mexican War, in fact, it would quickly become a corporate run state, with the mining companies leading the way until the railroads took precedence after the Civil War.

For the broader trajectory of American labor history, the story of how labor in early California is most significant in thinking how it both reflected and helped shape racialized and gendered labor roles through the 19th century. By 1848, ideas about race, gender, and labor were well set. Perhaps this is less surprising with gender, as the eastern United States had even gender ratios and thus fairly stable gender roles in the household and on the job. But in terms of race, with the exception of African-Americans and to a lesser extent Native Americas, the northern states of the U.S., where by far most although certainly not all whites migrated from, had relatively small populations of anyone not white. What happened in California was a combination of resentment that anyone competing with whites would even be there with the necessity for someone to take over that gendered labor that white men felt was not their place to do. Certainly the gender ratios in California eased over time, but by the 1880s, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed and anti-Chinese violence was common across the West, men still vastly outnumbered women. Yet that resentment managed to outpace the need for those laborers, at least among the common workers of the West.

I borrowed much of the information for this book from Susan Johnson, Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush.

This is the 170th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: January 23, 1973

[ 3 ] January 23, 2016 |

On January 23, 1973, the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers went on strike against Shell Oil. This strike gained unusual supporters. Environmentalists came out hard against Shell and in support of OCAW. This came about in part because of the progressive leaders of OCAW leaders, particularly Tony Mazzocchi, OCAW legislative director. This case shows the very real potential for alliances between labor and environmentalists when the two movements have meaningful conversations and act in solidarity with one another.

By the late 1960s, many unions responded to growing scientific literature about the health effects of industrial labor by demanding federal action and demanding action from employers to clean up their workplaces. On the federal level, this led to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Companies resisted doing anything about these workplaces. The AFL-CIO under George Meany generally was typically indifferent, but a number of industrial unions, including the United Steelworkers of America, took the lead on making environmental demands. No union led on this issue more than the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers. Tony Mazzocchi and his assistant Steven Wodka believed that inspiring rank and file activism on environmental issues was key for unions to keep workers safe. This was especially important for the OCAW because its members were exposed to radiation and reports were coming out during these years about just how unsafe those radioactive workplaces were. It started to reach out to other unions working on environmental issues, like the nascent United Farm Workers, fighting over pesticide exposure.

Said Al Grospiron, OCAW president:

Organized Labor must emphatically support environmental efforts and must never get into the position of opposing such efforts on the grounds of economic hardship. Our position must be that nearly all polluting facilities can be corrected without hardships to the workers and that in those few cases where corrections are not possible new job opportunities or compensation must be provided for the workers.

The OCAW also worked with environmental organizations. Calling for the workplace as the first line of defense for the environment certainly got the attention of greens. Environmental Action worked with unions to get OSHA passed. Other environmental organizations were however only tepidly in support, frustrating the OCAW. They reprinted a Stewart Udall editorial in the union newspaper, lambasting greens. Udall said, “Environmental groups act act as if the blue collar worker does not exist. Their lack of concern for the workplace–their failure to even recognize it as an environment–is the most glaring defect in their young movement.”


OCAW and other unions felt OSHA far too weak and continued to push for worker-led safety and environmental committees that would go farther than the weak and slow government oversight the law created. This continued to help build relations with environmental organizations. Shell Oil had long animosity toward both unions and environmentalists. OCAW decided to target Shell because of the company’s power and the union’s need to stand up to the biggest bully on the block. But it knew that it could not defeat this company alone. It needed consumer help. For that, it build on its relationships with environmentalists, arguing that if Shell didn’t care about polluting workers’ bodies, it wouldn’t care about polluting the environment.

So a week after OCAW went on strike, on January 30, 11 of the nation’s largest environmental organizations announced their support for the strike and urged a nationwide boycott of Shell. This included the relatively conservative Sierra Club, which had by this time kicked the radical David Brower out of office and reverted to its traditional moderate stance. But the radicalism of the time had caught up to Sierra Club, which was concerned about attracting new members. It held two conferences with labor in the early 1970s, which helped create connections that convinced it to join the boycott. It took until March for Sierra Club to join and that included the threat of unions creating an anti-environmentalist coalition, which was already happening in the building trades. But join it did, putting its significant muscle behind the action.


This alliance did not come that easy in the rank and file of both labor and greens. A lot of environmentalists had absolutely zero interest in working with unions. Particularly during these years, environmentalism was seen as above politics and unions were most certainly not. Middle-class greens might well oppose unions and they didn’t see why their dues money should be spent working with workers. Sierra Club especially saw many angry letters from its members who opposed the boycott, saying the workplace was not an environmental issue. But Sierra Club leadership held to its position.

By April 1973, Shell sales in the U.S. had dropped 20-25 percent. But ultimately, OCAW did not have the resources to win this strike. It was paying out large sums in strike benefits and was rapidly losing money. Many rank and file workers wanted to end the strike. A Texas local negotiated an independent settlement, defying OCAW leadership. It included a few tokens for the union, including morbidity statistics the union wanted. There was no way the international could stand up to this and the strike ended on June 4.


The strike was not exactly won. But OCAW’s new contracts following it almost all had much stronger health and safety clauses. The strike also helped solidify the coalition with environmental groups. Many groups now claimed a long-term commitment to workplace health and safety. In the spring of 1975, labor and environmentalists formed Environmentalists for Full Employment that fought for the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill. During the Carter administration, blue-green alliances reached their peak, as I discuss in the lumber industry in Empire of Timber. On workplace health, pollution, and other issues, labor and environmentalists worked together in exciting ways.

At the same time though, deindustrialization was destroying the American working class and their unions. Companies began openly claiming that if environmental laws were passed, they would close company doors and move to a new state or out of the nation. Often these were lies, but sometimes companies followed through. Job blackmail began to turn the declining unions against their green allies because the rank and file was so scared for their jobs. The OCAW resisted job blackmail to a significant event, as did the International Woodworkers of America until 1987. But many unions did not. In the early 1980s, the OSHA/Environmental Network, an attempt to unite labor and greens against Reagan’s attacks on both, had some local successes in rebuilding coalitions, but mostly it quickly faded, as did the conversations between the two movements. There have been periodic attempts to revive these alliances to the present. But as we have seen over coal mining and the Keystone XL Pipeline, when workers feel their jobs under attack, especially in the absence of good jobs for working people throughout the United States, they will attack environmentalists. It’s unfortunate but understandable. Ultimately though, the more we understand about attempts to build these coalitions, the better chance we have to build them in the future over issues such as pollution, green energy, and climate change.

The information for the OCAW strike comes from Robert Gordon, “Shell No! OCAW and the Labor-Environmental Alliance,” in the October 1998 issue of Environmental History. Other parts of the post come from my own research and writing.

This is the 169th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: January 18, 1887

[ 13 ] January 18, 2016 |


On January 18, 1887, Pinkerton detectives killed a fourteen year old boy in Jersey City, New Jersey during a coal wharves strike. This murder, like so many of the period by the Pinkertons and other agencies developed to protect employer interests from workers, are a sign of the murderous attitude of business, police, and politicians toward American workers during the Gilded Age. Nothing is more emblematic of these attitudes than the hated Pinkertons.

Allan Pinkerton immigrated from Scotland to the United States in 1841. Ironically, given his future, he left in part because of British repression of the Chartists, which Pinkerton was involved in. However, his concern for workers dissipated as he established himself in the United States, although he remained a strong abolitionist who directly assisted John Brown with $500 when Brown freed 11 slaves in Missouri in 1858 and needed to get them to Canada. He began his detective career somewhat by chance, stumbling across a group of counterfeiters in 1847. With the police not paying much attention to this, local merchants paid him to start patrolling for counterfeiters. A career began. He soon rose to prominence while protecting Abraham Lincoln from assassination on his rail journey from Springfield to Washington after the 1860 election. He then served as George McClellan’s chief of intelligence, although quite poorly given his overstatement of Confederate forces. Most importantly for labor history, Pinkerton started a firm that supplemented Chicago’s meager police force, with Pinkerton himself given the power to arrest.


The Pinkertons started working as thugs for companies against strikers in 1866, during a miner’s strike in Braidwood, Illinois. A more serious action took place in the same town in 1874, when miners walked out over wage cuts. Allan Pinkerton and 20 armed guards came to Braidwood in response. But in this case, Braidwood’s mayor sided with the miners and took away the guns and would not allow the Pinkertons to march in the street. When one hit an old woman, the police arrested him and fined him $100. Once a group of women attacked Allan Pinkerton, forcing him to flee. This experience led Pinkerton to not hire his forces out for labor strikes for a decade. However, Pinkerton undercover agents were used, particularly against the Molly Maguires.

Allan Pinkerton died in 1884. His sons William and Robert took over the agency and recommitted it to defending industrial facilities during strikes. This would lead to the Pinkertons’ most notorious period, where it became the agency of choice for capitalists to not only defend their facilities but undermine workplace organization by any means necessary. This did not mean it was particularly effective because the agency soon acquired such a nasty reputation that its arrival would send local residents into an uproar and often lead to more problems from employers than it was worth. Local authorities not infrequently arrested Pinkerton agents upon arrival, such as in New Braidsville, Ohio, where 25 Pinkertons were arrested for carrying concealed weapons. Of course, corporations had a lot of power in the Gilded Age and the Pinkertons were quickly freed and allowed to do what they wanted. But the level of local hostility, including from local law enforcement, was often stark. In 1885, workers at a McCormick’s Harvester Company plant went on strike. The Pinkertons arrived. Fights happened daily. At one point, strikers stopped a busload* of Pinkerton men and beat them severely, stealing all their weapons. When the Pinkertons finally shot an old man, McCormick had to give in entirely to the strikers and they won the strike.


No small part of the problem was the undisciplined nature of the Pinkertons. They often did not act as a professional police force. They acted as thugs. They often drank and harassed people with their guns. Many people commented that the men the Pinkertons hired were bad characters to begin with.

In early January 1887, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad announced a 2 1/2 cent per hour pay cut for its coal handlers. They walked off the job. Railroad officials brought in hundreds of strikebreakers and hired the Pinkertons. On January 17, the secretary of the Jersey City police board issued more than 100 badges to Pinkertons. Two hundred more were sworn in by the courts to fight strikers in Bayonne. Violence followed in both cities. The mayor of Jersey City immediately demanded the removal of the Pinkertons, fearing this violence. The next day, a Pinkerton shot 14 year old Thomas Hogan, who was not involved in the strike. Police arrested four Pinkertons for it. The murder solidified labor sentiment around the region. Coal handlers on the other side of the Hudson refused to handle this non-union coal. Jersey City courts indicted three of the four Pinkertons to the murder, although only one went to trial and he was found innocent. But by this time, the Pinkertons were too afraid to go into Jersey City.

The most notorious Pinkerton action of course came in 1892 at Homestead, when Henry Clay Frick sent the Pinkertons on a boat to attack strikers, an action that led to an all-day shootout between the two sides, eventually forcing the Pinkertons to surrender after three Pinkertons and ten civilians died, and making the name of the company synonymous with unionbusting to the present. Even before this, politicians such as Tom Watson and William Jennings Bryan were speaking publicly against private guards. The actions at Homestead only raised the level of criticism. The Populists, meeting at the same time in 1892, incorporated an anti-Pinkerton plank into its platform. The day after Homestead, the House announced it would investigate the action of the agency. The Senate followed suit. These investigations weren’t all that serious–this was the Gilded Age after all and concerns about private property far outweighed any concern about dead strikers–but once again, the logical conclusion for many employers should have been that hiring Pinkertons was not worth the hassle. States went farther than Congress, with Montana, Wyoming, Georgia, and Missouri banning the importation of private police from out of state. By 1900, 26 states had similar laws on the books, including Pennsylvania. Many of these laws specifically banned the Pinkertons.

After Homestead the Pinkertons began moving out of the corporate thug business, feeling the damage to the company’s reputation not worth the business. After all, the company’s main business was always catching criminals, not serving as shock forces for capitalists. Still, the Pinkertons remained involved in union-busting by sending its agents out as spies. The Coeur D’Alene strike in Idaho that summer is a key example of Pinkerton spies undermining unions. But corporations continued to find ways to bust unions, including through private police forces. New agencies popped up, including 20 in Chicago alone. Most notorious of all the Pinkerton replacements was the vile Baldwin-Felts Agency, murderers of the West Virgina coal country and whose actions helped lead to the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest domestic insurrection since the Civil War.

I borrowed the material for this post from Robert Michael Smith, From Blackjacks to Briefcases: A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States.

This is the 168th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

* It’s described as a busload in Smith’s book, but I’m not sure exactly what form of transportation this was.

This Day in Labor History: January 16, 1961

[ 5 ] January 16, 2016 |


On January 16, 1961, lettuce workers in the Imperial Valley of California walked off the job in one of the first modern actions of agricultural worker militancy that would eventually lead to the rise of the United Farm Workers and other farmworker unions in the 1960s and 1970s.

Imperial Valley lettuce growers, like farmers across the Southwest, made their profits off very low wages. From the very beginning of agribusiness in this region, farmers relied on inexpensive transient labor, usually by people of color. This labor could be white, as it was during the Great Depression. But mostly it was Mexicans and Filipinos. The Chinese primarily worked on the railroads and in the cities and the Japanese tended to buy their own farms at first opportunity, often on land abandoned on white farmers. The Filipinos took over much of the agricultural labor in the early 20th century, but the ending of Filipino immigration after the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934 meant that the long-term answer for farmers would be Mexicans. These concerns are the primary reason why agricultural labor was excluded from both the immigration acts of the 1920s that effectively ended immigration from eastern and southern Europe but did not affect the Americas, as well as the National Labor Relations Act and Fair Labor Standards Act, the core labor legislation of the New Deal. The entry of the U.S. into World War II threatened farmers’ cheap labor force even more and thus the government created the Bracero Program with Mexico. This really allowed the farmers to exploit workers like never before.

For the AFL-CIO, the bracero program was a threat to American labor. In 1959, the federation created the Agricultural Workers Organization Committee (AWOC). This organization, largely made up of Mexican and Filipino-Americans and eventually led by the great Filipino-American labor leader Larry Itliong, sought to force the Department of Labor to eliminate bracero labor by having small numbers of domestic
workers call strikes at farms. This could work because braceros were banned as scab labor in the agreement with Mexico. Moreover, there was some greater public sympathy with farmworkers at this point because of the recently aired Edward R. Murrow documentary special “Harvest of Shame,” which aired in November 1960.

The strike itself began because the growers, seeking to maximize their profits, decided not to pay wages at the agreed upon set wage. Farmworkers do have one advantage to other striking workers and that has to do with the spoilage of produce. If they stay out long enough, farmers simply lose their entire crop. On January 16, AWOC called its workers out to force the farmers to pay the agreed upon wage and not use braceros. It started using its strategy of taking advantage of the bracero strikebreaking provision. At one farm, striking workers rushed in to disrupt the camp, a riot started, and a cook and two Mexican workers were injured. This led to both a raid upon union headquarters in Brawley, California where over 40 unionists were arrested and demands by the Mexican government to get its citizens out of these farms. The DOL pulled 2,052 Mexican citizens from California farms, including over 1,000 from the Imperial Valley lettuce farms, leading to the growers objecting and finally a meeting with Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg. But AWOC and the DOL led to a serious disruption in the Bracero Program.

But this did not mean that AWOC would win the strike. The major goal of the Kennedy administration was to solve the strike, not end the Bracero Program, even though the 1960 Democratic Party platform had a plank calling for its end. The meetings led by Goldberg and Undersecretary of Labor Willard Wirtz mediating between the growers and labor were fraught with problems because leading union participants were not even invited and the growers refused to sit down with labor. The growers began raising pay rates quietly to convince workers to not strike while Goldberg and Wirtz decided that if a field was not being picketed at a given time that the braceros could continue to work. Given the limited resources of AWOC (and the United Packinghouse Workers of America, which was also representing some workers), winning the strike was impossible. They couldn’t picket 40,000 acres of lettuce at once. This pleased the growers greatly. The Imperial Valley News wrote, “Growers are not said to feel that Secretary Goldberg is more sympathetic to his cause than was his predecessor James Mitchell.” Of course Goldberg came from a Democratic administration and Mitchell had served under Eisenhower. Once again, the actual actions of the Kennedy administration proved to be less than liberal.

AWOC received a lot of bad publicity for its aggression toward braceros and George Meany shut it down later in 1961, possibly at the request of Arthur Goldberg who had long hated radicalism in labor and who had played a major role in the CIO expelling communist unions in 1947. Meany never really supported AWOC anyway and had mostly created it to cut Walter Reuther from using his people to organize farmworkers. But AWOC would soon revive playing an important role in early farmworker organizing, especially among the Filipinos that would play an underrated role in the early history of the United Farm Workers. This was helped by AWOC head Norman Smith, an old CIO organizer, refusing to hand over money from his treasury that he had never told Meany about. Moreover, the ambivalence to outright hostility these unions would have to undocumented workers after the end of the Bracero Program in 1964, including from Cesar Chavez himself, would repeat the actions of AWOC in 1961.

This strike did not lead to a union victory exactly. But when Kennedy renewed the Bracero Program later in 1961, he publicly stated he ordered Goldberg to correct the abuses and protect the wages of American residents in the fields. In fact, Goldberg then raised the minimum wage for braceros in the California fields to $1 an hour at a time when the national minimum wage was $1.15. he also sent 57 more inspectors to the California farms to monitor the program and ordered the restoration of the piece rates the lettuce growers had violated. UPWA director of west coast operations Bud Simonson later noted, “It looks like we won the Imperial Valley strike of 1961 after all.”

The 1961 strike it was in many ways the first real moment that showed growers what they would have to face as the 1960s and 1970s went on: worker militancy combined with public sympathy and greater anger over poverty that would force agribusiness on the defensive like never before, eventually leading to union recognition for at least some farmworkers.

The material from this post comes mostly from Frank Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers. Each and every one of you should read this fantastic book. Some is drawn from Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, another highly worthwhile book.

This is the 167th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: December 28, 1973

[ 26 ] December 28, 2015 |

Does space have a labor history? The answer is yes. On December 28, 1973, the crew of Skylab went on a one-day strike to protest their working conditions and the pressure NASA placed on them to catch up on their experiments after one of them had gotten sick. This event might not have any enormous implications for the history of the American labor movement, but is a moment indicative of the broader worker protests of the 1970s that had the potential to reinvigorate the American labor movement.

NASA launched Skylab in 1973 to great fanfare but it had a lot of problems from the start, with the spaceship damaged upon takeoff, requiring two missions just to make it habitable. It was not intended for long-term usage, so the third mission was extremely important as it was the last one scheduled before Skylab was ended as a experimental station. Because so much time had been lost in the first two missions, all the scientists involved wanted to make sure their personal experiments were conducted by the third crew. So NASA planned for an 84-day mission that would include 16-hour days every single day. Among that work would include four spacewalks to inspect the conditions of the spaceship, four days of observing the Comet Kohoutek as it passed near the sun, conducting medical experiments, and 80 different projects to photograph specific places on the Earth.

That third crew consisted of three astronauts: Mission Commander Gerry Carr, Science Pilot Ed Gibson and Pilot William Pogue. None of these three men had been in space before. They knew they would need some time to get used to the conditions on Skylab. Even before the mission, Carr had suggested they would take some time to adjust. But there was no time in the schedule for adjustment. And almost immediately problems developed. Pogue got sick. The astronauts saw no reason to report this to Mission Control. It was pretty common after all for astronauts. But then they found out that Mission Control was listening in to their private conversations and knew about it anyway. This infuriated the astronauts. Moreover, NASA began sending extremely specific instructions about minute-by-minute tasks for the astronauts to accomplish. Remember, these men were professionals at a very highly specialized job working in extreme conditions. These were astronauts after all. You can imagine how this kind of micromanagement would infuriate them. They tried to keep up for two weeks but found themselves falling behind, as there was no room in the schedule for the natural delays that happen at work. Moreover, they were exhausted with these 16-hour days. When they fell behind, NASA began demanding less sleep and working through their meal breaks. So the astronauts began to complain to Mission Control. But NASA’s response was that they were whining. Carr told NASA, “We would never work 16-hours a day for 84 straight days on the ground, and we should not be expected to do it here in space.”


NASA’s treatment of the astronauts began gaining attention of other astronauts. The commander of the previous Skylab mission told NASA to give the workers a break, saying the work schedule was impossible and far more difficult than his mission. But NASA ignored him too. Carr and his crew demanded a day off. NASA refused. So Carr simply shut off the radio and the astronauts took the day off they wanted. Effectively, they went on a 1-day strike against their working conditions. They relaxed, took pictures of the Earth, and just hung out. NASA went ballistic. But there was nothing they could do at the time. After all, the only people who really controlled what happened at Skylab was the astronauts themselves.

After the 1-day strike, NASA finally came to terms with the astronauts. The next day, December 29, NASA agreed to quit micromanaging the astronauts, allowed them to take their full meal breaks, and just send them a list of tasks for the day and let them figure out how to get it done. You know, treat them like adults. And it worked. All the projects got done before the mission ended. The last 6 weeks went without a hitch.

NASA did not forgive the astronauts for their rebellion. None of the three ever went into space again.

So what? Why does this tiny labor action matter, other than being a curiosity because of the unique conditions of work and location? I think it’s a nice window into the 1970s. This was a decade where workers around the country were making new demands of their employers and of their unions. This was the great period of internal union rebellions. It was the period of Miners for Democracy overthrowing the corrupt, murderous regime of Tony Boyle of the United Mine Workers. It was a year after Lordstown, when an interracial group of young workers at a GM plant in Youngstown went on strike against the company and the United Auto Workers international they felt was not really representing their interests and were too close to the company. It was the era of the massive explosion of public sector unionism, including the militant, democratic unionism of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, which overthrew its own leadership to elect a new slate that would more directly challenge the government and endorsed Ronald Reagan because it hated Jimmy Carter so much. It was the era of OSHA and environmentalism and attempts to create safer workplaces and forge alliances between unions and greens.

It was also an era that failed to achieve lasting reforms. I think this is for three reasons. First, the union rebellion movements were not particularly competent at managing the unions they overtook, leading to disappointment and disillusionment such as with Miners for Democracy and very poor political decisions that did not correctly read the union’s interests as with PATCO. Second, capital mobility totally undercut this labor militancy. It’s hard to make new demands of employers when those employers are just going to move the jobs to Mexico, as was happening throughout the 1970s. Third, the rise of conservatism and the growth of the powerful corporate lobby with the open intent of crushing the American labor movement overwhelmed these unions at the same time that capital mobility undermined their base.

But the 1970s is arguably the most fascinating decade in the history of the labor movement one with great relevance for the present as we are forced to rethink labor activism in the aftermath of conservatism’s near complete victory over organized labor. So maybe small events like a 1-day strike of astronauts against overbearing management is something that can inspire us in some way.

This is the 166th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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