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Tag: "This Day in Labor History"

This Day in Labor History: May 17, 1933

[ 17 ] May 17, 2017 |


On May 17, 1933, Rep. Robert Houghton, a North Carolina Democrat, introduced H.R. 5755 into the House. This would become the National Industrial Recovery Act, the first comprehensive attempt to fix the economy of the Great Depression through national planning. While deeply flawed, the NIRA not only was a critical early response to the Depression, but it also spurred tremendous labor activism that laid the groundwork for the more comprehensive labor legislation of the decade.

From the beginning, the NIRA was intended to stabilize the economy by reducing the ruinous competition between businesses in many industries, leading to no one making money. Thus, the Roosevelt administration worked closely with many major corporate leaders who saw how this could work to their advantage. In fact, many New Deal programs tended to promote an oligarchical capitalism of a few companies dominating each industry. The Chamber of Commerce was behind it, as were leading capitalists such as Gerald Swope of General Electric and Charles Schwab of Bethlehem Steel. The monopoly aspects to it did lead to opposition in the Senate from people such as George Norris and Hugo Black but it passed and Roosevelt signed it on June 16.

The NIRA created the National Recovery Administration and the Public Works Administration. General Hugh Johnson was placed in charge of the NRA and Harold Ickes the PWA. The NRA would be more important in terms of implementing the act. The Blue Eagle was created as the NRA’s symbol, with compliant companies getting the official seal of approval. But from the beginning the NRA did not work well. There were hundreds of industry codes approved and thousands of business practices outlawed. The pages of legal opinions about implementation ran to the tens of thousands or more. It was only a 2-year program before it needed to be renewed and it became fairly clear early on that renewal was unlikely.

Section 7(a) was the most controversial part of the legislation. It read, in part:

employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and shall be free from the interference restraint, or coercion of employers of labor, or their agents, in the designation of such representatives or in self-organization or in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection; [and] (2) that no employee and no one seeking employment shall be required as a condition of employment to join any company union or to refrain from joining, organizing, or assisting a labor organization of his own choosing.

Some industry captains thought there might be a place for “responsible” unions in helping to regulate these industries because stable decent wages that were enforced across industry would undermine that devastating competition. Since business couldn’t stop competing with each other, some at least wanted government and even unions to do it for them. This led to the insertion of 7(a). The needle trades actually openly relied on the Amalgamated Clothing Workers led by Sidney Hillman to enforce the industry code against cheaters in one of the worst industries when it came to devastating competition. The retailer Edward Filene stated, “Our labor unions have a better understanding of what is good for business today than our chambers of commence have.” AFL president William Green definitely agreed and saw the NRA as the ticket to rebuilding a movement absolutely devastated by the anti-union sentiment of the 1920s and one that was carefully watching its left wing as well to prevent its model of business-friendly conservative unionism from being challenged.

FDR and Johnson assumed 7(a) would be self-regulating and so created no meaningful enforcement mechanism. That did not work. It soon created an ad-hoc National Labor Board after the fact to mediate disputes and it had good people on it–William Green, John L. Lewis, Robert Wagner among them–but it was winging it. Meanwhile, led by the National Association of Manufacturers, most employers absolutely refused to accept unions in their workplaces. The oil and chemical industries simply ignored anything the NRA said about labor. The Chemical Alliance told its members to ignore NRA wage standards. In fact, the NLB’s decisions alienated Hugh Johnson as well. After it ruled against Weirton Steel and Budd Manufacturing in a couple of cases that pushed labor rights, both the employers and the NRA itself simply ignored the rulings.

Workers thought that 7(a) explicitly said that the government wanted them to organize. That wasn’t really true; FDR had not gone that far. But it barely mattered. The NIRA gave workers an opportunity to shape their own history. Incredibly angry over their treatment on the job, the continued repression of their unions, and desirous of making serious change to their lives and the country, workers believed that the NIRA was a message from the president telling them he wanted them to join a union. Of course, this is not what Roosevelt said or meant. He had no major problem with unions and believed they had a role in regulating the nation, but he was not overtly pro-union at this point. In the first six months of 1933, the economy lost an average of 603,000 worker days to strikes per month. In July this went up to 1.375 million days and in August to 2.378 million as workers tested just what the NRA would do for them. Then, in four great strikes in 1934–at the Auto-Lite plant in Toledo, the docks in San Francisco, in the trucks and warehouses of Minneapolis, and throughout the textile belt in the South and New England, workers walked off the job to fight for the rights they believed Roosevelt had granted to them.

The NIRA was declared unconstitutional by an outraged Supreme Court in Schechter Poultry Corporation v. U.S. in 1935. By this time, business had turned against the NRA very sharply. Charles Evans Hughes wrote the decision for a unanimous court. The actual impact of this was limited. By this time, Roosevelt himself saw the weaknesses in the plan. Congress was unlikely to reauthorize it anyway as it had been so disastrous in practice. So he moved on to his so-called Second New Deal, a period that included the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act, following closely upon the Court’s decision. The latter finally granted workers the explicit right to organize. The NLRB grew out of the NLB, which had renamed itself the National Labor Relations Board in 1934 and would be legally enshrined the next year.

I borrowed from Colin Gordon, New Deals: Business, Labor, and Politics in America, 1920-1935 in the writing of this post.

This is the 222nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.


This Day in Labor History: May 12, 1878

[ 10 ] May 12, 2017 |


On May 12, 1878, Catharine Beecher died. This is a moment to discuss the incredible importance of Beecher’s 1841 book Treatise on Domestic Economy, its influence on housework for middle class women, and the general rise of housework as a modern middle class phenomenon that transformed the nation.

Born in 1800 in East Hampton, New York, Beecher was the daughter of the famed minister Lyman Beecher and the sibling of such luminaries as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher. Like her siblings, she played a critical role in the creation of middle-class Victorian culture. She ran a school where she experimented in the new food reforms of the time such as the Graham diet, which she did not give up until her students asked to dine at a real restaurant with her, after which she realized that food maybe should taste like something. She opposed Indian Removal and she focused her energies on building educational facilities in the West and South.

Modern standards of household cleanliness were basically unknown in the first half of the nineteenth century. Both in terms of personal cleanliness and modern housework, Americans still lived basically medieval lives. This became a more serious problem as American cities grew rapidly with the rise of the Industrial Revolution. The upheaval around that event began to create the social tumult that opened room for new ideas like those movements the Beecher family supported and pioneered, in addition to temperance, women’s suffrage, free public education, and the unusual religious movements associated with the more extreme elements of the Second Great Awakening. Both the economic and social tumult also began to create the beginnings of the middle-class, which included a series of social values that would be strongly associated with both the personal standards that class would demand of themselves and the reform mission work that it would use to attempt to impose these ideas on a broader society. Women would play a central role in all of this, including everything from serving as Christian missionaries to China to temperance. This is the world into which Catharine Beecher entered on the issues of cleanliness and middle-class household standards, redefining women’s work in the home.

In 1841, Beecher published A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School. In this book, Beecher went far to create modern housework standards. For her, the home was not only the refuge of women (a standard feature of 19th century middle class reform thought) but also a place of labor. She believed housework was a legitimate profession and thus women should be educated for it like they would be educated to be teachers. She believed the English were “distinguished for systematic housekeeping, and for a great love of order, cleanliness, and comfort.”

Her book attempted to teach these qualities to American women. She focused on practical advice around childcare, cleaning, training servants (the Irish of course who for a nativist like Beecher needed a lot of training), cooking, sewing, nursing, gardening, and other skills a proper middle-class woman needed to create a new generation of moral Americans. She called for a redesign of houses to create an architecture of cleanliness. Every room would have a fireplace, a kitchen needed a good sink, and wells or cisterns must be located nearby so that the constant amount of laundry that needed to be done in this brave new world of housework could get accomplished. While her book mostly avoided the subject of bathrooms, she did emphasize bathing and rejected the common idea that dirt was healthy. She encouraged full body bathing, fresh air, and exercise.

Of course, it’s not that Beecher was wrong about some of these issues. Americans were shockingly filthy and unhealthy in 1841 and those two issues were related. Cholera epidemics were striking with disturbing regularity and the nation would see just how disastrous public health ideas could be during the Civil War. The lack of bathing did lead to disease and Beecher’s own experiences at health resorts grounded her in the benefits of cleanliness. She noted that horses received more attention to their cleanliness than horse owners gave to themselves. Beecher was not alone in her quest. Beecher would later publish works on the need for women to exercise as part of her larger crusade. During the mid-19th century there were many middle-class reformers making similar arguments, including Sylvester Graham, William Alcott, and Beecher’s sister-in-law Eunice Beecher, who wrote about furniture and domestic arrangements within the context of cleanliness and health in the middle-class household. Catharine Beecher was perhaps first among equals and her book went through several editions. The overall impact of this movement was to transform middle-class ideas of cleanliness by the time of her 1878 death, ideas that then began to be pressed down onto the rapidly growing urban working class and onto the still sizable number of rural dwellers in the nation. All of this had a deeply moral aspect to it. For Beecher, who was by no means a feminist, women had a moral role to play in civilizing men and educating the next generation. Women were to play a decidedly subservient role in the household, yet that role was absolutely crucial for developing the nation and she believed they should embrace by making their homes citadels of cleanliness.

The modern creation of housework during the mid-19th century always had the theoretical side of freeing women from drudgery. But the reality was that most of the technologies created to save women work while keeping up proper standards created more work for women. There were some exceptions. The invention of the electric washing machine in 1910 obviously was easier for women than the horrible drudgery of washing clothes over an open fire that required hauling water. But the idea of proper housework only led to increasingly higher standards over what a properly clean house meant. With all of this work done by unpaid female labor (or sometimes paid female labor, but always for someone else’s house and this declined dramatically after 1910 or so), it vastly increased the daily labors of millions of women.

I originally wanted to write this post using the exact date of the publication of Treatise on Domestic Economy. If anyone has access to this information, I would appreciate it. I could not find it and had to use her death date instead.

I borrowed from Suellen Hoy’s Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness in the writing of this post. Kathryn Kish Sklar’s 1976 biography of Beecher is also a standard of the early women’s history, but I have never read it.

This is the 221st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 10, 1837

[ 6 ] May 10, 2017 |


On May 10, 1837, New York City banks announced they were suspending specie payments. This began the Panic of 1837, the first of the nation’s many major periodic economic collapses that would culminate in the Great Depression nearly a century later.

The economic crisis of the 1830s had many factors. First and foremost was the terrible economic policy of Andrew Jackson that culminated in the veto of the Bank of the United States renewal and the subsequent Deposit and Distribution Act that placed federal money in state banks that were absolutely horribly regulated. Combined with the Specie Circular that demanded that federal lands be purchased in coin and the Jackson administration had really set the table for a disaster, policies fully approved of by the new president, Martin Van Buren. All of this forced the reduction of lending out of New York banks, which was exacerbated by British lending policies that forced higher interest rates, all of which meant that the price of cotton declined 25 percent in the first months of 1837. As the South was highly dependent on stable cotton prices, this undermined the nation’s largest economic sector. In addition, many states, taken with the canal craze that swept the nation after the success of the Erie Canal had invested heavily in expensive and profit-poor projects, creating high levels of state debt that would be increasingly hard to pay off.

Over the next five years, the economy bounced back and forth. It looked like it would recover in 1838, but then collapsed again in 1839. It was not until 1843 that the economy sufficiently recovered to be out of the depression, although some economic indicators suggest that parts of the economy had grown during these years while others contracted. That the states had largely independent, if interconnected economies, meant that the Panic of 1837 affected them differently. New Hampshire was barely impacted as it lacked permanent debt to service, while Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware were devastated. Pennsylvania’s debt grew to $40 million by 1841, with $2 million in annual interest payments, a situation made worse by the fact that New York had won out the region’s internal trade due to the Erie Canal. The Keystone State doubled its tax base by raising taxes but it was so small to being with that this did not come close to servicing the debt. It defaulted in August 1842, even after grabbing whatever assets from the now closed BUS it could. The high level of debt among southern planters threw many of them out of business, but even here it varied by state, with Georgia and Florida able to put off dealing with the consequences until about 1840.

The impact on the nation’s growing urban working class was profound. The sailors who worked out of New York had no work as exports from the U.S. collapsed. Said Sailor’s Magazine, “The large number of ships lying at our wharves for months unemployed, have borne melancholy testimony of the complete stagnation of trade. Thousands of seamen have been cast on shore with but a few dollars in their pockets, scarce enough to pay a fortnight’s board.” Unemployment probably rose to about 8 percent. In the modern context, this doesn’t sound like it’s too bad, but understand that the sizable majority of white people were farmers during these years and unless they were bound up in high levels of debt, which was only true of a relatively small number of southern slaveholding planters, this didn’t really affect them too much, except for perhaps a decline in grain exports out of a nation that consumed most of its agricultural products locally during these years.

But in the cities such as New York and Philadelphia, the growing working class responded with low levels of protest. Probably 1/3 to 1/2 of the northern urban working class suffered at least one period of long-term unemployment between 1837 and 1842. Just before the Panic was the Loco Foco-inspired Flour Riot in response to the rapidly rising rate of flour in New York over the past year. Tammany Hall responded to this working class protest by adopting most of the anti-bank measures demanded by workingmen, even if these did not do much to solve the unemployment problem the workers faced. That prices declined by 35 percent in some areas probably helped alleviate some worker anger as their meager earnings did buy a little more.

In the long run, the Panic of 1837 itself is not that significant in the larger trajectory of American labor history. It did not lead to any large-scale movements or immediate social protest. The urban workingmen’s economy was too marginal to the rest of the nation’s workforce to create massive political upheaval. But not only was it an early moment when the poorly regulated American financial situation showed how it could create havoc in workers’ lives, but it also was an important moment in the laissez-faire ideas of government relationships with the economy that would dominate the next century. With so much of the problem caused by state investment in infrastructure, the lesson for many was that the state should stay out of economic regulation. This allowed employers to seize the rhetorical and legal playing field against their workers who would start demanding better lives and wages in the years after 1837 and provided a powerful political base to crush those workers’ movements.

However, if you extend the time frame a bit, you can see the Panic of 1837 helped spur eventual movements from below that also provoked government at all levels into the overly charged fears of revolt that would mark its response to worker political movements from Shays’ Rebellion to the Great Depression. This included the Dorr War in Rhode Island that challenged the state’s archaic and reactionary political institutions and led to the declaration of martial law by the governor, the anti-rent war in the Hudson Valley against the old Dutch patroons who still held power and which was cracked down upon in 1845 (although the landlords would finally give up the fight by 1850), and the 1844 Kensington Riot in Philadelphia, which was a battle between Irish immigrants and nativists. None of this happened directly because of the Panic of 1837, but the economic upheaval caused in cities by this started processes that led to various sorts of working-class movements in the coming years.

I borrowed from Alasdair Roberts, America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837 in the writing of this post.

This is the 220th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 8, 1959

[ 6 ] May 8, 2017 |


On May 8, 1959, Local 1199, the union of New York hospital workers, went on strike. This action, while not really successful, played a critical role in not only organizing hospital workers and expanding collective bargaining rights, but also in pioneering multi-racial organizing coalitions among service workers who were becoming an increasingly sizable part of the American workforce.

Local 1199 was founded in 1932 as the Pharmacists Union of Greater New York after merging several smaller unons. From its beginning, it both took on segregation and used industrial tactics to organize the hundreds of pharmacies in the city. 1199 was led by Leon Davis, a Russian-born drugstore clerk and ex-communist, taking on the name in 1936 when it received that number within the Retail Clerks International Association. It bolted the AFL for the CIO in 1937, one of many tiny unions to do so. It’s leftist leadership and anti-racist politics meant was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s but largely escaped unscathed, in part because it was so small. It found a home in the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union in the late 1940s, previously known for very little except being the union that Montgomery Ward resisted so stringently in World War II that the Roosevelt administration nationalized the store’s headquarters. 1199 also pioneered a union-led health care plan for its members in 1945 that provided employer paid hospital, disability, and life insurance. This was later expanded to be union-administered in 1948 and to include prescription drug benefits in 1951.

By 1957, it had organized about 90 percent of New York’s drugstores. It then set out to organize the city’s hospitals, wanting to extend its excellent benefits to other workers in the city’s rapidly growing but poorly paid health care industry. Nationally, there were 2.5 million workers in health care by the late 1950s, more than steel and railroads combined. But like today’s emphasis on industrial and coal mining work as the real union jobs as opposed to the vastly more numerous service sector jobs, there was little attempt to organize these workers. The hospital workers were a highly racially diverse lot with large numbers of African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, but this fit 1199’s long anti-racist politics. It won an early success in 1958, organizing Montefiore Hospital after it cut a long-standing benefit that allowed workers to eat in the cafeteria for very low cost that would be deduced from their paychecks. That hospital already had good conditions for organizing because it housed a lot of the workers onsite and thus the black and Puerto Rican workers already knew each other. They built a culture of standing up for each other even before 1199 started organizing. Organizers reported that the African-American workers were easier to organize than the Puerto Ricans but by the summer of 1958, a majority of both groups carried union cards. Montefiore settled in December 1958, granting a $30 a month increase in pay, overtime pay, grievance procedures, sick leave, and vacation time.

The organizing quickly spread because the wins unionized hospital workers had accomplished created a huge gap in conditions with non-union hospitals. A unionized 1199 pharmacist made $120 for a 40-hour week with benefits where as Beth Israel dietary workers made $29 a week for a 48-hour week and an orderly at Mount Sinai reported making $17 after taxes. Many non-union hospital workers were on welfare to make ends meet. 1199 announced it would organize the city’s 35,000 workers in hospitals and nursing homes. After a bit of a hiccup when it got overstretched, it focused on six hospitals where it had high support, largely Jewish hospitals such as Beth Israel, Beth David, and Mount Sinai. The vote in those six hospitals to strike was 2258 to 95. Hospital officials obtained a restraining order but could not serve it to Davis or the other union leaders as they went into hiding to avoid it. The strike started on May 8 at 6 am and nearly all of the 3500 workers went on strike. They received great support from New York’s other unions, who told their members that they needed to support the strikers regardless of race. Said one local to its members, “These strikes are human beings, no matter what their color or country of origin.” 175 union locals provided active support for these workers, with donations pouring in that allowed these impoverished people to maintain their strike.

On March 19, New York mayor Robert Wagner tried to negotiate a settlement, but details are vague today about his offer, the workers overwhelmingly voted to reject it, and 9 more hospitals saw their workers join the strike. The hospitals won injunctions against Davis and other leaders, who were put in jail. It did not matter. In fact, this only increased the contributions from Democratic political clubs around the city. The president of the New York NAACP sent out a press release on May 17 calling on those “who are of Latin-American descent or African descent to rise up in protest and demonstrate your objections to this type of injustice that is now being imposed on our brothers and sisters.” Black and Latino leaders around the city, including Adam Clayton Powell, organized a march on the hospitals on May 24 to demand union recognition for the workers. People such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Bayard Rustin, and Reinhold Niebuhr then endorsed the strike.

On June 22, after 46 days on strike, Wagner again intervened. He sat both sides down and hashed out an agreement that was only a very partial victory for 1199. It did not grant them union recognition and instead created a committee that would arbitrate future disagreements. But the organizing continued internally and a year later, 3000 hospital workers would be represented by collective bargaining agreements. 1199 constantly submitted demands to this committee while realizing that true victory would not be achieved until New York granted workers collective bargaining rights.

1199 continued its aggressive organizing and soon spread beyond New York City. In 1962, Davis was imprisoned for 30 days during a strike to organize El-Beth Hospital, which led not only to a union victory but to New York extended collective bargaining rights to non-profit hospitals, necessary because the National Labor Relations Act had excluded hospital workers because those were largely black workers and it required southern support to pass. That was won in no small part because A. Philip Randolph played a crucial role in organizing the strike and his stature was so great that he commanded enormous respect. By 1964, it expanded to New Jersey and eventually throughout the region, although an attempt to organize hospitals in Charleston, South Carolina in 1969 ran into a freight train of anti-unionism combined with hatred of the civil rights movement.

In 1984, 1199 left the Retail Union and remained independent for awhile. In 1998, 1199 merged with the Service Employees International Union, helping to make SEIU the nation’s most powerful and important union in the twenty-first century.

I borrowed from Frederick Douglass Opie’s Upsetting the Apple Cart: Black-Latino Coalitions in New York City from Protest to Public Office, in the writing of this post.

This is the 219th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 1, 1899

[ 14 ] May 1, 2017 |


On May 1, 1899, Florence Kelley began her work for the National Consumers’ League. Not only was the Consumers League a critical organization in the fight against child labor, but Kelley established herself and middle-class women more broadly as key allies in the struggle for dignified labor in the United States and made labor feminism a major part of the broader women’s movement.

Kelley was born in 1859 in Philadelphia to an abolitionist family. Her father William Kelley was a founder of the Republican Party and he served in Congress from 1861 until his death in 1890. Growing up in the waning reform movements of the Gilded Age, Florence spent her childhood being read books about child labor by her father. She entered Cornell at the age of 16 and wrote her thesis on impoverished children. She dedicated her life to this issue. She read Marx, studied in Zurich, and advocated for socialism. In 1891, she joined Jane Addams at Hull House in Chicago. There, she took on child labor with aplomb, expanding the already activist nature of that institution. Her 1892 investigation of the labor conditions in Chicago’s garment sweatshops led the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics to hire her. She became the state’s Chief Factory Inspector in 1893 and fought for Illinois to pass the nation’s first 8-hour day law for women and prohibit the employment of children under the age of 14, which happened the same year.


In 1899, she moved to New York to head the newly founded National Consumers’ League. Addams and Josephine Lowell chartered the organization to use the power of women’s activism to press for women’s issues on the job. Lowell had founded the Consumers League of the City of New York in 1891 to help consumers understand which products were produced ethically. In 1899, they decided to take this nationwide. Addams hated to lose Kelley from Hull House, but she was the best person for the job. Living at the Henry Street Settlement House from that point until 1926, she continued the fight with her indefatigable energy. She made the Consumers’ League the top opponent to the sweatshops that dotted New York City, employing thousands of low-paid and easily exploitable immigrants, especially young women. Between 1903 and 1905, it focused primarily on child labor laws, but then expanded its mission significantly. It produced a series of publications setting out both the conditions of labor and publicizing what was happening in the states. For instance, in 1906, it published “Handbook of Child Labor Legislation.” Written by Josephine Goldmark, another critically important labor feminist of the era, it laid out the different laws in the states around the issue. It established the Code of Standards to lobby consumer efforts in service of decent labor standards. Using a consumer campaign called the White Label Campaign, Kelley sought to let consumers know which factories were making clothing in safe, healthy working conditions that did not horribly exploit workers or hire children. To make this effective, it had to inform consumers that they must demand manufacturers agree to it in order to pressure them. This was probably the first organized consumer campaign in favor of labor rights in American history.


It urged consumers to boycott clothing that did not have this label and was effective enough to get many companies to comply. Of course, many did not. Among those were the Triangle Shirt Waist Company, where 146 workers would die in 1911. It was precisely this type of company the Consumers League targeted, as it initially focused on women’s underwear manufacturers. It then focused on waitresses, as well as artificial flower and canning companies, both major exploiters of female and child labor.

In 1907, Kelley played a critical role in creating the arguments that would lead to Muller v. Oregon, the pioneering case to allow work hours limitations on women. She and the League contributed heavily to Louis Brandeis’ famous brief that explained the real conditions of women workers to the Supreme Court. While Kelley was primarily concerned by the conditions faced by women and children, she hoped that such a decision and the laws that she fought to pass would be a chink in the armor of the contract doctrine that defined the Lochner decision. Unfortunately, Kelley’s labor feminism would be opposed by other sides of the feminist movement, most notably by Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party, who first claimed that laws that protected women also oppressed women by making them different than men but then simply opposed all labor laws as the New Deal developed. The Consumers League wrote minimum wage laws for states to pass. It supported the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. It also won the creation of the Children’s Bureau at the federal level in 1912, where for years it was run almost entirely by women, many of whom had worked directly for Kelley and the Consumers League. She was a mentor to Frances Perkins, who would be the first woman to serve in the Cabinet, when she served as Secretary to Labor from 1933-1945. Among the other women to work for Kelley was Eleanor Roosevelt, who started work there in 1903 and became a major player in the White Label Campaign.

Kelley continued with the Consumers League until her death in 1932. She kept up the fight, pursuing justice in the Bunting v. Oregon case, where in 1917, the Supreme Court upheld a ten-hour day law for both men and women. She and the Consumers League also played a critical role in the passage of the Keating-Owen Act of 1918, which banned child labor nationally for workers under the age of 14. She also worked for the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act that created the first national program to fight childbirth mortality, funding health care clinics around childbirth in poor parts of the nation. In addition, Kelley strongly believed in racial justice. She was a co-founder of the NAACP and became friends with W.E.B. DuBois.

In 1943, the Consumers League moved its offices from New York to Cleveland, where it lobbied for such issues as rights for farm workers who were excluded from New Deal labor legislation, equal pay for equal work for women, better workers compensation laws, and the expansion of Social Security to cover disability. Beginning in the 1960s, the League began shifting its emphasis slightly away from labor and toward protecting consumers from the many unregulated problems in American products. The Consumers League remains around today, although it is not a major player in labor issues, even as it still has quite a bit of support from unions. It is presently headed by Sally Greenberg and it works primarily around consumer safety issues, although still with some emphasis on issues such as child labor.

This is the 218th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: April 9, 1923

[ 25 ] April 9, 2017 |


On April 9, 1923, the Supreme Court ruled in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital that states or the federal government setting minimum wages for women was unconstitutional, as it violated the liberty of contract. This awful decision made clear just how powerful liberty of contract doctrine remained in the United States nearly a century after it developed and how the Supreme Court remained a major obstacle to even the most basic forms of workers’ rights through this era.

In 1918, Congress passed a minimum wage to cover women in the District of Columbia. This was a period when Progressives were fighting for progressive legislation to win rights for workers, especially women and children. The National Consumers’ League led the fight against child labor, while other Progressive organizations created the momentum for the victory in Muller v. Oregon in 1908, when the Court decided than an Oregon maximum hour law for women was constitutional. With growing middle-class support for labor struggles, such as the active support of Progressive organizations for the Uprising of the 20,000 and then the reforms people such as Frances Perkins led in the aftermath of the Triangle Fire, it did seem that the lives of workers would improve. The DC Children’s Hospital though, along with an elevator operator at a hotel, brought suit against Jesse Adkins, the chair of the Washington DC minimum wage board.

There was hope the Court would rule in favor of the minimum wage, as it had in a 1917 decision, even though it made a ruling against a child labor law in 1918. But in 1920, Warren Harding was elected to the presidency. And as usually happens when a Republican appoints justices to the Supreme Court, Harding was sure to give the positions to anti-labor conservatives. In 1922, the Court ruled against another child labor law. He appointed George Sutherland and former president William Howard Taft. Sutherland strongly believed in the idea of freedom of contract and Taft was seen to support this as well.

Freedom of contract went back to the beginnings of industrialization. The Farwell case in 1842 that ruled employers had no liability for workplace safety was an early iteration of this and as time went on after the Civil War, this hardened into ideology at the core of every employer opposition to unions, which they considered an unlawful restraint on trade because they violated the freedom of an individual worker to enter into a contract with an employer. This was the world that Warren Harding and George Sutherland still promoted, no matter the horrible lives of millions of workers.

Fighting this was Felix Frankfurter and his top assistant, Mary Dawson. They argued that the DC law was constitutional because it preserved living standards for working women and noted that it would increase business efficiency. Meanwhile, people like Alice Paul sided with the corporations, arguing that any protective laws for women made them second-class citizens, although Paul would later just go all in with corporations and oppose all labor legislation.

The court decided 5-3 in favor of Children’s Hospital. George Sutherland wrote the majority opinion, joined by Joseph McKenna, Willis Van Devanter, James McReynolds, and Pierce Butler. William Howard Taft wrote the dissent joined by Edward Sanford, while Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a separate dissent. Louis Brandeis did not participate in the case. In that decision Sutherland wrote that Lochner was still the rule of the land, despite Muller, noting that the minimum wage was completely different from maximum hours and thus the latter case was irrelevant. He also argued that if the states could set minimum wage laws, they could also set maximum wage laws, something that I don’t think has ever been seriously discussed in American history, but when did reality get in the way of conservative thought? He also noted that since women now had the right to vote, there was no reason to treat them any differently than men at the workplace, a sentiment which Alice Paul strongly approved.

Taft’s dissent was surprising, since he was usually a conservative on these matters. But he found Sutherland’s differentation between wage and hour laws ridiculous. He wrote:

Legislatures in limiting freedom of contract between employee and employer by a minimum wage proceed on the assumption that employees, in the class receiving least pay, are not upon a full level of equality of choice with their employer and in their necessitous circumstances are prone to accept pretty much anything that is offered. They are peculiarly subject to the overreaching of the harsh and greedy employer. The evils of the sweating system and of the long hours and low wages which are characteristic of it are well known. Now, I agree that it is a disputable question in the field of political economy how far a statutory requirement of maximum hours or minimum wages may be a useful remedy for these evils, and whether it may not make the case of the oppressed employee worse than it was before. But it is not the function of this court to hold congressional acts invalid simply because they are passed to carry out economic views which the court believes to be unwise or unsound.

Legislatures which adopt a requirement of maximum hours or minimum wages may be presumed to believe that when sweating employers are prevented from paying unduly low wages by positive law they will continue their business, abating that part of their profits, which were wrung from the necessities of their employees, and will concede the better terms required by the law, and that while in individual cases, hardship may result, the restriction will inure to the benefit of the general class of employees in whose interest the law is passed, and so to that of the community at large.

The right of the Legislature under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to limit the hours of employment on the score of the health of he employee, it seems to me, has been firmly established.

Holmes, reversing his previous anti-worker stance, wrote on much the same lines:

When so many intelligent persons, who have studied the matter more than any of us can, have thought that the means are effective and are worth the price it seems to me impossible to deny that the belief reasonably may be held by reasonable men. If the law encountered no other objection than that the means bore no relation to the end or that they cost too much I do not suppose that anyone would venture to say that it was bad. I agree, of course, that a law answering the foregoing requirements might be invalidated by specific provisions of the Constitution. For instance it might take private property without just compensation. But in the present instance the only objection that can be urged is found within the vague contours of the Fifth Amendment, prohibiting the depriving any person of liberty or property without due process of law. To that I turn.

The earlier decisions upon the same words in the Fourteenth Amendment began within our memory and went no farther than an unpretentious assertion of the liberty to follow the ordinary callings. Later that innocuous generality was expanded into the dogma, Liberty of Contract. Contract is not specially mentioned in the text that we have to construe. It is merely an example of doing what you want to do, embodied in the word liberty. But pretty much all law consists in forbidding men to do some things that they want to do, and contract is no more exempt from law than other acts. Without enumerating all the restrictive laws that have been upheld I will mention a few that seem to me to have interfered with liberty of contract quite as seriously and directly as the one before us. Usury laws prohibit contracts by which a man receives more than so much interest for the money that he lends. Statutes of frauds restrict many contracts to certain forms. Some Sunday laws prohibit practically all contracts during one-seventh of our whole life. Insurance rates may be regulated. …

I confess that I do not understand the principle on which the power to fix a minimum for the wages of women can be denied by those who admit the power to fix a maximum for their hours of work. I fully assent to the proposition that here as elsewhere the distinctions of the law are distinctions of degree, but I perceive no difference in the kind or degree of interference with liberty, the only matter with which we have any concern, between the one case and the other. The bargain is equally affected whichever half you regulate. …

This statute does not compel anybody to pay anything. It simply forbids employment at rates below those fixed as the minimum requirement of health and right living. It is safe to assume that women will not be employed at even the lowest wages allowed unless they earn them, or unless the employer’s business can sustain the burden. In short the law in its character and operation is like hundreds of so-called police laws that have been upheld. I see no greater objection to using a Board to apply the standard fixed by the Act than there is to the other commissions with which we have become familiar or than there is to the requirement of a license in other cases. …

The criterion of constitutionality is not whether we believe the law to be for the public good. We certainly cannot be prepared to deny that a reasonable man reasonably might have that belief in view of the legislation of Great Britain, Victoria and a number of the States of this Union. The belief is fortified by a very remarkable collection of documents submitted on behalf of the appellants, material here, I conceive, only as showing that the belief reasonably may be held. In Australia the power to fix a minimum for wages in the case of industrial disputes extending beyond the limits of any one State was given to a Court, and its President wrote a most interesting account of its operation. 29 Harv. Law Rev. 13. If a legislature should adopt what he thinks the doctrine of modern economists of all schools, that ‘freedom of contract is a misnomer as applied to a contract between an employer and an ordinary individual employee,’ Ibid. 25, I could not pronounce an opinion with which I agree impossible to be entertained by reasonable men. If the same legislature should accept his further opinion that industrial peace was best attained by the device of a Court having the above powers, I should not feel myself able to contradict it, or to deny that the end justified restrictive legislation quite as adequately as beliefs concerning Sunday or exploded theories about usury. I should have my doubts, as I have them about this statute—but they would be whether the bill that has to be paid for every gain, although hidden as interstitial detriments, was not greater than the gain was worth: a matter that it is not for me to decide.

The Adkins decision devastated the Progressives struggling to remain relevant in the 1920s. Florence Kelley broke with Felix Frankfurter in the aftermath, as the two could not agree on what strategy to take going forward. Kelley and the Consumers League and hoped that carving out laws for women would be the first step toward creating labor rights for everyone and when the legal strategy didn’t work out, they didn’t know what to do. The entire 1920s was horrible for both organized labor and worker rights. It would take the shock of the Great Depression to change this. Of course, the minimum wage became a major goal of the workers’ movement of the 1930s and would finally be guaranteed nationally with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, even if there were enormous carveouts necessary to ensure that enough conservatives would vote for it to pass. The Court itself would reverse Adkins in 1937, with West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, which I will write about eventually.

This is the 217th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: April 2, 1937

[ 13 ] April 2, 2017 |


On April 2, 1937, workers at the Hershey Chocolate Corporation in Hershey, Pennsylvania sat down on the job. Following the lead of the General Motors workers in Flint, Michigan a few months earlier, these workers demanded the company live up to the contract it had recently signed. Unlike that previous struggle however, Hershey would respond with violence, demonstrating the limitations of the tactic.

Milton Hershey founded his chocolate company in 1894. He, like many capitalists of the era, decided to construct a company town, of course named after himself. This he did in southeastern Pennsylvania. A bit like Henry Ford, he was worried about the terrible conditions of the cities and so wanted a nice-looking town for his employees. He even built an amusement park in 1907 for them. He was an early adopter of the welfare capitalism that would come to prominence in American industry during the 1920s. But while this was all better than living under the smokestacks in a steel mill, the point of a company town is to control workers and that was certainly the case for Hershey as well, just as it was for his contemporary George Pullman. Personal relationships meant everything when it came to hiring and firing, causing great resentment among workers. And Hershey worked them hard, up to 60 hours a week as late as the 1920s. When the Great Depression began, he reduced them to 40 hours and of course reduced their pay as well, although he tried to avoid layoffs. During the early 1930s, he spent up to $10 million building nice buildings in his company town while his workers faced dire poverty.

Near the end of 1936, workers began to organize. They created a newspaper called “The Chocolate Bar-B” that expressed their discontent and spread it around the factory. It was produced by workers at the factory who had converted to the communist cause and wanted workers to unionize over issues of long hours, low wages, and terrible workplace conditions, especially noise and heat in the factory. By January 1937, with the industrial organizing of the newly formed CIO coming more into the open, CIO organizers met secretly with Hershey workers. They immediately formed the United Chocolate Workers and soon had hundreds of members, with about 80% of the workforce joining. At first it looked like Hershey would cave. When they came to him, he immediately said he would raise wages to 60 cents an hour for men and 45 cents an hour for women and they came to initial agreement in March. But as part of that agreement, union organizers were not supposed to be fired.

Hershey had second thoughts about that. Claiming declining business required layoffs, he fired the organizers, which violated the seniority agreement in the new contract. On April 2, union president Red “Bull” Behman waved a red handkerchief to start the strike. The workers inside copied the tactics now becoming common in CIO organizing campaigns: they sat down on the job. About 1200 workers were involved. They did not want this to be a radical action that would destroy property. They set up cameras to make sure that no property was damaged and they banned smoking in the factory to be sure nothing burned. But there were problems from the beginning. The strike was not competently run and the strikers had to sit-down in shifts of 400, meaning the factory actually stayed open. The strikers were also indifferent to the 240,000 quarters that would spoil, creating immediate divisions between the strikers and the local farmers supplying that milk, a rare localism in supply chains, even at this time.

By this point, Hershey himself was in semi-retirement and company president William Murrie was more of a hard-liner. He rallied the local farmers who were losing money by not selling their milk to Hershey, their only market. He started holding rallies in nearby towns to build opposition to the union. They created a mob to attack the factory and physically remove the strikers. Along with some workers loyal to the company, on April 8, they attacked the sit-down strikers. This may have happened semi-spontaneously at it seems that Behman and Murrie had already agreed to end the occupation. In any case, outnumbering the strikers inside about 4:1, they grabbed bats and bricks and started beating the strike leaders. By the end of the day, about 1000 workers had signed an anti-union loyalty pledge, some because of fear but some because they were genuinely disgusted by the CIO tactics.

This led to an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board, which forced Hershey to hold a union election. The creation of the NLRB cannot be overstated in its importance. In the past, Hershey would have simply fired all the organizers at this point and used violence to ensure their factory stayed union-free. Now, the government made sure an election would be held while taking no position on the sit-down strike, a tactic the Roosevelt administration was distinctly uncomfortable with. Intimidating the workers after the violence, the company ensure that a quasi-company union would win, a tactic used by a lot of employers in 1937 until the National Labor Relations Act was declared constitutional, which had banned company unions. The NLRB threw this election out and ordered a new one held. In 1939, that election happened and the workers chose the AFL-affiliated Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union. The company union was dead in the town but so was the CIO, and this was not by intimidation but rather by the poorly planned sit-down strike and failed organizing efforts after the strike ended. The CIO had misjudged the sit-down strikes’ popularity and the moderate tone taken by Pennsylvania governor George Earle’s to it led to the destruction of his political career and his resounding defeat in a Senate run in 1938. The new governor, the Republican Arthur James, immediately signed a law banning sit-down strikes when he took office in 1939. Finally, Hershey came to an agreement with the BCW, making it one of the first candy companies to be unionized. Old Milton Hershey himself was devastated, seeing his industrial utopia destroyed by strife he hoped to avoid through never allowing workers a voice on the job.

The sit-down strike declined precipitously after the Hershey failure. Even by the end of 1937, it was rarely used. These proved not only tremendously difficult to pull off, but also deeply alienating to the general public in this conservative nation. Workers themselves were rarely united around the issue and the early victories at Flint and other factories could not be replicated elsewhere.

I borrowed from Robert Weir, “Dark Chocolate: Lessons from the 1937 Hershey Sit-Down Strike,” published in Labor History’s January 2015 issue in the writing of this post.

This is the 216th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 29, 1951

[ 54 ] March 29, 2017 |


On March 29, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of treason for passing classified information to the Soviet Union. A few days later they were sentenced to death. This famous case has of course received a tremendous amount of attention; for this series, it’s useful both as a window into the legacy of the New York-based and largely Jewish radicalism that shaped much of the left in the first half of the twentieth century, as well as to place them in the context of the broader attack on left-wing of the labor movement during these years.

Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg came out of the leftist Jewish tradition extending back into the late 19th century. He was born in New York in 1918, she also in New York in 1915. The both became members of the Young Communist League in the mid-1930s, as was far from uncommon in those days where democracy seemed to be dying and communism was the only hope for the left. They married in 1939. Both had significant union backgrounds. In 1932, Ethel led a strike at a shipping company where she worked, fighting for better wages. In 1935, she led another strike that included the blocking of the entrance to her company’s warehouse with 150 women workers. She was fired, but the National Labor Relations Board ordered she be rehired. All of this helped create the Ladies’ Apparel Shipping Clerks Union. Julius studied to be an engineer, but came from a staunchly union background. His father was a union representative in the sweatshops and apparel industry of New York. They were committed communists who sought to extend the revolution of workers’ rights under a socialist government to the United States. These were the children of the Clara Lemlich and Triangle Fire generation. They brought that same passion and organizing for workers’ rights to a new generation, one shaped by the rise and success of the Soviet Union.

During World War II, Julius worked at the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories until it was revealed he was a communist. Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, worked at Los Alamos. Julius was running a spy ring for the Soviet Union, believing that military information needed to be shared to ensure peace after the war. He and his comrades managed to take photographic copies of documents concerning a wide number of major military projects, including a complete set of prints and production designs for the first jet planes. Greenglass was providing some information from his position at Los Alamos, though as a machinist, he did not have access to much of the really highly valuable information.

After the war, Julius and Greenglass ran their own machinist shop briefly but it fell apart, causing some tension between the two men. When Klaus Fuchs got busted for spying for the Soviet Union, he named names to hopefully reduce his sentence. This led the government to David Greenglass. When Greenglass was caught, he then testified that it was Julius Rosenberg who introduced him to the spy ring. Rosenberg was arrested. So was Ethel, although there was no evidence that she was involved. The government hoped to use her to pressure Julius into revealing everything. She denied everything on the witness stand, including any knowledge of her husband or brother’s activities. She may well have been lying and later studies have suggested she was. But the government didn’t have any evidence to convict her. This did not stop them. After all, the co-prosecuting attorney was one Roy Cohn, who later bragged that he was responsible for them getting the death penalty. The prosecution went full atomic scare, claiming that Greenglass had given the Soviets the secret to the atomic bomb, which is not really supported by the evidence. Atomic scientists said that Greenglass’ supposed sketch of an atomic bomb was worthless and Greenglass himself was highly inconsistent in his testimony. The trial was a complete farce, even if they were both probably guilty. Both Julius and Ethel were convicted and were sentenced to death. They were executed on June 19, 1953. Ethel’s was botched and they had to keep applying shocks through the electric chair. By the time she was declared dead, smoke was rising from her head.

Despite this famous case though, the communists in the labor movement were hardly a threat to the United States. Were there communists in the labor movement? Of course there were. They had played critical roles in the CIO’s organizing campaigns. By the late 1940s, the CIO was ready to get rid of these people for a number of reasons. There’s no question now, after decades of leftist historians dying it, that the CP-led unions and their organizers were following Moscow’s dictates, often alienating non-communist workers who could see through their inconsistency and constantly shifting positions to conform with the Soviets like a thin soup. There’s also no question that the communist issue also split unions, with non-communist members writing in to HUAC, asking for the communists to be investigated and eliminated. The question of communism in the labor movement during the postwar period is much harder and thornier than either anti-communist zealots or the modern left want to admit. Kicking out the communists was both an anti-democratic and anti-left move and was probably necessary for the industrial unions to survive the Cold War. It took away many of the best organizers, but those organizers had often worn out their welcome anyway and I am hesitant of arguments often made that this doomed the labor movement to its staid state of the post-1955 merger of the AFL and CIO. On the other hand, the loss of those good organizers was not replaced with some new generation of hard-core organizers and organizing fell off considerably after around 1950.

But in any case, most of these communists in the labor movement, including the Rosenbergs, genuinely thought they were doing the best thing they could for humanity in a global movement that would bring equality and freedom to the masses. You might argue that after 1939, only someone blind to reality could believe that. And maybe you are right. But I think when looking at people like the Rosenbergs, or the communists in the midcentury left generally, it’s useful to think of them in their own terms. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. But it does mean that the same desire for freedom that led them to create the modern labor movement and the greatest victories in the history of American workers is the same that led them to give secrets to Joseph Stalin. Such were the complexities of the time.

This is the 214th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 28, 1959

[ 5 ] March 28, 2017 |


On March 28, 1959, railroad worker union leaders in Mexico that threatened to shut down the nation were arrested. The government crack down, its firing thousands of workers and arrest of many more demonstrates how the PRI government in Mexico would reject militancy in the labor movement and how this once revolutionary government had now entered its own Cold War phase.

Mexican railroad workers were significantly underpaid by the late 1950s and the nation had entered a period of inflation. The Mexican rail workers union, Sindicato de Trabajadores Ferrocarrileros de la República Mexicana (STFRM) created a price study committee to determine proper wages for its members. They demanded an increase of 350 pesos ($28) a month. When the government rejected this, offering an increase of 200 pesos ($16) a month, the path was laid for an increasingly bitter series of labor actions that resulted in one of the most important events in Mexican labor history. This union had been an independent union in the 1940s but by the 1950s was heavily co-opted by the PRI, the institutionalized revolutionary government of Mexico that theoretically made unions central to the state but in reality had made them adjuncts of state policy that did not represent workers. Moreover, railroad workers were a hugely important part of the Mexican labor movement and Mexican workers had played a leading role in starting the Mexican Revolution. As late as the 1950s, trains were a major mode of transportation in Mexico. Even today, public transportation is enormously important there, especially in rural Mexico, although today this is predominantly bus travel.

The first of the strikes began on June 26, 1958 in Oaxaca. Led by Demeterio Vallejo, a long-time union leader and one-time communist who had been active in the Mexican labor movement since the late 1920s, the workers began their actions with short strikes, usually only about 2 hours. Vallejo’s actions were not just about the wages. They were also about retaking control of the union from the officials handpicked by the government since 1948 and who had worked with the PRI to keep freight rates low by freezing wages. Vallejo’s newly invigorated workers escalated the length of their walkouts over the next few days, reaching 8 hours, before finally calling for a full-fledged strike. 60,000 workers participated in the first 2-hour strike. By the June 28 8-hour strike, Vallejo’s rail workers were joined by petroleum workers, teachers, and students. At this point president Adolpho Ruiz Cortines stepped in and offered a 215 peso raise. That was accepted and it seemed like this strike would end quickly. However, on July 12, the Railroad Workers Union elected Vallejo general secretary of the National Railroad Council, in no small part because he was angry about the Ruiz Cortines agreement that gave them such a small raise. He rode that rank and file anger to a victory. The companies refused to accept this and neither did the government, who wanted a less radical union leader in a system where the ruling PRI had incorporated unions into its government structure. Once again, the union went on strike and forced the government to cave.

They then sought to build on these two victories to demand much more. They wanted their pay raise based on the principle of a 6-day pay week instead of a 7-day pay week, thus raising their overall pay by 16% instead of 14% and wanted it applied retroactively to Ruiz Cortines’ intervention. They also wanted a housing allowance of 10% or a government housing plan for railroad workers. Finally, they wanted a limitation on loans from U.S. companies that was taking up too much of the railroad’s finances and thus getting in the way of pay raises for workers. By this time as well, a new president had taken office in Mexico. Adolfo López Mateos was seen as a possible return to a more populist and left-leaning Mexico by many disappointed with the conservative, corrupt statism of the PRI since Cardenas. Alas, they were to be bitterly disillusioned by the new administration.

Contract negotiations stalled and the 1-year contract agreed to in 1958 expired. Vallejo and his union became national pariahs in the media, but they pressed ahead with their strike, which started on February 25, 1959. This strike lasted less than a day, as the company agreed to the 16% raise, free medical care for workers’ families, and a government housing program. But the contract was not equal for all rail workers as some lines were left out. This led Vallejo to once again call a strike that would commence on March 25. The union chose that date specifically because it was Holy Week. With Easter on March 29, this maximized their leverage because people could not travel to see their families on this critical Mexican holiday. But this was too much for the López Mateos government. It declared the strike illegal. The military took over the rail stations. Army telegraphers scabbed on the striking rail telegraphers. The police busted the doors of workers, pulled their guns on them, and forced the to work at gunpoint. The military arrested Vallejo and thousands of workers. This actually filled the available prisons and many of the workers were sent to military camps. Throughout all of this, the workers grounded their demands in the language of the 1917 Constitution that is the fundamental document of the Mexican Revolution. But for the government, even this reeked of radicalism in a Cold War world where PRI leaders now feared leftist organizing as opposed to welcoming it, as it had done a mere 20 years earlier.

Vallejo was found guilty of sedition and given a 16-year prison sentence. The government replaced Vallejo and his followers with hand-chosen union leaders who would cooperate. The new contract remained and the lives of average workers improved, but union militancy in Mexico would be crushed by the PRI, which valued control and power over the unions brought into the government over its supposed revolutionary ideology. The state was the revolution and the revolution was the state. Vallejo remained in jail for 11 years and became a major cause for students in the 1968 movement. That fateful year saw the greatest suppression of labor and civil rights in modern Mexican history, most notoriously with the Tlateloco Massacre just outside of Mexico City, where the government murdered protesting students. This combined with guerillas fighting for dignity in the rural state of Guerrero set off Mexico’s Dirty War, a spasm of state violence that it has never really recovered from. The ultimate betrayal of Mexican democracy culminated in 1968 but it started in 1959.

I borrowed from Robert Alegre, Railroad Radicals in Cold War Mexico: Gender, Class, and Memory, in the writing of this post.

This is the 213th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 24, 1934

[ 25 ] March 24, 2017 |


On March 24, 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Tydings-McDuffie Act. Better known as the Philippine Independence Act, Tydings-McDuffie initially sounds like a victory for anti-colonialist forces. However, a look at the history of law demonstrates that it actually came out of the deep anti-Asian racism of the West Coast who saw Asian populations both as competition for white labor and competition for white women.

From the beginning of Anglo-American occupation in California, white workers defined the state as a white man’s republic. This was basically repeated in Oregon and Washington. And yet from the very beginning, the polyglot population of the region challenged those assumptions. The arrival of Mexicans and Chinese along with whites into California freaked out the white population, which quickly sought to take over the diggings. The Chinese were pushed into menial labor, as well as the most difficult and dangerous labor, such as railroad building. White workers saw these workers as a direct threat, committed murderous violence against them, and lobbied for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major legislative victory for unions in American history. But California employers continued their search for cheap labor, turning to the Japanese. But the same anti-Asian sentiment rose up against the Japanese, especially as these workers began organizing as well, and the Gentlemen’s Agreement cut that labor off in 1907. But western employers now had a new source of labor: Filipinos. This was much more difficult for anti-Asian zealots to organize against, for Filipinos had the right to immigrate as colonial subjects of the United States since the 1898-1902 war of subjugation.

By the 1920s, Filipino immigration to California expanded rapidly, with over 24,000 coming between 1925 and 1929, mostly young men to work in the fields. In response, the San Francisco Chronicle editorialized, “There is a serious immigration problem involved in the introduction of large numbers of person who are unassimilable yet who are given a statue little short of full citizenship.” They lived in the same terrible camps that other workers suffered through in the fields, with housing that was basically chicken coops. The growers liked them because they worked hard and made little trouble on the farms. But the new arrival of non-whites infuriated many Californians. To make it worse for white Californians, many Filipino men, and men made up 94% of the migrants, ended up having sexual relationships with white women. This was not what their cheap, exploitable labor was supposed to do. Said Fred Hart, a farmer from Salinas, “The Filipinos will not leave our white girls alone…Frequently they intermarry.” That these new workers had status as Americans made their brazenness even more outrageous for white California.

So whites did what whites do so frequently in American history–they turned to violence against the people who color who dared stand up for human rights and labor rights. On January 21, 1930, about two hundred white Californians tried to raid a Filipino-owned club near Monterey where nine white women worked as entertainers. The mob expanded to about 500 people and the next night they started attacking Filipinos they found on the streets and in the orchards. On January 23, the mob killed a farmworker named Fermin Tobera, who had come to California in 1928 to work in the fields and send money back to his impoverished family. The bunkhouse in which he slept on the Murphy Ranch near Watsonville was set upon by whites who started firing into it. Tobera was shot in the head. This outraged the Filipino community working for the rights of their people in Washington, as well as Filipinos in Manila. Other violent incidents popped up around California over the next couple of days, leading to beating and a stabbing. On January 29, someone blew up the Stockton headquarters of the Filipino Federation of America. Although several people were sleeping inside, no one was killed. Given the trans-Pacific anger this violence caused, California law enforcement had to do something. Eight men pleaded guilty for incitement to riot; four of them served thirty days in prison and the rest of the sentences for all of them were suspended.

This violence is the context in which the U.S. considered granting the Filipinos their independence. Both supporters and opponents of Filipino migration to the U.S. thought independence was probably the best solution by the early 1930s. The Watsonville Evening Pajaronian editorialized that it hoped the Philippines would get their independence so Japan would invade them and turn them into a new Korea. Given the rapidly growing availability of white labor as the Great Depression deepened, the California growers wouldn’t struggle to find a new labor force either.

The law itself granted the Philippines independence after ten years. In exchange, Filipinos would have to abide by the racist immigration quota system of the 1924 Immigration Act immediately. A whopping 50 immigrants from the Philippines a year were allowed into the United States. They were also denied citizenship rights. A 1946 law, the same year that the Philippines actually received independence, doubled the quota to a whole 100 immigrants and restored the ability of Filipinos to become citizens. A year after Tydings-McDuffie, Congress passed the Filipino Repatriation Act that provided free transportation for Filipinos who wanted to return to the islands but could not afford to do so. The nation didn’t quite get to the point of rounding up these workers, but they can awfully close.

In conclusion, the United States was actually too racist and too concerned about interracial sex to remain a colonial power.

Of course, Filipino labor did not disappear from the United States after Tydings-McDuffie, even as new immigration did. These workers would play a critical role in the early farmworker movements that eventually led to the United Farm Workers, even as Latino workers supplanted the Filipinos in the movement.

I borrowed from Dorothy B. Fujita-Rony, “Empire and the Moving Body: Fermin Tobera, Military California, and Rural Space,” in Bender and Lipman, Making the Empire Work: Labor and United States Imperialism in the writing of this post.

This is the 212th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: March 1, 1932

[ 12 ] March 1, 2017 |


On March 1, 1932, the Norris-LaGuardia Act passed the Senate by a 75-5 vote and was signed by President Herbert Hoover a few days later. This critical act outlawing some of the most loathsome tactics used by employers against workers laid the groundwork for the rapid growth of labor rights over the next several years.

In the Lochner era, a misnomer that uses a single court case to represent a doctrine of work that had already existed for more than a half-century before that 1905 decision, there was a widespread belief in the sanctity of the contract between employers and workers. In other words, if a worker agreed to work on a job, it was inherently implied that said worker agreed to the conditions of work the employer set. If the employer created conditions where the worker did not want to sell his or her labor, that worker could quit. Of course, this completely ignored power dynamics. The idea that a single worker in the Gilded Age held equal power as the employer was beyond absurd. But employers and politicians held on to this ideology with great tenacity. In the years after Lochner, it began to be chipped away, such as the Mueller case, where the Supreme Court revised Lochner to create exceptions for some women workers. But the overall framework held strong well into the 1920s. Courts routinely ruled that unions were unlawful combinations and that strikers were illegal conspiracies that halted interstate commerce, while of course allowing monopolies to do whatever they wanted in ways that actually were unlawful combinations and illegal conspiracies to limit interstate commerce except in ways that helped corporate bottom lines.

One of the ways that employers took advantage of this ideology was the so-called “yellow-dog contract.” This made it a condition of employment that a worker not be a union member. This was an outrage for both workers and for the Populist movements that had briefly taken power in many states during the late 19th and early 20th century and outlawed them. New York was the first, in 1887. Congress did the same nationally, at least for railroad workers, with the Erdman Act of 1898. The Supreme Court routinely struck against these laws. In 1915, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Coppage v. Kansas that a Kansas law banning the yellow-dog contract was unconstitutional. In 1917, the Supreme Court, in Hitchman Coal and Coke Co. v. Mitchell, expanded upon the previous decision, ruling that yellow-dog contracts were enforceable by law. This disgusted not only labor activists but a lot of Progressives, who believed that unions should at least be legal, even if they did not believe in the closed shop or other elements of labor solidarity.

After Hitchman and in the wake of the Red Scare shortly to follow, employers increased their use of the yellow-dog contracts and their political opposition grew. Moreover, aggressive uses of injunctions, also increased by Hitchman, led to courts effectively outlawing the United Mine Workers in West Virginia. By the late 1920s, the movement against the yellow-dog contract had grown. In 1930, the Senate rejected Hoover’s nomination of John Parker to the Supreme Court because he had upheld yellow-dog contracts as a judge. As the Great Depression deepened and the overwhelming demands of workers for dignity became impossible to ignore, the momentum for labor law reform became hard to stop. This wasn’t per se because of a great rush to support unions, but rather because the yellow-dog seemed an anachronism of the violent anti-union days that the middle-class of the 1920s, much more interested in soft anti-union power such as company unionism, increasingly found embarrassing. Behind this reform was two of the great progressive Republicans of the period, Nebraska senator George Norris and New York congressman Fiorello LaGuardia. The roots of the bill came in the late 1920s, as pro-labor senators used language coming recent court cases, including from William Howard Taft, that noted the contract ideology that dominated the workplace made no sense when government and business combined to make the idea that workers and employers had equal power in agreeing to work completely antiquated, even as it in fact had been for many decades by this point. Said Harvard labor economist Carroll Daughtery in the Harvard Business Review yellow-dog contracts were “among the greatest strongholds of individualism” in an America where the economic reality made laissez-faire individualism “outmoded and outworn.” The final bill outlawed the yellow-dog contract, established the principle that unions are free to form without employer interference (although it had no real enforcement mechanism for that principle), and prevented federal courts from issuing injunctions in nonviolent labor strikes, which had been a classic strategy of employers to bust their unions in the past half-century.

Organized labor was somewhat ambivalent about Norris-LaGuardia because it undermined the voluntary nature of unionism that had been dear to craft unionists since the 19th century. American Federation of Labor-affiliated unions saw themselves as private, volunteer organizations outside of government regulation. Norris-LaGuardia bean to change that in ways that would become much stronger in a few years. 1932 was a major year of transition for the AFL around these issues. It was only in that year when union leaders faced a rank and file revolt over unemployment insurance that the AFL finally came around to endorsing even a program that would directly help its members because it reeked of government involvement with unions. It did ultimately support Norris-LaGuardia, even though it wanted greater protection from injunctions than the bill provided. AFL head William Green testified for the need to eliminate the yellow-dog. Business of course opposed the bill.

The Norris-LaGuardia Act was a law passed at a time when the federal government was still in a nascent period of reform and when the discomfort with much government interference in the economy was still strongly felt in both parties. It would take much, much more, including strikes, the murder of workers, and groundbreaking labor law within a new conception of the state, to create real rights for workers in the United States. However, Norris-LaGuardia is a key early moment in this struggle.

Norris-LaGuardia only applied to private sector workers. Government workers, especially teachers, were forced to sign yellow dog contracts into the 1960s and it was only when the government opened up the public sector to organizing that this finally ended. Much of the anti-injunction power of the bill was regained by employers with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.

I borrowed a bit of this post from Ruth O’Brien’s Workers’ Paradox: The Republican Origins of New Deal Labor Policy, 1886-1935 as well as from Daniel Ernst, “The Yellow-Dog Contract and Liberal Reform, 1917-1932,” published in Labor History in 1989.

This is the 211th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: February 14, 1940

[ 8 ] February 14, 2017 |


On February 14, 1940, a group of Navajos named Scott Preston, Julius Begay, Frank Goldtooth, and Judge Many Children wrote a letter of protest to their congressman, John Murdock of Arizona, against the livestock reduction program pressed upon them by Commission of Indian Affairs head John Collier. Noting how the program would radically transform their economy, driving them into greater poverty, they wrote, in part:

The Navajo Indians are not opposed to grazing permits as such, in fact we believe they heartily approve them if the manner of issuance is fair and the limits are sufficiently high to permit the family to exist.

For instance, in our own district (No.3) the sheep unit is set at 282. If a person has 5 horses, that would be the equivalent to 25 sheep; 1 head of cattle is the equivalent of 4 sheep. A Navajo family will consume 150 head of sheep or more per year depending on the size of the family. In addition to this amount, it is necessary to sell for their staples enough to keep the family from starvation. Then each family must be prepared to meet natural losses. We understand the families with smaller than the maximum are not permitted to raise that limit, but those above must be reduced.

282 sheep units is not sufficient for even the bare existence of a moderate size Navajo family without additional income, and such a policy will mean the impoverishment of the entire Navajo tribe.

The creation of Navajo sheep culture was already a response to the forced transformation of Navajo work culture around raiding and hunting in the face of white domination in 1860s, a phenomenon faced by many tribes during these years. Many tribes faced allotment under the Dawes Act, forced into small farming economies they were not equipped for and losing their lands to whites as part of the larger strategy to dispossess indigenous people of their land, culture, and work traditions.

The Navajo had begun integrating sheep into their work culture in 1598, as Spanish flocks wandered north out of Mexico into what is today the American Southwest, along with other domesticated animals that transformed what was possible for Native American life. While sheep and weaving became very important to Navajo life, it was originally another animal, the horse, that primarily redefined their work culture. Engaging heavily in raiding well into New Mexico, where they, along with the Comanches, made the Spanish colony and then Mexico, as well as the Puebloan peoples who lived there, reside in constant fear, the U.S. put a stop to this when, in 1864, the Navajo were rounded up and forced on the Long March to the Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico. There they were dumped for four years and about 25 percent of the population died. Reports of the conditions at the Bosque Redondo went public at the same time that the nation was engaging in Reconstruction and there was enough outrage in that rare moment when white Americans cared enough about people of color to do something to help that the Navajo were allowed to return to a large chunk of their lands, in no small part because it seemed to have no economic value to whites. But in doing so, they had to give up their raiding and horse culture ways. Sheep and weaving became ever more important to Navajo work culture after this.

In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed John Collier as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. For most tribes, this was a breath of fresh air. Collier rejected the corrupt and genocidal policies of the past, attempting to treat indigenous Americans as relative equals and respect their cultural heritage. Collier and New Deal land managers, heavily influenced by the Dust Bowl, saw Navajo sheep herding practices as incredibly destructive to the land and completely unsustainable. They noted the erosion transforming the land, the gullies turning into deep canyons, and the impossibility of this continuing for long. By 1931, the Navajo owned perhaps one million sheep on land with a carrying capacity of 500,000; they had only owned about 15,000 in the 1870s, but their population had also exploded from 8000 people in 1868 to 39,000 in 1930. So Collier acted, even though the Navajo themselves were not brought on board. Collier respected the Navajos, but felt he needed to save them from themselves. In 1934, the first of the sheep and goat slaughters took place. By 1935, the Navajos were actively resisting. People refused to sell their livestock to anyone who would kill them. By 1937, in the face of this resistance, Collier and the Department of the Interior issued a new plan setting a cap on the amount of livestock each extended family could own.

Weaving and harvesting the sheep provided about half the cash for the Navajos and nothing was done to replace that. Much of this loss was gendered. Weaving was the source of women’s income in a matrilineal society. It had provided women with economic authority even as the pre-1864 Navajo economy was forcibly terminated. They controlled their own means of production. Collier and the other New Dealers did not see this at all. Men handled the relationships with whites and so the New Dealers never even spoke to women, nor did they think of asking about them. With control over the means of production stripped away, masculine economic and political dominance was reinforced and the gendered norms of Navajo work and life were transformed.

The irony of this is that Collier was right. The Navajo were vastly overgrazing the land and they refused to admit it. It was absolutely not sustainable. But in the tradition of white northerners pushing their ideas of free labor upon African-Americans in the days after slavery without asking the ex-slaves what they wanted, Collier shoving his reforms down the throats of the Navajo without their consent resulted not only in a transformation of the intersection between work and culture, impoverishing many already poor people, but also created a long-term resistance to environmentalism still powerful on the Navajo Nation today.

The stock reduction program ended as the nation went into World War II and the government had bigger fish to fry. But it also happened in the face of widespread resistance, such as the letter that opens this post. In 1940, the Navajo Rights Association formed to lead the resistance to continued stock reduction. The government started threatening the Navajo with police power if they refused to hand over their livestock, which broke the resistance. John Collier started realizing that there was a problem with his program only in 1941, which was far too late. He relaxed some of the restrictions, but the damage to Navajo work and life was already done. An already poor people were made more impoverished. After World War II, many men would seek to escape that poverty through uranium mining, which would have enormous implications of its own on the health of the miners and work culture of the Navajo people.

The letter that opens this post was taken from Peter Iverson, ed., Dine Letters, Speeches, & Petitions, 1900-1960. You can read the whole letter here. Many of the other details come from Marsha Weisiger, Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country.

This is the 210th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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