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Tag: "This Day in Labor History"

This Day in Labor History: July 23, 1892

[ 57 ] July 23, 2017 |

On July 23, 1892, the anarchist Alexander Berkman walked into the office of the capitalist and Carnegie Steel executive Henry Clay Frick with a knife and gun in order to kill him for his actions at the Homestead Strike. Being an anarchist, he failed miserably. More importantly, this moment is a good time to discuss violence in the Gilded Age labor movement.

Let’s start with a basic fact: Henry Clay Frick deserved to be murdered. This was a truly awful human being responsible for the deaths of a whole lot of people. First, there was his culpability in the Johnstown Flood, where the negligence of he and his friends led to over 2200 dead people. Admittedly, he didn’t order their killings, but he also just didn’t care whether they lived or died. Second, there was his actions at Homestead. To review this famous incident, Frick was the second in command to Andrew Carnegie at Carnegie Steel. Frick hated unions. I mean, all Gilded Age capitalists hated unions but Frick truly despised them. He once personally evicted a worker from company housing by picking him up and throwing him in a creek. The world would have been better off without Henry Clay Frick in it. But that doesn’t excuse Berkman’s actions.

Berkman was born in 1870 in Vilinus, in what is today Lithuania, to a wealthy Jewish family. Because of their wealth, the Czar allowed them to move from the Pale of Settlement to St. Petersburg. The young Berkman became attracted to the radical political ideas part of the atmosphere there, which had famously led to the assassination of Alexander II. With his family increasingly ashamed of his radicalism, Berkman immigrated to the United States in 1888. He immediately became involved in the fight to free the remaining Haymarket martyrs and joined the first Jewish anarchist group in New York. He met another young Jewish anarchist, Emma Goldman, in 1889. They became lovers. They also fell under the influence of Johann Most, the anarchist articulating “the propaganda of the deed,” which effectively meant that individual acts of violence were good, even if they killed innocents, because the repressive state response would show its true colors and spark a revolutionary movement.

Berkman and Goldman moved to Worcester and opened an ice cream shop. Then Homestead happened. Although they had no connection to the steel workers, they decided that action was necessary to make Frick pay for what he had done. So they decided to kill him. Goldman attempted to fund it by working as a prostitute, to ridiculous results. But Berkman managed to get his assassination attempt in anyway. He wanted to make a bomb, because that’s how Russian anarchists rolled, but he didn’t know how. So he got the knife and gun. He managed to get into Frick’s office. He fired two bullets at him and missed, because he was an incompetent clod. He was then tackled but managed to stab him three times. But Frick did not suffer serious wounds. An associate of his and Goldman’s named Modest Aronstam arrived in Pittsburgh the next day wtih dynamite to finish the job, but he was already known and when his name appeared in newspapers, he fled.

How do you walk into the office of an unarmed capitalist with a knife and a gun and fail to even seriously wound him? There’s a simple answer. You are completely incompetent. That was Alexander Berkman to a tee.

Let’s step back a moment and look at the ridiculousness of this act. It would be one thing if the Homestead strikers themselves decided to kill Frick. One could almost justify it. It wouldn’t have been the first time Gilded Age strikers used violence to defend their interests. The Molly Maguires, while not really a labor movement per se, had done this. Some anarchist threw the bomb at Haymarket, and while it was certainly not a member of the McCormick workers union who cops had killed the previous day, was at least someone involved in the larger maelstrom of the Chicago 8-hour day strikes. The miners at the Frisco Mill in Idaho had bombed a mine in a pitched battle with Pinkertons. In 1910, two Ironworkers leaders would blow up the Los Angeles Times building because Harrison Gray Otis was so critical to that city’s anti-unionism. The latter ended up a complete disaster and was a bad idea to begin with, but at least in all these cases, it was the affected workers acting. And then at Blair Mountain, West Virginia miners rose up in armed revolt against their oppression, leading to the largest domestic insurrection since the Civil War.

Berkman and Goldman were acting out of pure ideology. They didn’t know any Homestead workers and they didn’t consult with any Homestead workers. Moreover, the attempted assassination turned public sympathy away from the strikers, who of course had nothing to do with it. Even Johann Most repudiated Berkman for this, embittering him. All Berkman’s actions accomplished was 14 years in prison. He got out in 1906 and still worked with Goldman, even though their romance was dead. He suffered from crippling depression in his post-prison years. Finally, in 1907, Goldman named him editor of her paper, Mother Earth, and this gave him more purpose. Berkman learned nothing. He was involved in a plot to build bombs after the Ludlow Massacre, again totally disconnected from the mineworkers. But one went off in the apartment where they were being built and most of his co-conspirators died. They were both rounded up and deported to the Soviet Union during the Red Scare. They both became disillusioned as well, but found themselves isolated by the left which had largely turned toward seeing the Soviet experiment as the future. He moved to France in 1925 and lived there until 1936, when he committed suicide because his health was failing badly. He still didn’t know how to use a gun. He missed his heart and instead lingered on, unable to speak, for awhile before slowly dying.

It’s also worth noting that for all their fame, not only did Berkman really accomplish nothing but Goldman didn’t either. They never connected with actual workers movements, nor did they become involved in the IWW, which certainly welcomed leading anarchists as organizers and propagandists. They were independent operators and are massively overrated as historical figures, especially Goldman, who used her fame to give speaking tours that made her a good bit of money and avoided the hard work of organizing.

Frick would go on to be the most publicly hated man of the Gilded Age.

This was hardly the last moment of anti-employer or anti-capitalist violence during the Gilded Age. Most famous was Leon Czolgosz’s assassination of President William McKinley. Czolgosz made Berkman look rational and sane. Eventually, all this violence did lead the government to begin wondering why and discovering that, yes, workers did have it horrible. But none of these acts caused anything close to the revolution that Berkman wanted to spark.

This is the 233rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.


This Day in Labor History: July 20, 1891

[ 20 ] July 20, 2017 |

On July 20, 1891, militia forces guarding a stockade at a mine near Briceville, Tennessee surrendered to miners during Coal Creek War to keep convict laborers from competing with free miners. This was one of several tense moments in the larger struggle in the post-Reconstruction South by white free laborers to keep the state from using prisoners, many of whom were African-American, from competing with them and the lengths to which the state would go to undermine the ability of workers to make a living.

After southern treason in defense of slavery was crushed, not only was the southern elite stripped of their capital, but the states themselves were a physical and financial wreck, often run through over and over again by four years of battles and marches. Such was the case in Tennessee. Other than Virginia, no southern state suffered more damage. The state had no money. But the Reconstruction government there did have prisoners. Without the ability to even pay to keep prisoners, in 1866, Tennessee began renting their convicts out to coal companies in exchange for the companies paying for their board. The irony of unpaid prison labor in the wake of the Thirteenth Amendment is rich, but that amendment did make an exception for prisoners and that loophole has been blown wide open ever since. Tennessee was not the only state that did this. For instance, also in 1866, Virginia’s prisons began a similar program for railroad companies and among the convicts sent to his death this way was a young black soldier from New Jersey railroaded into prison named John Henry, who would become a mythical legend in American culture.

By 1871, Tennessee was leasing its convicts to the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railway Company (TCI), which subcontracted the prisoners to small coal mines. This immediately created dissatisfaction from free laboring coal miners, but there was not too much organized action against it in the early years. During the 1870s, Coal Creek, in Anderson County (named after this individual recent profiled in the internet’s least important series), on the Cumberland Plateau, became the state’s coal center. By the 1880s, miners, locked out of the profits the coal companies raked in on their unfree labor, began seriously organizing.

Ultimately, it was the rise of the Farmers’ Alliance, the state organizations that would lead to the Populist Party, that gave miners the organization they needed to resist unfree competition. The Tennessee Farmers Alliance and their allies in the fading but still locally relevant Knights of Labor elected several supporters to the state legislature, as well as a new governor. Feeling emboldened, it next made direct demands on the coal mines, including the end of the use of company scrip and that miners could use their own checkweighmen, which were the people who weighed the coal and determined how much the miner would get paid. In fact, both of these things were already mandated by state law but ignored by the owners. In the face of new pressure, most agreed, but the Tennessee Coal Mining Company, operating a mine on Coal Creek, near Briceville, refused and moreover, tried to force miners to sign a locked-in 2 year contract that gave them none of these things. When they refused, TCMC shut the mine and reopened it on July 5 with state prisoners contracted through TCI. It then tore down company housing, kicking out residents, to build a new stockade for the convict laborers.

This led to an explosion of anger. On the evening of July 14, fearing more convict laborers, miners and other concerned locals met and decided to do something about it. The next evening, a group of 300 armed miners marched to the stockade, probably led by local Knights of Labor members, took it over, and placed the prisoners on trains to Knoxville. They hoped their newly elected governor, John Buchanan, would support their action based on their own version of private property rights–they were defending their wages and property from essentially enslaved people. But Buchanan himself helped escort the prisoners back to Briceville, one of many examples of the Farmers Alliance, Populists, and unionists electing people to state office during this era, only to have them turn on their working-class supporters when the opportunity to cash in came. Shots were fired at the stockade that night and 100 militia members were left to guard the prisoners. On the morning of July 20, 2000 armed miners surrounded the stockade. Miners came all the way from Kentucky to help, as the convict miners had recently been evicted in that state and there was worried about the system returning. The militia surrendered and once again, the convicts were loaded on a train back to Knoxville. Simply put, local miners would not accept unpaid competition.

This put greater pressure on Buchanan, who got the miners to back off with the promise of a legislative session to deal with the legality of convict labor. Little happened though and a state court ruled against the miners, placing the sanctity of contract over all. Miners responded on October 31 by taking over TCMC and burning several building. The 300 prisoners in the stockade were freed, given clothing and food, and told to go somewhere else. On November 2, another band of miners did the same at the stockade at Oliver Springs, freeing another 150 prisoners. Finally, the state dispatched armed militia to ensure the ability of TCMC to use convict laborers. The militia were largely from west and middle Tennessee, and there was immediate tensions between the two sides, with plenty of shooting at each other.

But by this time, TCMC wanted to be done with the convict laborers, which had become more trouble than they were worth. The company came to an agreement with the miners to stop using the prisoners. That said, TMI had no interest in stopping its contracting with mine companies for this profitable operation. It directly purchased a mine at Oliver Springs and sent the prisoners there. This led to another round of violent conflict. Miners in Grundy County and Marion County tore and burned down stockades there. At Coal Creek, the militia head was captured and a direct charge on the militia led to the killing of 2, but the miners couldn’t take the stockade. At this point, Buchanan ordered a militia company of 600 men to retake east Tennessee from the miners. This proved effective and hundreds of miners were jailed. Only one miner served any meaningful jail time as many fled and others were acquitted. Order was restored.

In the aftermath, Tennessee banned the convict lease system in 1896, making it one of the first southern states to do so. It didn’t do this because it opposed using unpaid labor, but because the cost of keeping the militia in the field was more than the money the state made on the prisoners. The incident became part of Appalachian lore and was remembered in music.

This is the 232nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: July 16, 1931

[ 9 ] July 16, 2017 |

On July 16, 1931, a white mob murdered the black sharecropper organizer Ralph Gray in Tallapoosa County, Alabama. This murder demonstrated both the very real communist organizing among black sharecroppers in Alabama and the extent that whites would go to keep control of their rural labor force, eight decades after the Civil War.

Gray was born into a family with a long history of fighting for black rights. His grandfather had served in the Alabama state legislature during Reconstruction. Gray was born in 1873 and had fought for his own personal survival through the terrible oppression that defined his life. He moved to Birmingham for awhile before returning to Tallapoosa in 1895 to get married and become a tenant farmer. In 1919, he set out again for a better life, but ended up sharecropping in Oklahoma and New Mexico over the next decade, unable to get ahead. He returned home in 1929. He managed to scrape together a small amount of money, bought a little land and even an automobile. He took out a federal loan in 1931 to rent a farm from a local white farmer. The check was supposed to be split between the two men. The white landowner stole Gray’s half. Gray took the case to the Agricultural Extension Service. The landowner was outraged and attempted to beat Gray. But Gray fought back and did the beating himself.

By this time, the Depression was decimating southern farmers and the worst of it was among sharecroppers. Gray began reading the Communist Party’s southern paper Southern Worker. He declared himself a communist and wanted to start a sharecroppers’ union. The Communist Party, probably the most important majority white organization in the United States fighting for racial equality, even if it had its own form of racial blinders, was attempting to organize southern workers no matter the race. Gray and his brother wrote to the CP, requesting an organizer come help them. That organizer was Mack Coad, an illiterate Birmingham steelworker and communist. He came at a good time. Tallapoosa County white landowners, having all the crops planted by mid-May, decided to withhold credit and food from black farmworkers to force them to work in a new sawmill. The outrage over this led to significant interest in the Communists from these black workers, as was happening in many places in Alabama during the early 1930s. Gray and Coad started a local branch of the Croppers’ and Farm Workers Union (CFWU), which soon had 800 members.

The sheer idea of black organizing outraged the local white elite and they acted with the brutality all too typical of the South. On July 15, the CFWU held a meeting to discuss the Scottsboro Boys’ case, the famous trial against nine African-Americans for raping two white women on a train, a charge for which they were completely innocent and which became a major cause on the left in 30s. The Scottboro Boys had been sentenced to death five days earlier and the movement to support them was beginning. About 80 people showed up to hear Coad discuss the case. Sheriff Kyle Young created a posse to violently eliminate this growing threat to the white political, economic, and racial power structure in Tallapoosa County. They went to the meeting house and brutally beat many of the people there, scattering everyone else. They then went to the home of Tommy Gray, brother of Ralph. There they beat him and his wife, breaking her skull. Ralph Gray ran in armed and dispersed the posse. Showing incredible bravery, the next evening about 150 people gathered for another meeting with Coad. Armed sentries guarded the building. Ralph Gray was among those standing guard. When Young and his deputies showed up to the meeting, they confronted Gray. Shots rang out. Gray had shot Young with buckshot in the stomach while Gray laid on the ground with wounds to his legs.

Coad and others carried Gray back to his home and barricaded themselves inside. A new posse developed led by police chief J.M. Wilson. The exchange of fire lasted for some time and gave everyone but Gray the chance to escape. He evidently told his comrades to leave him. When the posse walked in to his house, someone put a gun down his throat and fired. They then burned his house and dumped his body on the steps of the courthouse in Dadeville. Armed whites then used his body for target practice. In the repressive aftermath, between 34 and 58 African-American men were arrested over the next few days. Most were charged with conspiracy to murder and carrying a concealed weapon, but 5 union leaders were charged with assault to murder. White mobs roamed the countryside murdering blacks and burning their homes. Dozens were killed or wounded.

Coad escaped to Atlanta. After a local black minister accused her of hiding ammunition, the police broke the back of Estelle Milner. These local mobs were whipped up by the white power elite in Alabama. The Birmingham Age-Herald ran a story titled “Negro Reds Reported Advancing” with claims that eight carloads of black communists were heading for Tallapoosa to help the sharecroppers. Of course, these stories were accompanied with fears of black men raping white women and all the usual race-baiting. None of this was true but whites created a mob to stop traffic entering the county.

Local black leaders and white liberals blamed white communists for all of the violence, saying that sharecroppers were docile and would never start such a thing. Moreover, they said Ralph Gray was contaminated with foreign ideas from his time in Oklahoma and New Mexico, as if those states were somehow less politically nightmarish than Alabama. Walter White and the NAACP went so far to accuse the communists of using the NAACP’s name to organize the sharecroppers after white Alabama blamed that organization as well. The Communist Party planned to go all-in to defend their members in prison. Alabama elites, already feeling the pressure over the Scottsboro Boys, wanted the charges dropped and after several delays, they were released and their hearings postponed indefinitely.

None of this had led to any concrete gains for the sharecroppers but it also did not stop the organizing. On August 6, 55 communist sharecroppers, including Ralph Gray’s brother Tommy, met in Tallapoosa and reorganized. The Communist Party would continue seeing success in organizing rural black workers in the Alabama through the rest of the decade.

I’m sure it will shock everyone that Tallapoosa County went 70-28 for Donald Trump in 2016.

I borrowed from Robin D.G. Kelley’s seminal Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression in the writing of this post. You should read this book.

This is the 231st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: June 21, 1935

[ 12 ] June 21, 2017 |

On June 21, 1935, three members of the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union were murdered at the Holmes-Eureka Mill in Eureka, California, by anti-union enforcers of the company. This violent moment was the culmination of the Great Strike of 1935 and the organizing of the Northwest’s timber industry. It also serves as a reminder of the great struggles of strikers in these years that included many lives lost, and not just in the handful of famous labor history incidents we remember today.

The Great Depression absolutely decimated the timber industry. At its best, this industry was the opposite of auto, with hundreds of operators all competing by harvesting as much timber as they could. Overproduction and cutthroat competition was a major problem. In 1923, 495,586 people were employed in logging camps and sawmills while in 1932, only 124,997. Wages fell from an average of $19.34 a week in 1929 to $8.40 in March 1933. A 1932 survey covering 2,320 camps and mills in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho showed that 35,250 workers had full-time employment, 29,263 had to make do with part-time work, and 58,235 were unemployed.

Loggers had a long tradition of organizing and radicalism, most notably with the IWW in the 1910s. But state repression during and after World War I, including the Everett Massacre in 1916 and the Centralia Massacre in 1919, effectively ended the IWW in the Northwest. An industry-wide company union called the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen was created during World War I and continued on a voluntary basis after the war. But company unionism never satisfied workers’ desire for a real voice on the job. With companies fleeing the Four-L in the early years of the depression, a new round of organizing began. The American Federation of Labor created the Sawmill and Timber Workers Union to coordinate this organizing. While it operated on the AFL’s conservative principles, the rank and file and much of the local leadership contained thousands of radicals, including avowed communists, sowing the seeds of later internal union conflicts.

On April 26, the strike began with workers at the Bloedel-Donovan mill in Bellingham, Washington. They had many demands, but the most important was union recognition. They also wanted a 6-hour day, paid holidays, a seniority system, and a 75 cent an hour minimum wage ($13.40 in 2017 dollars). The STWU announced a regionwide strike on May 6 if these demands weren’t granted, but workers started leaving early. They quickly followed in Portland and Olympia. By the May 6 deadline, 10,000 workers were on strike.

June 21 was the 43rd day of the Great Strike. As strikers converged on the Holmes-Eureka Mill, they began to argue with the scabs and the mill’s hired guards. People reported the police chief pull a gun and fire into the crowd, but no one is sure who fired first. In any case, someone fired on the strikers. William Kaarte, a logging camp cook was shot in the throat and immediately killed. Tree faller Harold Edlund was shot in the chest and survived until June 24. A third man, Paul Lampella, had his eye shot out and he lingered on until August 7. Another man named Ole Johnson had his leg amputated. This massacre would have been much worse but the police’s machine gun jammed. Sometime during this event, people broadly associated with the FBI turned up. J. Edgar Hoover denied they were FBI agents, but it’s a good chance they were. They helped round up as many strikers as they could find. They arrested 166 workers that day. But they could not convict them, as no jury in the area would find them guilty. The prosecutor gave up by September 25. Three days after the murders, on June 24, a mass march for the funeral of Kaarte brought 2000 people out, with representatives from all the area unions. That might not sound like a huge funeral by the standards of the dead from strikes in cities like Detroit and Chicago, but Eureka only had 16,000 residents. That same day, when 2000 strikers were blocking scabs at a Tacoma mill, the National Guard attacked them, leading to more violence. The growing violence of June led to both sides seeking mediation from the Roosevelt administration.

The strike had mixed success. Most employers agreed to a shorter workday and small wage increases, but refused to recognize the union. Workers returned to work in July. But they had also tasted their first victory and would continue to organize, often with radical leaders. A general rule of thumb for this industry is that the closer you were to Canada, the more likely you were to have a communist leader. From Portland south, they tended to be more politically conservative. The AFL had granted the United Brotherhood of Carpenters jurisdiction over the timber industry. But the Carpenters were distinctly uncomfortable with industrial unionism in the first place. Having up to 100,000 loggers overwhelm their regular members was alarming, even as they wanted the dues. That the Northwest forests were full of radicals, including communists and ex-Wobblies was even more unacceptable. So the Carpenters only granted the timber workers second rate status in the union. For thousands of workers, this was completely unacceptable. With the development of the CIO, first within the AFL in 1935 and then on its own by 1937, loggers sought to create a true industrial union in the forests. This led to the International Woodworkers of America (IWA). The Carpenters and IWA would go through a five-year war in the forests over who would represent the workers and in the end, the answer would be both, with about 2/3 of the workers with the IWA and 1/3 with the Carpenters, although the area around Eureka would be a Carpenters stronghold and remained so for the next half-century. The IWA would win most the gains the workers in 1935 wanted, with Carpenters contracts generally following what the IWA won.

This post borrowed from Richard Widick, Trouble in the Forest: California’s Redwood Timber Wars. Parts of it also come from my own book, Empire of Timber, which you should buy so I can fund more research into our labor and environmental history.

This is the 230th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: June 17, 1864

[ 14 ] June 17, 2017 |

On June 17, 1864, the Washington Arsenal exploded in Washington, D.C, killing around 20 workers. This tragic event highlighted the growing dangers of the American workplace and the indifference to workplace safety that proved deadly again and again in Civil War munitions factories.

Even before the Civil War, workplace safety in the American workplace was shockingly nonexistent. In a society where untimely death was pretty common, the nation largely gave a collective shrug to workplace deaths. This is how courts could rule that employers had no responsibility for workplace safety or over 1000 workers could die building the Erie Canal without causing a crisis of any kind.

During the Civil War, the industrialization of the United States grew rapidly, setting the stage for the coming Gilded Age and preparing for the growth in the American economy over the next several decades. But the Civil War certainly did not lead to any special preparations for workplace safety. In fact, the Civil War was pretty bad for northern workers. They faced rapidly rising inflation far outpacing wages, long workdays, and military intervention against early attempts to strike, particularly in factories involved in production for the war. The tiny American union movement would grow significantly during war, laying the groundwork for the resistance to capitalism that would become so striking during the 1870s.

For obvious reasons, a big growth area in the economy during the Civil War was in weapons production. With the growing wartime economy, new opportunities for women’s work arose, but these were not really opportunities so much as they were desperate choices made for sheer survival. Many of these women were working a hard, dangerous job because their husbands were among the Civil War wounded or dead. The wages were OK for average women’s wages at the time–$50-60 a month–but with inflation skyrocketing, the real wages declined over time. Those wages were also only half as much as men made. The combined average costs of rent and food was about $50 a month, forcing women to live together to save money. Young girls made up a large percentage of the workforce at armories, often Irish girls without other options except prostitution.

At the Washington Arsenal, which is now Fort McNair, near Nationals Park in Washington, dozens of women labored filling cartridges with gunpowder in what was called the choking room. They were not allowed to talk so they could focus on placing precisely 50 grams of gunpowder in each cartridge. This was dangerous labor. In 1862, an explosion at a Pittsburgh arsenal killed 78 workers. It was June in Washington so it was hot and crowded, the women wearing the heavy clothing of the era. Unbelievably, these very workers at the Washington Arsenal had just sent a $170 contribution to raise a monument for the victims in Pittsburgh just before they would die themselves.

June 17 was a particularly hot day. The arsenal made a variety of ammunition for heavy artillery, muskets, carbines, handguns, and other weaponry. It also made fireworks. With July 4 coming up, the arsenal was preparing its supply of fireworks. The superintendent, Thomas Brown, was known as a “pyrotechnist” with 20 years of experience making fireworks. He laid out some star flares to dry near the workers. They had a practical use too, as they could be used to illuminate Confederate positions, but these were to be used for the Independence Day celebrations. This was a bad idea. There were a lot of stars and he set them very close together. Around noon, something set off the flares. Probably it was because the intense heat and the sun shining on them sparked them. They started to explode near the gunpowder.

The Arsenal actually had written safety regulations. It said that there should not be more gunpowder in the choking room than necessary. As per usual in these years, no one paid attention to this. The choking room exploded thanks to all the gunpowder laying around. Some workers escaped. Those on the opposite side of the building jumped out of a second floor window and survived. But somewhere around 20 workers died that day. It was never clear given how poorly employers even kept track of their employees during these years. A few died immediately, some survived for a short time. Eight were burned beyond recognition. About twelve were sent to the hospital on site that was already filled with the wounded from the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. Yet this could have been far worse. Had the fire spread to the magazines, the explosion and death toll would have been epic. As it was, it took an hour to put out the fire, which was helped by being right on the Potomac River.

That these women had to wear hoop skirts on the job in order to ensure the modesty of the women workers made the disaster worse. Not only were they heavy and made it hard to move but because the fabric was held in place, it made them quite flammable. The youngest girl who died was a 12-year old girl named Sally McElfresh. The event touched many who felt these women sacrificed for the nation. Abraham Lincoln attended the funeral. So did Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. There was a long funeral procession attended by thousands.

Typical of the period, Superintendent Brown faced no consequences. There was a coroner’s jury that rebuked him for his carelessness, but that was about it. After all, it was not against the law to commit extreme negligence when it came to workers’ lives. Workers died all the time from employers’ indifference, whether accidental or not. They faced no legal consequence. The surviving families received small amounts of compensation. A statue was erected to honor the dead.

Another explosion took place at the Washington Arsenal in 1865. At least eight men died that day. Nothing seems to have changed after that event either. The Confederacy also suffered arsenal explosions in Richmond and Augusta, killing a number of women and children in both.

The image at the top of this post is a picture of the women working at the Arsenal. Many of them died that day.

This is the 229th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

…. I happen to be in Washington for a conference. So I wandered out to the Arsenal explosion monument to pay my respects.

This Day in Labor History: June 10, 1917

[ 11 ] June 10, 2017 |

On June 10, 1917, the São Paulo general strike began when owners at the Rodolfo Crespi cotton mill refused workers’ demands for a 25 percent wage increase. The workers went on strike, leading to a general strike through the city’s textile mills and displaying how rank and file workers often proved much more effective leaders than self-styled radicals.

The development of industrial capitalism was a shock to the system of workers around the world, and still is today when it reaches those few places still relatively peripheral. The terrors of the system, with its alienation from labor and overall degradation of living conditions and life itself, was a very hard thing for workers to deal with. Given the radicalism of industrial capitalism, it’s hardly surprising that workers created radical ideas to deal with the problems. In some nations, the reaction was a bit more conservative. This is true of the United States which, because of its traditions of republican freeholding, had a recent past that workers could aspire to. The creation of free labor ideology retained a powerful hold on white workers for decades. But in nations where landownership was never realistic, which was most of Europe, more totalizing systems of radicalism developed. The various versions of socialism developed by Karl Marx and many others in the 19th century included anarchism. With so many people leaving Europe in the late 19th century, these ideas spread not only to the U.S. but through the Americas. That a sizable number of the migrants were political refugees helped this process. The Haymarket bombing, which came out of a group of Chicago anarchists, were almost all German immigrants. The growth of the Industrial Workers of the World, its global ambition, and the fact that it operated heavily in migratory work, just spread this further. So by the 1910s, you had the Flores Magon brothers operating in both Mexico and then the U.S. to promote the Mexican Revolution on an anarchist basis.

Such it was in Brazil as well. São Paulo developed as an industrial center in the years after 1900. Textiles became the leading industry in this city in the early 20th century, quickly leading it to become the industrial center of not only Brazil, but South America. Shoe production and processed food followed, as well as a lot of skilled metalworkers for the nation’s coffee trade and other industrial and agricultural production. World War led to even greater industrial expansion, with working women facing the brunt of it, facing both harder factory work and much higher food prices for their second jobs as homemakers.

Anarchism had a typically slow rise among rank and file workers. In the first decades of the twentieth century, it held little appeal to the largely Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese immigrant workers. Moreover, Brazil’s homegrown anarchists were primarily concerned with attacking the Catholic Church, not exactly a winning issue with Catholic immigrants. They were also mostly men who had little to no interest in organizing women; some felt that feminism was a threat to working-class consciousness. Anarchists completely failed to organize workers during a 1907 strike, where they were just generally ignored. As World War I began, Brazil’s anarchists focused mostly on opposing the war.

But the women in the textile plants were organizing themselves, as they had a decade earlier. By May 1917, facing high prices and hard working conditions, the workers in the Crespi mill demanded a 20 percent pay increase to match rising food prices, an end to all fines from their employers laid against them for things like irregularities in the cloth, and “more respect” from their employers to both themselves and the children who worked in the mill. Management said no and 2000 workers went on strike on June 10. The women declared themselves independent of all socialist or anarchist groups, but the anarchists came to help them. It was women, not anarchists, who were the vanguard of the labor movement. The strike soon spread. On June 22, another mill followed, and then more and more. They generally had demands of 20-25 percent pay increases. They also wanted their pay coming on time, as many factories would delay delivering paychecks for 3-5 weeks after payday. Demands grew for the government to do something about food prices. Mills started to compromise but the workers, growing in number by the day, refused.

By July, workers from other sectors joined. Workers at the city’s largest beverage company walked out on July 7. At first the strike was peaceful, but as it grew and became harder to manage, violent clashes between strikers and the police grew. Much of the problem was the growth of men in the strike. The beverage workers got into clashes their first day on the line. On July 9, police killed a shoemaker. 2000 mostly women marched to honor him. They used the funeral march to spread the strike through the neighborhoods where people are still working and encourage them to come out. This truly turned it into a general strike. By July 12, 20,000 workers were on strike. A few days later, it spread to Rio De Janeiro.

At this point, the all-male anarchists stepped in to control the strike. They founded the Proletarian Defense League to negotiate for the strikers. Typically, they ignored the women who started the strike. They set large-scale demands around wages, but ignored how women were protesting against sexual harassment on the job. Calls for the abolition of night work cut into the work possibilities for women because they had to take care of their children during the day; this was included without their approval. Still, the strike continued to spread and finally the industrialists were forced to settle. A group of journalists served as the mediators and the final deal was largely good for the workers. All workers received a 20 percent raise, amnesty for all strikers, freedom for workers to organize, prompt payment of wages, and vague promises to improve living conditions in the city. With the Brazilian state not really backing the industrialists, the groundwork was there for a real win, even if many of the women’s complaints were ignored.

Despite anarchists’ inability to understand the needs of women workers, women’s clear leadership in the strike changed radicals’ focus to a greater focus on the real lived conditions of Brazilian workers, including women. They began to run articles in their newspapers on sexual harassment in the mills. São Paulo’s women continued leading the anarchists, as opposed to the other way around. In October 1917, 300 women struck when their employer would not stop sexually harassing them. They started the organizing on their own and then turned to the anarchists for assistance and publicity. Over the next several years, women’s activism continued leading the workers’ movement, whether in unions or out of them when they the unions were not addressing their needs. They did not always win these strikes, but they used a variety of resistance tools to make their demands heard.

This post borrowed from Joel Wolfe, “Anarchist Ideology, Worker Practice: The 1917 General Strike and the Formation of the São Paulo Working Class” in the November 1997 issue of Hispanic American Historical Review.

This is the 228th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: June 7, 1936

[ 10 ] June 7, 2017 |

On June 7, 1936, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee was created. This pioneering industrial union was critical in the mass organizing of the nation’s giant factories in arguably the nation’s most important industry. It’s eventual success combined with the organizing of auto to allow the CIO to succeed and the transformation of the American labor movement to advance.

Like many industries, steel workers had a history of attempts to unionize, but a largely unsuccessful one. The major union was the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AA), which came out of the Sons of Vulcan and other early steel unions and had briefly organized Carnegie Steel before being crushed during the Homestead Strike in 1892. It maintained a presence for awhile, but by the 1930s, it was completely irrelevant. U.S. Steel had a company union that fought against any real organizing it its factories.

In 1935, John L. Lewis led a group of union leaders supporting industrial organizing within the American Federation of Labor and formed the Committee for Industrial Organization. Lewis was the head of the most important industrial union in the AFL, the United Mine Workers of America. But outside of the textile unions in decline because of capital migration to the non-union South, the AFL had few other industrial unions. Moreover, its leadership was openly hostile to industrial organizing. When loggers in the Northwest won the Great Strike of 1935, they were given to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters by the AFL, who had granted the UBC rights over anything having to do with wood. But the UBC was concerned about its politically conservative culture being overwhelmed with thousands of former Wobblies and current communists, so it gave them second-hand status in the union without the same voting rights as their core membership. This angered many of the loggers and demand for real industrial unionism continued.

Such it was in steel where the AA was basically useless by the 1930s. The relationship between the coal mines and the steel industry was deeply integrated. The steel mills burned enormous amounts of coal and thus the steel companies invested heavily in the mines. Lewis understood that he could not create a permanent successful organization in his own industry without organizing the steel mills too. He might be able to organize the mines not supplying the steel mills, but he could never be secure if the steel owned mines were undercutting his members’ wages. So he created the Steel Workers Organizing Committee and placed his top deputy Philip Murray in charge. The UMWA paid for the whole thing, as it would basically for the entire CIO for the first few years after it finally broke from the AFL in 1937. That investment started with $500,000 and went from there. Lewis also hired a whole bunch of communists to organize the steel mills. As much as an enemy of communism as any other old-time AFL union head, Lewis also understood the task at hand and welcomed them because of their usefulness, especially in organizing the large numbers of African-Americans working the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs in the mills. Lewis selected the officers, from Murray on down, on the basis of personal loyalty to him, although by 1940, when Lewis broke with FDR, that loyalty proved to have limits.

From the beginning, SWOC tied itself very closely to the Democratic Party. Reliant on the New Deal state to undermine company unions and prosecute the criminal intimidation against unionists, the industrial unions worked hard to elect Democratic politicians. While trying to organize Jones & Laughlin Steel in 1936, the employer fired hundreds of union supporters. SWOC fired an unfair labor practice under the new National Labor Relations Act, which provided a labor relations framework for the first time. But the constitutionality of the NLRA was highly unclear and given the Supreme Court’s rejection of much of the New Deal, the steel companies felt confident of throwing this out too. But in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the NLRA in 5-4 decision in April 1937. This demonstrated the critical role of the New Deal state in industrial organizing and even when John L. Lewis flounced out of supporting FDR during the 1940 election, the rest of the CIO stayed strongly behind the Democratic Party and would remain so for the remainder of the federation’s independent existence. This was a complete rejection of the traditional AFL position that government could never be trusted by labor and thus labor should remain nonpartisan, although in reality that meant a lot of labor leaders were active Republicans, including John L. Lewis.

SWOC had a huge early win in March 1937, when it managed to take over the company union inside U.S. Steel. For a fictional account of this, Thomas Bell’s 1941 novel Out of This Furnace is excellent. On top of this, the LaFollette Committee’s investigation into how U.S. Steel intimidated and fired union workers forced them on the defensive. U.S. Steel surrendered due to this timely combination of worker organizing and government pressure, again showing the critical nature of governmental intervention for successful American unionism. This was a huge win for the entire industrial union movement. But the so-called Little Steel companies, which were not that little, refused to surrender. SWOC attempted to force their hand but Little Steel decided to turn into a military force, buying tremendous amounts of weaponry and then murdering strikers at the Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago in May 1937. Financially exhausted and lacking real state support to punish Little Steel (this is when FDR gave his “plague on both their houses” statement about the constant labor strife of the time, outraging the industrial unionists), SWOC would spin its wheels for the next few years. By 1939, it was $2.5 million in debt and it was struggling to organizing anything in the South. It wasn’t until the preparation for World War II that, seeing the inevitable future of very lucrative defense contracts, Little Steel acquiesced and between that and the maintenance of membership clause in World War II, SWOC and thus the CIO became financially stable for the first time.

In 1942, SWOC became the United Steelworkers of America. It would remain one of the nation’s strongest and most important unions for several decades, winning strikes in 1952 and 1959 before declining as foreign steel and American steel companies not investing in new factories undermined American steel competition on the national and international market.

This is the 227th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: June 5, 1976

[ 20 ] June 5, 2017 |

On June 5, 1976, Teamsters for a Democratic Unionism, the internal democratic union revolt inside the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was founded. One of the most significant organizations in the democratic union movements of the 1970s, it was also one of the most long-lasting and is still around today, controlling the Rhode Island local among others.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is one of the most complex and misunderstood organizations, not only in labor, but in the entire country. They became synonymous for union corruption after World War II, personified in Jimmy Hoffa. And that reputation was earned. But the internal running of the Teamsters was (and still is to some extent) incredibly byzantine. Hoffa’s power was weak compared to many other unions. The regional councils held much power. The corruption was at the top, but it wasn’t only at the top. Even had Hoffa wanted to purge the union of its corrupt elements, he didn’t have the power. It also went back to before Hoffa, with Dave Beck, the Seattle Teamster leader who rode a good relationship with George Meany and an excellent sense of backroom politics into the Teamsters’ presidency. Arguably, it even went back to the early twentieth century. With so many corruption scandals, the McClellan Commission’s investigations finally forced Beck to retire and Hoffa took over. All of this led the AFL-CIO to expel the Teamsters from the federation in 1957 after Hoffa refused to resign as president.

The late 1960s saw a rise in internal union revolts. By this time, union leaders, flush with funds after winning good union contracts for two decades, had largely given up on the rabble-rousing and organizing of their youth. They were all too often happy with servicing the members they had, making large salaries, and playing insider roles in Democratic (and sometimes Republican) politics. This was OK so long as the workers were happy. But the young workers of the Vietnam generation were not happy with the jobs their fathers had. They were angry about the drudgery of assembly line work. And they were angry with the fact that their own unions seemed like just another boss telling them what to do. Given the close relationships so many unions had with management by this time, a new generation of workers, deeply influenced by the social tumult of the time, held their union leadership in contempt. The revolt started with the mine workers in the aftermath of the Farmington Mine disaster of 1968, when United Mine Workers of America president Tony Boyle responded at the workers’ funeral that there wasn’t anything the union could do. This led to the Black Lung Associations, grassroots organizations lobbying for state and then federal coal mine safety legislation and then Miners for Democracy, a direct challenge to Boyle’s leadership. When Jock Yablonski ran for UMWA president, Boyle fixed the election and had Yablonski assassinated. The federal investigation threw Boyle in prison and put MFD in power.

The rank and file rebellion began spilling into other unions. Sometimes, it was a spontaneous angry action of youthful workers, such as at Lordstown. Sometimes it was a political insurgency within a union, such as Ed Sadlowski’s challenge to the Steelworkers’ leadership. It was the latter that Teamsters for a Democratic Union represented. The connection between organized crime and Hoffa and the regional Teamsters’ leaders led to a lot of anger over dues money being used for nothing that would help workers, all while sweetheart deals helped the casinos. The roots of TDU began with a 1970 wildcat strike among long-haul truckers. This started putting local activists in touch with each other. In 1975, a few truckers held a secret meeting in Chicago to demand a fight for a good contract. Calling themselves Teamsters for a Decent Contract, they began to spread flyers and information about the need to organize a new group within the Teamsters to challenge leadership. This became Teamsters for a Democratic Union. It merged with other reformist organizations within the Teamsters, such as the Professional Drivers Council, which was a group of truckers working with Ralph Nader over trucking safety.

Internal union politics made TDU ineffective for more than a decade. It occasionally won a victory, but these small wins were easily isolated by the mainline union. In 1983, TDU had its first victory when it forced the union’s president, Jackie Presser to change the national master freight agreement that had originally given many concessions to the trucking companies. The door really opened with a late 80s RICO suit against the Teamsters after another era of corruption and in order to end it, leadership had to agree to a consent decree that significantly democratized the union.

TDU’s great success turned into disaster fairly quickly. It won a huge victory when it elected Ron Carey to the Teamsters’ presidency in 1991, followed by his reelection in 1996. The 1991 election was the first direct election in IBT history. Carey himself was not a TDU member but he won with its support. And he had some success, most notably the United Parcel Service strike. Carey moved the Teamsters toward solid support of the Democrats, a change for an organization with long ties to leading Republicans. But Carey also engaged in his own questionable actons. It turned out he had a donation kickback scheme to fund his reelection campaign that brought him a mere $700,000. Federal investigators busted this in 1997. Some of his supporters, particularly on the left who always projected more heroism on the TDU than was really deserved, claimed the capitalist class decided to get rid of Carey because of his success in the UPS strike. I guess that is one way to spin it. Carey claimed he knew nothing; it’s hard to really say. In any case, he was barred from holding the presidency and James Hoffa, Jr., took over, a major defeat for the TDU. Hoffa remains IBT president today. Carey was acquitted of all charges and died in 2008.

TDU still exists today, largely as a faction within the mainline Teamsters. I know people on both sides of the Teamsters divide and they basically hate each other, but for neither side is it 1965 anymore. From what I can tell, there are lots of people doing great work on both sides of this divide.

This is the 226th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: June 2, 1920

[ 13 ] June 2, 2017 |

One of the thousands who donate their fingers to the Lumber
Trust. The Trust compensated all with poverty and
some with bullets on November 5, 1916.

On June 2, 1920, the Smith-Fess Act, better known as the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act, passed Congress. This law provided federal assistance for disabled workers for the first time in American history. It is also a useful moment to discuss the plight of the thousands of workers disabled on the job in the first century of industrial America.

Before 1920, workers hurt on the job were basically out of luck. With courts from the first days of industrialization ruling that injured workers were on their own because they took on the risk of dangerous work when they agreed by their own free will to labor at a risky trade, injured workers had it very hard. We tend to focus on the mass deaths of the industrial workplace–the young women jumping to their deaths at Triangle, the hundreds of miners dying in accidents in both coal and hard rock mining, etc–but there were lots of survivors of many tragedies. Moreover, many workplaces were not structured in a way where 100 workers would die in a moment. But they were structured as incredibly dangerous workplaces where hundreds of workers might be seriously injured or killed in a single year. That was especially true in the steel mills, where poor protections from accidents in a brutal working environment that included two twenty-four shifts a month led to true horrors. Some workers might die from the scalding they received, but others might only suffer horribly. Some might die when a shoddy piece of scaffolding fell on their head, but others might lose a leg if it fell in a slightly different place.

It was much the same in the timber industry. Morris Campbell worked in J.E. Nichols’ sawmill in La Conner, Washington. In the last days of 1899, he caught his arm in a mill saw. It was amputated at the shoulder. In 1900, Frank Lang lost most of his left hand running a band saw in the Centralia Shingle Mill in Centralia, Washington. In 1901, Martin Boyer’s foot got caught in machinery in a Centralia mill. Doctors amputated. In a nation without a social safety net, injured workers often fell through the cracks into a lifetime of poverty. Many workers chose self-medication. Joseph Gillis of Seattle lost a leg while working at the McDougal and Jackson logging camp near Buckley, Washington. He sued for $10,000 but overdosed on the laudanum he used for pain the day before he lost his suit.

When this happened, workers might receive a small severance from the company. And then they had better hope they had family members who could work. Too often though, they were injured when they had young children. This could often lead to a childhood of drudgery and toil. Stories abound of women and children taking work as the creation of fake flowers, a brutal piecework industry of the period, when husbands and fathers were hurt on the job. And if the worker had no one, as was often the case, it was begging for meals on the street that was a far too common fate.

This began to change in 1911, with the passage of the first workers’ compensation laws. This happened because survivors of industrial accidents such as Joseph Gillis began to win their lawsuits, as the nation began to realize that a completely unregulated economy that gave corporations state backing to literally do whatever they wanted to citizens and workers was causing havoc, tremendous suffering, and political violence throughout the country.

But this limited help didn’t make much difference to most disabled workers. And the desperation and horrors of disability from the job spurred organizing efforts. Take the image used at the top of this post. That comes from the 1916 Walker C. Smith pamphlet The Everett Massacre: A History of the Class Struggle in the Lumber Industry. This was produced by the Industrial Workers of the World in the weeks after the Everett Massacre and placed the murder of radical loggers in the context of the horrible price capitalism demanded of workers’ bodies. That included the loss of their fingers, such as the worker above, shown with Smith’s text. These visceral images, easily repeatable simply by walking down the street of the late Gilded Age city, engendered a great deal of anger among the working class, who could see themselves in the same position very easily and who often ended up there.

The impetus for doing something about disabled workers came from the problem of disabled veterans in World War I. The Smith-Sears Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1918 created the Federal Board for Vocational Education (FBVE) and gave it responsibility of training disabled soldiers for employment and by 1928, it had worked with 128,000 soldiers. With this precedent, it made sense to extend federal interest to the masses of disabled workers. In 1918, Massachusetts passed the first state-level disabled worker retraining law. 11 other states followed in the next 22 months.

That led to the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act at the federal level, signed into law by Woodrow Wilson in June 1920. It placed responsibility for this also under the FBVE. It was a cost-sharing plan that required buy-in from the states. Federal funds would match state funding. By 1922, nearly 35 states had passed plans, but the last states did not do so until the mid-1930s. There was uncertainty involved with the CVRA because it required frequent congressional reauthorization and Republicans and Dixiecrats were as stingy then as they are now. In fact, real federal responsibility for disabled workers did not get truly established until 1935 with the passage of the Social Security Act. The law was also limited in its impact. As opposed to the masses of veterans it serviced, by 1930, the CVRA had only worked with less than 50,000 people, less than half of the number of veterans. It would take many more struggles to get even basic help for disabled workers and remains a big problem today.

The descriptions of injured loggers comes from my book Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests, now available for a low, low price. Much of the information about the Civilian Rehabilitation Vocational Act came from Laura Micheletti Puaca, “The Largest Occupational Group of All the Disabled: Homemakers with Disabilities and Vocational Rehabilitation in Postwar America,” in Michael Rembis, ed., Disabling Domesticity.

For anyone who is interested, you can read the 1922 Annual Report to Congress of the Federal Board for Vocational Education. Doing so would pretty much make you as in the weeds on this stuff as I am.

This is the 225th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 30, 1741

[ 20 ] May 30, 2017 |

On May 30, 1741, Quack and Cuffee, two slaves convicted of a conspiracy to burn New York and start a slave rebellion, were burned to death. Part of the New York Slave Conspiracy, the events of the spring of 1741 demonstrated both the racial and class tensions in New York, as well as the dependency of that city upon slavery.

Although in popular imagination slavery was a southern phenomenon, in the colonial period, New York was a major destination for slaves. In 1741, in the colonies that would become the United States only Charleston had more slaves than New York. The Dutch imported the first African slaves to New Amsterdam in 1626 and the first slave auction was held there in 1655. The British expanded the slave presence in the city significantly. By 1703, 42 percent of New York households were slaveholders. In 1711, New York established a permanent slave market at the east end of Wall Street, which operated until 1762. These slaves operated in a number of jobs, including household servants, dock workers, working for merchants, and doing much of the grunt work that went into creating that colonial center of commerce.

In March and April 1741, 13 mysterious fires started in Lower Manhattan, including one inside Fort George, where the colony’s governor lived. The Fort George fire, on March 18, burned several municipal buildings. The city freaked out. Some claimed they saw slaves celebrating the fires. In any case, suspicion fell on the city’s large slave population. The city starting trying slaves, offering leniency and even pardon in exchange for confession. The first slaves were hanged on May 11. These slaves, Caesar and Prince, had been convicted of robbing the home of a prominent citizen. Regardless of whether they even committed the robbery, they became associated with the conspiracy. Then on May 30 were the burnings of Quack and Cuffee. The confessed with the torch about to be applied and named names. There is no good reason to believe these were legitimate confessions; moreover, they were burned anyway. In the many arrests and “confessions” that followed, whites decided that there was a large-scale conspiracy to overthrow slavery in New York that would have led to Caesar being named the king of whatever city followed. They believed that the plan was for individual conspirators to start fires and then kill their masters in an orchestrated event.

By June, the New York population decided that it was bigger than just their slaves. No, their slaves were working in league with Catholics to allow the Spanish or maybe the French to invade the city. Tensions were high between the Spanish and English in the late 1730s and the frequent wars between these powers were real to everyday people, so thinking in these terms perhaps made sense, although how the Spanish would coordinate a campaign of slave arson remains a stretch to consider. So Catholics began to be targeted by the authorities as well. Finally, the star witness, Mary Burton, an Irish servant to a tavern owner who had been arrested for theft and who agreed to expose the conspiracy, began to say such ludicrous things, expanding her ever-increasingly accusations to leading white Protestant New Yorkers, leading people began to question the whole enterprise and the mania to subside.

About 150 slaves were arrested and tried for starting the fires. A few dozen whites were arrested as well, usually poor whites who worked with the slaves. The vast majority almost certainly had nothing to do with it. It’s entirely possible that no one was guilty at all. The weather that winter was very cold, making a wooden city very dry with lots of fires going on to keep people warm. There were always many ways fires started in a city constructed of wood. Slaves were frequently accused of plotting to burn buildings and it’s really impossible to know how true these accusations were. They ranged from entirely made up to very real. Media in the colonies frequently reported on slave uprisings, some of which were very real such as in Antigua in 1736. That the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina took place in 1739 made the slaveholders of New York even more nervous.

Even more relevant was that in 1712, slaves in New York had in fact set buildings on fire and then murdered nine whites fighting those fires. But any time slaves got together, whites saw it is as a threat. That could be in taverns, as was often the accusations in New York, or later it could be in churches such as Denmark Vesey’s or even in slave cabins and forests behind plantations at night in the antebelllum South. Forced labor had the downside of making slaveholders rightfully worried that people without other options would rise up violently to free themselves, or at least kill their oppressors. The visit of George Whitefield to spread his evangelicalism in what became known as the Great Awakening put New York slaveholders further on edge, as by 1740 he was openly arguing for better conditions for slaves, to the point that he was arrested in Charleston in 1741 for his arguments about slavery.

Not everyone thought this was a good idea. On August 8, an anonymous letter to Cadwallader Colden remonstrated him for his actions, comparing them to the Salem witch trials. The anonymous author urged Colden, “I intreat you not to go on to Massacre & destroy your own Estates by making Bonfires of the Negros & perhaps loading yourself with greater Guilt than theirs.” But such words would have little effect on a population paranoid over revolt from their slave laborers.

In the end, the bodies of two supposed conspirators, Caesar and the white cobbler John Hughson, whose tavern the slaves were supposed to have started the conspiracy, were gibboted and their corpses left to rot in public. Several slaves were burned at the stake. Overall, at least 30 blacks and 4 whites were killed. 77 others, both black and white, were deported from New York to Newfoundland, which was the British Empire version of being sent to Siberia, or the death traps of the West Indies.

Slavery continued for a long time in New York. Thousands of slaves followed the British as they left New York during the American Revolution. A New York law for gradual emancipation passed in 1799. The last slaves were not freed from New York until 1827, 51 years to the day after the nation declared independence from Britain.

This post borrowed from Eric Plaag, “New York’s 1741 Slave Conspiracy in a Climate of Fear and Anxiety,” published in the Summer 2003 issue of New York History. I have heard good things about Jill Lepore’s recent book on the issue, but I have not read it.

This is the 224th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 29, 1941

[ 60 ] May 29, 2017 |

On May 29, 1941, cartoonists at Disney went on strike. This ultimately successful strike was a critical point in the organizing of Hollywood and also marked the end of Disney’s run as an innovative artistic force, so bitter did it make Walt Disney.

Walt Disney was a tremendously successful man in 1941. His work, particularly 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1940’s Pinocchio and 1940’s Fantasia had made him one of the most famous artists in the world. In the wake of this success, his studio expanded rapidly, from 200 employees in 1935 to 1100 in 1940. Disney was also a notorious right-winger and anti-communist. This put his politics well outside the mainstream for American artists. They were also starkly different than the writers and animators Disney hired.

Cartoonist organizing began in 1936 with the founding of the Screen Cartoonists Guild (SCG). In 1937, the AFL-affiliated Commercial Artists and Designer Studio won an initial strike at Fleischer. In 1940, the SCG decided to take on the big three animation companies, MGM, Schlesinger (Warner Brothers), and Disney. By May 1941, the first two were organized and the companies had acquiesced. But Disney proved harder, in part because it hired the cream of the crop and some of the animators thought themselves above unions, in the way that some elite workers always see organizing with their peers as a step down for them (this is certainly the case with a large number of very successful professors, for example). And in some ways, Disney animators had it better than others. But Disney himself was highly paternalistic. He set low wages, demanded long hours and refused to pay overtime, and he demanded total submission to his executive authority. He also paid people different wages on a whim, causing a lot of resentment when you knew the person next to you was getting more for no good reason. Cartoonists also did not receive professional screen credit for their work. Disney preferred to take personal credit for everything that came out of his studio. Finally, all of their work was the intellectual property of Disney. Everything they drew belonged to him. This infuriated the cartoonists.

In the fall of 1940, the SCG began organizing Disney. It appealed to the National Labor Relations Board, at this time an openly pro-union outfit in the federal government, to recognize the union. But it demurred and as Disney refused to recognize it and then fired 24 union activists in an open purge, the union members voted to walk out on May 29. This was risky as it only had about half the cartoonists committed. This led to a lot of tension on the lines, with a lot of scabbing going on and the bitterness that creates among those striking. Within a week, the United States Labor Conciliation Service stepped in to mediate. But it did not go well because Disney was so recalcitrant. He personally threatened many strikes and vowed revenge against them by name. He claimed they were communists or communist dupes. He had his own company union, even those they were outlawed by the National Labor Relations Act, and he was determined to keep it. The NLRB issued an unfair labor practice against Disney for this during the strike; Disney’s response was to change its name and nothing else.

Generally, the divided workforce fell along generational lines, with older workers opposing the strike, along with poorly paid women painters. Younger male workers tended to support the strike. But this was not universal. Art Babbit was Disney’s chief cartoonist, the inventor of Goofy, the wicked stepmother in Snow White, and Gepetto in Pinocchio. He was also one of the 24 agitators Disney fired.

The strikers became known for their witty signs, often using the same Disney characters they created, as the image at the top of this post suggests. They published comic strip accounts of the strike in local publications. They received a lot of support from other unions. The Society of Motion Picture Film Editors supported the strike and the processing of Disney films at the Technicolor, Williams, and Pathe labs stopped. Disney workers also went out in support of other unions, including the United Auto Workers strike at North American Aviation. Disney workers picketed in front of the showings of Disney films, which made bigger connections between them and the various Popular Front organizations in Los Angeles, such as Film Audiences for Democracy and the League of Women Shoppers, who sent Disney a notice that they supported the strikers and would spread that endorsement through the nation.

The strike only ended because the government convinced Disney to go on a goodwill tour in South America as part of Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy. Doing so allowed more reasonable heads at Disney to prevail and the strike to be settled. Even here though, Disney’s position was a problem. South American unions were aware of the Disney strike and were protesting him. Blackie Myers, head of the National Maritime Union, told the government he planned to notify the South American unions in the ports where his members disembarked. The government now mediated the strike more intensely. On August 6, a settlement was reached. However, on August 15, Disney threatened to layoff 207 of the returned strikers, leading to a second two-week strike. Finally, near the end of August, all issues were settled and the strikers returned to work. Everyone on the payroll on May 15 was reinstated, including the 24 fired union supporters. Pay rates were equalized by job, taking away Disney’s personal power to set pay rates capriciously. A system of salaries and classifications was set, severance pay created, draftees into the upcoming war would receive 6 weeks salary, and a grievance procedure was created. The SCG also became the bargaining agent for Disney workers.

Disney was furious at the negative publicity. And he never got over it. Testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, he said the only way his workers had received that much publicity was because of communist coordination. He claimed, in the kind of whining that one is used to hearing today from Donald Trump, a man whom Disney shared no small number of traits, “I even went through the same smear in South America and generally throughout the world all of the Commie groups began smear campaigns against me and my pictures.” Sad!

Disney’s bitterness over the strike undermined his own artistic creations. He reduced staffing at the studio and his personal period of creativity ended. Some of the Disney strikers became radicalized during the strike and became more involved in the Popular Front, producing cartoons not only for the war effort but for left-wing unions and even a cartoon intended to help organize the South during Operation Dixie.

I borrowed from Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century in the writing of this post.

This is the 223rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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.

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