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This Day in Labor History: July 28, 1932

[ 58 ] July 28, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Day in Labor History: July 6, 1924

[ 11 ] July 6, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: July 2, 1964

[ 7 ] July 2, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: June 25, 1914

[ 9 ] June 25, 2016 |

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This is a guest post by Jacob Remes, who is clinical assistant professor at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. His book, Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era, is available from the University of Illinois Press. He tweets at @jacremes.

Charles Lee worked at a patent leather factory in the Blubber Hollow neighborhood of Salem, Massachusetts. It was unpleasant work in a rickety building. Workers like Lee dissolved flammable scrap celluloid film in flammable amyl acetate and alcohol, painted it on leather, added another layer of wood alcohol, and then steam heated it.

A hundred and two years ago today, on the afternoon of June 25, 1914, the inevitable came: a fire broke out. Charles Lee was the worker standing closest to the fire’s origin, and he broke both his legs jumping out of a window to escape the flames. Half an hour later, 300 workers had been forced to flee their factories. By evening, the fire had consumed 50 factories across the city, including, most devastatingly, Salem’s largest employer, a sheet factory called Pequot Mills. More than 18,000 people were left homeless or jobless.

Every disaster is a workplace disaster for someone. Sometimes, as for Charles Lee, the disaster is part of work. Other times, as for Pequot Mills employees, a disaster destroys opportunity for work. For others, including the 87 firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2015, it is disaster itself that is the worksite. Workers have long responded to workplace disasters by coming together with their coworkers and neighbors to think about–and fight over–the conditions of their labor.

Changes in illumination, heating, firefighting, and transportation technologies–together with organizing and government regulation–led to a gradual decline in the sort of fires that once regularly destroyed large swaths of cities. In 1918, a Canadian government researcher counted 290 urban conflagrations in the United States and Canada between 1815 and 1915, more than half of the global total. Salem’s was among the last.

But industrial risk was not vanquished. In the United States in 2014, the last year for which data were available, about 13 people a day were killed at work, whether in small accidents or big disasters. This risk–of lives lost, of bodies mangled, of property and livelihoods diminished–is never evenly distributed (as Erik, among others, has reminded us). Who bears the bodily risk of industrialism is a political choice we all make. Most of the time, workers die in ones or twos, invisible except to their families, coworkers, and friends. Disasters–like when 29 coal miners died in Upper Big Branch, West Virginia, in 2013, or when, in the same year, 1,100 garment workers died in a factory collapse at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh–are the times we see our choices and have an opportunity to correct them.

After the Salem fire, as after disasters today, people debated how to organize society and its risk in their neighborhoods and churches, in town meetings and voting booths. Six months after fire, Salemites recalled their mayor in the first modern recall in New England. Catholic laypeople argued with priests and the archbishop about how their parish should be rebuilt. Neighbors argued about whether a new building code, designed to make the city less flammable, was worth the cost.

Most of all, they fought for power in their workplaces. Pequot Mills was rebuilt and reopened a year and a half after the fire, in 1916. Soon, workers began to experiment with new ways of organizing and building power across skill, gender, and ethnicity. At a time when in most Massachusetts textile mills only the most skilled workers, mostly men, were welcomed into unions, workers at Pequot Mills organized a union that included women, unskilled workers, and French Canadians, whom many labor leaders at the time thought were unorganizable.

Workers at Pequot Mills fought for, and won, higher pay, but more importantly they wanted a say in how the factory would be run. They won seniority rights, a grievance system, and defined job categories and so limited management’s arbitrary ability to hire, fire, promote, and discipline workers. By the late 1920s, the union had taken charge of the company’s sales and marketing departments, and it controlled a joint labor-management committee that sought to increase productivity through scientific management. Workers’ willingness to sacrifice some material gains for control over how the factory would run got press attention as a national model.

It did not last. While at first union power meant democratic control of the workplace by workers, within a few years the business manager, not the workers themselves, controlled the process. “I didn’t bother to report,” he told visiting researchers, “because they are a bunch of ignorant Canucks and Polacks who wouldn’t understand anyway.”

After a few years of growing union autocracy, workers took the skills they had honed in the aftermath of the fire and rebelled against their own leaders. Led by women, who were especially hurt by the business manager, they rebelled and struck in 1933 and again in 1935 to found a new, more democratic union. A generation after the fire, workers were still debating with each other, with management, and with their neighbors how to organize work.

In our own era of workplace disasters, we too can debate how labor should be organized. Disasters offer opportunities for solidarity in the workplace, in the community, and up and down the supply chain. They are times when the choices society makes about whose lives are more or less valuable become visible, and they are times we can make different choices.

One example was the prosecution of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for his role creating the Upper Big Branch disaster. (He was sentenced to a mere year in prison.) So too was the Rana Plaza factory collapse. The horror of that disaster forced the North American companies that had subcontracted work to those factories to impose greater–though still inadequate–safety standards. More importantly, it spurred greater garment worker organizing, so that in Dhaka, as in Salem, workers can build power and set their own standards.

This post also encourages readers to donate to the Rosenberg Fund, supporting the children of targeted activists. You can read more about the Rosenberg fund here.

This is the 182nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: June 22, 1896

[ 11 ] June 22, 2016 |

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On June 22, 1896, mine owners in Leadville, Colorado agreed to lock out their unionized miners, presenting a united front against unionism. This action would spur one of the largest battles between unions and employers in the 1890s, one that typically would be ended by the Colorado militia’s use as a private army of the employers.

Silver was discovered in Leadville in the 1870s, eventually making it one of the nation’s leading mining towns. In its first years, Leadville mines were generally unconsolidated, owned by the people who staked the claim. This did not change until the early 1890s, when capitalists began investing in the silver mines. Taking control of the city, the culture of mining in Leadville changed almost overnight. The Panic of 1893, the worst economic depression in the nation’s history to that time, shook the silver industry. Prices plummeted. Mine owners slashed wages from $3 a day to $2.50. By 1896, about one-third of the miners were still only earning that reduced rate. Those were poverty wages for a very dangerous job.

Miners organized with the Western Federation of Miners. The WFM, formed out of the bitter 1892 Coeur d’Alene strike, sought the industrial organization of hard rock miners. Local 33, also known as Cloud City Miners Union, formed in Leadville. From its formation in 1893, the WFM had demanded the 8-hour day. Yet in Leadville, many miners were working 12-hour days. The CCMU, as its first demand, wanted the restoration of the $3 day for all miners at a time when the mine owners were building luxury homes for themselves, even if the economy had not fully recovered by 1896. They presented this demand to the mine owners on May 26, 1896. All the owners rejected the demand. On June 19, the WFM tried again. Again, the owners rejected it. That night, the union decided that all workers making $2.50 should strike. Several mines shut down the next day when their workforce walked off the job.

The mine owners responded by seeking to crush the WFM in Leadville entirely. On June 22, it responded to the strike by locking out all miners. The owners quickly imported strikebreakers to run their mines. They also hired Pinkertons and Thiel agents to infiltrate the union and spy on the strikers. Both sides refused to compromise with the other. The union was unaware of how closely the mine owners were working together and believed if they could just get one to cave, the others would follow. One minority owner of a mine did cave and reopened with a higher wage. When his partners took him to court, the court ruled it had to pay the $3 wage. So when the state deputy labor commissioner offered to arbitrate the case, the union refused, thinking victory was right around the corner. The WFM’s aggressive action disturbed the American Federation of Labor. The AFL did not call other unions out in support, which often happened in strikes of this time, even if the supportive unions might settle themselves for small raises. The Leadville WFM local was largely on its own, although other WFM locals did contribute financial help.

On August 13, the owners tried to cut a deal, saying they would raise the wage to $3 when the price of silver rose to 75 cents an ounce. It was not at that time 75 cents. But given that the majority of the striking miners were making the $3 wage already, there was some effort to end the strike. However, the WFM leadership wanted to hold out for victory. Before you think such demands were unrealistic or that the union should have compromised, understand that in 1894, the WFM had won probably the single greatest union victory of the decade in the Cripple Creek strike. Believing the union’s credibility was at stake and hoping to organize throughout the West, another victory at Leadville would have really solidified the union’s position and power.

Some of the mines began to build fortifications around them, preparing to reopen and crush the strike with force if necessary. This led the WFM to take the offensive. On September 21, fifty armed miners attacked the Coronado and Emmett mines. They set the Coronado mine on fire by dropping dynamite into it, causing $50,000 worth of damage. A gun battle ensued with the twenty armed strikebreakers at the mines. Four union members were killed. In response, Colorado governor Albert McIntire, who had previously refused mine owners’ requests to use the state militia as a private police force, promptly changed his mind. The mines reopened under military guard. Eugene Debs came to Leadville to try and negotiate a solution, but could not. Low-level violence continued through the winter. Strikebreakers surrounded one striker outside his house and murdered him while a policeman shot another. Given that the Leadville police chief hated the strikers, it’s surprising there were not more deaths. The WFM caved on March 9, 1897 after half the workers had already given up and returned to work. Those workers not on the blacklist went back under the old wage system.

The Leadville experience left the WFM deeply bitter. The union disaffiliated with the AFL after the federation refused to support it. The Leadville strike’s failure contributed significantly to that union’s radical phase that included its central role in forming the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, with WFM leader Big Bill Haywood eventually leading the new union. And while the WFM largely withdrew from the IWW after 1908 as more moderate leadership took over in the miners’ union, it retained it’s radical edge. The WFM eventually turned into the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers in 1916. More popularly known as Mine, Mill, it retained its radical edge and was one of the unions evicted from the CIO for its communist leadership in the late 1940s. It also led the famous Salt of the Earth strike in southern New Mexico.

Today, Leadville is one of the most fascinating and kind of scary places in the nation, with the mining legacy all over the landscape and the culture.

This is the 181st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: June 8, 1917

[ 7 ] June 8, 2016 |

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On June 8, 1917, the Speculator Mine in Granite Mountain, near Butte, Montana, caught on fire. 168 miners died in the largest death toll in American history for a hard-rock mining disaster. This horrible event spurred a strike and union campaign in Butte that owners responded to through anti-union hysteria and organized violence, showing the sharp limits of organizing, especially in the American West, during World War I.

In the late 19th century, Butte became one of the most important mining districts in the United States, thanks to its rich copper deposits. In 1883, there were 2000 miners in Butte. By 1916, there were 14,500 miners. The mines lacked basic safety standards, as was common throughout the nation. Without mine safety laws, there was no reason for companies to ensure there workers didn’t die or to teach mine safety for them. On June 8, 1917, a crew strung an electrical cable to the rock 2400 feet below the surface. But part of it fell down. A crew descended to fix it. But as it fell, the protective sheathing around it frayed. An assistant foreman reached down to pick it up. When he did, he brushed his carbine lamp against the cable. It caught fire and exploded. It quickly spread through the mine, killing 168 workers. As sad as this was, it was also somewhat ironic, as it spread so quickly because the mine was well ventilated and because the affected cable was part of a fire suppression system the mine was implementing.

There were 410 miners working in Granite Mountain that night. 168 died. One went in to save 25 lives before he finally succumbed to the fire and poisonous gas. Montana law stated that all the cement bulkheads in the mine must have an iron door that could be opened in case of emergency for miners to escape. But Butte mine owners routinely ignored the laws, a major problem with workplace safety legislation in these years. Some miners were found with their fingers ground down to the bone as they desperately tried to claw through the cement.

Butte had a long union history by 1917. During the late nineteenth century, Butte was known as “The Gibraltar of Unionism” as the largely Irish miners organized and won stable contracts during a deeply anti-union period. But in 1903, the Anaconda Mining Company gained control of the Butte mines and began undermining union power. This could not happen overnight because the unions were fairly powerful, but by 1912, the Butte Miners Union was significantly weakened after Anaconda successfully introduced the rustling card, which gave employers power over who worked in their mines that they used to get rid of union activists. 500 union members were fired. Moreover, miners were being paid at 1878 rates even though the price of copper was over twice as high by 1914. In that year, the Industrial Workers of the World arrived in Butte and also sought to undermine the BMU. The union fell into civil war, leading to the dynamiting of the BMU mining hall. This led Anaconda to withdraw all recognition from the union. After nearly 30 years of recognition from mine owners, the Butte Miners Union was destroyed. In this case, IWW participation was utterly disastrous. Some accused the Wobblies of collaborating with the mine owners. While this is certainly not true, there’s no question that the owners took advantage of the dissension the Wobblies caused.

The mine fire also reignited the unionist sentiment in Butte. Union newspapers started publishing again and calls for higher wages and safer working conditions rallied workers. On June 11, miners at the Elm Orlu mine, owned by the notoriously corrupt William Clark, went on strike. Although many wanted to blame the strike on the IWW or German secret agents, the Montana Commissioner of Labor and Industry publicly stated the cause was the fire at the Speculator. On June 13, the miners formed the Metal Mine Workers Union to try and once again organize Butte. It wanted recognition as the workers’ bargaining agent, abolition of the rustling card, the mine owners to actually observe the state mining laws, the firing of the state mining inspector, a wage increase, and the right to free speech and assembly, which was being denied in Butte and many other western towns during World War I. Accusing the workers of being a bunch of Wobblies and determined to keep the open shop, the mine owners refused to speak to the unionists. A few days later, the city’s electricians went on strike to demand recognition of the miners and the others followed. Butte seemed to be on the verge of again becoming a union town.

Because it was World War I, the post-Speculator fire strike received national attention. The Wilson administration sent an arbitrator while American Federation of Labor representatives arrived to work toward a settlement so that the miners would get back to work to support the war effort. Unfortunately, the AFL prioritized this over the workers’ demands and wanted the workers to go back on the job before receiving recognition, which they refused to do. Meanwhile, the miner owners and their newspapers were calling for open violence against the strikes, laying the groundwork for the brutal crushing of organized labor many employers hoped they could achieve thanks to the war.

Unfortunately for the miners, labor solidarity was not strong in Butte. The other unions quickly accepted everything they asked from their own employers except recognition of the miners’ union. The miners were isolated. The owners offered the workers, but not the union, a small wage gain, weekly pay, and a slight change to the rustling system. Some miners took this deal by the end of July but most stayed out of work.

Coming to the mine soon after the disaster was the IWW organizer Frank Little. Arriving on July 18, Little wanted to turn Butte into a Wobbly stronghold. He gave public speeches in Butte telling the miners to resist the draft and that workers of the world should not kill each other for the benefit of capitalists. On August 1, a mob probably consisting of members of the Butte business elite rounded Little up and lynched him. Interestingly, Little had plenty of warning to leave town and his fellow unionists were urging him to do so, but he refused. Given that Little was already physically broken by this time and also was a true radical, even compared to other Wobblies, it’s entirely plausible that becoming a martyr was something he was prepared to accept.

On August 10, federal troops were sent to Butte to patrol the streets from Wobblies and other agitators. Montana then had a special legislative session where it basically ended free speech in the state. The mine workers finally called off the strike in December, after 90 percent of the miners had already returned to work. The strike caused by the Speculator fire would achieve nothing.

The extreme behavior of employers in Butte during World War I was part of the larger national reaction against unions during this period that this series has examined in Everett, Centralia, Blair Mountain, the arrest of Eugene Debs for violating the Espionage Act, the crushing of the Boston police strike, and no doubt additional events in the future.

Many of the details of the union organizing campaign in Butte come from Arnon Gutfeld’s 1969 article in Arizona and the West, “The Speculator Disaster in 1917: Labor Resurgence in Butte, Montana.”

This is the 180th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: June 2, 1924

[ 46 ] June 2, 2016 |

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On June 2, 1924, a constitutional amendment to ban child labor passed the Senate and was sent out to the states for ratification. Unfortunately, the states never ratified it, although they still could today.

The fight against child labor had been a major part of both the struggle of organized labor and of middle-class reformers for decades. For unionists, they not only saw child labor as degrading to children, but also as undermining the wages of working class. Get rid of the children, they argued, and you eliminate a major source of competition driving wages down. The wages would rise and children could go to school instead of working. For Progressives like Florence Kelley and Lewis Hine, child labor was a horror of American society, contributing to long-term poverty and social unrest that hurt the entire nation. Kelley’s Consumers’ League, as well as the National Child Labor Committee, lobbied Americans, especially middle-class women, to fight against the scourge of child labor through the early twentieth century, first focusing on the state level and then moving into the realm of national politics.

On the other hand, many working families, especially in the South, relied on child labor. But they had little political power. The real opposition came from corporations, especially the textile industry, which relied heavily on children in their mills and which had moved from the northeast to the South during these years in order to take advantage of states that had not passed child labor laws. It was in southern mills where Hine took many of his most powerful images of child labor. The need for a constitutional amendment became apparent when the conservative Supreme Court overturned federal legislation regulating child labor in 1918 and again in 1922. In 1916, the Keating-Owen Act, which the National Child Labor Committee had lobbied for, overwhelmingly passed Congress and was signed by President Wilson. In 1918, the 1918 Supreme Court overturned it in Hammer v. Dagenhart, deciding that Congress had no authority to regulate products made by children. For anti-child labor activists, the only remaining strategy was a constitutional amendment.

On April 26, 1924, the child labor amendment passed the House of Representatives and on June 2, the Senate. The text was simple:

Section 1. The Congress shall have power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age.

Section 2. The power of the several States is unimpaired by this article except that the operation of State laws shall be suspended to the extent necessary to give effect to legislation enacted by the Congress

Given the relatively easy passage of the amendment through Congress, the failure of it to gain traction at the state level was striking. Between 1924 and 1932, a resounding 6 states ratified it and 32 state legislatures had voted it down. It was seen as a dead letter. Employers rallied to oppose it. Comparing child laborers to Civil War soldiers, Manufactures Record noted that 850,000 soldiers under the age of 18 had fought in the war and opined, “If they were old enough to fight for their country, they ought to be old enough to regulate the matter of their own employment.” The same editorial added a new twist to this old freedom of contract canard: redbaiting. Passing the amendment,

would mean the destruction of manhood and womanhood through the destruction of boys and girls in this country. The proposed amendment is fathered by Socialists, Communists and Bolshevists…aimed to nationalize the children of the land and bring about in this country the exact conditions that prevail in Russia. If adopted, the amendment would be the greatest thing ever done in America in behalf of the activities of hell. It will make millions of young people under eighteen years of age idlers in brain and body, and thus make them the devil’s best workshop.

I wonder if the person who wrote this had to smoke a cigarette and then shower after that rant.

This sort of pressure, coordinated by the National Association of Manufacturers, is why so few states jumped on board the amendment. But in 1933, it received a jolt of life, thanks to the Great Depression and the overwhelming victories of the Roosevelt administration and reformers at the state level in 1932. Child labor was still a major problem in many states in 1933. In 1933, 12 more states passed it, 10 of which had previously rejected it. In 1934, the Roosevelt administration decided to get behind it directly as a way to build on the National Recovery Administration’s goals to reduce competition and stabilize the economy. The NRA had prohibited labor for anyone under the age of 16, at a time when only 4 states had a similar law on the books. FDR stated in a letter to the Massachusetts League of Women Voters:

Of course, I am in favor of the child labor amendment. A step in the right direction was achieved by demonstrating the simplicity of its application to industry under the N. R. A. Those connected with industries which had, been the worst violators were the first to see the wisdom of the step. It is my opinion that the matter hardly requires further academic discussion. The right path has been definitely shown.

But momentum was fleeting. 4 more states ratified in 1935 and another 4 in 1937. Kansas was the 28th and last on February 25, 1937. Overcoming intransigent or indifferent state legislatures was just too much, as it often is with constitutional amendments.

The child labor amendment would fail, but eliminating child labor was still a leading goal of the Roosevelt administration. It was incorporated into the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which covered most industries, but not agriculture, where child labor remains an issue until the present. Interestingly, Congress did not set a time frame on the amendment. Thus, it theoretically still could be ratified today. Ten more states would need to ratify it. Perhaps even more interestingly, this issue led to its own Supreme Court decision, with the Court ruling in Coleman v. Miller in 1939 that if Congress doesn’t set an end date for an amendment sent to the states, there is no end date. This actually led to the ratification of the 27th Amendment, which 7 states ratified between 1789 and 1792, Ohio ratified in 1873, and no other states ratified until 1978.

The good quotes in this post are borrowed by Chaim Rosenberg, Child Labor in America: A History.

This is the 179th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 31, 1889

[ 18 ] May 31, 2016 |

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On May 31, 1889, the South Fork dam, on the land of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club above the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, collapsed during a heavy rainstorm. Over 2200 people died in the one of the worst disaster in American history. The Johnstown Flood is not only a horrible disaster but deeply reflective of class divisions during the Gilded Age and the complete lack of legal or moral responsibility the wealthy had toward the working class.

In 1840, the South Fork Dam was built on the Little Conemaugh River, 14 miles upstream from the town of Johnstown, in order to stop the floods that frequently hit the mountainous area. Over time, the canal system that had spurred the original construction fell into disuse. The land where the dam was located was purchased by the steel capitalist Henry Clay Frick and a group of speculators, many of whom were connected to Carnegie Steel, for the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. For convenience sake, Frick had the dam lowered in order to build a road across it and built a screen that built up debris behind it. The club opened in 1881. The dam frequently sprung leaks and was only patched with mud. People in Johnstown were concerned about the long-term stability of the dam but Frick and his friends did nothing. By 1889, the club had 61 members. They included Frick, Andrew Carnegie, and Andrew Mellon. This was the peak of the Gilded Age elite. Mellon of course would have a very long career, serving as the staunchly conservative Secretary of the Treasury under Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. His policies contributed significantly to the development of the Great Depression.

By 1889, Johnstown was a big steel town of about 30,000 people. Like many Pennsylvania cities, it’s existence was largely based around the industry. The Cambria Iron Company began in Johnstown in 1852. The company was one of the nation’s most important early blast furnace steel works. By 1858, the company was the nation’s largest producer of rails for railroads and Johnstown grew rapidly. Like the rest of the region’s steel mill towns, after 1880, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe poured into Johnstown to take these incredibly difficult, hot, and deadly jobs in an industry with terrible working conditions. By 1889, the national importance of Johnstown was diminishing, as bigger cities such as Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Cleveland established much larger steel works and had access to significantly larger labor forces, but Cambria Iron Works was still a major industry player. The company controlled nearly everything in the town, from churches to libraries. It also did not allow for labor unions. Like other steel towns, the labor force frequently organized over these terrible conditions. After the Panic of 1873 began, the company began laying off workers, lowering wages, and paying workers in company store credit rather than cash. Workers responded by organizing a union called the Miners National Association. 400 workers joined. The company refused to recognize it. The company then simply shut down operations rather than deal with organized workers. The union quickly collapsed and the company hired everyone back on the condition that they sign a contract pledging never to join a union. The company received glorious praise from The New York Times, among other national publications, for taking such a strong stance against unions. By 1889, the Cambria Iron Works remained union free.

In late May 1889, a powerful storm began to develop over Nebraska and Kansas. It moved east and dumped rain on the mountains of Pennsylvania on the evening of May 30. The next morning, the lake behind the dam had risen precipitously. Johnstown began to flood. In some parts of town, the water rose to as high as 10 feet, trapping some people in their houses. But things got tremendously worse in the fourteen miles the water rushed downstream. Towns on the way were blown away, with 314 dead in the iron town of Woodvale.

When the dam collapsed, there was no way to let the people of Johnstown know in time to escape. The water behind the dam rushed forward at 40 miles an hour, wiping away everything in its path. It just completely wiped out the city. A total of 2209 died, one of the two largest single losses of life in American disasters to that date. 99 entire families were wiped out. The event received immediate national media coverage and relief poured into the city, starting with Clara Barton and quickly becoming a national effort. The Cambria Iron Works was relatively untouched by the flood and its steel production continued almost unabated.

Newspapers attacked Frick and the club members after the flood. The Chicago Herald ran an editorial titled, “Manslaughter or Murder.” It soon became obvious that the dam collapse was the direct responsibility of the club members, both for not maintaining it and for modifying it for their own pleasure, indifferent to the thousands of people below the dam. The club members offered a bit of relief to put themselves in a positive light. Andrew Carnegie donated $10,000. Henry Clay Frick had the club give some blankets.

After the flood, the survivors wanted compensation. But the laws of the Gilded Age allowed the rich to essentially do whatever they want. They could kill their own workers through terrible workplace safety conditions and the courts would find in favor of the companies. They could destroy farmland through the erosion or flooding they caused and the farmers would lose their suits in the name of progress. Given that Frick and the club leaders had adjusted the dam for their own convenience and didn’t maintain the dam effectively. The hunting club hired the preeminent law firm of Knox and Reed to defend them. Both men were club members and Pennsylvania elites; Philander Knox would go on to be Secretary of State in the administration of William Howard Taft. The lawsuits from the survivors were easily fended off by Knox and Reed. The survivors received nothing; Frick and his friends continued as if nothing happened. For them, nothing really had happened. The people of Johnstown didn’t matter.

Henry Clay Frick went on a few years later to manage the busting of the union at Homestead in 1892, becoming the most hated man in America.

This is the 178th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: May 3, 1965

[ 45 ] May 3, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day In Labor History: April 27, 1944

[ 30 ] April 27, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: April 9, 1865

[ 58 ] April 14, 2016 |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dayton, Ohio,

August 7, 1865

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

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

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

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

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

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

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.

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

This Day in Labor History: March 30, 1930

[ 32 ] March 30, 2016 |

Hawk's-Nest-Tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dying are unable to get state or federal relief.

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

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

Greed put them there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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