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Tag: "This Day in Labor History"

This Day in Labor History: January 24, 1848

[ 26 ] January 24, 2016 |


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This Day in Labor History: January 23, 1973

[ 2 ] January 23, 2016 |

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

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

Said Al Grospiron, OCAW president:

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: January 18, 1887

[ 12 ] January 18, 2016 |


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: January 16, 1961

[ 5 ] January 16, 2016 |


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: December 28, 1973

[ 26 ] December 28, 2015 |

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Day in Labor History: December 22, 1988

[ 13 ] December 22, 2015 |

On December 22, 1988, the Brazilian rubber worker, union leader, and environmental activist Chico Mendes was murdered by a rancher named Darcy Alves who wished to clear the Amazon rainforest where Mendes and his fellow rubber tappers worked, lived, and tried to preserve from exploitation and destruction. His assassination showed both the power Brazilian developmentalists have over those who try to conserve forests but also the connections between labor and environmental movements that exist around the world.

Rubber is a South American native crop, but it cannot grow in plantations there due to disease called South American leaf blight that wipes it out when it is too concentrated. Despite attempts by Henry Ford and other to develop plantation agriculture in the Amazon rainforest, it failed and the world’s key rubber production moved to southeast Asia where rubber could grow without its natural predators. With the exception of Ford’s failure, this was basically fine by the U.S. and industrial users of rubber like tire companies until World War II, when Japan overran most of the world’s rubber supplies. This led to a renewed effort to spur production in nations like Brazil, as well as investments in synthetic rubber that eventually did much more to solve the Americans’ rubber needs. But the Brazilian rubber tappers maintained a reasonable market share for natural rubber, which they could only continue with a relatively undisturbed forest. Families began to create traditions of multiple generation rubber tappers. One of them was Chico Mendes. Born in 1944, he followed his father into the forests to work the rubber trees from the age of 9, in 1953. He couldn’t read until he was 18 as the rubber plantation owners did not want schools or an educated workforce. But Mendes eventually received a rudimentary education and became a fighter for his fellow rubber workers.

But the Amazon became desirable for people far more powerful than poor rubber tappers. Cattle ranchers saw this forest as waste that could be cut down and turned into pasture for the vast South American (and to some extent North American) beef market. The dictatorship that came to power in Brazil in 1964 encouraged this investment as a way to bring more money into the nation’s coffers, reward supporters, and pull a region far away from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo into the nation’s orbit. This investment began in earnest in the 1970s. The dictatorship ended in 1985, but the ranchers sought to use extralegal violence to defend their investments, creating the ironically named Rural Democratic Union to fight against any land reform and to use violence against both worker and environmental activists.

These cattle ranchers and the violence inherent to them was disastrous to Mendes, his fellow rubber tappers, and the forest in which they worked and lived. So he and his rubber tappers’ union, founded in 1975 with Wilson Pinheiro as president and Mendes as secretary, sought to defend the forest and their own livelihood from these ranchers. In this case, the work environment and forest environment were one and the same, with the rubber tappers and rubber trees needing an non-industrial forest to survive. Mendes began organizing his fellow rubber tappers to fight for their future. Using nonviolent tactics, the tappers and their families created human barricades to machines trying to log the forest. He called for large forest reserves, not fully preserved, but there for traditional harvesting techniques for workers, including rubber tappers and nut gatherers. In 1985, with the Brazilian dictatorship finally over, Mendes founded a new union, the National Council for Rubber Tappers, that was a leftist union dedicated not to the modernist ideas of development that led to so many terrible environmental policies from communist governments, but to a politics of both ecological and labor stability. At the National Council’s first meeting, rubber tappers from around Brazil’s forests arrived and came to common agreement about their major problems, including deforestation for cattle and the roads that cut through the forest to make that happen.


This got the attention not so much of North American labor activists but of environmentalists, who saw Mendes’ cause as both a way to build alliances in South American to defend the rain forests they probably had not seen but loved in an abstract way and a way to push back against the commonly held belief by the 1980s that greens did not care about the plight of workers. In 1987, Mendes won the UN’s Global 500 Award for his work protecting the forest. He said, “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.”

Mendes’ activism in defense of his tappers and his forest was seen as a threat by the ranchers, who believed themselves above the law in a wild area far away from the big cities and administrative bureaucracies of the nation’s highly populated south. Darcy Alves and his father Darly were big ranchers in the forest. Mendes specifically targeted their ranch expansion plans as a major threat to the forest and to tappers’ livelihood because they had purchased land that was supposedly in a forest reserve near where Mendes’ own relatives worked as tappers. As was common for these ranchers, when local residents protests, Alves used intimidation tactics and violence to drive them away. Mendes also personally delivered an arrest warrant to the police in another state where Alves had killed someone in order to expand his holdings, but the police did nothing. When the tappers’ union continued resisting, it led the Alves family to decide to simply murder Mendes, despite his increased international fame. After Darcy killed Mendes while the two policemen supposed protecting him were busy playing dominoes, enough international outrage took place that both Alves men were arrested and sentenced to 19 years in prison. Yet the killings of environmental and labor activists continues in the Amazon, including to the American nun Dorothy Stang in 2005. And while deforestation rates did decline after Mendes’ death in 1988, the recent governments of Lula and Dilma in Brazil, while on the left, have significantly rolled back forest protection and deforestation rates have again risen.

Mendes has become something of an iconic figure in Brazil and there were celebrations and remembrances of him on the 25th anniversary of his death. But the ranchers and developmentalists hold as much sway today as they did in 1988 and violence on these frontiers is still endemic.

Gomercindo Rodrigues’ Walking the Forest with Chico Mendes is an excellent place to start if you want to read more.

This is the 165th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: December 10, 1789

[ 25 ] December 10, 2015 |

On December 10, 1789, Moses Brown, a Rhode Island businessman, hired Samuel Slater to build an English-style factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. This began the Industrial Revolution in the United States.

Samuel Slater was a farmer’s son in England who started working in an early cotton mill in 1778 at the age of 10. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, there was room for fast learners to rise rapidly. Slater became close to the mill’s owner, who trained him in its various workings. As the British developed this mill technology, it sought to protect its advantages by banning the transporting of this knowledge outside of its borders. But Slater had a great memory. Once he knew how the mill ran, he decided to go to the United States to make his fortune in that new nation.

Moses Brown was a Rhode Island businessman who decided to start a spinning factory in Pawtucket along with other members of his family. They wanted to use the Arkwright system developed in England but could not figure out how to operate the technology. Hearing of this, Samuel Slater, who had just arrived in New York looking for an opportunity to build his own mill, offered his services. The contract between Slater and Brown combined the former’s technological skills with the latter’s money. It made both of them very wealthy.

Slater began constructing his new factory in early 1790. By December, it was partially operational, with about 10 employees. In 1793, the factory opened in full. Slater then used his own education to train the new mechanics in how to operate these industrial machines. Slater relied very heavily on child labor, again borrowing from his own personal life. Given the close-knit New England family economy, this was not a particularly difficult transition to make. Slater soon split from his original partners, opening mills around southern New England.

This, along with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, transformed the New England and broader American economy. The cotton gin drastically reduced the labor necessary in the cotton mills, allowing for more spinning and thus higher production rates. The British still held the majority of the world’s spinning production during these years but the growth of American industry was spurred by the tensions with the British during the Early Republic, including Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 and 1808 and the War of 1812, lasting until early 1815. By 1815, there were 140 mills within 30 miles of Providence, employing 26,000 people.


The growth of this industry made Americans nervous, for they feared the Dickensian industrial cities of Britain. Slater built his own company town, Slatersville, that attempted to create a ruralesque village around a factory. It included a company store and tenement housing for workers. These concerns also led to experimental towns like Lowell which would allow American industry to grow while retaining its fundamentally rural values. But growing competition undermined Lowell, creating some of the first strikes in the United States and eventually leading to the importation of largely Irish labor to replace the native-born women in those factories. The awful conditions of British cities would indeed be replicated in the United States, with social problems and unrest that would mark American industry through the New Deal unionization of the industrial workforce.

The rise of factory work would transform American labor. While this could not be predicted in 1789 or 1793, a process had begun that would bring Americans in from the fields to the factories, from the farms to the cities, and from relative control over their own labor to an increasingly centralized and deskilling work under control of managers. For decades after Slater’s Mill opened, Americans primarily believed that in the principle of controlling their own labor, whether in urban shops or on farms, with large-scale factory labor something of an afterthought or something that could be done by the Irish. But in fact, it, and the profits it engendered in the hands of the very, very few, would come to define American work and create the proletariatization of the working class. It would lead to rapid advances in transportation technology, including the canals of the 1820s and the beginning of the railroads by the late 1830s. And it would create a new legal regime that would allow an ideal of “progress” to run roughshod over the rights of workers or property owners, as the mill owners demanded the right to dam rivers in order to power the mills, even if it caused erosion to farms upstream or ended shad runs that interior communities relied on for both food and trade. The also demanded the right to not take responsibility for workers’ getting hurt on the job, which Massachusetts would encode in law in 1842 and would continue largely unchallenged by the American legal system until the early 20th century.

Samuel Slater died a millionaire in 1835, in an age when there were very few.


Slater’s Mill in Pawtucket and the company town of Slatersville are part of the new Blackstone River Valley National Historic Park and should help to tell the story of American labor within the National Park Service more effectively once the sites are fully transformed into NPS locations. Already, Slater’s Mill is well worth a visit.

This is the 164th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: December 4, 1907

[ 12 ] December 4, 2015 |

On December 4, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered federal troops to the gold mining town of Goldfield, Nevada to bust a strike of workers affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World and Western Federation of Miners. This event shows both the potential of the IWW to win actions and the extent to which the government would participate in crushing what it saw as a radical threat to American institutions.

The Industrial Workers of the World formed in 1905 to organize all the nation’s and even the world’s workers into One Big Union that would bring an end to the oppression of workers. But in its first years, it effectively did nothing at all, riven by internal dissent. It wasn’t until around 1912 that it began engaging in large-scale actions, in no small part because Big Bill Haywood had ousted a lot of the rivals to his leadership like Daniel De Leon and their divisive ideas. But the idea of the IWW appealed to at least some workers pretty much immediately, especially in the American West. The first major IWW action took place in Goldfield, Nevada. The town itself wasn’t founded until 1902, when gold was discovered in the area south of Tonopah. In 1903 and 1904, the Western Federation of Miners had engaged in bitter strikes in Colorado. In its early days, the IWW and WFM were joined. Many of those Colorado workers migrated to Goldfield where they took over the labor movement there. By 1906, even as the IWW and WFM were drifting apart nationally, the two unions officially joined in Goldfield, creating WFM-IWW Local 220. On December 20, 1906, they went on strike and within three weeks raised wages, shortened hours, and won several fringe benefits. This was probably the first strike victory for the IWW.


By March 1907, the IWW had 3000 dues-paying members in Goldfield and it demanded that all the town’s businesses agree to the 8-hour day. Fearing the growing power of the union, they acceded to the demand. The union then went after the town’s United Brotherhood of Carpenters local, demanding that the UBC members join the IWW or be denied employment. This convinced American Federation of Labor head Samuel Gompers to send organizers into Goldfield to attack the IWW-WFM miners. At the same time, the tensions between the two unions nationally were beginning to drive a wedge into their coalition. Moreover, the Panic of 1907 began moving conditions back in owners’ favor and they counterattacked with the support from the AFL. By March 1907, with AFL support, every business in Goldfield closed, reopening 3 days later with all IWW members fired. On April 22, the miners and employers came to a new agreement that would stop the labor war and guarantee the current wages while the workers agreed that labor disputes in the town would not bleed over into the mines. This was supposed to last 2 years, but in November, with the town businesses continuing to crush the IWW, the owners broke the April agreement, announcing they would stop paying cash to the workers.

The IWW went on strike. That’s where Theodore Roosevelt intervened. Like much about Roosevelt, his own long-lasting and effective self-publicity machine has allowed his actions for fairness in parts of his presidency to overshadow his equally unfair acts in the same arena. His policies regarding race are one example. Another is his position toward labor. Roosevelt to his credit played a major role in the 1902 anthracite coal strike, forcing J.P. Morgan and the coal companies to come to terms with the workers in what was the first time in U.S. history that the federal government intervened in a labor dispute to moderate rather than to bust it. That’s a big deal but it primarily reflected his concern that a prolonged strike would limit coal supplies in eastern cities. His actions in Goldfield showed his contempt for radicalism and for workers’ interests in nonessential industries where crushing the union would produce no backlash. The mine owners worked it out ahead of time with Nevada governor John Sparks that they would call to him asking for for troops that he would then forward to Roosevelt, without the knowledge of even the town’s other business owners. The message talked of the violence in the town, threat to law and order, etc. This was all lies.

Roosevelt complied, sending 300 troops under General Frederick Funston on December 4. They arrived December 6 to a peaceful community. Funston quickly discovered these lies. But when he reported it to Roosevelt, the president didn’t care. He believed the IWW was a real threat to the nation and wanted the union destroyed. He left the troops in Goldfield while the mine owners fired both IWW and WFM miners, ensuring union-free workplaces. The federal troops remained in Goldfield until March 1908, after the Nevada legislature had created a special police force to replace them.

Thus, the IWW would walk out of Goldfield completely defeated, once again showing how government action or inaction usually determines the outcome of a strike in American history. There’s lots talk in the labor movement today and in the past that unions should not play the political game and instead spent all their resources organizing. But it’s very hard to get away from the facts that workers have pretty much only won strikes in American history when the state either sided with the unions or played a moderating force. Unions need the state to win. That was true in the Gilded Age and of course it was true in the New Deal and after. When the government has decided it didn’t want a strike, it has been able to eliminate it. That might be Cleveland sending troops in to crush Pullman, Roosevelt in Goldfield, or Reagan firing the air traffic controllers.

This is the 163rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: November 30, 1932

[ 9 ] November 30, 2015 |

On November 30, 1932, the American Federation of Labor endorsed federal unemployment insurance. This was a remarkable shift for the AFL, which had long opposed any sort of government programs for workers, preferring to rely on voluntarism and negotiation to force employers to concede worker rights instead of a government which it felt it had no reason to trust. This began the broader shift toward the American labor movement relying on government as the guarantor of its rights and the rights of working people writ large.

From its beginning, the AFL distrusted government. In some ways, there were good reasons for this mistrust. American labor history was full of government intervening in labor struggles to provide strikebreaking troops for industry. Why would the labor movement trust it? On the other hand, this mistrust was more than just experiential. It was also ideological for a labor movement extremely hostile to even moderate change in American economic life, not to mention the radicalism pushing for widescale transformations. In 1916, AFL president Samuel Gompers testified before the House Labor Committee against unemployment insurance, calling it “socialist,” which for Gompers was the ultimate insult.

But the AFL severely underestimated the impact of the Great Depression. It largely supported Hoover’s policies in the Depression’s first years and assumed government had no place in regulating industry. But this position placed the AFL squarely in the sights of the left, as well as growing number of liberal writers who openly criticized the labor movement for not even seeming to understand the problems affecting American workers. More importantly, grassroots opposition to the AFL’s traditional stance grew within the federation itself. In 1930, the California state AFL unanimously voted to urge AFL leadership to back an unemployment insurance system that would include contributions from employers, workers, and taxpayers. But the AFL leadership remained sharply opposed in 1930. Victor Olander of the Seaman’s Union responded to these demands at the AFL 1930 convention in Boston by asking whether the AFL will “hew to the line in demanding a greater freedom for the working people of America, or whether liberty shall be sacrificed…to enable workers to obtain a small measure of unemployment relief under government supervision and control.” Moreover, he felt that unemployment insurance would undermine the workers’ movement, arguing it would “prevent the workers from joining in movements to increase wages and improve working conditions because of fears that they might thus sacrifice their eligibility to unemployment insurance.”


Others rejected these fears as ridiculous. Max Zaritsky of the Cap Makers Union noted that workers could not eat the AFL’s rugged individualism and reminded the federation that the nation’s workers were looking to it for leadership in the greatest economic crisis in the nation’s history. But AFL president William Green strongly opposed unemployment insurance and the resolution was defeated.

However, as the economy did not improve, the demands for federal intervention grew. The big shift was the Teamsters coming around to supporting it in a February 1931 article in the International Teamster that attacked the AFL position. The 1931 convention saw real gains for interventionists thanks to the Teamsters and shifting opinion within the United Mine Workers. Unemployment insurance was defeated again in 1931, but the winter of 1932 destroyed the voluntarist side of the labor movement. Union leaders could no longer explain to millions of unemployed workers, including their own members, that they opposed unemployment insurance for abstract reasons. Interestingly, even employers were approaching the AFL saying something needed be done, with General Electric’s Gerald Swope meeting with William Green to support an unemployment compensation system that would include employee contributions instead of the employer-only contributions industry feared. Yet even here, Green remained to the right of industry. But by April 1932, Green read the cards and knew he had to change his position. In 1932, the AFL Executive Council met in Atlantic City and passed a resolution to create a pro-unemployment insurance policy that ensured federal rather than state control and that would safeguard workers’ rights to maintain union membership.

At this point, Green did not drag his feet but rather consulted experts around the country about adopting a moderate proposal. Green’s proposal was submitted to the 1932 AFL Convention on November 21, 1932. At this point, there were 11 million Americans out of work. The final proposal wanted a federal system but also supplemental state systems. Private insurance companies would play no role. The rump of voluntarist leaders continued to fight the proposal, but with Green’s support, its passage was assured and it did pass on November 30.

It’s hard to overestimate what a titanic shift this was within the American Federation of Labor and its importance for the overall trajectory of American labor. Radicals had long accused the AFL of not actually understanding the conditions of work that most American labor faced and ignoring the needs of the majority of those workers. That was an accurate accusation against an organization that clung to notions of independent, skilled labor of Anglo-Saxon men forged in the late 19th century and that were pretty out of date even then. The AFL’s history had consisted of jealously guarding its victories without using them to spread hope or organize other workers. It saw all other labor organizations or plans to help workers as threats that needed eradication, even if it had no actual plans to do anything for those unorganized workers. It’s hardly surprising then that the AFL could not effectively respond to the Great Depression for three years. Only the extreme conditions of that crisis began moving the AFL off its traditional positions. And while internal strife could be overcome on the issue of voluntarism, it could not over organizing labor on an industrial basis and it would require the John L. Lewis and the CIO splitting off from the AFL to finally get it interested in organizing the masses of American labor.

The federal government would implement the first national unemployment insurance program in the Social Security Act of 1935.

Much of this post is borrowed from Irving Bernstein’s classic 1960 tome of the American labor movement, The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920-1933.

This is the 162nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: November 26, 1910

[ 8 ] November 26, 2015 |

On November 26, 1910, a factory building in Newark, New Jersey caught on fire, killing 25 textile workers. This should have been a call to arms for workplace safety reform, but because it was in Newark and wealthy people did not see the people making their clothing die, nothing happened. The situation would be very different after those wealthy people did see workers die precisely four months later in New York during the Triangle Fire.

The working conditions of the Gilded Age were extremely dangerous. The 1842 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in Farwell v. Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corporation established the doctrine of workplace risk, by which workers were said to have agreed to labor in unsafe conditions when they took the job and thus had no legal recourse to compensation if they were hurt or killed. This was one of a series of 19th century court decisions that allowed companies to do whatever they wanted in the name of progress, whether it was kill workers or decimate ecosystems. Workplace deaths became commonplace. Particularly in mining, workplace disasters that killed 100-200 workers, but more often, a dozen or more, would be all too common. Other industries would often kill workers one by one, through production that designs that threw a single worker into a sawblade every other day but would not kill the dozens needed to gain national headlines. By 1910, discontent with this systems had manifested itself that some judges and juries were beginning to find for dead and injured workers in court cases, scaring companies about their potential financial liability and pushing them toward recommending weak workers compensation laws to protect their interests. The first of these would pass in 1911.

The Wolf Muslin Undergarment Company, which made nightgowns, occupied part of a four-story building in Newark. On November 26, 1910, at about 9:30 a.m., a fire broke out in the factory. Owned by a New York woman named Barbara Glass, this was a circa 1860 factory building that lacked any fire extinguishing technology. There were several different factory operations in the building. The first floor was a box factory and a machinist shop. On the second was another box factory while the third floor was a light bulb manufacturer. There were a total of about 200 workers in the building as a whole, of which 75 percent were women. The fire actually started in the light bulb factory. The description of this process makes you wonder why there weren’t more fires. Basically, to carbonize filaments for electric light bulbs, the workers connected the filaments to two poles in vulcanized cork placed in the mouth of a small metal can. An iron pipe connected this can to a can of gasoline used to carbonize the filaments with an electric current shooting through the gas-filled can for the carbonization. Someone would manually fill the gas cans with a big barrel of gasoline sitting outside the factory. Gasoline spilled on the floor and somehow, possibly because smoking was not uncommon in factories, the gas caught on fire. The workers immediately threw sand on the fire and it seemed to kill it, but in fact it was still smoldering and a few minutes later it exploded anew, jumping to the ceiling. There was a firehouse directly across the street from the factory, but even so there was nothing the firefighters could do to extinguish in flames. In fact, several firefighters were injured rescuing workers.

The workers on the bottom floors escaped, but not on the fourth floor. Six of the workers burned to death while 19 jumped. Forty more were injured while escaping. Most of these women were young. The oldest was 59-year old Catherine Weber while the youngest was Mildred Wolters, age 16. Three sisters by name of Millie, Tillie, and Dora Gottlieb all died. They were 19, 21, and 29 years old respectively.

As was not uncommon with these Gilded Age disasters, the fire got a lot of publicity, with national news stories covering it. But it did not lead to any broader calls for workplace safety reforms. The Progressive reformers trying to improve the lives of workers did act. The Women’s Trade Union League assigned Ida Taub to investigate the fire and testify before the relevant bodies. She sent a letter to the coroner’s jury, asking to be heard at the January hearings. They said yes, but almost immediately dismissed her as soon as she started. The foreman stated, “unless you have a complaint of criminal negligence on the part of an official, you had better take your stories to the Corporation Counsel and have him prosecute for violations.” The coroner’s jury decided, “They died from misadventure and accident.” And thus nothing was done. In the end, the Gilded Age doctrine of workplace risk still held sway, with most juries, even as late as 1910, finding in favor of widespread corporate murder of their employees.


The mayor set up a relief fund for the families of the deceased and contributed $100. There were some other contributions. And that was it. There was no meaningful compensation for survivors or the families. The fire did worry officials concerned with a similar situation in their city. The New York fire chief said, “This city may have a fire as deadly as the one in Newark at any time. There are buildings in New York where the danger is every bit as great as in the building destroyed in Newark. A fire in the daytime would be accompanied by a terrible loss of life.” And indeed it would.

Ultimately this story and the story of Triangle are key to understanding not only the awful working conditions of the Gilded Age but how change occurs. As many scholars have pointed out, most workplace safety legislation in the United States only passes after a horrible disaster galvanizes attention. Often even that is not enough, as we see from the Newark fire. It wasn’t until Triangle, with the physical connection between workers and consumers becoming disturbingly manifest, that meaningful change took place. Today, that physical connection is largely impossible. At best, when workers die at the Kader factory or Rana Plaza, the best we can hope for is enough media attention that it stays in the news for a cycle. It took over 1100 deaths to move European companies to do anything about the terrible conditions of labor in modern sweatshops. For American companies, that was not enough. With us unable to even find Bangladesh on a map, there is certainly no Triangle-like pressure for force corporate reforms. But hey, it’s OK for Bangladesh to have worse workplace safety conditions than other nations…. Only workers’ lives we are talking about here.

So little has been written on the Newark fire, except in the context of mentioning it for Triangle, that I had to go hunt up old insurance industry journals from the time to write this post. The March 29, 1911 issue of The Insurance Press provided most of the details about the fire itself and what was happening in that factory building.

This is the 161th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: October 15, 1990

[ 6 ] October 15, 2015 |

On October 15, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, finally providing a path forward for some of the Cold War’s most exploited workers, Navajo uranium miners, as well as other Americans, primarily Native Americans and Mormon farmers, who had been declared expendable by the Cold War military complex and exposed against their will or without knowledge to radiation from nuclear testing and mining. Yet even this act made it very difficult for Native Americans to win claims for compensation. This history signifies just how ignored Native American workers have been throughout American history and how the Cold War saw these people as utterly expendable.

With the rise of the nuclear state after 1945, the United States needed steady supplies of uranium. Domestic supplies were preferred where possible. The one part of the United States with significant uranium deposits is in the Southwest, particularly in the Four Corners area. Most of this land, at least in Arizona and New Mexico, was on the gigantic Navajo reservation, a deeply impoverished area granted to the Navajo first in 1868 after the disastrous attempt to move them to Fort Sumner, New Mexico and then expanded over the decades. Yet the Navajo did not have full control over the minerals on their land and throughout the mid-20th century, any Native American control over natural resources on their land frequently spurred new ways to steal it from them, including oil deposits on indigenous lands in Oklahoma. In 1948, the Atomic Energy Commission took full control over all uranium deposits and announced it would work with private contractors to mine it. It remained the sole purchaser of all uranium until 1971. This led to a mining boom with prospectors seeking riches in Western mining once again. Over 1000 mines opened on the Navajo reservation alone, with many more outside of reservation boundaries. This provided rare economic opportunity for the Navajo, who had really suffered since the government forcibly reduced their sheep stocks during the New Deal, severely undermining their economy and societal structure. Between 3000 and 5000 Navajo began working in the uranium mines, many leaving the reservation entirely for work.

But you know what’s not good for you? Breathing in uranium dust. Dust problems were as bad in uranium mines as other underground mines, with the additional problem compared to coal that uranium was also radioactive. As early as 1962, the U.S. government made concrete connections between uranium mining and cancer among miners. But the first regulations on uranium mine safety did not come until 1969. By this point, two decades of uranium mining had taken an enormous toll on the health of uranium miners. Adding to this was the very poor state of health care in the Navajo Nation, conditions largely shared throughout indigenous America. The people were very poor, no doctor was going to make money serving out there, and cultural and physical isolation also made medical care very difficult. These miners were contracting cancer that went untreated and then they died. Moreover, no one ever actually told the Navajo of the dangers of working in the mines, even after those dangers were well-known. Given that most of them did not speak English in the late 1940s, they had no way of discovering this information for themselves. There was no word in Diné for radiation. These workers were sacrificed for the nuclear state.


Navajo uranium miners near Cove, Arizona, 1952

Native Americans were certainly not the only uranium miners. The Cold War uranium rush in the Four Corners region brought plenty of whites into these mines too. They suffered from the same problems as Native Americans. But they also had access to more attention, including from organized labor. Research I did this summer at the Library of Congress, making up a small part of what may be my next scholarly book, demonstrates that the CIO was concerned with the fate of the white miners. Leo Goodman, the United Auto Workers’ full-time staff member on atomic issues, did some investigations into their problems, although I don’t think it really led anywhere. But there’s no recognition of Native Americans within the CIO. I think that it’s primarily that the union movement simply was not aware of Native American workers and had no way of understanding much of anything about the Navajo Nation. There were a few unionized Navajo miners working in off-reservation mines but the Navajo Tribal Council banned unions on the reservation in 1958, which meant that none of those workers could have access to the labor movement, even if they wanted it.

Not surprisingly as well, conditions of labor were different for white and Navajo miners. After dynamite blasts, Navajo workers were sent directly into the mines, while white workers were allowed to stay back until the dust settled. Navajo miners were of course paid far less, as low as 81 cents an hour in 1949. By the 1970s, there were some growing connections between the Navajo miners and the unions, particularly over the issue of testing as the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers fought to have the Navajo tested for radiation exposure as well as white miners, but this was strictly on the union level without any real connection to the Navajo workers themselves.

Over the decades, Navajo uranium miners extracted about 4 million tons of uranium for the government. This health toll was incredible. A 1995 report by the American Public Health Association discussed, “excess mortality rates for lung cancer, pneumoconioses and other respiratory diseases, and tuberculosis for Navajo uranium miners. Increasing duration of exposure to underground uranium mining was associated with increased mortality risk for all three diseases… The most important long-term mortality risks for the Navajo uranium miners continue to be lung cancer and pneumoconioses and other nonmalignant respiratory diseases.” This also led to a general pollution in the problem in the area. Rates of stomach cancer in areas near the uranium mills remain up to 15 times the rate of the normal population.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act provided up to $50,000 for downwinders, primarily those Paiute Indians and Mormon farmers exposed to atmospheric nuclear testing, $75,000 for those exposed by actually participating in atmospheric nuclear testing, and $100,000 to uranium miners. But even here, it would be extremely difficult for the Navajos and other Native Americans to collect. They needed medical evidence, but there are almost no traditional doctors on the Navajo reservation, record-keeping was shoddy, and so many had died already that widows had very little to go on to collect. The Clinton administration was somewhat receptive to these problems and made adjustments to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to grant Navajos a better chance of receiving compensation, but for many, financial redress remains elusive.

As of this year, about $2 billion dollars have been awarded to around 32,000 survivors and their families under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

This is the 160th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: September 28, 1874

[ 32 ] September 28, 2015 |

On September 28, 1874, the U.S. military defeated the Comanche in Palo Duro Canyon, south of modern Amarillo, Texas, largely by stealing their horse herds. This forced the Comanche to the reservations where they had refused to live by taking away the technology that defined their lives and their work. This was essentially the end of an entire way of labor for the Comanche and indicative of the importance of work to the conquest of Native Americans.

The Comanche were, up until the late 17th century, a relatively small tribe living primarily in Colorado and Kansas. This all changed with the advent of the horse. The Spanish had introduced horses into North America when they defeated the Aztecs after 1519. It became clear to Native Americans very quickly the huge advantage for both battle and work that horses could provide. The horses began moving north, largely following Spanish colonial expansion, but increasingly from horse thefts. That the Spanish largely left the horses to roam on their own made that easier. Certain indigenous cultures began valuing them for work and for war, others less so. One that truly committed to horse pastoralism was the Comanches, a group that split off from the Shoshones around 1500. The first time they appear in the written record was in 1706 when the Spanish recorded a group called the Comanches attacking Puebloan peoples.

The Comanches, like other peoples after them such as the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Crow, made a conscious decision to change their life and work cultures upon the acquisition of large horse populations. They became horse cultures, with this technology redefining their work, culture, and social structure. The horse allowed the Comanches to commit full-time to bison hunting, warfare, and raiding to replenish their population lost in war. But they weren’t operating in a vacuum. Like many indigenous peoples, the Comanche took to the Euro-American market economy keenly, seeking to offer their goods–bison skins–in exchange for the other things they needed, including guns, the food they no longer grew because they were in constant motion, pots, horses, etc. They also traded horses for these things, as their growing skills in horse-breeding made then desirable by everyone they traded with, including the Native Americans peoples to the north who began to do much the same as the Comanche had become horse cultures.

A new, gendered system of work developed with the transition to horses. By 1750, Comanche herds had grown large enough that they began moving around specifically to care for them. This meant they needed a large territory strictly for horse foraging, especially because the lack of water and need for wintering grounds limited the number of destinations that could sustain large herds, even for a short time. They began to look more like the Mongolians than other tribes in the United States. As is common in pastoral societies, strongly gendered notions of work developed. The daily herding of the horses was the world of teenage boys. Each boy, according to an 1849 account of a Comanche village, herded about 150 horses, with the most valuable of them rounded up each evening for a night watch and the others left to roam. Men were responsible for the decisions around the pastoral economy, such as when to move. They also were the warriors, which they saw specifically as an act of production, fueling a market-oriented pastoral economy with the necessary raw materials of horses, women, and children.


George Catlin painting of Comanches hunting bison

The status of women declined in Comanche society with the new emphasis on war and horses, both male realms. Women were responsible for raising children, cooking, processing bison meat, and constructing tipis. That grew to processing the bison skins for the Euro-American market and helping out with the horse herds. The practice of polygyny, a marriage system where men have multiple wives, grew rapidly with the horses as wealthy men began to acquire large horse herds and then needed women to process the bison and herding. In other words, marriage became a way to enlarge the labor pool (observers at the time noted that these wives were really servants) as well as introduced a sort of class-based division into Comanche society, as obviously not all men could do this. In many ways, Comanche polygyny and Southern slavery both were responses to labor shortages arising from market production that rested upon patriarchal systems that reduced women to objects of male honor and militarism. Of course, the Comanche also took slaves, and although their system of slavery was much more fluid than the chattel slavery of the South, it was brutal nonetheless (rape and torture with the intent of destroying their will and American/Spanish/Indian cultures and making them docile workers) and again was related in part to their entrance into the market.


George Catlin painting of a Comanche village, 1834

This new culture made the Comanche the dominant empire on the 18th and early 19th century Great Plains. At their height, around 1850, the Comanchería extended from the edge of the southern Rockies into central Texas and central Kansas. They raided much further, especially into Mexico, where they frequently went as far south as Durango to take captives and horses. This went far to shape the region. The Spanish and then the Mexicans wanted to move north but could not defeat the Comanches. The need for a buffer zone helped convince Mexico to invite Americans into Texas, who then became the victims of Comanche raiding. But the lack of Mexican settlement meant that the U.S. could easily take the northern half of Mexico during the Mexican War. But they then had to conquer the Comanches, which was extremely difficult. As late as 1860, white expansion in Texas was quite limited due to Comanche raiding.

This system of work and culture made the Comanches very difficult for the American military to defeat. To do so, post-Civil War military planners went to a more sophisticated strategy developed in the second half of that war by generals such as Ulysses Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip Sheridan: total warfare. Rather than defeat these small, fast bands, undermining their way of life through the American industrial machine made more sense. Thus, the military decided to exterminate the bison. Bison populations plummeted in the years after the war, starting with the southern herds that sustained the Comanche economy and moving north. Market hunting was a piece of it, but this was a military strategy first and foremost. Without the bison and the work in hunting, processing, and trading them, the Comanche could not sustain itself. The second part of this strategy was to take away the Comanche’s horses, the transportation tool that facilitated this way of life. This strategy was tremendously successful, albeit increasingly controversial as the 1870s went on and total warfare against Native Americans outraged eastern reformers. Starvation and warfare decimated Comanche numbers, reducing them to about 8000 by 1870. They began relying on the U.S. government for rations, giving the U.S. much power over them. They refused to stay on the reservations that developed in the late 1860 and early 1870s, but leaving also brought warfare that was harder for the Comanche to sustain with the decline in bison, horses, and people. Finally, after the battle in Palo Duro Canyon, isolated badlands in the Texas panhandle, the Comanche largely moved to the reservations for good. The bison were gone anyway.

Undermining traditional ways of work would remain central to the post-conquest strategy of dealing with Native Americans. The Dawes Act of 1887 served to both alienate reservation land from Indians while also forcing them into the subsistence farming lifestyle white Americans had decided was appropriate for Native Americans. By 1920, there were only 1500 Comanche left in the wake of the destruction of their culture through conquest, land dispossession, Indian schools, and the despair all of this created. Like most other tribes however, Comanche numbers grew after that and continue to grow today, although with a very different set of cultural traditions and work life than that of the past.

I borrowed liberally from Pekka Hämäläinen’s prize winning book The Comanche Empire in writing this post. You should read this book.

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