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This Day in Labor History: April 27, 1939

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On April 27, 1939, Senator James Murray, a Democrat from Montana, introduced SB 2256 into the Senate. This bill authorized federal funding to states to pay out claims to workers suffering from silicosis, a bill with significant support from the CIO. This bill did not pass, but it was a significant and important early attempt by unions to take control over their health and safety at the workplace on just one of many dangers they faced.

The rise of organized labor and the New Deal in the 1930s placed new pressures on employers to clean up unsafe workplaces. Silicosis was one of the major issues in the workplace. The horrifying Hawk’s Nest massacre of Black workers in the early 1930s from silicosis was just the most famous incident in this horror show of death and debilitating illness. Not only in the mines but in many mills, dust led to lung disease. Moreover, companies could force employees to into doctor’s exams and then not employ them if they were found to have any sign of disease.

In a nation without a safety net of any force, this condemned thousands of workers every year to lives of poverty, unable to work. For example, in September 1936, the Caterpillar Tractor Company in Peoria forced the 1,400 workers it employed in its foundry to undergo physical examinations. It then fired 179 of them who had signs of silicosis. Compensation to these workers? Effectively none. To make this even more revolting, ten days later the Illinois Occupational Disease Act, which would have provided some compensation to workers, became law. The company fired them so they wouldn’t get any compensation.

Worried about the potential of action against them, some employers in dust-heavy trades began holding conferences with industrial health experts to get ideas about what to do without actually giving up any power to do whatever they wanted in the workplace. In 1936, industry worried that was coming to fruition. The Department of Labor under Frances Perkins called for a National Conference on Silicosis. But even here, industry was able to call on their own experts and develop a consensus around the issue that favored them, basically argued that technology could solve the problems and that the only thing that mattered was the workers’ ability to earn a living at that time, not their quality of life or what would happen after they retired.

The American Federation of Labor pushed back against this, arguing that workers would be affected by this dust for their entire lives and that the fate of millions of people depended upon real safety standards that would protect workers. But ultimately, business engaged in an early form of corporate capture that subverted the Labor Department’s goal of the conference to lead to a broadening of input into the decision making process that would include workers.

Organized labor was not happy. It was highly concerned over the rising public health profession that it rightfully believed would be co-opted by employers. It noted how frequently public health officials moved from agencies to private companies and back again. They started taking action. Workers began striking over dust, such as a 1939 United Mine Workers of America Local 12120 strike that won a safety committee made up of both union and management, as well as a guarantee to install equipment that would reduce dust. The UAW decided to make this win from its sister union a central demand in all its contracts.

In the end, labor believed that only labor departments would ever have workers’ health in the forefront of their minds and wanted federal legislation to ensure this. Thus, the bill introduced by Senator James Murray, one of organized labor’s staunchest allies in the Senate.

Murray’s bill authorized annual appropriations to states that had their silicosis plans approved by the Department of Labor. The plans would require workers compensation for disabled workers or dependents in cases where the worker had died from dust-related illness. The state plans would have to ban any discrimination in employment based upon previous silica exposure or forcing workers to waive death or disability benefits as a condition of employment. And the state had to pay the full amount in a timely manner.

Now, this bill did not pass. Murray came back with another bill the following year. For organized labor, this bill became a top priority. The American Federation of Labor was in favor of it, but it was the Congress of Industrial Organizations that really led the fight. Dr. Walter Polakov of the UMWA testified before Congress that “health for wage earners is not merely freedom from pain and disease; it is an essential requirement for earning a livelihood, maintaining a home and caring for children.” He went on to state that the Murray bill was the best way to “control and prevent industrial conditions hazardous to employment.” Moreover, he stated that silicosis was far more common in poorer workers, making $1,000 or less a year than those who earned more than $5,000 a year.

Of course, industry resisted all of this. It’s not that they denied silicosis was a problem. That wasn’t in doubt. But they would argue that regulation should be at the state level rather than the federal government. This was a cynical argument long used by business because the states are so much easier to buy off than the federal government. This same logic is the reason that Republicans want state-level regulation today instead of either federal or local. Stating that health departments were better set up to carry out regulatory actions that labor departments, industry made claims that the Murray bill would actually hurt workers.

In fact, industry won on this issue. The Murray Bill would not become law. Once World War II hit, such issues disappeared from labor politics and by the 1950s, changes in technology reduced silicosis in some industries and workers the industries in which it remained a problem did not have the power to force change. In the end, the silicosis battle of the late 30s and early 40s is one of many cases in which worker activism was unable to create truly safe workplaces, still a problem in America and the world today.

I borrowed from David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz’s Deadly Dust: Silicosis and the Politics of Occupational Disease in Twentieth-Century America to write this post.

This is the 390th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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