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September 19, 2021
 Anthony Sessa
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History Lessons for the Working Class

The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.

Aug 28, 2008

September 5, 1882:

The huge procession began with 400 members of Bricklayers Union No. 6, all dressed in white aprons. They were followed by a band, and then the members of the Manufacturing Jewelers union. The jewelers marched four abreast, wearing derby hats and dark suits with buttonhole bouquets. They all carried canes resting on their shoulders (similar to the way infantry officers carry swords when on parade.)

As the day went on, the parade included contingents from the Manufacturing Shoemakers Union No. 1 (wearing blue badges), and an especially well-received contingent from the “Big 6” – Typographical Union No. 6 – whose 700-strong delegation marched with military precision. (They had practiced beforehand.) The Friendly Society of Operative Masons marched with their band. They were followed by 250 members of the Clothing Cutters Benevolent and Protective Union, the Dress and Cloak Makers Union, the Decorative Masons, and the Bureau of United Carpenters (who marched with a decorated wagon).

The parade was filled with banners: “Labor Built the Republic – Labor Shall Rule It”; “To the Workers Should Belong the Wealth”; “Down with the Competitive System”; “Down with Convict Contract Labor”; “Down with the Railroad Monopoly”; and “Children in School and Not in Factories,” among others. The members of the Socialist Singing Society carried a red flag with a yellow lyre in its center. The banner which perhaps summed up the entire procession best was carried by members of the American Machinists, Engineers, and Blacksmiths Union (who wore heavy leather aprons and working clothes). It read simply: “Let Labor Unite.”

It was the first Labor Day parade – and it took place on a Tuesday.

Labor Day became official in this country when the U.S. Congress passed a law in 1894 making the first Monday in September a legal holiday. But this holiday was not simply given to the workers of the United States by the government as some act of charity. The tradition of publicly honoring labor’s contribution to society is a custom established by the workers themselves.

The first Labor Day parade in the United States was held in New York City on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. More than 10,000 workers marched. It was organized by the Central Labor Union, a body representing 60 unions and over 80,000 people. The CLU was a secret lodge of the Knights of Labor, the major national union of the time.

To really appreciate the September 1882 labor parade, it’s important to keep in mind the  profound changes that this country had gone through in the 17 years before it took place. After the Civil War ended in 1865, the capitalists of the North emerged triumphant. They went on the offensive, bitterly opposing labor’s demands. By the time the depression of 1873 took place, any lingering unity between the different forces which had united in opposition to slavery had been torn apart.

On Saturday, July 21, 1877,  17 workers involved in a nationwide railroad strike were shot dead in Pittsburgh. The next day, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, a New York Protestant minister who had been one of the most eloquent orators against slavery, preached these words:

“God had intended the great to be great and the little to be little. … The trade unions, originated under the European system, destroy liberty. … I do not say that a dollar a day is enough to support a man and five children if he insists on smoking and drinking beer … [b]ut the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live.”

The 1882 labor parade was the culmination of more than 10 years of agitating and organizing by dedicated labor activists in New York. These activists were deeply committed to the fight for the eight-hour day and against the repressive tactics of the employers. They also worked closely with the leaders of what were at that time New York’s largest immigrant communities to assist the fight for justice in three countries: Ireland, France, and Germany.

The 1882 parade took place in a city which had seen militiamen open fire on Irish-American Catholic demonstrators in 1871; where thousands demonstrated for the eight-hour day in 1872; and where three demonstrations had already taken place in 1882 to demand justice for Ireland in its fight against British rule. (All three demonstrations had been jointly sponsored by labor organizations and organizations fighting for Irish freedom.)

Because the 1882 labor parade was held on a work day, most of the participants had to give up a day’s pay in order to march. (The CLU even levied a fine on non-participants.) In all, the workers involved forfeited about $75,000 in lost wages.

The parade was scheduled to coincide with a national conference of the Knights of Labor being held in New York. This explains why almost the entire national leadership of the Knights of Labor was present on the parade’s reviewing stand in Union Square. However, the affiliation of these leaders with the Knights of Labor was discreetly hidden from the press that day. (At the time, the Knights of Labor was still a semi-secret society.) For instance, the top leader of the Knights of Labor – “Grand Master Workman” Terence Powderly – was introduced only as the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania (which he was).

The vibrant character of the labor movement of that time can be seen by looking at three extraordinary people present on the reviewing stand at the 1882 parade:

Patrick Ford was the publisher and editor of the Irish World, a newspaper which strongly supported labor and the fight for Irish freedom. He had been brought to Boston from Ireland in 1842 at the age of seven. Ford had served his printing apprenticeship with newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison, America’s leading opponent of slavery, before the Civil War. In 1870, Ford founded the Irish World, a newspaper which was regularly suppressed when it was shipped to Ireland.

John Swinton was the chief editorial writer of the New York Sun. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, he had moved to New York in 1850 and worked as a printer and became an abolitionist. Swinton had been with John Brown when he made his famous raid on Osawatomie, Kansas in 1857. (Swinton would go on to start his own pro-labor newspaper in 1883.)

Carl Daniel Adolf Douai was the publisher and editor of the New Yorker Volkszeitung, a Socialist German-language daily. Douai was a German immigrant who had been threatened with lynching when he spoke out against slavery while publishing in Texas. In 1860, he moved to New York where he became active in Socialist, abolitionist, and Republican Party activities.

The presence of these three men on the reviewing stand – and the presence of Irish, French, and German flags (in addition to the U.S. flag) at the picnic which closed the day — illustrates the wide scope of labor’s concerns at that time. These leaders’ involvement with the parade (and the militant banners carried by the marchers) show that from its very beginning, the U.S. labor movement has been about more than just getting its members a few cents more an hour in wages. From its inception, the labor movement in this country has included both native- and foreign-born leaders, and immigrant workers have always played an important role in the labor movement. From the very beginning, the U.S. labor movement has included elements who have not been afraid to challenge the legitimacy of the wages system itself.

That’s definitely worth remembering this Labor Day.

The article on this page was written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.

Jul 27, 2008
May 2012 marks the 75th anniversary of “the Memorial Day Massacre.” Ten people were killed and 90 wounded that day when the police attacked a peaceful march outside the Republic Steel plant in South Chicago. All the dead were shot in the back or the side.
Jul 27, 2008

The 1932 Ford Hunger March massacre:The unemployed get bullets, not bread

Mattie Woodson tore off a piece of her dress and leaned down to wipe blood off the neck of Joe DeBlasio, desperately trying to save the life of the young demonstrator. It was too late. DeBlasio was dying. He lay in Miller Road in Dearborn, Michigan, just a few yards in front of the gigantic River Rouge complex of the Ford Motor Company. He had been shot when Dearborn police officers and thugs from Ford’s brutal “Service Department” opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. It was March 7, 1932. The protest which had originally been called “the Ford Hunger March” had just become a massacre.

DeBlasio was one of five people who died after being shot that day. Dozens of others were wounded. The Ford Hunger March took place in the midst of the Great Depression, just 28 months after the stock market crash of October 1929. The month of March 2012 marks 80 years since that massacre, but its effects can still be felt.

The Ford Hunger March was a response to economic devastation. No city in the United States was hit harder by the Great Depression than Detroit. By 1932, some 10,000 children huddled every day in Detroit’s bread lines. Eighty percent of the auto-building capacity lay idle. Wages had dropped 37 percent for those lucky enough to have a job. The average monthly caseload of the city’s welfare department had increased almost 10 times – from 5,000 cases in 1929 to nearly 50,000 in 1932.

The workers of the Detroit area responded by organizing Unemployed Councils. (There were about a dozen in and around Detroit.) During the brutal winter of 1931-32, representatives of these councils decided to organize a march in early spring to focus attention on Henry Ford and his huge River Rouge complex.

At the time, Henry Ford was the richest man in the world. He was also a vicious anti-Semite, an admirer of Hitler, and an ardent foe of unions. Built in the 1920s, the River Rouge site was the largest industrial complex in the world. It was located in Dearborn, a town whose mayor, police officers, and fire fighters answered directly to Ford.

The Ford Hunger March was organized to press 11 demands, including jobs for the jobless; the seven-hour day; the end of speed-up; no racial discrimination; abolition of the Ford Service Department; and winter relief.

On March 7, 1932, the Unemployed Councils from inside Detroit led off the march from their assembly point on the city’s East Side. As their contingent marched west to Woodward Avenue and then south on Woodward, many people who had been standing on the sidewalks began to join in.

The marchers made their way to the old Detroit City Hall. There, Mayor Frank Murphy came out, waved, and declared, “I’m with you all the way.” Murphy assigned two motorcycle cops to escort the marchers to the city limit.

When the march got to the border with the city of Dearborn, about 30 Dearborn police officers on motorcycles and horses and in cars blocked their path. The Dearborn police ordered the marchers to turn back. They refused, and moved forward.

The police fired tear gas. Some marchers – desperate and angry – responded by throwing rocks and frozen mud. Near Gate No. 3 of the River Rouge complex, the demonstrators were bombarded by water from fire hoses and a barrage of bullets from Dearborn cops and Ford “security” thugs. When the shooting stopped, four demonstrators were dead. In addition to Joe DeBlasio, the slain included Joe York, Coleman Leny, and Joe Bussell. (Curtis Williams would die later.) Dozens of marchers were wounded.

On March 12, 1932, thousands of people marched solemnly down Woodward Avenue from the Institute of Arts to Grand Circus Park, where tens of thousands of people had
gathered. A funeral procession of 70,000 people then marched five miles to the Woodmere Cemetery, where DeBlasio, York, Leny, and Bussell were laid in a common grave – within sight of the smokestacks of the River Rouge complex. The cemetery would not allow Curtis Williams, an African-American, to be buried with his comrades. Williams’ ashes were scattered over the River Rouge plant from an airplane.

Detroit’s workers turned their outrage into energy and that energy launched the organizing drives at the Big Three automakers. In 1937, following the sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, the United Auto Workers successfully unionized General Motors and Chrysler. It wasn’t until 1941 – after a bitter battle -- that the Ford Motor Company finally sat down at the bargaining table with representatives of its workers.

Ford workers got their first union contract in the summer of 1941, just months before the United States entered World War II. The rulers of this country desperately needed “labor peace” during World War II and they achieved it. That peace continued for many years. For decades following World War II, most unionized workers could expect a wage increase with every new contract, and a steadily rising standard of living.

Some workers forgot the lessons of the massacre of March 7, 1932 during the good times after World War II. We need to remind ourselves of those lessons, because this year finds workers out in the cold again. The 76th anniversary of the Ford Hunger March finds workers shivering on the picket lines at American Axle Manufacturing. That company’s 3600 workers are fighting to stop their employer from slashing their wages in half. (And that proposal comes from a company that made $37 million in profit in 2007!)

Especially now – at a time of concession contracts, plant shut-downs, growing poverty, and turmoil in the stock market -- we would do well to remember both the defiance displayed by the members of the Unemployed Councils during the 1930s and their imaginative tactics. Labor needs to bring both qualities back again.


The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.

Jul 27, 2008

Texas pecan shellers strike for dignity in the midst of the Great Depression

They were some of the lowest-paid workers in the entire United States, but management claimed that they didn’t deserve more money. (Their employers said that the workers would just spend any raise on tequila and trinkets from the local dime stores.) No wonder the workers went on strike!
February 2008 marks exactly 70 years since the official beginning of the pecan shellers’ strike in San Antonio, Texas in 1938. That confrontation changed the face of organized labor in the Southwest.
Pecan shelling was the largest industry in San Antonio during the Great Depression, employing 12,000 people. Ninety percent of the workers were women, most of them Mexican.
The shelling was carried out in 400 sheds scattered throughout the working-class neighborhoods of the West Side. It was common to find 100 shellers sitting around a long table working under poor illumination. There were no indoor toilets or washbowls. Ventilation was inadequate. A fine brown dust from the pecans permeated the air. This dust contributed to the very high death rate from tuberculosis in San Antonio, almost three times the national average.
Machines had been invented to crack and grade pecan nuts by the 1920s. However, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the shelling companies found it more profitable to hire people who desperately needed jobs, pay them low wages, and have them do all the work by hand. The shellers of San Antonio worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Often the individual worker made as little as $2.73 a week. When the owners announced a pay cut on January 31, 1938, these workers spontaneously walked out of the shelling sheds. The next day, the Texas Pecan Shelling Workers Union officially called a strike. The battle was on.
Conservative elements within San Antonio’s city government, police department, civic establishment, religious community, mass media, and trade union movement all combined in a nasty, underhanded, concerted effort to break the strike and isolate its leaders. No blow was too low.
The police made more than 1,000 arrests during the strike. The striking workers were attacked with tear gas, clubs, and baseball bats, and were subjected to arrests on ludicrous charges (such as obstructing the sidewalk where there was no sidewalk.) The strikers were confined in overcrowded jails where they were treated worse than hardened criminals.
Police Chief Owen Kilday claimed that only a few pecan shellers were participating in the strike. He asserted that what was really going on was an attempt to foment revolution, declaring “It is my duty to interfere with revolution.”
The pecan shellers were denounced by San Antonio’s two major newspapers – the Express and the Light. The American Chamber of Commerce, the Mexican Chamber of Commerce, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and Archbishop Arthur Jerome Drossaerts of the Roman Catholic Church all condemned the strike.
One of the weapons used against the strike was the tactic of Red-baiting. At the beginning of the strike, the strikers had unanimously elected as their spokesperson a young woman named Emma Tenayuca. A dynamic speaker with a magnetic personality, Tenayuca was a member of the small Communist Party chapter in Texas. The workers’ enemies attacked all the strikers because of Tenayuca’s political associations. In order to deprive the strike’s enemies of a pretext with which to attack the workers, Emma Tenayuca eventually decided to step aside from role as chief spokesperson for the strikers. (She continued as one of the strike’s most stalwart leaders on the ground.)
On March 8, 1938, the pecan shellers returned to work for the wages that originally sparked the strike – pending the decision of a three-person arbitration board. On April 13, 1938, the board rendered a decision giving the workers a slight wage increase and extending recognition to Local 172 as the workers’ legal bargaining agent.
On October 24, 1938, a new federal law went into effect raising the minimum wage. The Southern Pecan Shelling Company and the local union petitioned for an exemption to this minimum wage. When their requests were denied, the pecan shelling companies quickly began to mechanize.
By 1941, about 10,000 of the 12,000 unskilled workers who had made up San Antonio’s pecan shelling industry at the time of the strike had lost their jobs permanently. By 1948, Pecan Shelling Workers Union Local 172 had disappeared.
The massive job loss which followed the strike does not diminish the significance of the strike itself. The courageous fight of the pecan shellers of San Antonio paved the way for the battles waged by other agricultural and food workers in the Southwest. Their victories would never have been achieved without the valiant example set by the pecan shellers of San Antonio. In a city long dominated by an ultra-conservative political machine, workers stood up, despite the fact that the business community, the police, the media, the church and even some elements within the Latino organizations and unions were against them. They showed all workers how to confront employer abuses and police harassment and political witch-hunts. Their brave stand should serve as an example to all of us, especially in the difficult days ahead, when the powerful will inevitably set similar traps for the labor movement again.


The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.

Jul 27, 2008

Striking copper miners continue the struggle at the site of historic battle for labor rights

January 1948: Cananea, Mexico:

What does U.S. Congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin have to do with a copper strike in Mexico?

In Cananea, a small town about 50 miles south of the border, some 1,287 copper miners are battling one of Mexico’s largest corporations – Grupo Mexico. The chief financial officer of Grupo Mexico is J. Eduardo Gonzalez. Gonzalez was once an executive of the Mexican subsidiary of Kimberly Clark, the paper company founded by the Sensenbrenner family.


So, the sponsor of anti-immigrant legislation in the U.S. Congress has ties to people running a huge Mexican mining corporation which treats its workers so badly that many of them are forced to head north to look for a better life! While that’s ironic, it’s not surprising, because for more than a century what has happened to the miners of northern Mexico has affected workers on both sides of the border. That’s why we should speak out in support of the strike going on in Cananea right now -- and heed the lessons of the battles fought there in the past.


On January 16, more than 25,000 miners across Mexico staged a one-day work stoppage to protest the attack by 1,000 police officers on the Cananea picket lines in early January. The miners’ gesture of solidarity came exactly 102 years to the day after another important event which also involved Cananea’s miners. It was on another January 16 – January 16, 1906 – that workers at the Cananea mine banded together to form a secret organization. The group helped lead a famous strike – and the crushing of that strike helped light the fuse of the Mexican Revolution of 1910.


In 1906, the town of Cananea, the Cananea mine, and more than 10 square miles of surrounding farmland and forests were all the property of the “4C” – the Cananea Consolidated Copper Company. Headed by an American named William C. Greene, the company maintained its own schools, stores, railway, and police force. Discrimination against Mexican workers was rampant.


On January 16, 1906, a group of about 15 Cananea miners formed the Union Liberal Humanidad (“Liberal Humanity Union”), which was allied with the Mexican Liberal Party. The group played an important leadership role in a strike which broke out on June 1, 1906, after the company announced that it would pay wages on the basis of piecework rather than by the hour.


The strike was crushed by the Mexican police (who were aided by a detachment of Arizona territorial police officers.) Thirty Mexicans and six Americans were killed.


Outrage at the violent suppression of the Cananea strike helped to deepen the growing public rejection of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. Today, Mexican school children are taught about how the Cananea strike of 1906 sparked their country’s 1910 revolution in much the same way that U.S. children are taught about the battles of Lexington and Concord during the American Revolution.


In 1917, the “4C” was sold to the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. In 1971, the mine was nationalized. In 1990, the government of President Carlos Salinas privatized the mine, selling it for $450 million to Grupo Mexico.


At the time, Grupo Mexico’s main shareholder – Jorge Larrea – was the head of one of Mexico’s richest families. Larrea’s industrial empire expanded rapidly through his close friendship with President Carlos Salinas, who signed the NAFTA treaty during his administration. Under Salinas, the Mexican government sold Larrea the Cananea mine and other copper mines, as well as railroads and other enterprises, often at a fraction of their book value. Thirteen Mexican financiers became billionaires during the Salinas administration; Jorge Larrea was one of them.


Conditions at Cananea led to strikes in 1998-99; in 2003 and in 2004; and in 2006. The current strike is taking place chiefly over health and safety conditions. The workers in the enclosed part of the huge complex have to deal with rock dust so deep that it rises over the top of the workers’ boots. Superfine particles lodge in workers’ lungs. The miners who breathe this rock dust year after year suffer a variety of lung diseases, including silicosis. Safety equipment has been disconnected or is inoperable. Safety personnel have been eliminated.


Fed up, on July 30, 2007, the members of Section 65 of the Mexican Union of Mine, Metal and Allied Workers went on strike. On January 11, 2008, Mexico’s labor board ruled that the strike was illegal. As the board was announcing its decision, the Mexican government was dispatching hundreds of police officers to break up the picket lines. Twenty people were injured, several seriously. Dozens of people were beaten; police helicopters dropped tear gas bombs on strikers.


The union has appealed the labor board’s ruling, arguing that the decision violates labor rights enshrined in the Mexican Constitution. If the Mexican courts declare the Cananea strike illegal and allow the company to bring in strikebreakers, that step would represent a drastic departure from precedent, a move to make labor law in Mexico much less sympathetic to unions (and much closer to the way such laws operate in the United States). When previous strikes in the mine were crushed, many strikers had no choice but to head north to the United States to look for work, often as undocumented workers. For all these reasons – and because no human being should have to work in rock dust up to the top of their boots – workers in the United States should speak out now in support of the miners of Cananea.

The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.


Jul 27, 2008

Tragic death of immigrant workers inspires a song of solidarity

January 1948

The fire began over Los Gatos Canyon. It started in the left engine-driven fuel pump. The plane crashed 20 miles west of Coalinga, California, on January 29, 1948. It came down into hills which, as one commentator noted, at that time of year are “a beautiful green, splendid with wildflowers … a place of breathtaking beauty.”
There were 32 people on board that day, but the names of only four are recorded for history. The newspaper articles about the crash describe an accident involving a Douglas DC-3 carrying immigrant workers from Oakland, California to the El Centro, California Deportation Center. Those accounts give the name of the plane’s pilot (Frank Atkinson), and co-pilot (Marion Ewing). They mention the name of the stewardess (Bobbi Atkinson) and the guard (Frank E. Chapin). However, the newspaper stories do not include the names of any of the 27 men or of the one woman who were passengers on that flight, victims who were buried in a mass grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno, California. The newspaper reports simply dismiss them as “deportees.”
One visitor to the crash site described the scene this way:
I was born and raised in Coalinga and can remember going to the crash site the day after the incident. My father, older sister, and I viewed the crash and even though I was about six years old at the time, I can remember it as if it happened yesterday. It was a cold and damp day and even though the reports were that the site had been cleaned up, this was not the case. The sadness of seeing the meager possessions of the passengers and the total lack of respect by those who had the task of removing the bodies will be something I will never forget or forgive.”
Three thousand miles away, a man who had himself once been forced to leave his family to look for work took notice. Musician Woody Guthrie left his birthplace in Oklahoma during the Great Depression and then did plenty of “hard traveling” before ultimately ending up in New York. He was outraged by the callous indifference of the news stories which couldn’t be bothered to mention the names of the workers who died in the crash. Out of his anger came a song – “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee),” a ballad in which he assigned symbolic names to the dead:

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be “deportees” …
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves …
The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, “They are just deportees”
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except “deportees”?

The song, as Woody Guthrie wrote it, was without music; Guthrie chanted the words. “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)” was not performed publicly until 10 years after the plane crash, when a school teacher named Martin Hoffman added a haunting melody and Woody’s friend Pete Seeger began performing the song in concerts. The song’s eloquent plea for justice for immigrant workers has stirred the conscience of fair-minded people in the United States ever since.
Often referred to simply as “Deportee,” the song’s continuing broad appeal can be seen in the fact that it has been recorded by wide variety of artists. Among the musicians who have covered the song have been Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Bruce Springsteen, as well as the Irish musician Christy Moore and the English singer Billy Bragg. The list also includes the Kingston Trio; Cisco Houston; Judy Collins; The Byrds; Joan Baez; Arlo Guthrie; Sweet Honey in the Rock; Hoyt Axton; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Roy Brown Ramirez, Tito Auger and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger; and Paddy Reilly, among others.
January 2008 marks 60 years since the plane wreck near Los Gatos Canyon. The lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s song about the disaster sound as if they were written just days ago, not six decades in the past. (This is especially true of the verse “They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.”)  The 60th anniversary of the tragedy falls during a hotly contested presidential campaign in which most major candidates are either slandering immigrants or equivocating on whether to stand up to such slanders.
The great labor leader Mother Jones once said that we should mourn for the dead and fight like hell for the living. On this 60th anniversary of a terrible loss, we should pay special heed to the appeal for the unity of all workers which rings out so beautifully from Woody Guthrie’s song. Today the labor movement can honor the dead of January 29, 1948 best by speaking up in defense of the living immigrant workers of today – regardless of documentation status -- and by demanding that the rulers of this country cease their cowardly attempts to use the immigration issue as a wedge to divide the workers of this country.


The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.

Jul 27, 2008

Labor fought slavery in the Civil War; How do we fight it now?

Thirteenth Amendment, December 1865
The main headline proclaimed the news in large capital letters set in thick black type: “THE CONSUMMATION!”
Below, only slightly smaller headlines continued: “Slavery Forever Dead in the United States. … No Human Bondage After Dec. 18, 1865.”
The New York Times had good reason to use dramatic headlines in its Dec. 19, 1865 edition. Those headlines reported a momentous development: Slavery was now illegal throughout the whole of the United States. U.S. Secretary of State William Seward had signed a proclamation the previous day announcing the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

The Thirteenth Amendment states that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Like all proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution, it had to be passed by a two-thirds majority of each house of Congress and then ratified by three-quarters of the states. The Thirteenth Amendment was passed by a two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate in 1864 and then by a two-thirds majority of the House in early 1865. When Georgia became the 27th state to ratify the amendment in early December 1865, the conditions were met for Seward to announce that the measure had become the law of the land.
December 2010 marks 145 years since the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. This December, it’s important that we consider what its passage means for today.
It was the Thirteenth Amendment – not Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – which made chattel slavery illegal throughout the whole of the United States. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 granted freedom only to slaves in territory controlled by those in rebellion against the federal government. While the Emancipation Proclamation was an important blow against the slave-owners’ rebellion, it excluded hundreds of thousands of slaves in slave states which never seceded from the Union (like Delaware and Kentucky) and in parts of Virginia and Louisiana then occupied by the Union Army.
However, the sad truth is that while the Thirteenth Amendment made slavery and involuntary servitude illegal in the United States, it did not end slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States, nor did it bring about equality for the former slaves or their descendants.
Anyone who works in a factory where there is mandatory overtime knows that involuntary servitude still exists in parts of this country. So does slavery. Many undocumented immigrant workers, for instance, work in sweatshops in conditions which amount to outright slavery. For millions of workers around the world, the growth of free trade for employers has meant an increase in slavery for workers. Today, those of us working in the United States find ourselves in a situation somewhat similar to the textile workers of Fall River, Massachusetts in 1844. They were told by the mill owners: “You must work as long and as cheap as the Slaves of the South, in order to compete with the Southern manufacturer.” For us, the “South” is the global South – the sweatshops outside the United States where workers are compelled to work under slave-labor conditions.
Before the Civil War, the most farsighted leaders of the U.S. labor movement spoke out against slavery, prompted by a combination of moral outrage and the practical necessity to oppose measures which would tend to drive the conditions of free laborers down to the level of the slaves. The great opponent of slavery Thomas Wentworth Higginson was correct when he wrote in his memoirs that the anti-slavery cause was “far stronger for a time in the factories and shoe shops [of New England] than in the pulpits or colleges.”
When Lincoln called for volunteers after the secessionists attacked Fort Sumter in April 1861, carpenters, painters, shoemakers, tailors, clerks, mill operatives, printers, and other workers left their jobs and joined the Union’s military forces.
Immigrant workers comprised 24 percent of the Union Army, and played an important role in the war. The De Kalb regiment was made up entirely of German clerks. The Garibaldi Guard was composed of Italian workers. The Polish Legion was organized by Polish workers. The “Fighting 69th” – the 69th Regiment from New York – included many Irish immigrant workers.
Entire local unions enlisted in response to the attack on Fort Sumter. A Philadelphia local union entered the following in its minutes: “It having been resolved to enlist with Uncle Sam for the war, this Union stands adjourned until the Union is safe or we are whipped.”
Slaves ran away, found their way to the Union Army’s lines, and insisted that they be allowed to join the army and fight. 
All this is part of labor history, and of our common heritage. We should never forget that hundreds of thousands of workers had to spill their blood to place the Thirteenth Amendment into the Constitution of the United States. Today, our challenge is to figure out how to make this country implement that amendment in fact, not just in words -- in the midst of a new economy where there is slavery all around us. The workers of the Civil War era were not afraid to envision a completely new world; we should not be afraid to do so either.


The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.

Jul 27, 2008

New Orleans, November 1892: One city’s heroic general strike defies racial divisions

“Tie the town up!” was the workers’ battle cry – and for several days, they did. The strike hit just as the commercial season began. The delivery of food and beverages ceased. Street cars stopped running. Street cleaning and fire-fighting ground to a halt. Electrical and gas workers walked out, plunging the city into darkness at night. Manufacturing stopped.

This month marks the 115th anniversary of the New Orleans general strike, which began on November 8, 1892. One historian called it “the first general strike in American history to enlist both skilled and unskilled labor, black and white, and to paralyze the life of a great city.” It involved 25,000 workers – half the city’s work force – and lasted four days.
The general strike was a response to the arrogant refusal of the New Orleans Board of Trade to negotiate seriously with three unions which had gone out on strike on Oct. 24. The original strikers were members of the Teamsters, Scalesmen, and Packers. They comprised the Triple Alliance, and they had walked out because the Board of Trade refused to grant them a 10-hour day, overtime pay, and a preferential union shop (a situation in which the employer goes first to the union when seeking to hire new employees).
The Board of Trade soon announced that it would sign an agreement with the Scalesmen and the Packers unions, but not with the Teamsters’ Union, whose membership was predominantly African-American. Under no circumstances, the Board of Trade said, would they “enter into any agreement with ‘n---rs.’ ” To sign an agreement with the Triple Alliance including the Teamsters, the Board of Trade asserted, would be to place the employers under the control of blacks, for soon the man who would control the Alliance “would be a Big Black Negro.”
The bigotry of the Board of Trade was matched by the New Orleans newspapers. They rushed to print accounts of “mobs of brutal Negro strikers” roaming around the city, “beating up all who attempted to interfere with them.”
To their credit, the workers of the Triple Alliance stayed united, despite the attempts to split them along color lines. The Scalesmen and Packers publicly declared that they would never return to work until the employers signed up with all three members of the Triple Alliance. The members of other unions in New Orleans began to call for a general strike in support of the Triple Alliance.
On November 8, the general strike began. Each of the 49 unions on strike demanded union recognition and a closed shop. (In many cases, individual unions added their own specific demands for shorter hours and higher wages.) Several of the unions involved – including the street car drivers and the printers – violated their contracts in order to join the general strike. The unions were organized into a citywide central labor body called the Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council. The general strike was led by five labor leaders known as the Committee of Five.
Louisiana Governor Murphy Foster assumed control of the city on November 10. He placed several battalions of the state militia on alert. Despite the fact that the strikers had been peaceful and orderly, Foster issued a proclamation ordering citizens not to congregate in crowds. The proclamation implied that the militia would be called out if the strike continued. Foster’s edict amounted to a declaration of martial law, and warned labor of possible bloodshed ahead.
Unwilling to stake their unions’ very existence on a confrontation with the militia, the Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council called off the general strike. Under the final agreement, both sides agreed that arbitration would settle the economic issues. The next day, an arbitration board granted the Triple Alliance small wage increases and a reduction of hours. However, the striking unions failed to win their most important demand – the closed shop. Hundreds of union workers, especially the freight handlers, street car drivers, and employees of Standard Oil Company, lost their jobs to “replacement workers.” The fired workers, both white and black, denounced the Committee of Five for “treachery.” Many unions withdrew from the Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council over the next several months.
The failure of the strikers to secure the closed shop ultimately undermined their other gains. Within a year, the Panic of 1893 would mark the beginning of the 19th century’s worst economic crisis, producing high unemployment and deep wage cuts for African-Americans and whites alike. The solidarity across color lines displayed in 1892 was soon replaced by bitter hostility as wages plunged and many white dockworkers in New Orleans fought to deny African-American workers access to the few good jobs available.
The general strike in New Orleans came at the end of a remarkable year that saw strikes by steelworkers in Homestead, Pennsylvania; train switchmen in Buffalo, New York; coal miners in east Tennessee; and silver miners in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
One month after the New Orleans general strike ended, a fiery labor editor named John Swinton spoke to the national convention of the American Federation of Labor. Responding to those who claimed that “labor was defeated in all those fields and fights, from Buffalo to Coeur d’Alene, from Homestead and New York to New Orleans,” Swinton replied:

“Halt! … We must take a broad view of the warlike operations of which these strikes were incidents. Skirmishes may be lost by a regiment which may win. Regiments may be defeated in the battles of a triumphant campaign. Campaigns may end in dismay for the army that conquers in the war. Be not in haste. … This thing is not over yet. The forces of the advance have but begun to learn their drill. Serious revolutions move in large arcs, along a course which is orderly, though it may appear to be zig-zag. …
“The 50,000 brave men who, in the six great strikes and the many lesser strikes of this year, stood the enemy’s onslaughts, rendered a service of incomputable worth to the working masses of the United States. … If they had failed to strike a blow before they fell – what do you think would have happened elsewhere? Do you doubt that cowardice would have invited further reprisals, that the conditions of labor would have been made harder in other places and other industries? …
“If, therefore, many of the hostile schemes of the enemy were checked or balked this year … due credit for this must be given to … the strikers who resisted aggression, set their comrades on the watch by raising the alarm. …
“I ask you to bear it in mind, to hold it in grateful memory, that American labor in general has been benefited by the action of the brave strikers of Homestead, Buffalo, New Orleans, who took the field in its defense and fell while battling for a few of the items of its rights.”

It’s a point well worth remembering today, as we again face an uphill battle for our rights.


The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.

Jul 27, 2008

Paul Robeson, Eugene Debs, and Labor History

October 20 marks the anniversary of the day in 1926 when legendary labor leader and Socialist Party candidate for President Eugene V. Debs died. Debs spoke out courageously against U.S. involvement in World War I. He was reviled by many and ultimately jailed by the government for his opposition to that war. His brave stand set a standard that was more than equaled during the McCarthy era by labor champion and world-famous performing artist Paul Robeson, who spoke out vehemently against U.S. intervention around the world and the denial of basic rights here at home. Because October is a good month to remember both these extraordinary figures, we reprint below excerpts from a speech which does precisely that. It was given by Noel Beasley, an international executive vice president of UNITE HERE (and manager of the Chicago and Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE), at an international conference held in 2005 to honor the memory of Paul Robeson.

Paul Robeson’s upbringing in the small towns of New Jersey, surrounded by tightly bound communities of working-class African Americans, provided him with role models of brave families struggling for happiness against the two-headed monster of economic deprivation and racial prejudice. Certainly his father, as an articulate, highly principled religious leader compelled to make a living by hard labor, instilled in young Robeson an innate respect for the daily difficulties faced by workers. In later years, Paul continually cited his personal experiences at his earliest, most menial jobs, as the adhesive that bound him to workers wherever he encountered them. There is nothing romantic about Robeson’s vision of either work or the working class; in particular as an African American, he not only knew but he could effectively express the challenges of maintaining one’s self-respect against the odds of the twentieth century workplace.
But Robeson did not depend on his personal experiences alone to shape his capacity to represent workers. There are very few leaders of the U.S. working class who have managed to achieve the scholarly accumulation of knowledge that Robeson commanded. This enabled him simultaneously to feel totally comfortable with working people and their leaders and at the same time to have the capacity to establish the objective distance that is required when it comes time to make difficult decisions, to choose sides when sides must be chosen.
Courage and the ability to be defiant are also important characteristics of those who lead workers and Robeson possessed these in abundance. Robeson constantly rose to the occasion when workers needed his assistance and when reactionary forces needed to be challenged. This required both physical courage (as when Robeson traveled with the troops during the Spanish Civil War or when he performed his concerts at Peekskill, New York) but also intellectual and moral courage as demonstrated most dramatically in his appearances before various government tribunals during the struggle to regain his passport and his freedom to travel.
These expressly political acts of courage and defiance, when combined with his achievements in such a broad array of other endeavors, made Robeson a genuinely inspirational leader, one who explicitly made it possible for others also to become leaders as well. His humility and willingness to share his knowledge and talent with others has been thoroughly documented but the extent to which he utilized his skills as a cultural artist to bring the spirit of the struggle to workers and in particular to their unions is unprecedented. The labor movement has had many noble troubadours but never before or since has an individual of Robeson’s skill and fame traveled to so many mines and mills, to so many small towns and union halls in such an unselfish display of support and commitment.
Robeson went to the center of the most vital labor struggles of his time and on each occasion brought to the workers an indispensable sense of the importance of their fight, of the political and cultural contexts within which it occurred, and often used his appearances to create public recognition of and public support for their cause. For Robeson and his audiences, a concert tour was a political act as important to the immediate struggle as an unwavering picket line. Whether it was auto workers in Detroit, agricultural workers in Hawaii or miners in Wales, Robeson inspired workers with songs and words to be strong and to act in militant solidarity with other workers around the world.

Robeson’s Unique Qualities in His Times

Paul Robeson had the ability to express the transcendence of the human spirit above all attempts to confine and crush it. He demonstrated in his person and his actions that no matter the color or ethnic origin of workers, they shared a common destiny and a common enemy. He exhorted workers not to fall into the false divisions that so effectively undermine the unity necessary them to be victorious. By virtue of being an African American, he spoke and sang of the horrors of fascism with an inescapable sense of authority. His visceral understanding of the historical linkage of Southern slavery in the U.S. and of fascism in Germany, his outspoken repugnance for the stars and bars and the swastika, made him the perfect spokesperson for the continued fight for civil rights and civil liberties in the post-World War II period. This also made him the biggest target for government persecution. It is more than ironic that the U.S. government chose the tactic of travel restriction, of passport revocation, as the instrument of torture for Robeson. For the son of a slave who had used the Underground Railroad to escape the imprisonment of slavery, the withdrawal of rights of passage was more than an attempt to stifle Robeson’s ability to earn a living (though it certainly was that too). It also was an imposition upon an African American of one of the key terms and conditions of slavery, confinement. The world wide response to fight for the return of Robeson’s passport was led to a great degree by trade unions in dozens of countries. The great concerts of the 1950’s at the Peace Arch on the U.S.-Canadian border and via transatlantic telephone to Welsh miners were vivid acts of combined defiance by Robeson and his trade union supporters. These exhibitions of global solidarity across all lines of color and race but consistently within the line of class were the end result of decades of performances by Robeson in support of and on behalf of workers everywhere.
Robeson demonstrated concretely his respect for all nationalities of workers by learning their languages, appreciating their cultures, and singing songs in words they would understand. This multinational expression ultimately for Robeson became transnational in the sense that class transcended color and ethnicity by celebrating the cultural differences rather than denying or stultifying them. Ever the champion of African American rights and freedoms, Robeson again and again placed that specific fight within the general worldwide struggle for rights and dignity. No other figure of the twentieth century fought for that vision with the eloquence of Robeson.
In the same way, Robeson brought the message of the necessity for global peace to the trade union and working class movements. The post-World War II period of the United States was fraught with every conceivable contradiction. Returning African American soldiers were denied the rights they had been willing to die for in Europe and Asia. Militant workers who had fought side by side with Russians to defeat fascism were isolated and ostracized as “alien communists.” The only country ever to attack another with atomic weapons held itself up as the only safeguard against nuclear annihilation. Robeson’s unrelenting exposure of these contradictions and his stalwart defense of those persecuted for opposition to the policies of the U.S. government cost him more than his mobility. The price of fighting for peace was the isolation and marginalization of Robeson and thousands of other Americans whom he represented and who saw him as one of their most articulate leaders.
Robeson was a partisan. He had to be. In the trade union movement of his era, one sector favored the continuation of Jim Crow policies and collaboration with the agenda of corporate America. Another sector insisted on integration of the workforce and resistance to assaults on workers’ rights. In every instance, Robeson sided with the unions and unionists who shared his vision of improving the world by improving the fate and future of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed. Robeson had to be suppressed by his enemies. For they too were partisans.

Paul Robeson today

There is no better time and no better place to come to grips with the legacy of Paul Robeson than the United States of America of today. As in the 1950’s, basic liberties are under assault, unjust wars are being waged by our government, and trade unions are being marginalized while workers’ rights are crushed. The lessons of Robeson’s leadership need to be studied and understood by anyone attempting to organize a counteroffensive.
Those who would be progressive leaders in contemporary times should begin with a close reading of Here I Stand, Paul Robeson’s political will and testament. From my reading of this essential work, I draw the following lessons, only a few among many:
Understand, appreciate and venerate your historical predecessors: Robeson constantly cites one of his great heroes, Frederick Douglass.
Understand the connection between suppression of African American rights and trade union rights and make no compromise with those who perpetrate it:  We now live in a time in which the centrality of the oppression of African Americans must be explained clearly again; there is an historical amnesia on the part of the American people and most dangerously among American workers concerning the Civil War, the period of so-called Reconstruction and all that followed that is reinforced by the vapidity of what is presumed to be “popular culture” and the continual dilution of quality public education. Robeson, writing in 1958, could see it all plainly and so must we: “The interests of the overwhelming majority of the American people demand that the Negro question be solved. It is not simply a matter of justice for a minority: what is at stake is a necessity for all. Just as in Lincoln’s time the basic interests of the American majority made it necessary to strike down the system of Negro enslavement, so today those interests make it necessary to abolish the system of Negro second-class citizenship. … The upholders of ‘states’ rights’ against the Negro’s rights are at the same time supporters of the so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws against the rights of the trade unions. The reactionary laws which have undermined the gains of Roosevelt’s New Deal – the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, the anti-foreign-born Walter-McCarran Act, the thought-control Smith Act – all were strongly backed by Dixiecrats in Congress. Until their political power is broken, there can be no real social or economic progress for the common people anywhere, North or South. Indeed, it is clear that not only will there be no progress, but there will be further retrogression unless this political cancer is removed from public life.”
Some may wish to argue that Robeson’s words are outmoded or passé; for those who do, I would urge them to look at the realities of our time … the numbers of African American youth in prison in relation to the rest of the populace, the deterioration of the public schools essential to African American advancement, the enforced economic conscription into the military of African Americans denied job opportunities. The so-called Patriot Act is the direct descendent of the legislation cited by Robeson above. And while the Dixiecrats no longer exist, the influence of Southern political leaders of both parties continues to hold back any progress for the working poor and the unemployed.
Continually emphasize the common history of oppression of all workers: As a leading representative of African Americans, Robeson utilized his authority and responsibility to illuminate the bridges between workers of diverse backgrounds and histories.

Never be silent: In Here I Stand, Robeson raises the imminent and pertinent question which he says “rolls around the world like thunder: When will Americans learn, that if they would encourage liberty in other countries, they must practice it at home?”  He could have said those words from the center of Baghdad today. Our government continues to impose a false and cruel gargoyle of pseudo democracy wherever it needs to exercise dominance; at the same the minimal rights of freedom of assembly and speech are under full assault here at home.

Robeson and Debs

It is dangerous and uncomfortable to study the life of Paul Robeson. For those of us in the trade union movement, we have a special responsibility to restore Paul Robeson to his rightful place in the pantheon of labor’s heroes. Together with Eugene V. Debs, Robeson transformed in a material way the content of the trade union struggle in the United States in the twentieth century. While very different men in some ways, Debs and Robeson share an unrivaled record of achievement in working for the common good, an unprecedented skill in infusing the vision of the American working class with the desirability of fighting capitalism and attempting to establish a system more fair and generous and just. They also share the unqualified hatred of the rich and powerful and both were harassed and imprisoned (Debs literally and Robeson figuratively) by the powers of a state determined to silence them.
It is our shared responsibility to insure that the forces of repression do not triumph, that the words and deeds of our champions are enshrined and serve as precious examples to us of what is possible and necessary and ultimately essential if the promise of our great country finally is to be realized. We owe a huge debt to Paul Robeson that has been accumulating interest for too long. It’s payback time.


The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.

Jul 27, 2008

Lessons of the Battle of Homestead 1892: Labor can’t rely on ‘kind’ millionaires

The crowd of thousands of men, women, and even children along the riverbank commandeered a raft. They loaded it with oil-soaked lumber, set fire to it, and sent it floating down the river toward the barges. The fire burned out before the raft collided with the two barges filled with private detectives hired by the company.

The workers then sent a burning flatcar loaded with barrels of oil hurtling down the railroad track that ran from the steel mill to the wharf. At the water’s edge, the car came to an abrupt halt before it could hit the barges.
Next, the workers tried to dynamite the barges. Then they poured oil in the water and tried to set the oil on fire, in a move designed to surround the barges with a burning oil slick. Throughout all this, the workers kept up a steady barrage of gunfire directed at the detectives firing at them from the barges.
Industrial workers on strike have often had to act like an army; this month is the anniversary of a bitter conflict in which workers had to develop their own small-scale navy.
July 2007 marks the 115th anniversary of the Battle of Homestead in 1892. The Homestead strike was one of the first great efforts to stop a powerful employer who came to the bargaining table insisting that the workers make huge concessions. It’s particularly important that we remember Homestead because so many workers today find themselves in a similar situation.

Six Lodges of the Amalgamated Association

In 1892, Andrew Carnegie, one of the wealthiest men in the United States, had owned the Homestead Works near Pittsburgh for almost a decade. Since 1889, the skilled workers at the plant had been organized into six lodges of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. The AAISW represented 800 workers out of a total work force of 2,500.
The “Association” was a national organization in the iron and steel industry. Its membership was restricted to skilled workers in the rolling mills and puddling furnaces. The union’s membership did not include the laborers (who were an important part of the labor force.) At the beginning of the 1890s, the AAISW was the largest trade union in the United States, claiming 290 lodges and 24,068 members.
At the beginning of  1892, the workers at Homestead were still operating under an agreement signed by the Carnegie Company and the Amalgamated Association in 1889. (It was due to expire on June 30, 1892.) While Carnegie tried to portray himself as a friend of his employees, he was, in fact, determined to break the union. Carnegie had placed the rabid anti-unionist Henry Clay Frick in charge of his company’s operations in 1881. Carnegie ordered the Homestead plant to manufacture large amounts of inventory so that the plant could survive a strike.
In February 1892, Frick and leaders of the Amalgamated Association began negotiations. Frick proposed a 22 percent wage decrease for almost half the union’s membership. He also proposed to remove a number of positions from the bargaining unit. On April 30, 1892, Frick announced that he would bargain for 29 more days and if no contract was reached by then, Carnegie Steel would cease to recognize the union. (Carnegie formally approved Frick’s tactics on May 4.)

Locked Out at Homestead

On the evening of June 29 and the morning of June 30, the mill at Homestead was shut down, hours before the contract expired.
Before the shutdown, the union contacted the day laborers. They assured the union that they would not work unless the union was recognized. On June 30, a mass meeting of the mechanics and the transportation departments voted to stand by the Amalgamated Association.
The entire Homestead work force of 3,800 fought together – skilled and unskilled, union and non-union, native and foreign-born. An Advisory Committee of 50 union members headed by Hugh O’Donnell was elected to run the strike. Picket lines were thrown around the mill and the town 24 hours a day. The striking workers were divided into shifts. Ferries were watched. Strangers were challenged and anyone without a satisfactory reason for being in town was ushered out. A steam launch – the Edna — and a number of skiffs were obtained to patrol the Monongahela River.
The Advisory Committee had complete control of Homestead during the strike and went to great lengths to preserve order. Calm prevailed during the first week of the lock-out – but it was a calm before the storm.
At precisely 10:30 p.m. on July 5, 1892,  some 300 employees of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency arrived by rail in Bellevue, near Davis Island Dam, about five miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh. In the late 1800s, the officials of the Pinkerton agency liked to portray the company as simply a private security firm, a supplier of well-trained and well-groomed guards and private detectives. In fact, the Pinkerton Agency was a brutal union-busting operation. Founded in 1850 by Scottish immigrant Alan Pinkerton, the company supplied businesses with strikebreakers, thugs, spies to infiltrate unions -- and even agent provocateurs to manufacture “evidence” against union activists. The decision of the Carnegie Steel Corporation to hire “the Pinks” to force open the Homestead Works turned out to be a fateful one.
The Pinkerton agents were greeted by Joseph H. Gray, the chief deputy to Allegheny County Sheriff William H. McCleary; John Alfred Potter, superintendent of the Homestead Steel Works, and several of his foremen. Gray and Potter escorted the Pinkertons inside two especially equipped barges purchased by Carnegie Steel for the mission to Homestead. One -- the Iron Mountain -- had been outfitted as a dormitory. The other – the Monongahela – included a fully equipped kitchen and a dining room that required 20 waiters.
On board each barge were dozens of cases of provisions and of ammunition and armaments, including 300 pistols and 250 high-powered Winchester rifles. 
Two river tug boats – the Little Bill and the Tide – pulled alongside to begin the journey upriver to Homestead. (The Tide soon became disabled, and the Little Bill had to tow both barges.)
Most of the 300 Pinkerton agents did not even know where they were going. They had answered general advertisements for work at offices of the agency in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
Almost as soon as the barges got underway, their journey had been detected by the steel workers. The Homestead workers had established a sophisticated warning system to detect company moves on either land or water, and the system worked on July 5-6. When the Pinkerton flotilla passed the Smithfield Street bridge near downtown Pittsburgh, a union scout immediately telegraphed union headquarters in Homestead. That telegraph arrived at 2:30 a.m. on July 6. Ten minutes later, the workers sounded a preliminary warning signal.

The Battle Against the Barges

In response, the steel workers dispatched the Edna.  Her crew fired a few stray shots, then signaled back to shore by blowing the whistle. A lookout at the Homestead light works then yanked the giant whistle there. Soon, every engine in town sounded the alarm. A messenger also rode through the streets on a horse letting everyone know that an attack was imminent.  
Thousands of men, women and children raced to the steel works and the river bank. By the time the crowd reached the riverbank, it was 4 a.m., and day was breaking. The crowd was keeping pace as the barges moved past the town and began the approach to the wharf of the Carnegie Steel Company. The charging throng of town folk – including hundreds of girls and women, some carrying babies as well as guns – came to an abrupt stop at a barbed wire fence separating company property from Homestead proper.
The fence had been deliberately extended to the low water mark of the Monongahela River in order to deny land access to the wharf. When the crowd saw that the Little Bill was preparing to run the two barges aground at the company landing place, the strongest men stepped forward and tore down the fence. The crowd swarmed across the mill yard and onto the wharf.
As a tall Pinkerton agent paced the deck of the Monongahela, high above him on shore, hundreds of women, many of them the wives of Eastern European steel workers, hurled insults, shook their fists, and threw stones down at the Pinkertons.
Full-scale firefight

Hundreds of armed men and women guarded the steep embankment overlooking the landing site. Hundreds more were on their way. Despite this, Captain Frederick H. Heinde of the Pinkertons decided to try to seize control of the Homestead Works. After several Pinkertons lowered a gangplank, gun fire broke out. While it has never been established who fired first, the Pinkertons interpreted the first shots as a general signal to open fire. They fired volley after volley into the crowd of workers. The Homestead workers responded. For about 10 minutes, a full-scale firefight took place.
Three steel workers died as a result of that first engagement. At least nine more were wounded. One Pinkerton detective was mortally wounded, and a dozen others were badly hurt.
At about 8 a.m., the Pinkertons mounted a second attempt to leave the barges, move up the embankment, and take the steel works. In that firefight, four more workers died. The list of the most serious casualties suffered in the first four hours of the fighting on July 6 included a cross-section of the Homestead work force’s different ethnic groups. One of the workers who gave his life was a native-born American who had served in the Union Army in the Civil War (and been wounded at Gettysburg). The others were immigrants from England, Germany, Wales, and Slovakia.
At about 8 a.m., the tug boat left the scene, headed to a hospital with the Pinkerton wounded. This left the two barges stranded. Many of the Pinkerton recruits hid under bunks and tables, donned life jackets, and generally gave way to despair.
The battle did not end until 5 p.m. when the surrender of the Pinkerton men was finally arranged by local officials. The Pinkerton agents were marched by the workers from the barges through the mill and to the borough’s Opera House. Then they were sent to Pittsburgh, where the officials broke their promise to hold the Pinkertons for trial on murder charges (and instead simply released them).
Within days of repulsing the Pinkertons, the workers of Homestead were attacked by a different force. On July 10, Gov. Robert E. Pattison changed his position and ordered Major General George R. Snowden to assemble the National Guard of Pennsylvania – 8,000 men – and move to Homestead.
Carnegie Steel contacted employment agencies all over the country and offered special bonuses and railroad tickets to Pittsburgh to skilled workers from the eastern United States. The Pennsylvania National Guard began escorting these replacement workers into the Homestead works.

Court System Used Against Workers

While the use of replacement labor hurt the strike, the company understood that it could not operate with inexperienced replacements for long. Their work was not good enough. Carnegie needed its original work force back. So, the company moved on parallel tracks. At the same time that it advertised for replacement workers all over the country, it also used the courts to attack the strikers.
On July 18, seven strike leaders were charged with the murder of a Pinkerton detective. On September 22, a grand jury returned 167 true bills against the Homestead workers. There were six different indictments: three for murder; two for aggravated riots; and one for conspiracy. A charge of treason was even brought.
In his charge to the Grand Jury of Allegheny County, Judge Edward Paxson of the State Supreme Court claimed that the cause of the turmoil at Homestead was “the addition of large numbers of foreigners to our laboring population.”
In all, about 185 separate indictments were issued against the strike leaders. Every leader of the strike was arrested for something. However, not a single worker was found guilty by a jury. Still, the ultimate legal victories were very costly to the strikers. The leadership of the strike was forced to devote a considerable amount of time to legal defense. The funds of the strikers were drained by legal expenses. Unable to come up with bail money, many of the strikers had to go into hiding.
With 1,600 men on the relief rolls, the strike costing the union $10,000 a week, and outside contributions dwindling, by mid-October, the Homestead workers knew their situation was grim.

The Motion Passes

The Homestead lodges of the Amalgamated Association met for their weekly meeting on November 20, 1892. No more than one-third of the 800 members were present. A motion was made to declare the strike off and the Homestead mill open. It passed 101-91.
Some of the strikers were given work at vastly reduced wages. Many were turned away.
As a result of the defeat, men who had earned $4 for an 8-hour day were forced to work 12 hours for half that amount. The eight-hour day disappeared in the steel industry after the Homestead strike. By the beginning of 1894, the 12-hour shift became the rule in the Carnegie mills, and others soon followed.
Up to the time of the Homestead strike, few of the mills represented by the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers made their employees work on Sundays. After the Homestead strike, Sunday work became common.
The defeat at Homestead spelled the end of unionism at Carnegie and – for 40 years – the end of unionism in the entire steel industry. From 1892 onward, not a single union man was ever employed in a Carnegie mill.
The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers continued to exist, but it was shattered. It was not until the 1930s that a union would organize steel workers again.

Homestead’s Lessons

Labor can be proud of how the Homestead workers and their families fought together so bravely. But our pride in the Carnegie Steel workers’ courage should not blind us to the fact that in 1892 they lacked the organization they needed. The craft union at the Homestead Works represented only a minority of the workers in the mill. It was woefully inadequate to accomplish what needed to be done. The Battle of Homestead showed how labor needs to change its forms of organization when the situation changes.
For years before the Battle of Homestead, Andrew Carnegie had presented himself as a friend of the working man. On July 5, 1892, as the Pinkerton agents were headed to Homestead, Carnegie was far away. He was being cheered in Aberdeen, Scotland. He had gone there to open the library that he was giving that city. Aberdeen granted him “the freedom of the city” and he was praised lavishly by local officials for his philanthropy.
Carnegie spent the night of July 5, 1892 in Aberdeen at the Haddo House hotel, where he received a telegram from Pittsburgh informing him of the confrontation at Homestead. He continued with his vacation plans and left on July 6 for Rannoch Lodge, a retreat in Scotland’s central highlands so isolated that it could be reached only by private carriage. The lake and nearby streams provided Carnegie with a beautiful setting to pursue one of his favorite hobbies: fishing.
On July 8, an enterprising reporter finally tracked Carnegie down and asked his opinion of the confrontation at Homestead. He refused to talk. The next day, he began what today we would call a “spin” campaign. He said that he was “grieved” by the “news of the disaster” but declined to discuss “the merits or demerits of the case.” This attempt to appear above the fray was completely dishonest, given that Carnegie had instructed Frick to get rid of the union and had given him full authority to do as he saw fit. In fact, in response to the first news from Homestead, Carnegie cabled Frick: “All anxiety gone since you stand firm. Never employ one of these rioters. Let grass over works. Must not fail now.”
If we learn nothing else from the Battle of Homestead, we should take to heart the lesson that the laboring class must rely on its own efforts. We must never assume that some “goodhearted” millionaire will take care of us. We cannot expect the government to be a neutral third party in the battles between labor and the giant corporations. We cannot count on the courts to deliver justice of their own accord.
If we always keep in mind those lessons from 1892, we will be able to say what one publication said shortly after the Homestead workers returned to work. The New Nation pointed out that the industrial dispute at Homestead had ended, but “its soul goes marching on. The shots fired that July morning at the Pinkerton barges, like the shots fired at Lexington … were ‘heard round the world.’”


The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.

Jul 27, 2008

From the Wagner Act to the Taft-Hartley Act: Some lessons

Every seat in the galleries of the U.S. Senate chamber was filled that afternoon, with hundreds of other people standing. Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan, president pro tempore of the Senate, warned the spectators that no demonstration would be tolerated. In the back of the Senate chamber, dozens of members of the House of Representatives stood watching. Everyone sensed that history was about to be made.
Moments earlier, a written appeal from the president of the United States had been read; most senators would end up rejecting it. The majority of senators would also spurn a desperate plea from one of their own colleagues who was too ill to be present. Senator Robert Wagner had made every effort to attend the session, but had finally been forbidden to travel from New York by his two doctors and the Commissioner of Hospitals of New York. A statement issued through his office urged the Senate not to take the action it was contemplating. The statement warned that the step would destroy what Senator Wagner had “so long labored to develop – industrial peace through democracy.”
Then it was time to vote. When the balloting was done, a majority of the Senate – including Senator Joe McCarthy -- had agreed to override President Harry Truman’s veto of the bill. Because members of the U.S. House of Representatives – including Congressman Richard Nixon -- had already voted to override the veto, the bill automatically became a law at 3:17 p.m. on June 23, 1947, when the presiding officer of the Senate announced the result of the Senate vote.
June 2007 marks the 60th anniversary of the passage of the worst labor law since before the Civil War -- the “Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947.” The bill was sponsored by Senator Robert A. Taft, a Republican from Ohio, the chair of the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee and Representative Fred A. Hartley, Jr., a Republican from New Jersey, the chair of the House Education and Labor Committee.   
The Taft-Hartley Act has done terrible damage to workers in this country. The 60th anniversary of its passage demands that we step back and look at how this law came into being, what effect it has had, and what we can do now about the difficult situation it helped create.

Gutting the Wagner Act 

There is a special irony in the fact that Senator Robert Wagner of New York was too ill to be on the Senate floor when the final vote was taken on the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.  The Taft-Hartley Act represented a frontal assault on the law which Wagner guided to passage in 1935 – the National Labor Relations Act (often referred to simply as the Wagner Act.)
Before the Wagner Act was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt on July 5, 1935, a right to join a union in the workplace without reprisal did not clearly exist in the United States. The Wagner Act changed that situation.
The Wagner Act was the result of a political compromise between different forces among the wealthy which initially had diametrically opposed approaches to labor. After the Civil War, one wing of the capitalist class had been absolutely, vehemently opposed to unions. This section had vowed never to permit the unionizing of its workers and to crush the union movement by any means necessary, including violence. Another wing of the capitalists had been willing to allow unionization. This section saw legalizing unions as a step toward bringing workers into the middle class and as a way to isolate “extremists” within labor.
By the middle of the 1930s, most of the industrialists had given up their longstanding, fervent opposition to all unionization. This section of the capitalists decided to tolerate some unionization, unionization in the largest and most strategic industries in the United States. This stand was not taken out of kindness. These capitalists made a very calculated decision. Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany in 1933, and this wing of U.S. business could see the war clouds that were already darkening the skies of Europe. In 1934, a huge wave of strikes had swept the United States. By the mid-1930s, the most farsighted industrialists understood that they would never be able to produce the steel and rubber and tanks that would be needed in a world war (and that would make them huge sums of money) if the factory floors of the United States continued to be battle zones. So, these employers shrewdly moved to bring about labor peace. That’s why they allowed the Wagner Act to become law.
The Wagner Act was designed not just to tolerate unions, but to actually encourage them. It promoted the idea of industrial democracy. When he introduced the bill into the Senate, Wagner declared: “Democracy cannot work unless it is honored in the factory as well as the polling booth; [workers] cannot be truly free in body and spirit unless their freedom extends into the places where they earn their daily bread.”
The Wagner Act protected workers’ rights to bargain collectively. It established a three-member National Labor Relations Board and prohibited employers from engaging in unfair labor practices such as setting up a company union or firing or otherwise discriminating against workers who organized or joined unions.
The passage of the Wagner Act marked a temporary, limited ceasefire in a very long and bitter war between the laboring class and the capitalist class of the United States – but only a ceasefire, not a permanent peace treaty. The implementing of the Wagner Act did not mean that the class war was over in the United States. Tragically, some forces in the labor movement jumped to the conclusion that the old days of unrelenting hostility from especially the large industrialists were gone forever. These forces assumed that a new era of good will had begun. The representatives of the big industrialists had other plans. 
The relative labor peace brought about by the legalizing of unions in basic industry helped to unite the country for the fight against Hitler. The Wagner Act was legislation that different wings of the capitalists were willing to support at a specific moment in history – each wing for its own opportunistic reasons. However, by the time World War II ended in 1945, the National Labor Relations Act had fulfilled its purpose (at least as far as a significant part of the industrial manufacturers was concerned.). When the auto workers, packing-house workers, steel workers, and workers in many other industries went on strike shortly after the war, some of the same capitalists who had been willing to tolerate unions during the late 1930s moved to clamp down. These forces began supporting candidates committed to restricting and even undoing the provisions of the New Deal.
In the 1946 mid-term election, the Republican Party won control of both houses of Congress. Many of the new Republican members of Congress were arch-conservatives. Their first target was the Wagner Act. In this effort, they had the support of a big section of the Democratic caucus in Congress – particularly the Southern Democrats (or “Dixiecrats.”)
The bill which Taft and Hartley pushed through Congress gutted the National Labor Relations Act. Their proposal was so outrageous that even President Harry Truman – a conservative Democrat – described it as a “slave labor bill.”

Provisions of Taft-Hartley

The Taft-Hartley Act bans the closed shop, the situation in which an employer agrees to hire only union members. It permits states to outlaw the union shop. This led directly to numerous states – especially in the South – becoming “right to work” states. The sharp decline in union membership around the country over the last 60 years can be traced back directly to the passage of Taft-Hartley.
The Taft-Hartley Act also allows the president of the United States to intervene to stop any strike which might lead to a “national emergency.” The law allows the president to impose an 80-day “cooling-off” period on both sides in such a dispute. The Taft-Hartley Act also prohibits secondary boycotts, sympathy strikes or boycotts, and jurisdictional strikes and boycotts.
The Taft-Hartley law required all union officers to file a non-communist affidavit and take an oath pledging that they were not communists. (The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1965 that these provisions were unconstitutional.)
The Taft-Hartley Act also imposes all sorts of onerous requirements on unions to report their expenses and activities to the government. It contains provisions making it much easier for anti-union elements within a bargaining unit to decertify their union as the workers’ representative.

Grim lessons

What grim lessons should we learn on this 60th anniversary of Taft-Hartley?
First, the passage of Taft-Hartley shows that what is given to labor by others can also be taken away. The same institution which granted labor certain limited rights in 1935 took those rights away in 1947. Unlike other countries where the legalization of unions was won as a result of massive struggle from below – even revolution -- and then enshrined permanently in the country’s constitution, labor rights in the United States were handed down from above. (This handing-down from above was in response to actions from below, to be sure, but the rights were still handed down from above.) This made the granting of labor rights in the United States very different from the way those rights were secured in other countries – such as in Mexico, where labor rights were included in the Mexican constitution which emerged out of the Revolution of 1910.
Second, the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act shows that labor must always preserve its political independence.  After a Democratic president vetoed the Taft-Hartley bill, only 71 Democrats in the House of Representatives voted to sustain his veto, while 106 Democrats in the House voted to override it. In the Senate, 22 Democrats voted to sustain Truman’s veto and 20 Democrats voted to override it. The Democrats bear as much responsibility for Taft-Hartley as they do for NAFTA.
Third, labor has to face the question of the South’s role in American life. Almost the entire Southern delegation in the U.S. Senate voted for the Taft-Hartley Act. Without their support, the measure would never have become law. (This delegation included some of the worst figures ever to inhabit Congress, such as Senator James Eastland of Mississippi.)
In a sense, Taft-Hartley was the Confederacy’s revenge. Taft-Hartley passed because in 1947 African-Americans in the South were still denied the right to vote. Almost all of the members of Congress from the “Solid South” were staunchly anti-union. Some of them stated explicitly that they wanted to restrict union organizing drives in the South because those drives would inevitably set the stage for integration.
Today, the South remains the least unionized part of the United States. Just as the “Dixiecrats” were able to hold this country hostage in 1947, so today, the extreme conservatism of many Southern politicians forms the foundation for the worst anti-working class actions of the U.S. government.
Fourth, labor has to stand up to witch-hunts and fear-mongering. Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon were both first elected to Congress in 1946, and their brand of fear-mongering was already underway by 1947.  The supporters of the Taft-Hartley Act exploited the public’s anxiety to promote fear: fear of the unions, the communists, and the Soviet Union. Much of organized labor failed to stand up to this in 1947, and the union movement paid a big price for that.
Especially since 9/11, we have seen our own examples of witch-hunts and fear-mongering. The effects of Taft-Hartley are still being felt 60 years after its passage; how long will the effects of the anti-democratic measures being pushed today be felt if labor does not do its utmost to oppose them?
Fifth, labor has to respond to a new situation with new thinking. In 1947, labor tended to play defense. It tried to simply hold on to what had been won during the Roosevelt years. This did not work in 1947 when the entire world was changing. It will not work now at a time when the world is going through even more profound changes.
Several of the key parts of the Taft-Hartley Act – the “right to work” provision, the anti-communist affidavit, the cooling-off period, the decertification provision  – are cleverly designed to put labor on the moral defensive.
Labor’s message ought to echo that of Eleanor Roosevelt. Commenting on the Taft-Hartley Act, she wrote: “[I]nstead of clamping down on the labor movement, Americans ‘should be extremely grateful to unions.’ ” We can be proud that she made that comment in the Sept. 1, 1950 edition of The Advance, the newspaper of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, one of UNITE HERE’s predecessors.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s words were true in 1950 – and they are just as true now. We have to get off the defensive, get on the offensive, and stay there.


The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.

Jul 27, 2008

Miners risk everything to defend their rights

It happened in just minutes – but hundreds of bullets were fired. When it ended, 10 men were lying in the street, dead or dying.
The month of May marks the anniversary of one of the most dramatic showdowns in union history – the “Battle of Matewan.”
On May 19, 1920, a shoot-out took place in a small town next to the river which divides West Virginia from Kentucky. On that day, gun thugs working for the coal operators were confronted by the town’s pro-union police chief. The confrontation and its aftermath show how much sacrifice it took to win union recognition in this country.
The clash which began under the porch of the Chambers Hardware Store in Matewan, West Virginia was the culmination of a crisis which had been brewing for a long time.
In the 1870s, millions of acres of land, timber, and mineral rights passed out of the hands of local people in Appalachia and into the control of speculators who in turn sold them to absentee corporations. In 1886, the Norfolk and Western Railroad announced that an east-west line would be built through southern West Virginia. (The small town of Matewan sat on the main line of the Norfolk and Western.)
In the years that followed, timber companies stripped the mountainsides bare. The coal companies filled the landscape with gob piles. In 1867, West Virginia produced 489,000 tons of coal. In 1887, the state produced 4,882,000 tons; in 1917, it produced 89,384,000 tons.
As mining increasing, immigration into West Virginia soared. Workers from Europe found jobs in the mines. So did many African-American workers. The United Mine Workers Union achieved some success in organizing mineworkers in the northern and western parts of the state. By the end of 1918, the union claimed a membership of 22,000 out of a mine work force of 100,000. This membership included both blacks and whites, and both immigrants and workers born in the United States.
One district leader of the UMWA, Fred Mooney, proudly described his organization as being comprised of “men from many countries. Faces from the steppes of Russia, from Romania, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Poland, Armenia and many others were included.” Mooney helped organize a union local in which more than 25 languages were spoken.
But even as the UMWA grew in the other parts of the state, the coal fields of southern West Virginia remained unorganized. Whenever mine workers in other parts of the state – or the country – went on strike, the coal operators were able to flood the market with non-union, relatively inexpensive coal from southern West Virginia. By the time World War I ended, organizing the coal fields of the southern part of the state had become a critical necessity for the miners’ union.

Taking on the powerful

Building the union in southern West Virginia meant taking on some of the most powerful capitalists in the United States (and the world). The area’s wealth was controlled by capitalists living in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and London. Over 90 percent of the land in Mingo and Logan Counties was owned by outside interests. The Mellon family owned mines in the area, and the dominant force in the area was the U.S. Steel Corporation. That giant steel corporation owned over 32,000 acres in Mingo and Logan Counties and 50,000 acres in McDowell County.
On January 30, 1920, a young John L. Lewis, the new president of the United Mine Workers of America, came to Bluefield, West Virginia to announce that the union would launch a campaign to organize coal miners in southern Appalachia.
The news of the organizing drive spread quickly through the hills and hollows of southern West Virginia. By May 15, 1920, some 3,000 miners had signed up to join the UMWA. The town of Matewan, incorporated in 1895, quickly became the unionization effort’s base of operations.
The coal operators retaliated swiftly to the unionization efforts. They fired miners who joined the union, and evicted entire families from company housing. Hundreds of families spent a cold mountain spring shivering in tents with mud floors.

Gun thugs come to Matewan

On May 19, 1920, a group of men from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency arrived in the Matewan area on the “No. 29” – the morning railroad train. (While claiming to be a legitimate detective agency, the Baldwin-Felts outfit was, in fact, a group of notorious anti-union gun thugs.)
The Baldwin-Felts operatives were met at the train station by Matewan’s police chief, Sid Hatfield, and his friend and deputy, Fred Burgraff. Hatfield, 28 years old, was a former miner who had gone out of his way to protect the union organizing drive.
When the Baldwin-Felts detectives got off the train, they were carrying “grips” – satchels. Inside were Thompson submachine guns. Hatfield and Burgraff walked over to Albert Felts, the leader of the group, introduced themselves, and asked why the men had come to Matewan. Felts explained that his group was in town to evict people.
The detectives evicted six families at gunpoint from the Stone Mountain Coal Camp just outside Matewan and piled their possessions – iron skillets, clothes, and rocking chairs – in a drizzling rain. The detectives then went to eat dinner at the Urias Hotel and later walked to the depot to catch the five o’clock train back to Bluefield. But news of the evictions had spread, and people were angry. Men rushed to town with guns tucked under their jackets. Sensing the danger that was looming, women hurried to get their children off the streets. Townspeople watched intently from windows and doorways along Mate Street.
Under the porch of the Chambers Hardware Store, the two sides faced off in the rain. On one side was Sid Hatfield, Fred Burgraff, Cable Testerman -- Matawan’s mayor – and several armed miners. On the other side stood 13 detectives, including Baldwin-Felts president Thomas Felts, and his younger brothers Albert and Lee.
Police Chief Hatfield attempted to arrest Albert Felts for conducting the evictions without proper authority from Matewan. Through his raincoat, Albert Fells shot Cable Testerman in the stomach. Then bullets began flying in every direction.
The crossfire lasted only a few moments, but hundreds of rounds of ammunition were used. Albert Felts ran into the post office, and then came out firing at Sid Hatfield; Hatfield killed him.
When the shooting finally stopped, wary residents of Matawan slowly emerged from whatever they had taken cover behind. Many were in shock. Seven of the Baldwin-Felts operatives had been killed, including two of the Felts brothers, Albert and Lee. Another of their group was wounded. Two miners had been killed: Bob Mullins, who had been fired from his job that very morning for joining the union; and Tot Tinsley, a young unarmed bystander. Mayor Cable Testerman would die the next day. Four other people had been wounded.

An end to fear

News of the confrontation spread like wildfire. West Virginia’s governor ordered the entire state police force to take control of Matewan. Sid Hatfield and his men cooperated and stacked their weapons inside the Chambers Hardware Store.
The brave stand against the gun thugs taken by Hatfield and the striking miners ended the climate of fear that had paralyzed too many residents of the coal fields. Hatfield became a hero; thousands of miners rushed to join the union. By the end of June, over 90 percent of the county’s miners were enrolled in 34 locals. The union’s statewide membership had risen to over 50,000.
On July 1, the UMWA called its Mingo County members out on strike. By mid-July, almost no coal was being shipped out of the area. Violence swept the coal fields. 
In the midst of this turmoil, a grand jury indicted Sid Hatfield and 22 other people for the murder of Albert Felts. The case went to trial in January 1921. Charges were dismissed against some defendants; the rest of the defendants were acquitted.
After the battle of Matewan, Thomas Felts, the surviving brother of Lee and Albert Felts who took over the detective agency, had vowed to avenge his brothers’ killings. His pledge of revenge was fulfilled a few months later.
On July 28, 1921, Sid Hatfield was arrested because of a false allegation that he had shot up the town of Mohawk more than a year earlier. He was taken to McDowell County, West Virginia, a stronghold of the coal operators. As Hatfield climbed the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse with his deputy Ed Chambers, who had been called as a witness, both men were shot down in front of their wives by C.E. Lively and other Baldwin-Felts gunmen. The two victims were unarmed. None of those responsible for the murders were ever brought to trial.
More than 2,000 people took part in the funeral procession for Hatfield and Chambers as it wound its way through Matewan and across the river to the cemetery in Kentucky.
The brutal murders of Hatfield and Chambers touched off an armed rebellion by 10,000 miners. That rebellion has gone down in history as “the Battle of Blair Mountain.” It was ultimately crushed by massive state and federal intervention. As a result, after 1921, membership in the miners union plummeted. 
It would take more than a decade after the battle of Matewan for the miners of southern West Virginia to win union rights. Those rights would not come until the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. The passage of the NLRA showed that by the 1930s, a section of the wealthy in this country had decided to buy labor peace by allowing unions in the most critical industries. That section of the capitalists had its own selfish reasons for doing this. It was preparing for the world war that was coming, and it  calculated that labor peace in the mines and the auto and steel plants would be good for business. This utterly cynical decision on the part of the powerful can never diminish the magnificent courage displayed by all those who stood their ground over the years in many places like Matewan. Without that heroism, legal rights for unions would never have been achieved in this country.
Historian David A. Corbin summed up the situation well on May 19, 1992, while commemorating the battle of Matewan:
“The time has come to see Matewan in perspective, the way we do Lexington and Gettysburg – not just as an isolated incident of the tragic spilling of blood, but as a symbolic moment in larger, broader and continuing historical struggle – in the words of Mingo County miner J.B. Wiggins, the ‘struggle for freedom and liberty.’ ”
In 1987, filmmaker John Sayles made a movie about the battle called “Matewan.” While some of its characters are fictional, the film captures some important truths about that era. “Matewan” shows the terrible conditions faced by the miners and the difficult struggle to unite workers across ethnic lines. Too many people are unaware of how violent the early struggles for union rights were in this country, and simply assume that labor rights were given to us during the New Deal by a good man named Franklin Roosevelt – but that is not how it happened. The social contract that existed at a certain point in the history of this country was won at great cost. This May, take time to watch the film “Matewan” – and to reflect on how much blood was spilled to win the rights that our government is systematically taking away today.
To preserve those rights and move forward to an even better tomorrow, we will have to be as determined as those who stood their ground in a small West Virginia town on a rainy evening 87 years ago.

Jul 27, 2008

The Idaho murder trial: Labor unites to defeat a frame-up

It began with the bombing of a building. The explosion led to a hunt for terrorists. Men were seized without warrants, transported long distances, and placed in solitary confinement. Those judicial kidnappings were defended by the Supreme Court. But the events did not originate from the mountains of Afghanistan (or anywhere in the Middle East); they sprang from the Rocky Mountains of the American West.
This April, it’s important to remember an intense campaign which the labor movement waged to defend its rights near the beginning of the 20th century. The chain of events began in April 1899.
The 1890s were a time of great turmoil in Idaho’s silver mines. Federal troops were called to Idaho three separate times in the course of this conflict. On April 29, 1899, the world’s largest concentrator, owned by the Bunker Hill Mining Company of Wardner, Idaho, a company which paid starvation wages, was blown to smithereens by dynamite.
The explosion in Wardner provided Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg with a rationale to ask U.S. President William McKinley to send federal troops to crush the labor revolt going on in his state. Steunenberg, a sheep rancher, had originally been elected with labor support, but governed as a defender of corporate interests once in office.
McKinley granted the request, and federal troops were deployed. Martial law was declared in northern Idaho. On May 4, 1899, federal troops arrested every male in the union-controlled town of Burke, Idaho. The arrested men included miners, bartenders, a doctor, a preacher, even a postmaster and a school superintendent. The detainees were loaded into boxcars, taken to Wardner, and herded into a “bullpen” unfit to house cattle. Within a few days, the number of men held captive in Wardner grew to over 1,000. The strike was crushed. The influence of the union which had organized the strike – the militant Western Federation of Miners – began to decline in Idaho. Federal troops remained in northern Idaho for many months.
The harsh treatment meted out to those who were forced to exist for months on nothing but tainted and spoiled food in the bullpen in Wardner left a legacy of great bitterness. But the bullpen was not the last violation of labor’s rights that the events of April 1899 would provide a pretext for.

A murder in the snow                      

On Dec. 30, 1905, Frank Steunenberg was returning from an early evening walk in eight inches of freshly fallen snow. As he opened an in-swinging gate leading to the porch of his Caldwell, Idaho home, he was hurled 10 feet in the air by an explosion. The blast shook the earth and could be heard for miles around.
Almost immediately, representatives of the mine owners accused the Western Federation of Miners of being behind the killing, charging that the union had taken revenge for Steunenberg’s request for troops during the strike. The union’s officials indignantly denied this, pointing out that their enemy was the whole system of “industrial slavery,” not individuals. The union’s leaders publicly called for a full investigation.
On January 1, 1906, law enforcement officials found a suspect. They arrested Harry Orchard, a sometimes miner and occasional WFM member, who had been in and around Caldwell for several weeks, pretending to be a sheep buyer. When detectives searched Orchard’s hotel room, they found crumbs of dynamite, plaster of Paris, and bits of twine – the ingredients of the bomb.
The authorities’ purpose became plain just days later when Idaho Governor Frank B. Gooding hired James McParland as the chief investigator for the state. McParland was a notorious anti-labor figure. The head of the Denver branch of the strikebreaking Pinkerton Detective Agency, McParland had been involved 30 years earlier in framing several leaders of the coal miners in Pennsylvania -- the so-called “Molly Maguires.” He had worked for many years with the Mine Owners Association of Colorado to destroy the Western Federation of Miners in that state.
McParland moved quickly to take charge of the murder case. Before he ever met Orchard or examined any evidence, McParland decided that the WFM was involved. McParland had Orchard transferred from the relatively comfortable Caldwell jail to death row in the state penitentiary in Boise. Orchard’s food rations were cut.
On January 22, the hungry prisoner was escorted into the warden’s office and left alone with McParland. The two consumed a feast of a meal followed by fine cigars. McParland threatened Orchard with immediate hanging and told him that the only way he could avoid that terrible fate would be to testify against the top leaders of the Western Federation of Miners. When Orchard seemed skeptical, McParland told him about “Kelly the Bum,” the confessed murderer who testified for the prosecution in the cases involving the “Molly Maguires.” Kelly not only received his freedom as part of the deal, but was given one thousand dollars to subsidize a new life abroad.
McParland gave Orchard a stark choice: Either testify that he carried out the bombing as the tool of WFM leaders or hang. Within days, Orchard agreed to McParland’s terms. For four days – January 27-31, 1906, McParland took down Orchard’s 64-page “confession.” In this document, Orchard confessed to the murder of Steunenberg, and at least 17 other killings and numerous dynamitings. All of these had supposedly been commissioned by the “inner circle” of the Western Federation of Miners – which included the president, Charles H. Moyer; the secretary-treasurer, “Big Bill” Haywood; and an advisor to the union, George A. Pettibone.

Judicial Kidnapping

The state of Idaho indicted Moyer, Haywood, and Pettibone. However, all three lived in Denver, Colorado and extradition was a complicated matter. So, McParland came up with a simple plan: The three would be kidnapped.
On the night of February 17, 1906, Haywood, Moyer, and Pettibone were arrested without warrants in Denver and placed for a few hours in the city jail. They were denied permission to call their families or lawyers. The three were hustled in the early hours of the morning of February 18 to the Denver depot, and placed on a special train which had orders not to stop until it crossed the Idaho border. The trip ended at the Idaho penitentiary where the three leaders of the Western Federation of Miners were held in solitary confinement on death row.
This stunning act of judicial kidnapping was condoned by both the Supreme Court of Idaho (in April 1906) and then the Supreme Court of the United States (in December 1906). The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the arrest and forcible removal from Colorado of the three union leaders – even though it had been carried out through fraud and with the complicity of the governors of two states – did not violate the defendants’ constitutional rights. In a sense, this could be considered the first excusing of “extraordinary rendition” by a branch of the U.S. government.

The Working Class Responds

All over the country, unions and other working-class organizations responded to the arrests with outrage.
The Industrial Workers of the World issued a leaflet entitled “Shall Our Brothers Be Murdered?” The leaflet called for “mass indignation meetings” across the country. The magazine “Appeal to Reason” published a “Kidnapping Edition” about the case, with an impassioned appeal from Eugene V. Debs to defend the three union leaders. Famous writers Jack London and Maxim Gorky spoke out in defense of the accused.
As the date of the trial approached, local defense committees were founded in many large cities across the United States. These committees included members of the Western Federation of Miners, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Socialist Party, and some central labor bodies affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. Large demonstrations were held in major cities from New York to San Francisco. In Boston, 50,000 unionists marched through the streets, chanting: “If Moyer and Haywood die; if Moyer and Haywood die; Twenty million workingmen will know the reason why.”
Shortly before the trial began, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt thrust himself into the debate, calling Haywood and Moyer “undesirable citizens.” Labor responded to this blatant attempt to prejudice potential jurors by holding mass rallies with workers sporting buttons proclaiming “I am an undesirable citizen.”

The Trial Begins

With intense publicity, the new trial began on May 9, 1907, in Boise, Idaho. The state had determined that Haywood was the most “guilty” – and the most politically dangerous – of the defendants, so he was tried first. For the next three months, the attention of the country was focused on Judge Fremont Wood’s third-floor courtroom in the Ada County Courthouse.
William D. (“Big Bill”) Haywood was one of the most striking figures in the U.S. labor movement. Born in Salt Lake City in 1869, he went to work in the mines when he was 15 years old. He had been elected secretary-treasurer of the Western Federation of Miners in 1900 and rapidly become the union’s key figure. At six feet two, he had an almost Paul Bunyan-like appearance. Of him, McParland is alleged to have asserted: “Haywood is too dangerous an agitator; he must be done away with.”
Of course, one newspaper was quite correct when it editorialized: “It is not merely that Moyer and Haywood are on trial at Boise. A great labor organization is on trial. If Moyer and Haywood are found guilty, if it is shown that the Western Federation of Miners did conspire to assassinate a state governor who was unfavorable to labor, then organized labor will receive its bitterest blow.”
Haywood was defended by a team including Clarence Darrow, the great progressive lawyer, and Edmund Richardson, the general counsel of the Western Federation of Miners. McParland placed a spy – “Operative 21” – on the defense team. The spy worked as a jury canvasser, and was told to give the defense erroneous reports on the preferences of potential jurors. Ultimately, the spy was discovered, but not before damage was done.
At the trial, the only evidence against the three defendants was that of Harry Orchard. After Orchard took the witness stand, wearing a tweed suit and a neat mustache, one reporter described him as “looking like a Sunday school superintendent.” With a strong, steady delivery, Orchard told his story to a packed courtroom. (There were also hundreds of spectators unable to find seats milling around on the courthouse lawn.)
Orchard testified for six days. He described how he had killed 19 men, including Steunenberg, supposedly at the behest of Haywood and other members of the “inner circle” of the Western Federation of Miners. Edmund Richardson cross-examined Orchard for 26 hours. In the course of that cross-examination, the defense showed Orchard to be a double agent, having served as a paid informant for the Mine Owners Association when he first met Haywood; a bigamist, who abandoned wives in Canada and Cripple Creek; a heavy drinker; a gambler; and a pathological liar.
The defense called almost 100 witnesses to rebut various points of Orchard’s “confession” or cast doubt on his motives. The defense brought out that Orchard had a personal motive for killing Steunenberg. In 1897, Orchard had invested in the Hercules Mine in Idaho. He had been forced to sell his one-sixteenth share of that silver mine for $300 when Steunenberg had issued his martial law decree during the labor conflicts of the late 1890s. Darrow pointed out that if Orchard hadn’t been compelled to sell his share, he would have become wealthy. While Orchard denied this, Haywood’s defense team brought forward five witnesses from three states who testified that Orchard had told them about his anger at Steunenberg. Among them were witnesses who stated that Orchard had vowed to seek revenge against Steunenberg.

Darrow’s summation

In late July 1907, with the trial drawing to a close, Darrow was extremely worried about the verdict. Despite the fact that the prosecution’s entire case rested on the testimony of one man with ulterior motives and that there was no other evidence to connect the defendant to the crime, the famous defense attorney was very concerned about how the jury would interpret the testimony.  He decided to stake everything on his final summation to the jury.
Darrow closed for the defense with an 11-hour speech. The “attorney for the damned” was never more impassioned. At times, his words had Haywood’s wife and mother and many of the other women in the courtroom in tears.
The Chicago attorney cut at Orchard, who he called “the biggest liar that this generation has known.” Again and again, Darrow returned to the theme that there was more at stake in the trial than the murder of one man and whether Haywood was responsible for it; there was the question of the organized campaign of the mine owners to crush the Western Federation of Miners.
Darrow explained to the jurors – most of whom were farmers or ranchers – what conditions were like before the Western Federation of Miners was organized. He described the long hours, the danger, the starvation wages paid by rich mine owners. He recounted how the union tried to change all that, and how it came under attack by the miners and the government. He pointed out that one part of this attack was the use of labor spies – like Harry Orchard.
Darrow spoke for everyone who has every had to defend an imperfect union movement when he declared:
“I don’t mean to tell this jury that labor organizations do no wrong. I know them too well for that. They do wrong often, and sometimes brutally; they are sometimes cruel; they are often unjust; they are frequently corrupt. … But I am here to say that in a great cause these labor organizations, despised and weak and outlawed as they generally are, have stood for the poor, they have stood for the weak, they have stood for every human law that was ever placed upon the statute books. They stood for human life, they stood for the father who was bound down by his task, they stood for the wife, threatened to be taken from the home to work by his side, and they have stood for the little child who was also taken to work in their places – that the rich could grow richer still, and they have fought for the right of the little one, to give him a little of life, a little comfort while he is young. I don’t care how many wrongs they have committed, I don’t care how many crimes these weak, rough, rugged, unlettered men who often know no other power but the brute force of their strong right arm, who find themselves bound and confined and impaired whichever way they turn, who look up and worship the god of might as the only god that they know – I don’t care how often they fail, how many brutalities they are guilty of. I know their cause is just. …
“Through brutality and bloodshed and crime has come the progress of the human race. I know they may be wrong in this battle or that, but in the great, long struggle they are right and they are eternally right, and that they are working for the poor and the weak. They are working to give liberty to the man, and I want to say to you, gentleman of the jury, you Idaho farmers removed from the trade unions, removed from the men who work in industrial affairs, I want to say that if it had not been for the trade unions of the world, for the trade unions of England, for the trade unions of Europe, the trade unions of America, you today would be serfs of Europe, instead of free men sitting upon a jury to try one of your peers. The cause of these men is right.”
Darrow told the jury of his respect for Haywood and his concern about what a conviction would do to Haywood’s family, but emphasized that those were not his main concerns:
“Gentleman, it is not for him alone that I speak. I speak for the poor, for the weak, for the weary, for that long line of men who in darkness and despair have borne the labors of the human race. The eyes of the world are upon you, upon you twelve men of Idaho tonight. Wherever the English language is spoken, or wherever any foreign tongue known to the civilized world is spoken, men are talking and wondering and dreaming about the verdict of these twelve men that I see before me now. If you kill him your act will be applauded by many. If you should decree Bill Haywood’s death, in the great railroad offices of our great cities men will applaud your names. If you decree his death, amongst the spiders of Wall Street will go up paeans of praise for those twelve good men and true who killed Bill Haywood. In every bank in the world, where men hate Haywood because he fights for the poor and against the accursed system  upon which the favored live and grow rich and fat -- from all those you will receive blessings and unstinted praise.
“But if your verdict should be ‘Not Guilty,’ there are still those who will reverently bow their heads and thank these twelve men for the life and the character they have saved. Out on the broad prairies where men toil with their hands, out on the wide ocean where men are tossed and buffeted on the waves, through our mills and factories, and down deep under the earth, thousands of men and women and children, men who labor, men who suffer, women and children weary with care and toil, these men and these women and these children will kneel tonight and ask their God to guide your hearts – these men and these women and these little children, the poor, the weak, and the suffering of the world, are stretching out their helpless hands to this jury in mute appeal for Bill Haywood’s life.”
It was ten o’clock in the evening when an exhausted Darrow finished. The jury received the case at 11:04 the next morning, Saturday, July 28, 1907. After deliberating through the night, the jury came back to Judge Wood’s courtroom on Sunday to report its verdict: “Not guilty.”
The verdict in the Haywood trial meant that the labor movement had won what Eugene V. Debs called “one of the greatest legal battles in American history.” Haywood was released, but the state of Idaho brought Pettibone to trial. In January 1908, he too was acquitted. The charges against Moyer were dropped. In March 1908, Harry Orchard was tried and convicted of the murder of Steunenberg. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
The fight to save the lives of Haywood, Moyer, and Pettibone forced the Western Federation of Miners and the entire labor movement to spend considerable amounts of time and money, but the result was worth it. The acquittal of Haywood showed what can be accomplished when tens of thousands of people unite to actively fight attacks on civil liberties. The labor movement of that time understood that the accusation against the three leaders of the Western Federation of Miners was a political attack on the entire working class and had to be opposed by the entire working class with everything at its disposable. That’s the kind of understanding we need today, in a world where hysteria about terrorism and frame-ups, attacks on civil liberties, and kidnappings by government agencies abound.


The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.

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Jul 27, 2008

Textile workers win a hard-fought victory during hard times

March 1879

It required many years of struggle, but the United States now officially recognizes March as Women’s History Month. The commemoration was born out of a terrible workplace tragedy – a fire in a Manhattan skyscraper in 1911 which killed 146 garment workers, most of them women. Originally observed on March 8 each year and known as International Working Women’s Day, the holiday eventually grew to become an entire month of observances. But while March contains the anniversary of some of the saddest moments in the history of women workers in the United States, the month also includes  the anniversaries of some of the most hard-fought victories won by women workers. One such triumph occurred in March 1879 – in a very uphill battle.
For nine long months in 1878-79, some 550 workers, most of them women, waged a strike against a giant textile company in Paterson, New Jersey. Ultimately, they stopped the company from imposing its third wage cut in a year. Their success proved that a new era was beginning for labor after the Civil War.
The victory won by the workers of Paterson was especially important because it took place while the country was still immersed in the first economic depression after the Civil War, a crisis which had started five years before the strike began.

The Panic of 1873 

On September 18, 1873, the failure of a major banking house started a chain reaction, leading to the failure of many smaller banks. The entire credit structure of the nation collapsed. By the end of the year, 5,000 businesses had closed.
It was the worst depression in U.S history up to that point. It hit women workers especially hard.
For six long years, from 1873 until 1879, unemployment rose and wages fell. In the second half of 1874, one-quarter of the population of New York City was without work – a total of almost 94,000 people. By the end of the depression, wages had fallen back to the 1864 level. In 1883 – several years after recovery got under way – wages were lower than they had been in 1870.
The crisis brought ruin to many small businesses – and misery and death to working people. Meanwhile, Andrew Carnegie was capturing the steel market and John D. Rockefeller was eliminating his competitors in the oil industry.
All over the country, people were evicted from their homes. Many roamed the cities looking for food. During the first three months of 1874, some 90,000 workers, almost half of them women, had to sleep in police stations in New York. They were referred to as “revolvers” because they were restricted to one or two days a month in any one police station.
Just weeks after the crisis began, the New York Bulletin described the situation this way:
“Women are being discharged in bands of ten, twenty, fifty, and in too many cases, one hundred. What is worse, there is no immediate prospect of their obtaining work very soon. Those having comfortable homes are, unfortunately in the minority. There are too many to whom their daily pay is a matter of life and death, and to whom it may, in wretched extremity, make all the difference between lives of honor and shame. The office of the Workingwomen’s Protective Union is painfully crowded with women seeking employment, and every day increases the list of applicants – yet every day some new avenue or source of employment is cut off. With no homes, no relatives to fall back upon, many girls and women know that it is only a question of a few days or hours when they will be turned out of their boarding or lodging houses – to a fate too painful to contemplate.”

The Crisis Devastates Paterson

No city in the United States was hit harder than Paterson, New Jersey, and no part of Paterson’s work force was affected more by the crisis than its women workers.
In 1846, Paterson had only 11,000 inhabitants. By 1870, its population had tripled – and it ranked as a major industrial city. Located 14 miles from New York City, Paterson was built on two major industries: iron and textiles. The iron factories hired only men. The textile mills relied mainly on women and on child labor.
By the early 1870s, Paterson was the country’s foremost silk manufacturing center. It had separate jute, flax, and mosquito net mills which were each the largest of their kind in the nation. In the 1860s, silk and textile manufacturers and importers from New York and Boston had moved their mills to Paterson or had built new ones there. These “lords of the loom” introduced power machinery and other innovations and transformed the industry. In 1860, Paterson had four silk mills employing 590 workers. In 1876, eight silk ribbon and six broad silk factories gave work to 8,000 people, two-thirds of them women. At that time, one of every four silk workers was under 16 years of age.
During the 1870s, immigrants made up more than one-third of Paterson’s residents. The work force in the textile mills included French and German skilled silk workers, and especially English skilled workers and a steadily increasing number of unskilled Irish laborers.
The first post-Civil War economic crisis stunned Paterson’s once-booming economy. Gloom pervaded the city. The population of the city shrank by 10 percent between 1875 and 1878. In 1876, three years into the depression, a silk worker reported, “Paterson is in a deplorable condition.” A reporter for the New York Sun in September 1876 described Paterson as an industrial ghost town comparable to a Southern city after Lee’s surrender.
The city’s silk and textile workers were hit with repeated pay cuts between 1873 and 1877, cuts which reduced their wages from 10-30 percent. These cuts produced exceedingly hard times for almost 10,000 textile workers.

Unequal adversaries

In the summer of 1877, the third wage cut in less than a year forced 550 unorganized workers, most of them women and children, to go on strike at the textile mills owned by two brothers, Robert and Henry Adams.

R. & H. Adams and Company was a symbol of the rapid industrialization of Paterson. The firm had moved a small factory to Paterson from New York City in 1857. It was successful and the business added several large mills to the original plant. The company was the largest of its kind in the entire United States – and possibly in the world. It exported huge quantities of mosquito netting, especially to Africa and Asia.

The historian Herbert Gutman summed up the confrontation this way: “Two more unequal adversaries than the unorganized Adams strikers and their employer hardly could be found.” Gutman was right – yet the Adams strikers were ultimately victorious.
On June 20, 1878, the Adams strikers sent out a notice appealing “to their fellow working men and women throughout the United States to aid them in their struggle against starvation and poverty.” The strikers won the support of Joseph P. McDonnell, a plain-spoken Irish socialist immigrant, who came to Paterson to encourage the strikers. McDonnell organized the strikers into the International Labor Union, an industrial union for unskilled factory workers led by socialist immigrants and native-born advocates of the eight-hour day. McDonnell remained in Paterson and, weeks after the strike began, launched a weekly newspaper, the Paterson Labor Standard.
The columns of the Labor Standard held nothing back. The paper called Robert Adams “Lucifer” and the mills where the strikers worked “penitentiaries.” The wages the Adams company offered were referred to as “hunger rates.”
McDonnell appealed to the labor movement to support the Paterson strike financially:
“Many of these strikers – the greater number perhaps—are brave, heroic women who will hold out till victory crowns their efforts, and who are determined to make organization their watch-word in the future. The heroism of these 550 is more sublime that that of the 300 who fought and died at Thermopylae. They stand in the pass fighting for the rights not of Paterson or of the weavers, but of the whole human family.
“To their rescue workingmen and women of America. Success for the Paterson operatives means less poverty and more organization and power for our class.”

Strikers mobilize support

On July 20, 1878, the strikers organized a huge procession through Paterson. Two hours before the demonstration was to begin, the streets were already crowded with spectators. The strikers marched with a brass band and a fife and drum band. Among the banners was one proclaiming: “Join the International Labor Union, a union which organizes all without regard to sex, color, nationality or race.”
At least 8,000 workers marched in the demonstration, while a majority of the city seemed to line the sidewalks. The people watching the parade made their support clear by cheering and waving handkerchiefs. At least 10,000 people attended the rally at the end of the march (where Joseph P. McDonnell was the main speaker.) At the conclusion of the rally, the strikers sang their battle song, an anthem heard many times during the strike. Called “The March of the Toilers,” the song was sung to the tune of the militantly pro-Union Army Civil War song “Marching Through Georgia.” Everyone at the rally joined in the chorus:

“We’ll fight, we’ll fight, for justice and fair play,
We’ll fight, we’ll fight, nor care what despots say,
We’ll make the cruel Adams’ class stand back and clear the way.
We’ll give them a taste of our Union.”

The July 20, 1878 parade was just one of several demonstrations held during the strike. The thousands who rallied on behalf of the 550 strikers that day were a vivid indication of the depth of the strike’s support. Local workers – and even some shopkeepers and merchants – contributed to the strike fund. Concerts and picnics kept the strikers’ morale high. At least one of every eight residents of Paterson signed a petition attacking the Adams company.

Company tactics fail

The Adams’ brothers used their money to try to destroy the strikers’ resolve, but the tactic did not work. The company sent special agents to Fall River, Massachusetts and other New England towns to entice workers to come to Paterson to break the strike. The Adams company hired many new people but it could keep few of them on the payroll because the strikers refused to cede control of the streets. Striking workers and their sympathizers met the potential strikebreakers at the rail depot or in the streets, told them about the strike, urged them to quit the company, and even paid their way home. (One of these encounters involved 2,000 supporters of the strike.)  The first time that workers from Fall River experienced this kind of welcome, 22 of the 25 left immediately.
Finally, in March 1879, the company had seen enough. It conceded defeat, rescinded the wage cut, and offered an increase in wages. Robert Adams sold his share of the Paterson mills to his brother Henry – and left town.
Today, the world is vastly different from what it was when the 550 workers of the Adams mills “turned out” and began their strike in the summer of 1878. The Adams strikers triumphed because of their utter fearlessness, but also because of the fact that, in 1878, the industrialist capitalists of the United States had not finished establishing an absolute chokehold over the political and economic life of this country. During the Paterson strike, it was still possible for small shopkeepers to quietly help strikers, and for a city government to avoid intervening directly on behalf of the owners of large factories.  That leeway would soon vanish.
In the years that followed, Paterson would be the scene of other confrontations, clashes which would not end so well for the workers. There would be another great strike in the silk mills – the gigantic battle of 1913 which would end in defeat for the strikers. There would also be other economic crises after the lean years of 1873-79: the crisis of 1893; of 1907; of 1919; and the Great Depression which began in 1929, to name just a few. In the midst of the Great Depression would come the legalization of unions in the United States, and a social contract between part of labor and business. The years of relative peace would then be followed by massive plant closings, as globalization and electronics destroyed good-paying jobs. However, in March 1879, all that was far off in the future. In the spring of 1879, the 550 workers who brought a huge textile manufacturer to its knees could take great pride in their accomplishment.
We, too, should take pride in the victory they won 128 years ago this month. Successes like those achieved by the Paterson textile workers in 1879 paved the way for union jobs at relatively good wages for a section of workers in this country. During this Women’s History Month 2007, we should honor the courage of the strikers at the Adams mills by carefully thinking out how we can win justice in a very different environment than the one they operated in. Today, permanent unemployment for millions has replaced the “boom and bust” cycle which led to the Panic of 1873. To meet the challenge of how to respond to our unique situation, we will need all the courage the Adams mills strikers displayed -- and considerable imagination as well. But if they could accomplish what history demanded of them -- against such great odds -- surely we can too.

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The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.

Jul 27, 2008

January 1936: The sit-down strike introduces a new tactic 

It was a little like staging the Boston Tea Party inside a factory.

Exactly 75 years ago this month, bold trade unionists introduced a dramatic new tactic to this country: the sit-down strike.

This innovative method of fighting made its first major appearance in Akron, Ohio in January 1936. For several weeks, Firestone Tire & Rubber Company had been trying to speed up production in the truck tire department at its Plant One facility in Akron, a move the tirebuilders vehemently opposed. In response, the plant manager sent a company spy into the department to figure out ways to speed up the line. The company agent tried to provoke a fight with Clayton Dicks, a union committeeman in the department. The company accused Dicks of punching the company spy and knocking him out, and suspended Dicks without pay for an entire week.

Outraged at the suspension, union tirebuilders demanded that Dicks be reinstated. When the company refused, the tirebuilders stopped work en masse.

In her book “Industrial Valley,” Ruth McKenny described what happened next:

“Instantly, the noise stopped. The whole room lay in perfect silence. The tirebuilders stood in long lines, touching each other, perfectly motionless, deafened by the silence. … Out of the terrifying quiet came the wondering voice of a big tirebuilder near the windows: ‘Jesus Christ, it’s like the end of the world.’ He broke the spell, the magic moment of stillness. For now his awed words said the same thing to every man, ‘We done it! We stopped the belt! By God, we done it!’ And men began to cheer hysterically, to shout and howl in the fresh silence. … ‘John Brown’s body,’ somebody chanted above the cries. The others took it up. ‘But his soul,’ they sang, and some of them were nearly weeping, racked with sudden and deep emotion, ‘but his soul goes marchin’ on.’ ”

The sit-down began at exactly 2 a.m. on January 29, 1936 in the truck tire department. It immediately spread to all the other departments in Firestone Plant One in Akron. By the end of the first day, all four of Plant One’s shifts had participated. (Plant One operated with four shifts of six hours’ duration each.)

For the next three days, workers moved freely throughout the plant. They occupied the foreman’s office and issued union cards. They did no work; the machines stood still. Management officials could do nothing (except become increasingly more furious). By the end of the third day, workers at Firestone Plant Two were ready to support Plant One with their own sit-down.

Firestone officials settled the strike quickly, worried that the strike’s demands would grow to include recognition of the United Rubber Workers, an industrial union founded just months before. Fifty-five hours after production had ceased, Clayton Dicks was reinstated with back pay at half his normal rate for the period of the suspension and the sit-downers were paid at the same rate for the period of the sit-down. The company agreed to negotiate about the base rate.

The battle at Firestone was the first time the sit-down strike was used in a major industrial confrontation in the United States. The Akron tirebuilders had learned about the tactic from Alex Eigenmacht, an immigrant union printer in Akron. He had taken part in an “inside strike” of printers in Sarajevo, Serbia, and explained the reasoning behind it to a delegation of Akron tirebuilders who visited him to ask for advice.

Firestone’s sit-down inspires others

Within days, the Firestone sit-down inspired similar actions at Akron’s other huge tire manufacturers – Goodyear and B.F. Goodrich.

Goodrich workers sat down on February 8 and 9, 1936. They were protesting a cut in the base rate of pay. The company settled quickly (to avoid a battle over union recognition). On Friday, February 14, 1936, the tirebuilders of Goodyear’s Plant Two, Department 251-A, turned off their machines and sat down to protest the lay-off of 70 men. The sit-downers were worried that the layoffs marked the first step in an effort by the company to end the six-hour day and replace it with an eight-hour day.

By the end of the first day of the Goodyear sit-down, it was clear to the workers that the company was not going to react the way that the management at Firestone and Goodrich had done. At 9:30 p.m. on February 14, Fred Climer, the Goodyear personnel manager, notified the 137 Goodyear sit-down strikers that they were all fired. Then he locked the strikers inside the tirebuilding room.

On Monday night, February 17, 1936, Goodyear’s workers voted to strike over the issues of the layoffs, speed-up, and hours of work. Within days, the company’s enormous Akron facility was shut down. In a stunning display of organization, the union ensured that each of the 160 gates stretching over 18 miles of company property were guarded by pickets 24 hours a day. Almost immediately, 160 picket shanties were built, picket line supervisors appointed, and strike rallies organized.

The strike continued for 33 days through one of the worst winters in Ohio history. Finally, the strike ended on March 21, 1936. As a result of the agreement, the 137 sit-downers were reinstated, and an agreement was reached limiting Goodyear’s discretion to increase hours without conceding any restrictions on the workers’ right to strike.

These victories only intensified the struggle for control of the shop floor. The sit-down movement continued through the end of 1936 as Akron workers staged at least 52 sit-down strikes between the Goodyear settlement and the beginning of 1937.

Eventually, the tactic of the sit-down spread to the auto industry and led to other dramatic events, such as the Great Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1937. From the auto industry, it spread to many different places of work. Between 1936 and 1939, American workers engaged in 583 sit-down strikes of at least one day’s duration.

Sit-down strikes change people’s thinking

The wave of sit-down strikes during the 1930s changed this country profoundly. The act of sitting down altered the lives of the people who took that step. “Now we don’t feel like taking the sass of any snot-nose college-boy foreman,” one worker said, describing the mood in the plant after the sit-downs. “Now we know our labor is more important than the money of stockholders, than the gambling in Wall Street, than the doings of the managers and foremen.”

The sit-down wave also provoked an intense public debate over whether it was morally right to occupy the capitalists’ property and about which set of rights is more important, human rights or property rights. The champions of the sit-down strike pointed out that they were continuing a long tradition in this country of defending human rights against the tyranny of the powerful. When newspaper columnists and political officials denounced the sit-downers for doing things which were illegal, they defiantly reminded the public that the Boston Tea Party and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry were illegal too.

“It was once unlawful to picket,” one union activist pointed out. “Every right, every liberty, every privilege … has been won … by men who dared to defy some law – by men who dared to be ‘illegal.’” The UAW called on its organizers to remind people of those who have defied the status quo. “Destroy fear of jail by recalling the prison terms of William Penn, John Brown and other famous Americans,” a UAW statement urged.

The wave of sit-down strikes helped pave the way for the emergence of a social contract between capital and part of labor. The leaders of the CIO argued that employers were better off granting legal recognition to unions than running the risk of having workers physically occupy their factories. “A CIO contract is adequate protection,” declared John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, “against sit-downs, lie-downs, or any other kind of strike.”

A social contract emerges

Before the 1930s were over, the owners of the most important industries in the United States had come to understand that John L. Lewis was right. The leaders of the capitalist class began to work with the most “responsible” labor leaders to ensure a system of labor peace in this country – one in which sit-down strikes would “not be necessary.” A social contract was established – at least for some workers. Workers in the large auto, steel and rubber factories were unionized, but the workers in the auto parts supplier plants, the small iron foundries, and in the canneries and fields were not. The result was a labor peace that fenced out more workers than it fenced in.

In the heyday of this social contract, having a union job meant receiving good wages, access to health care, and the possibility of owning a home and eventually drawing a pension. This process can be seen in the rubber industry after the sit-down strikes of the 1930s. In 1946, the United Rubber Workers succeeded in obtaining a general wage increase with the “Big Four” of the rubber industry – Goodyear, U.S. Rubber, Firestone and Goodrich – in one set of negotiations. The first companywide agreement came in 1947. By 1948, all the major rubber companies had master agreements. In 1949, the United Rubber Workers began to demand better pensions. In 1982, the URW went on strike against what had become the “Big Five” (with the rise of Uniroyal) and 23 independent companies, and won major wage increases and benefit improvements.

An industry begins to decline

During the prime years of the social contract, industry was still booming in the United States. In 1950, the corporate offices of five of the six largest tire companies in the United States were located in Akron. That year, Ohio firms produced more than one-third of the tires and about 30 percent of all other rubber products used in the United States.

However, by the late 20th century, the rubber industry went into decline in Ohio. Many production facilities moved to other parts of the United States, especially the South. The same forces of globalization, deindustrialization, and the rise of electronics which have devastated other industries began to hit the rubber industry. In 1988, the Bridgestone Corporation, a Japanese company, purchased Firestone. In 1994, Bridgestone/Firestone unleashed what came to be known as the “war of ’94” against its employees, demanding that workers accept 12-hour shifts, increased worker contributions to the health insurance plan, and pay based on productivity.

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company provides another example of this process. The company now employs about 80,000 people in 28 countries. In 2003, when the company was on the verge of bankruptcy, active union members and retirees went out of their way to ensure the company’s survival. The United Steel Workers of America – which had merged with the United Rubber Workers several years before -- negotiated a contract which allowed Goodyear to cut wages, health care benefits, and pensions, and to close the Huntsville, Alabama plant. Goodyear workers agreed to all that in exchange for job security commitments. In 2005, Goodyear posted its highest profits in seven years and gave its top executives large bonuses. Then, in 2006, Goodyear broke its promise, announced the closing of its Tyler, Texas plant – with 1,100 jobs – and insisted that the workers agree to even more concessions.

More than 15,000 members of the United Steel Workers went on strike against Goodyear on October 5, 2006. Workers from 15 plants across the United States and Canada walked out to protest Goodyear’s unfair contract proposals. (One of the union locals currently on strike is Local 2 in Akron, the scene of the 1936 strike against Goodyear.) The current walk-out is a response to Goodyear’s unprecedented attempt to wash its hands of its health care obligations to current and future retirees. Retired workers at Goodyear, many of whom experience medical conditions caused by their job, would soon be left without health-care coverage if Goodyear gets its way. On October 31, 2006, Goodyear brought in “temporary replacement workers” to take the jobs of union workers. On Dec, 15, 2006, the United Steel Workers union and its allies distributed leaflets at over 100 Goodyear distributorships and retail stores across the United States. This National Day of Action helped stall Goodyear’s offensive and set the stage for a new contract proposal that may settle the strike.

The social contract is torn to pieces

Clearly, the social contract is now being torn to pieces. Given this, labor cannot continue to fight in the way that it did when times were good for the best-paid workers. We will have to develop new tactics, new forms of organization – and a new outlook.

While our tactical situation is not the same as that of the sit-down strikers, those workers still have much to teach us. We should honor their bravery. We should emulate their willingness to take the good suggestion of an immigrant worker and use a new tactic in the battle on the shop floor. Perhaps most of all, we should absorb their defiant attitude, their refusal to be intimidated. When the mass media of their day – the right-wing newspapers – denounced their actions as illegal, the sit-downers proudly pointed to the illegality of the Boston Tea Party and of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, and described their sit-down strikes as continuations of those noble efforts.

The sit-down strikers openly proclaimed that the human rights of the workers who built tires and automobiles and other commodities were more important than the private property of the factory owners. The sit-downers were crystal clear on the necessity to take the moral offensive against the enemy. They saw the little communities they built for a few days inside the factories in the course of seizing control of their workplaces as a model of how human beings could treat one another when the factory owners were no longer in charge. The sit-down strikers made no apologies for fighting for a new world; neither should we.


The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.

Jul 27, 2008

The Brotherhood of Timber Workers: ‘Complete and Defiant Solidarity’

“Only a low-life lickskillet would do such a thing. … I would live on wild plants that grow in the hills before I would sign.”

That’s how one African-American worker responded in 1912 to the demand from the South’s lumber owners that he sign a “yellow dog” contract – a promise not to join the Brotherhood of Timber Workers.
February is African-American History Month. February also marks the anniversary of two turning points in the struggle of the South’s lumber workers – African-Americans, whites, Native Americans, and immigrants -- to unite across ethnic lines, form a union, and better their conditions. February 1912 brought these workers an important victory; in February 1913, they tasted a bitter defeat. Both results of the “Lumber War” of 1910-1914 contain lessons that all workers can take to heart during this African-American History Month 2007.
After the Civil War, huge sections of the magnificent forests of Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, East Texas and South Georgia were ripped  from the public domain by lumber companies. Some companies paid as little as 12.5 cents per acre. One company owned 87,000 acres in a single tract in Western Louisiana and East Texas. These “lumber barons” ran their operations as if they were feudal possessions. They set up company towns, filled them with gun thugs (who were given commissions as deputy sheriffs), and jailed anyone who questioned their rule.
Early in the 20th century, those who worked in the lumber camps of the South were forced to labor 10-12 hours a day. The pay was as low as $1.25 a day, with the average weekly wage about $7-$9. Wages were usually paid monthly, often in some kind of “scrip” – paper, chits, cardboard coins, metal tags, etc.
Most Southern lumber workers lived in company towns where they were charged high rents for primitive huts heated with open fires. They were forced to pay a compulsory medical insurance fee (usually $1.00-$1.50 a month) for doctors they could not pick, “doctors” who often knew nothing about medicine. Lumber workers were also compelled to pay from 75 cents to one dollar a month for “accident insurance,” even though the company secured this at a price of from 50-60 cents per worker.
By 1910, the South had 262,000 lumber workers toiling in the piney woods. More than half of these workers were African-American. Most blacks were restricted to unskilled jobs, positions where the pay was low and there was little opportunity for advancement. African-Americans did most of the heavy manual labor in the sawmills, on railroads, in the turpentine camps, at skidways and in the swamps. In 1910, out of 7,958 African-Americans in the sawmills and planing mills of Texas, 7,216 were laborers. (Not one single African-American was a sawyer.)
Discrimination against African-American workers was open. The St. Louis Lumberman – the official journal of the industry – brazenly defended it with these words: “[T]here is a limit to the amount of wages that can be paid with safety to colored laborers around sawmills and wood camps. Too much pay breeds discontent and idleness among them.”
For the African-American lumber worker – as one observer of the industry noted – “emancipation from slavery had not brought the fruits of freedom. He simply had exchanged his lot for a different system of economic bondage.”
From the beginning, the brutal conditions that all lumber workers were forced to endure provoked resistance, but the initial attempts to form unions failed. In 1906, the lumber barons formed the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association. This group’s stated purpose was to prevent unions from developing in the timber camps.
In secret correspondence, the members of the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association bragged to one another that promoting race hatred was a good way to prevent unions from developing. One journalist observed: “The Lumber Trust carefully studies methods for intensifying race antagonism and then sits back to watch it work. Black men or white men, a few lives more or less, are of no consequence to the masters of the swamp lands if their snuffing-out turns a profit to the companies.”

Organizing begins

Despite the great obstacles, in December 1910, the first local of a Southern lumber workers union was formed in Carson, Louisiana, by Arthur L. Emerson, Jay Smith, and group of workers sympathetic to the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party.
By June 1911, enough other locals had been organized to set up the Brotherhood of Timber Workers as a national union. The constitution of the union allowed African-Americans to join, although segregation was preserved by providing for “colored lodges,” which were required to hand over their initiation fees and dues to the nearest white local “for safekeeping.”
The union spread rapidly in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The Brotherhood of Timber Workers recruited black and white lumberjacks, mill workers, and small farmers who worked in the lumber industry for part of the year.
The employers struck back quickly. In July 1911, the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association held a secret meeting in New Orleans and vowed to crush the union. The group ordered the immediate shutdown of 11 mills in the vicinity of De Ridder, Louisiana (a center of union militancy). With this move, 3,000 workers were locked out. Over the next several months, more than 300 other Southern mills were closed down, and union workers were locked out of, or blacklisted from, every lumber mill influenced by the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association.
During the summer and fall of 1911, between 5,000 and 7,000 of the most committed members of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers were blacklisted. The only way for these workers to get their lumber jobs back was either to sign a “yellow dog” contract pledging not to join the union, or to vote for a resolution declaring the same thing at a public meeting. Despite the fact that there were very few (if any) job prospects outside the lumber industry in the timber regions, the overwhelming majority of members of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers refused to break ranks with their union. This was true of union members of all ethnicities.
Meeting again in secret in New Orleans on October 31, the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association hatched another plan. The group decided to reopen the mills, invite the African-American union members to return to work at higher wages, and then recruit African-American workers from all over Louisiana and Texas to work in the mills and break the union.                                  

The lockout fails

The strategy failed. Not one African-American member of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers went back to work.  The union issued an appeal to the African-American workers of Louisiana and Texas which was circulated widely; it was effective. Very few African-Americans entered the mills while the union was locked out.
The lockout was officially declared over in February 1912. When the mills reopened, it was not with scab labor. While the Brotherhood of Timber Workers was not recognized by the employers, it was not broken either – and slightly higher wages were won by many workers, and some workers won the 10-hour day. During this February 2007, we should all remember that victory won with so much sacrifice in February 1912.
The unity shown by the timber workers of different ethnicities in the battle against the lockout inspired the Brotherhood of Timber Workers to take more militant positions.
In April 1912, the union published a pamphlet written by its secretary, Jay Smith. Entitled “An Appeal to Timber and Lumber Workers,” the pamphlet began by proclaiming that the purpose of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers was “the organization of all wage workers employed in and around the timber and lumber industry … regardless of creed, color, or nationality.”
The “Appeal” continued:

As far as the ‘negro question’ goes, it means simply this: Either the whites organize with the negroes, or the bosses will organize the negroes against the whites.

The pamphlet appealed to Southern workers to realize that while there were “two colors” among the workers in the South, there was actually only one class. Smith explained that it was the goal of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers “to teach that the only hope of the workers is through industrial organization; that while the colors in question are two, the class in question is only one; that the first thing for a real workingman to do is to learn by a little study that he belongs to the working class, line up with the Brotherhood of Timber Workers or the Industrial Workers of the World, and make a start for industrial freedom.”

‘Rebels Fighting Slavery’

One month after Smith’s pamphlet appeared, in May 1912, IWW leaders Bill Haywood and Covington Hall attended the convention of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers to discuss the Southern timber union affiliating with the IWW. Haywood expressed surprise that no African-Americans were present. He was told that the African-American union members were meeting separately in another hall because it was illegal in Louisiana for whites and blacks to meet together. Haywood then said:

You work in the same mills together. Sometimes a black man and a white man chop down the same tree together. You are meeting in convention now to discuss the conditions under which you labor. This can’t be done intelligently by passing resolutions here and then sending them out to another room for the black man to act upon. Why not be sensible about this and call the Negroes into this convention? If it is against the law, this is one time when the law should be broken.”

Covington Hall supported Haywood’s suggestion completely, telling the delegates: “Let the Negroes come together with us, and if any arrests are made, all of us will go to jail, white and colored together.” The African-American members were called into the session. The united meeting agreed to affiliate with the IWW and elected delegates, both black and white, to the IWW international convention scheduled to take place later that year.
Haywood and Hall also spoke at a mass meeting at the Alexandria Opera House sponsored by the Brotherhood of Timber Workers. It was the first time in that Louisiana town since the defeat of Reconstruction that there was no segregation. The IWW newspaper Solidarity welcomed the developments with a story headlined: “Rebels of the New South No Longer Fighting to Uphold Slavery but to Abolish It.”
Shortly after these dramatic events, on May 13, 1912, the Brotherhood of Timber Workers presented several of the mill owners with demands for better wages and conditions. The demands were quickly rejected, and the members went on strike at those mills. The Southern Lumber Operators’ Association declared a lockout throughout the entire industry and vowed to destroy the union. The fact that the union had allowed black and white workers to meet and discuss matters together as equals, in violation of “the traditions of the South,” was cited by the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association as sufficient reason alone to destroy the union.
The Southern Lumber Operators’ Association recruited an army of gun thugs and deputies and dispatched them into the lumber districts. Notices were posted around the lumber camps reading: “Private Property. All Unionists, Socialists, Peddlers and Solicitors, Keep Out Under Penalty of the Law.” Mobs organized by the mill owners broke up union rallies.                                           

Violence in Grabow

On July 7, 1912, in Grabow, Louisiana, as union founder Arthur L. Emerson was preparing to speak to a gathering in front of the Galloway Lumber Company, shots were fired at the rally from the lumber company office. A 10-minute gun battle took place which left three men dead, another dying, and over 40 wounded. Emerson and 64 other union members were indicted for murder.
The union organized a defense committee and began issuing leaflets to expose the frame-up to the world. One of its most widely discussed circulars was addressed “To all Negro Workers, and especially to the Negro Forest and Lumber Workers of the South.” The leaflet pointed out that the minute the Brotherhood of Timber Workers began to organize, the lumber operators began raising the cries of “white supremacy” and “social equality” and charging that the union was organizing African-Americans against whites. The appeal noted:
“For a generation, under the influence of these specious cries, they have kept us fighting against each other – us to secure the ‘white supremacy’ of a tramp and you the ‘social equality’ of a vagrant. Our fathers ‘fell for it,’ but we, their children, have come to the conclusion that … the ‘white supremacy’ that means starvation wages and child slavery for us and the ‘social equality’ that means the same to you, though they mean the ‘high life’ and ‘Christian civilization’ to  the lumber kings and landlords, will have to go. As far as we, the workers of the South, are concerned, the only ‘supremacy’ and ‘equality’ they have ever granted us is the supremacy of misery and the equality of rags. This supremacy and this equality we, the Brotherhood of Timber Workers, mean to stand no longer than we have an organization big and strong enough to enforce our demands, chief among which is ‘A man’s life for all the workers in the mills and forests of the South.’ Because the negro workers comprise one-half or more of the labor  employed in the Southern lumber industry, this battle cry of ours … has been considered a menace and therefore a crime in the eyes of the Southern oligarchy, for they, as well as we, are fully alive to the fact that we can never raise our standard of living and better our conditions as long as they can keep us split, whether on race, craft or religious or national lines. … Emerson and his associates are in prison because they fought for the unity of all workers. Will you remain silent, turn no hand to help them in this, their hour of great danger?”
The flyer (and others like it) had a tremendous effect. Support for the defendants poured in from the pro-union workers of Louisiana and Texas, workers of all different ethnicities. Ultimately, Emerson and his co-defendants were acquitted. On November 11, 1913, nine days after the end of their trial, 1,300 union workers – whites, Native Americans, and African-Americans – went on strike at the American Lumber Company in Merryville, Louisiana. It was the largest strike in the history of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers.

 ‘A glorious sight’                    

Shortly after the strike began, the company began building enclosures around the workers’ shacks and the mills. It also began importing non-union work crews from other parts of Louisiana and Texas. Many of these workers – who knew nothing about the strike -- were African-Americans or workers born outside the United States. The area where the new hires were housed was surrounded with a high barbed-wire fence which had been charged with electricity to prevent any strikers from getting inside to talk to the new arrivals. (The strikers still managed to talk to them.) The railroad track was lined with pickets for four miles on each side of town.
As the trains slowed down to enter Merryville, union members threw leaflets through the windows or on the platforms. The leaflets explained the strike’s cause and appealed for support for “the lumberjacks of Merryville, white, Indian, and Negro members of Local 218, Brotherhood of Timber Workers” and asked those reading the flyer to “stay away from the mills.”
The appeal had an effect. Many African-American workers who had been brought to Merryville to break the strike refused to enter the mill. Quite a few joined the strikers. Immigrant workers also took this position. The Brotherhood of Timber Workers rejoiced, noting in a widely published statement:
“It is a glorious sight to see, the miracle that has happened here in Dixie. This coming true of the ‘impossible’ – this union of workers regardless of color, creed or nationality. To hear the Americans saying ‘You can starve us,  but you cannot whip us’; the Negroes crying, ‘You can fence us in, but you cannot make us scab’; the Italians singing the Marseillaise and the Mexicans shouting vivas for the Brotherhood. Never did the Santa Fe Railroad, the Southern Lumber Operators’ Association and the American Lumber Company expect to see such complete and defiant solidarity.”

Vigilante assault

Unable to break the strike by importing out-of-towners, conducting evictions, or by bribing union leaders, the company recruited a gang of “strong-arm men.” Then, a “committee” of “public-spirited individuals” was created – the Good Citizens’ League. The “strong-arm men” were incorporated into the Good Citizens’ League, and made deputy sheriffs. The stage was set for a classic vigilante assault.
Early in 1913, the deputies went on the rampage, assaulting African-American strikers and ransacking their homes. On January 9, 1913, Robert Allen, an African-American strike stalwart, was arrested at a union meeting and taken to jail. That evening, he was placed in a car and deported from Merryville. The next evening, the same thing happened to several other strikers.
The assaults culminated on February 16, when mob violence broke out against the strikers. Five organizers were kidnapped, brutally beaten, and deported. One of them, F.W. Oliver, an African-American, was shot. On February 18, a mob of gunmen and members of the Good Citizens’ League raided the union office and seized all its books and papers. The same day, the mob deported the acting secretary of the union. On February 19, all remaining union men in Merryville were deported under penalty of death if they returned. Union signs were torn from shops and houses. Individuals were searched without a warrant; anyone found possessing a union flyer was arrested.  Company gun thugs – deputized as sheriffs – marched through the streets, armed with rifles, terrorizing the public.
Twenty miles away, hundreds of bruised union members hobbled into the town of De Ridder, sore from the long trek on foot and the rifle beatings. Although they had been threatened with hanging if they returned to Merryville, a number actually did hike back to the town to walk the picket line. While the main brunt of the picketing was borne steadfastly by the wives and daughters of the deported strikers, the back of the strike had been broken by the four-day wave of violence.
The strike dragged on for four more months. (It was not called off by the union until May 1913.) Most of the strikers were refused re-employment and blacklisted throughout the entire Southern lumber industry.
In the weeks that followed the outrages in Merryville, the story was the same across the South: mob violence; attacks by gun thugs; arrests and deportation of union members. Appeals to governors, even to the president of the United States, fell on deaf ears. But in the midst of this terror, black and white timber workers continued to meet together to plan ways to fight for a better life.
By the spring of 1914, the Brotherhood of Timber Workers had been effectively destroyed.
During this February 2007, we should remember both the triumph of the lumber workers in February 1912, when they prevailed over the lumber owners’ lockout, and the tragedy of February 1913, when the Merryville strike was crushed. While the Brotherhood of Timber Workers was ultimately destroyed, it left the labor movement of this country with a legacy that must endure. During its too-short life, the union stood up bravely for the unity of all workers regardless of color, immigration status, or sex. (Its decision to welcome women workers into membership was as controversial as its position on organizing workers of all ethnicities.)  The Brotherhood of Timber Workers took courageous positions at a moment in history when advocating such positions was bound to draw heavy fire.
We should draw strength from the courage of the Brotherhood of Timber Workers, but we should also learn from its wisdom. As its leaflets and pamphlets demonstrated, the Brotherhood of Timber Workers understood that organized labor has one of two choices: It can reach out to the most vulnerable worker in society, or it can allow the owners of society to use that most vulnerable worker against the rest of us, driving down the conditions of everyone.
The Brotherhood of Timber Workers grasped that the unity of the working class has to begin by uniting in defense of those at the bottom of the ladder. That’s a lesson from February 1912 and 1913 that all of us should take to heart during this African American History Month 2007 -- and continue to remember every day of the year.


The articles on this page are written by Chris Mahin for the Education and Mobilization Department of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of UNITE HERE and originally appeared on the Joint Board’s website.

Special thanks to Brother Mahin for allowing the Pennsylvania Federation access to his writings.

Page Last Updated: Sep 02, 2012 (14:28:00)
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