This Week in Labor History Episode 006

Sidewalk outside the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory after the March 1911 fire. Courtesy Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library

Sidewalk outside the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory after the March 1911 fire. Courtesy Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library

"The Labor Movement is organized upon a principle that the strong shall help the weak."

-John L. Lewis, legendary labor leader, UMW president, CIO president.

I’m Kevin Cook, and This Week in Labor History

Wednesday, March 20

In 1865, Michigan authorized the formation of workers cooperatives. 13 were formed in the state over a 25-year period. Labor reform organizations were advocating "cooperation" over "competitive" capitalism following the Civil War, and several thousand cooperatives opened. Participants envisioned a world where workers would receive the full value of their labor and freely exercise Democratic citizenship.

In 1956, members of the International Union of Electrical Workers reached agreement with Westinghouse Electric Corporation, ending the 156-day strike in victory.

Thursday, March 21

In 1898, the American Labor Union was founded. The ALU was a "radical" labor federation formed by the Western Federation of Miners and represented Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming. The ALU was headquartered in Butte Montana.

In 1965, civil rights advocates marched from Selma towards Montgomery, with Martin Luther King, Jr. among the 25,000 who participated. The Transportation Workers Union joined the march to support the voting rights drive. Earlier efforts to hold the march had failed when a minister was fatally beaten by a group of Selma white Conservative “Christians”.

Friday, March 22:

In 1886, Mark Twain, a proud lifelong member of the International Typographical Union spoke in Hartford, Connecticut, extolling the Knights of Labor’s commitment to fair treatment of all workers, regardless of race or gender.

In 1982, 800 striking workers at Brown & Sharpe in Kingstown, Rhode Island were tear-gassed by state and local police in order to protect low wages, dangerous conditions and high profits

in what was to become a losing 17-year-long fight by the Machinists Union.

Saturday, March 23:

In 1918, the trial of 101 Industrial Workers of the World members began in Chicago. They were arrested for opposing World War I in public and tried for violating the Espionage Act. The judge sentenced Bill Haywood and 14 others to 20 years, with the rest of the defendants receiving shorter sentences. Fined a total of $2,500,000, the IWW (a Democratic American Labor Union), was shattered on behalf of the greedy Capitalists. Haywood jumped bail and fled to revolutionary pre-communist Russia, where he remained until his death 10 years later.

In 1932, the Norris-La Guardia Act went into effect. The Act restricted injunctions against Unions and banned yellow dog contracts, which require newly-hired workers to declare they are not Union members and will not join one. The Act was championed by U.S. Rep. La Guardia and Senator Norris, both Progressive Republicans.

In 2005, 15 workers died and another 170 were injured when a series of explosions ripped through BP’s Texas City refinery. Investigators found BP management gave priority to cost savings over worker safety.

Sunday, March 24:

In 1900, groundbreaking on the first section of the New York City subway system took place, which ran from City Hall to the Bronx. The New York subway workers would go on to found the TWU in 1934. The TWU established a reputation for left-wing politics and was one of the first unions to join the CIO.

In 1990, 7,500 hotel workers and members of HERE, Local 5 in Hawaii ended a twenty-one-day strike of 11 major hotels. They struck to protect their earned pension benefits that the CEOs wanted to rob.

Monday, March 25:

In 1911, 146 workers were killed in a fire at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. A fire broke out at the Triangle shirtwaist factory, and within minutes it engulfed three upper floors, burning to death, or causing to jump to their deaths, 146 workers, 123 of them women. Some were as young as 15 and were locked in by the owners. A year prior to the fire, 20,000 garment workers walked off the job in New York to protest the dangerous working conditions. They demanded unlocked fire escapes, a pay raise, 52-hour work week and overtime pay. The bosses at Triangle formed an association with the owners of the other large factories. Soon after, strike leaders were arrested. Some were fined; others were sent to labor camps. Armed thugs were enlisted to beat up and intimidate strikers. The strike was lost, no demands were met, and the fire escapes remained locked (ultimately causing the death of the 146 one year later). The two Triangle shirtwaist factory owners cashed their insurance check and retired very rich men.

In 1947, an explosion at a coal mine in Centralia, Illinois killed 111 miners. Mineworkers President John L. Lewis called for a 6-day work stoppage by the nation’s 400,000 soft coal miners to demand safer working conditions. The Capitalists fought against safer conditions citing the higher costs that might cut into shareholder profits.

Tuesday, March 26:

In 1868, San Francisco brewery workers began a 9-month strike as local employers followed the Union-busting lead of the National Brewer’s Association and fired their Unionized workers, replacing them with scabs. 2 Unionized brewers refused to go along, kept producing beer, prospered wildly and induced the Association to capitulate. One contract benefit worth defending: free beer.

In 1912, a mine disaster at Jed, West Virginia, killed 83 workers.

This Week in Labor History is compiled by Kevin D. Curtis. For KBMF, I’m Kevin Cook.