Mean Things Happening Here: the Southern Tenant Farmers Union

by Stuart Elliott

In the summer of 1934, a remarkable interracial union of tenant farmers was founded. Mean Things Happening, a 1993 PBS documentary on the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (SFTU) and depression-era organizing of the steel industry, has been much praised and is presented here.

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Labor in History: Mobtown and the Stirring of America’s Unions

by Bruce Vail

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An illustration from an 1877 issue of Harper’s Magazine depicts the bloody confrontation between state militia and Great Railroad Strike supporters that took place on the streets of Baltimore. (Public Domain)

Many historians date the first great industrial upheaval of American labor to July 16, 1877, when workers on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad began refusing to work in protest against a round of wage cuts ordered by the company’s senior managers. Battered by years of economic depression, high unemployment and miserable working conditions, the workers in Baltimore and beyond had finally been pushed to the breaking point.

Even without any broad-based union organization, the B&O strike immediately seized the public imagination. The unrest spread rapidly to other railroads before expanding to include workers at mines and factories in widely scattered locations across the country. At its height, the six-week-long “Great Railroad Strike” involved an estimated 100,000 workers in more than a dozen states, and succeeded in paralyzing much of the nation’s transportation system.

The sudden uprising engendered fear—and more than a little panic—among railroad executives and government officials. Within just a few days, the first great national strike in U.S. history became one of its first great industrial tragedies, as state militia units and federal troops moved to suppress the movement. Soldiers fired on strikers and protesters during epic clashes in Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and elsewhere. More than 100 people were killed; thousands more were injured. In the end, the strike was crushed, setting a precedent for the violent suppression of labor unrest that would stain American labor history for generations to come.

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A New Teacher Union Movement is Rising

Bob Peterson
Common Dreams

Teacher unions must unite with parents, students and the community to improve our schools—to demand social justice and democracy so that we have strong public schools, healthy communities, and a vibrant democracy.

Chicago Teachers Union rally in Daley Plaza in 2012. The nation’s public schools, writes Peterson, “must become greenhouses for both democracy and community revitalization.”, pbarcas / cc / flickr,

A revitalized teacher union movement is bubbling up in the midst of relentless attacks on public schools and the teaching profession. Over the next several years this new movement may well be the most important force to defend and improve public schools, and in so doing, defend our communities and our democracy.
The most recent indication of this fresh upsurge was the union election in Los Angeles. Union Power, an activist caucus, won leadership of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the second-largest teacher local in the country. The Union Power slate, headed by president-elect Alex Caputo-Pearl, has an organizing vision for their union. They have worked with parents fighting school cuts and recognize the importance of teacher–community alliances.

In two other cities –Portland, OR, and St. Paul, MN – successful contract struggles also reflect a revitalized teacher union movement. In both cities the unions put forth a vision of “the schools our children deserve” patterned after a document by the Chicago Teachers Union. They worked closely with parents, students, and community members to win contract demands that were of concern to all groups. The joint educator-community mobilizations were key factors in forcing the local school districts to settle the contracts before a strike.
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Filipino Americans and the Farm Labor Movement

by Angelo Lopez

Recently a movie about Cesar Chavez came out that documents the life of Cesar Chavez and his role in the Delano Grape Strike of 1965. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’ve read that it’s a good movie. One of the things that the movie does is bring out the important but largely forgotten contributions of Filipino Americans to the farm labor movement. Since the 1920s, when Filipinos first learned to organize into unions in Hawaii, Filipinos were important leaders in organizing farmworkers to fight against unfair working conditions. Here is a cartoon I did for the April 16 edition of the Philippines Today to commemorate those forgotten Filipino leaders.

Alex S. Fabros, Jr. and Daniel P. Gonzales wrote a good article about some of the history of Filipino Americans in farm labor organizing.
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The lessons of Ludlow

by Dave Anderson

ludow1In 1914, you couldn’t be neutral about the Colorado coal miners strike. Muckraker Upton Sinclair said the Denver newspapers were prostitutes of Big Coal. The Denver Chamber of Commerce advocated a boycott of the Rocky Mountain News

Denver Times for pro-worker bias. Boulder Daily Camera publisher L.C. Paddock raged against Denver papers and published a pro-management special section of his paper on the strike, which he distributed throughout the state to 40 dailies and 80 weeklies.

Beginning in February, a U.S. congressional committee held hearings to investigate the wretched living and working conditions in the Colorado coal fields. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was compelled to testify and he claimed the strikers were merely outside agitators and that his employees were happy and satisfied. Continue reading

Earth Day, Labor and Me

by Joe Uehlein

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The approach of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22 provides us an opportunity to reflect on the “long, strange trip” shared by the environmental movement and the labor movement over four decades here on Spaceship Earth. A billion people participate in Earth Day events, making it the largest secular civic event in the world. But when it was founded in 1970, according to Earth Day’s first national coordinator Denis Hayes, “Without the UAW, the first Earth Day would have likely flopped!” Less than a week after he first announced the idea for Earth Day, Senator Gaylord Nelson presented his proposal to the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO. Walter Ruther, President of the UAW, enthusiastically donated $2000 to help kick the effort off – to be followed by much more. Hayes recalls: “The UAW was by far the largest contributor to the first Earth Day, and its support went beyond the merely financial. It printed and mailed all our materials at its expense — even those critical of pollution-belching cars. Its organizers turned out workers in every city where it has a presence. And, of course, Walter then endorsed the Clear Air Act that the Big Four were doing their damnedest to kill or gut.”

Some people may be surprised to learn that a labor union played such a significant role in the emergence of the modern environmental movement. When they think of organized labor, they think of things like support for coal and nuclear power plants and opposition to auto emissions standards. When it comes to the environment, organized labor has two hearts beating within a single breast. On the one hand, the millions of union members are people and citizens like everybody else, threatened by air and water pollution, dependent of fossil fuels, and threatened by the devastating consequences of climate change. On the other hand, unions are responsible for protecting the jobs of their members, and efforts to protect the environment sometimes may threaten workers’ jobs.

First as a working class kid and then as a labor official, I’ve been dealing with the two sides of this question my whole life. Continue reading

100 years ago: the Ludlow massacre

United Mine Workers

ludlowThe date April 20, 1914 will forever be a day of infamy for American workers. On that day, 19 innocent men, women and children were killed in the Ludlow Massacre. The coal miners in Colorado and other western states had been trying to join the UMWA for many years. They were bitterly opposed by the coal operators, led by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.

Upon striking, the miners and their families had been evicted from their company-owned houses and had set up a tent colony on public property. The massacre occurred in a carefully planned attack on the tent colony by Colorado militiamen, coal company guards, and thugs hired as private detectives and strike breakers. They shot and burned to death 18 striking miners and their families and one company man.  Four women and 11 small children died holding each other under burning tents. Later investigations revealed that kerosine had intentionally been poured on the tents to set them ablaze. The miners had dug foxholes in the tents so the women and children could avoid the bullets that randomly were shot through the tent colony by company thugs. The women and children were found huddled together at the bottoms of their tents.

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