Labor History Articles

'Big Bill' Haywood: The 'Wobbly' Giant

(09/2015) “Big Bill” Haywood was a big man with a big heart and a big dream – to build one big union for workers from every industry. He could break a man’s jaw with a single blow, but he wept openly when a poem moved him.

“Big Bill” was born William Dudley Haywood on Feb. 4, 1869, in Salt Lake City.  He learned hard lessons early in life. His father, a Pony Express rider, died when he was 3; he witnessed a fatal gun duel between classmates at age 7, and at age 9, he blinded himself in one eye in a slingshot accident.

But it was an incident he observed at age 15 that changed Haywood forever: He saw a black man lynched. Shaken to the core, he resolved to fight oppression.

May Day: Fighting for the Eight-Hour Day

(05/2015) Chicago in the 1880s was a hotbed of labor organizing.

Fed up with the status quo, where industrial workers toiled long hours in squalid conditions, the International Working People’s Association formed in 1883 and dedicated its resources to establishing an eight-hour work day.

Led by Albert Parsons and August Spies, demands for an eight-hour day swept the nation. Workers from New York to San Francisco wore “Eight-Hour Shoes” and smoked “Eight-Hour Tobacco” – products made in factories that had already established an eight-hour workday.

Bread and Roses:

Rose Schneiderman Organizes Garment Workers in New York

(03/2015) Rose Schneiderman was a trailblazer for workers’ rights in the Lower East Side of New York City at the turn of the 20th Century. She organized and co-founded several unions, was a friend and advisor to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and was a champion for rights still being fought for today.

Twenty-year-old Rose Schneiderman had been working at the Hein & Fox cap factory on West Third Street for just two months when a fire broke out on Dec. 2, 1898, 13 years before the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

The blaze destroyed Schneiderman’s workplace and two adjacent buildings. It also destroyed many of the sewing machines, which workers were forced to purchase via an installment plan that automatically deducted fees from their paychecks.

Management reportedly received thousands of dollars in insurance, but workers never saw a cent.

The working environment was poor before the fire and wages and conditions deteriorated even further after the factory was relocated. Hours were long – 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. – and the tasks were tedious. Schneiderman and dozens of other young Jewish immigrant women stitched linings into golf and yachting caps, earning three to 10 cents per dozen. If they worked hard, they made about $5 a week.

A Look Back: The Charleston Five

(01/2015) Soon after dockworkers formed a picket line at the Port of Charleston, SC, in January 2000, five among them became the focus of worldwide protests and international solidarity – symbols of the fight for justice.

And after a 22-month battle, a groundbreaking victory over worker repression and racial discrimination was won in the anti-union South.

The five men, who were members of Local 1422 of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), were among several hundred protesting because the Danish shipping company Nordana planned to unload cargo using non-union workers.

The 'Strike for Better Schools'

(10/2014) Almost 70 years after a strike by St. Paul teachers, their battle holds lessons for today’s postal workers and other public employees: The educators didn’t strike only on their own behalf – they walked a picket line for better schools.

In 1946, the idea of a teachers’ strike was revolutionary. But in October that year, nearly 90 percent of St. Paul, MN, public school teachers voted in favor of a work stoppage.

Elmer Andersen, who served as Minnesota governor from 1961-1963, recalled how unimaginable the strike was. “I remember the strike keenly because it is inconceivable to people today what a shock it was then to have teachers go out on strike,” he said. “Teachers just didn’t do that – it would be like a priest picketing a church or a cathedral. It was just absolutely unheard of.”

The Real Norma Rae

(09/2014) Early On May 30, 1973, the J.P. Stevens textile mill in Roanoke Rapids, NC, fired 32-year-old Crystal Lee Sutton. Before Sutton left the plant, she climbed atop a table on the shop floor and raised above her head a piece of cardboard with the word “UNION” scrawled on it, turning slowly in a circle so that all of her co-workers could read the sign.

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it was the basis for the most memorable moment of the Academy Award winning 1979 movie, Norma Rae. Based loosely on Henry Leifermann’s 1975 biography of Sutton, Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance, the movie was a fictionalized account of the textile workers union’s campaign to unionize the J.P. Stevens textile mills.

For decades, J.P. Stevens called the shots in Roanoke Rapids, paying poverty wages and offering deplorably unsafe working conditions. Workers routinely lost fingers, inhaled cotton dust, and lost their hearing due to the deafening clatter of machinery. J.P. Stevens was so vehemently anti-union that it systematically purchased small unionized textile mills throughout the south just to close them down. But as determined as J.P. Stevens was to keep its workers down, Crystal Lee Sutton was even more determined to lift them up and bring in a union.

War on the Waterfront

(07/2014) Early in the morning on July 5, 1934, storefront owners in the Mission District of San Francisco were opening their doors. In the financial district, bankers and businessmen were trading stocks. Across the harbor, the Oakland Bay Bridge construction crew was hard at work.

The police stood watch as 5,000 striking longshoremen prepared for a battle that would last throughout the day. It was the beginning of a day that would change the course of West Coast labor forever.

Ludlow Massacre Forges Mine Workers’ Struggle

(05/2014) Life was not easy a century ago for coal miners in Southern Colorado, where heavily industrialized mines produced high-grade coal needed by the steel and railway industries.

The largest mining operation in the region, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I), was controlled by oil magnate John D. Rockefeller and railroad baron Jay Gould. The powerful company employed about one in 10 workers in the state, and was notorious for its brutal suppression in 1904 of a strike organized by the United Mine Workers Union. CF&I’s control over the political affairs of Las Animas and Huerfano Counties was “nearly total,” according to A History of the Colorado Coal Field War, a University of Denver online exhibit.

Black Women Raise Their Voices in the Tobacco Industry

(03/2014) By 1938, Louise "Mamma" Harris had worked at the I.N. Vaughan Export stemmery in Richmond VA for nearly six years. The women who worked at Export were among the poorest in Richmond; they had to wrap themselves in tobacco burlap to stay warm in the winter. The stemmers earned an average of $3 a week and often worked more than 90 hours in cramped, dirty conditions. Harris had been feuding with a male co-worker since the day she was hired. Every week he would scold and harass her – and she would take it. One day in the spring of 1938, when he started shouting, she stunned him by "giving him a tongue-lashing" in return.