Labor History Articles

The Battle of Blair Mountain

(07/2010) Following a wave of strikes, by 1920 the United Mine Workers (UMW) had succeeded in winning union contracts for miners across much of the nation, but coal barons in the southern West Virginia were determined to keep workers down. Company bosses cut their pay, raised prices in company stores, and hired spies and armed agents to intimidate them. Aided by corrupt state and local officials, they brutally oppressed 50,000 miners and stopped at nothing to defeat union organizing efforts.

Matewan:

Bloody Showdown on the Road to Union Rights

(05/2010) The mines of Appalachia were no place for the timid during the “coal wars” of the early 20th century. Following World War I, coal companies exploited workers, who were forced to endure miserable, dangerous job conditions. Wielding dynamite, picks, and shovels, miners removed coal from cramped and dirty underground seams amid the constant risk of fires, cave-ins, and other life-threatening hazards.

Sidney Hillman:

Garment Worker Expanded Union Ideals Beyond the Workplace

(11/2009) Every time people take a stand to improve the lot of others, “they send forth a tiny ripple of hope,” Robert F. Kennedy once observed. Chicago garment worker Sidney Hillman spent a lifetime sending forth ripples that made big waves — and helped turn the tide of history for American workers.

Along the way, he helped “invent trade unionism as we know it today,” an AFL-CIO tribute notes, by encouraging organized labor to focus its energies on changing the politics and policies that affect all working people.

Studs Terkel: The Voice of Work and the American Worker

(09/2009) Late last year, the city of Chicago — and working people everywhere — lost a great voice when Louis “Studs” Terkel died at age 96.

For more than 70 years, the radio and TV host and prolific author chronicled the aspirations of working people in their pursuit of the American Dream, and railed against the powerful interests that held them back — from the anti-union industrialists who fought New Deal-era labor reforms to the CEOs of today’s financial institutions.

Isaac Myers: Pioneer of the African-American Trade Union Movement

(01/2009) It’s not unusual for a labor leader to have humble beginnings. Isaac Myers started out literally at the bottom, applying sticky sealant to the hulls of oceangoing ships. But he had a natural leadership style, and while his determination to prosper ultimately resulted in contributions to the labor movement, it also found him success as a supervisory clerk in a wholesale operation, as an entrepreneur, and in civic arenas: He would become president of a chamber-of-commerce-style men’s association and of a building-and-loan cooperative.

Andrew Furuseth: 'The Abe Lincoln of the Sea’

(09/2008) The struggles of workers aboard commercial ships have seldom received much public attention, but some of history’s worst employment practices occurred at sea, where sailors were often subject to forced labor, brutal discipline, deplorable working conditions, and little certainty about being paid.

When American sailors began to unionize in the 1800s, they found a champion in Andrew Furuseth, a humble Norwegian immigrant who led their struggle for 50 years, helping to overturn centuries of maritime law against the determined opposition of powerful ship owners and their allies in Congress.

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