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Labor History Articles

The following labor history articles have been published in The American Postal Worker magazine.

Black Women Raise Their Voices in the Tobacco Industry
(March 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.
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1994: South Africa’s First Free Election
APWU Helps Usher in the End of Apartheid
(January 2014) Twenty years ago South Africa held its first free and fair election. Amid violent attacks by groups seeking to disrupt the historic vote, a delegation of APWU representatives traveled to South Africa to act as election observers... In response to a call from the South African union movement, on April 20 the AFL-CIO sent an 89-member delegation to act as election observers, joining thousands of other international visitors. APWU President Moe Biller dispatched seven people from APWU headquarters. [read more]

Lewis Hine: Photographer Honored Workers, Helped End Child Labor
(November 2013) In August, the Postal Service released a series of stamps honoring American workers. Many of the stamps’ images were captured in the 1930s by photographer Lewis Hine, whose pictures celebrate the skills, daring and dignity of the industrial workers who built the nation. But Hine was more than a gifted shutterbug: He was a committed social reformer who dedicated his talent to documenting the struggles of working families and ending the exploitation of children in the workplace. [read more]

1934: Southern Workers Spark Massive Textile Strike
(September 2013) In 1934, thousands of workers in Southern textile mills walked off the job seeking better pay and working conditions. The job actions they launched spread to New England and the Mid-Atlantic states and became one of the biggest industrial strikes in U. S. history. Though the strike was unsuccessful, it helped pave the way for stronger laws to protect workers seeking to join unions. [read more]

To Stand Up, Auto Workers Sat Down

(July 2013) On Dec. 30, 1936, workers in Flint MI began a historic “sit down” strike that helped win union representation for auto assembly employees across the nation. Showing remarkable pluck, savvy, and solidarity, Flint’s auto workers occupied a key General Motors facility for 44 days and forced one of the nation’s largest and most obstinate employers to bargain with the newly-formed United Auto Workers union. The Flint auto workers helped bring to fruition the promise of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which — following generations of labor strife — established workers’ rights to organize unions and bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions. [read more]

Woody Guthrie:
‘Dust Bowl Troubadour’ Sang for Unions, Justice
(May 2013) For more than a century, labor musicians have lifted spirits and helped build solidarity on union picket lines. But most Americans seldom heard labor’s voice — until one prolific entertainer helped popularize songs about the plight of everyday workers. Although he is mostly remembered as the man who wrote This Land Is Your Land, Woody Guthrie was a champion of workers, farmers and the unemployed.
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Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘One of Us’
(March 2013) Although she belonged to a prominent New York family and could have chosen a life of leisure, Eleanor Roosevelt was a tireless advocate for social and economic justice. Much has been written about the nation’s longest serving and most outspoken first lady, who helped launch the modern civil rights and women’s movements. But the enormous impact she had on the union movement is often overlooked, notes Brigid O’Farrell, author of She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker. [read more]

Addie L. Wyatt: Labor, Civil Rights Leader
(January 2013) Last year we bid farewell to an important advocate for justice for working families everywhere: The Rev. Addie L. Wyatt. Though not widely known outside Chicago, the diminutive, African-American woman made important contributions that “helped open the way for redefining women’s roles within the general labor movement,” notes a tribute at the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. Born in Brookhaven MS in 1924, Addie Cameron started working full-time in 1941 — in an era when women and people of color were routinely discriminated against, on and off the job. [read more]

Minnesota Timber Workers Triumph Over Lumber Barons
(November 2012) In 1937, at the height of the Great Depression, Minnesota’s timber workers triumphed over daunting odds to launch two successful strikes, achieve union recognition, and negotiate unprecedented improvements in wages and living conditions. Their success arose from a collective resolve to gain control over their lives. In the 1930s, a decline in the demand for lumber led to worsening conditions for loggers. At the same time, labor agitation swept the nation. A vast strike wave proved to woodworkers that economic injustice could be corrected with mass working-class action. [read more]

From Heroes to Villains?
Union Workers and 9-11
Newsboys (and newsgirl) prepare to sell papers near the New York World building, July 1910. (September 2012) Following the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, the nation paid tribute to the workers who faced unimaginable danger when they responded to the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. Three hundred fortythree firefighters and 72 police officers were among those who lost their lives, and many other rescue workers were injured. Although it received little notice at the time, most of the workers who were celebrated in the media and honored by politicians were union members — and many were unionized government employees. Today, however, public-sector employees are vilified by antilabor politicians and pundits... [read more]

Joe Glazer: Singer, Songwriter, Union Activist
(July 2012) "Armed only with his guitar, reams of songs, and conviction, Glazer has marshaled the power of music to fight for union representation in mills, mines, factories, and offices all over the country...“A performer, educator, and ‘musical agitator for all good causes,’” he used “humor, irony, and pathos to drive home the message of unionism.” [read more]

1899 Newsboys’ Strike
Exploited Children Organize, Defeat Newspaper Titans
Newsboys (and newsgirl) prepare to sell papers near the New York World building, July 1910.
(May 2012) Just over a century ago, several thousand child laborers captured the nation’s attention when they took on two of the nation’s biggest newspaper publishers. Their struggle exposed the exploitation of children and inspired workers, both young and old, to fight for better pay and working conditions. In the late 1890s, more than 100,000 homeless children roamed the rough-and-tumble streets of New York City. Many were orphans, runaways, or came from broken homes. Few social services were available; there were few restrictions on child labor, and there was no minimum wage. To get by, the kids performed odd jobs or found other work at low pay. About 10,000 young boys made a meager living selling newspapers on the streets. [read more]

Emma Tenayuca:
Pecan Shellers’ Strike Sparked Hispanic Workers’ Movement
(March 2012) In Depression-era south Texas, a young Mexican-American woman broke tradition when she stood up for oppressed workers in her community and made an important contribution to the fight for social justice. Vilified by the conservative establishment that controlled San Antonio, she became a beloved leader to oppressed workers in the Mexican-American community. They called her “La Pasionaria.” Largely an unheralded figure today, Emma Tenayuca was well known in her day as a fearless and effective union activist at a time when it was rare for women to be accepted as leaders. “She was a woman people attempted to write out of history,” Mexican-American studies professor Carmen Tafolla told the National Catholic Report in 2008. Today, she said, “We’re writing her back in.” [read more]

In World War II, Black Women’s Army Unit Delivered
WACs Cleared Massive Backlog, Sped Mail to Soldiers
(January 2012) In 1945, an Army battalion of African-American women played an important role in U.S. efforts to defeat Nazi forces in Europe — even though many Americans questioned their right to serve. By processing a massive backlog of mail destined for the troops, these soldiers improved the morale of America’s fighting force. Women had performed military support operations as civilians during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and the first World War, but during World War II, a manpower shortage prompted Congress to authorize the Army, Navy and Coast Guard to recruit and enlist women to perform military duties other than nursing, for the first time in the nation’s history. [read more]

October 2001 Anthrax Attacks
Remembering Postal Heroes
(November 2011) Just weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with the country still wracked with fear and anger, we learned of another threat: Deadly anthrax was being sent through the mail. Despite the dangers, postal workers kept the mail moving, as the nation confronted a new and unknown menace. [read article]

César Chávez:
‘Si, Se Puede,’ Yes, We Can

(September 2011)It is next to impossible to think of the modern labor movement — and the struggles of farm workers in the United States — without César Chávez. A firm believer in nonviolence, Chávez beat the odds and successfully organized a union of farm workers. In the process, he became a symbol of hope to millions of Americans. [read article]

Now You See It, Now You Don’t:
Maine Governor Removes Artist’s Labor Tribute

(July 2011) The Republican governor of Maine has censored an artist’s tribute to the state’s workers — infuriating unions and many others who called it a brazen attempt to erase decades of labor history. In March, Gov. Paul LePage ordered the state’s Department of Labor to remove a mural from its headquarters in Augusta that depicts more than a century of workers’ struggles. Claiming that such tributes are “not in keeping with the department’s pro-business goals,” LePage also ordered that the names of two labor icons — Frances Perkins and Cesar Chavez — be stripped from conference rooms. The symbolic gesture revealed LePage’s agenda, critics said. [read article]

Regina V. Polk:
Breaking the Mold

(April 2011) “I only met Regina Polk once. Briefly. That’s a teamster? I thought. The beauty? The cape? The high heels? The perfect make-up? Where’s the beer belly and the donut? The scowl and the crowbar?” ....
Regina V. Polk fought diligently for workers’ rights, working as a labor organizer and business agent for the Teamsters in the late 1970s and early 1980s, defying stereotypes and empowering women in a male-dominated workforce. [read article]

Rev. James Orange:
A Champion for Labor and Human Rights

(January 2011) Reverend James Orange played a critical role in actions that led to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and later applied his organizing skills in the fight for economic justice for workers across the south.“He was the living embodiment of the connection between the union movement and the Civil Rights movement,” former AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in a 2008 tribute. [read article]

1913 Silk Strike United Diverse Workforce

(November 2010) A 1913 strike among silk industry workers in Paterson, NJ proved that laborers could stand up to the factory bosses who exploited them. The strike united men and women, immigrant and native-born, and skilled and unskilled workers, and although it was not entirely successful, it left an enduring legacy. The strike inspired union leaders in other industries and set the stage for their victories in the decades that followed. [read article]

OSHA 40th Anniversary:
Forty Years Later, the Fight for Safety in the Workplace Goes On
(September 2010) Before passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in December 1970, millions of Americans risked their lives every time they reported for duty: There were no national safety laws to protect workers. Forty years ago, the groundbreaking legislation created the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), which is responsible for setting workplace safety and health regulations — and ensuring that employers nationwide comply with them. [read article]

“ In 1921, thousands of West Virginia miners and their families were living in tents in deplorable conditions, evicted from their homes after having the temerity to join a union,” notes author Denise Giardina. “The Miners’ March, as it was called, was set to change all that.”

The Battle of Blair Mountain
(July 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. The miners’ struggle for safe working conditions, better pay, and union rights led to a bloody showdown with company thugs in Matewan, WV in May 1920. The subsequent assassination of Police Chief Sid Hatfield, a miners’ hero, sparked the Battle of Blair Mountain — the largest armed uprising in the U.S. since the Civil War. [read article]

Bloody Showdown on the Road to Union Rights
(May 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. [read article]

The Great Postal Strike Of 1970
From ‘Collective Begging’ Collective Bargaining
(March 2010) March 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of the Great Postal Strike of 1970. The courage and solidarity shown by thousands of union members during the wildcat job action has resulted in vastly improved wages and benefits for successive generations of postal workers. March 12, 1970: The stage was set: Postal workers had suffered decades of long hours, substandard pay, meager benefits, and deplorable working conditions, and their only recourse had been to beg for better treatment. [read article]

The ‘Washerwomen’s Strike’
Black Women Advance Labor’s Cause
In an Unlikely Setting: 1881 Atlanta
(January 2010) A little known yet largely successful job action waged in 1881 by black women in Atlanta is credited with helping to set the stage for a century of labor and civil rights struggles.
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Sidney Hillman:
Garment Worker Expanded Union Ideals Beyond the Workplace

(November 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. [read article]

Studs Terkel
The Voice of Work and the American Worker
(September 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.
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Sports Unions Work to Level the Playing Field
(July 2009) Although their average salary is considerably higher and their “work year” is much shorter, members of the nation’s four major sports unions share much in common with their counterparts in other industries, especially the historical basis for their creation: Poor wages and unfair working conditions. The Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, America’s first professional-sports trade union, had a short and curious life that began in 1885 when eight National League players formed the Brotherhood in hopes of gaining higher wages. [read article]

Esther Peterson:
Advocate for Labor, Women, Consumers

(May 2009) Throughout her life, Esther Eggersten Peterson was “a powerful and effective catalyst for change,” notes a tribute to her in the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Among other achievements, she helped launch the women’s movement in the 1960s and was considered by many to be the driving force behind the equal-pay movement. [read article]

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

(January 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.
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Jack London:
Famous Author Chronicled Work Workers’ Struggles

(November 2008) Though best known as the author of widely acclaimed adventure stories such as The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and To Build a Fire, Jack London also chronicled the harsh lives many working people faced at the dawn of the 20th Century. In a career that spanned only 16 years he wrote hundreds of short stories as well as non-fiction articles about current events and a wide range of topics for newspapers and magazines. Throughout his work, London espoused the theme that the “system” is stacked against working people, and he celebrated the rugged individuals who fought back. [read article]

Andrew Furuseth:
‘The Abe Lincoln of the Sea’

(September 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. [read article]

Setting the Stage For the ‘Talent’ Unions

(July 2008) Among the catchphrases associated with the theatrical arts, “The Show Must Go On” is the most familiar. To workers, the phrase is more than a cliche: The longer-running the show, the more money to be earned. Nowadays, all the world’s a stage: Performances are set up, staged, recorded, rebroadcast, retransmitted — on radio, on TV, streaming over the Internet or via cell phone, maybe even through a “product” such as a DVD or a video game. Performers, of course, feel they should always be paid for their contributions, which are made regardless of whether a performance is “live.” But with the evolution of new media, it’s not always clear what the product is. And as the 100-day Writers Guild of America strike demonstrated, the issues are as murky as the products. [read article]

Ralph Fasanella:
Self-Taught Artist Chronicled Workers’ Lives

(May 2008) By the time he started painting pictures at age 31, Ralph Fasanella had developed a strong disdain for the social and economic injustices he witnessed every day in the streets of New York City. Over the rest of his life, the self-taught artist created hundreds of paintings, most of which spread the union gospel and celebrated the dignity of the working people around him. Like the workers around him, Fasanella labored in obscurity for many years. But he eventually was recognized as a great American artist, and one who spoke for workers everywhere. [read article]

'We Want Bread, And Roses, Too’
1912 Textile Strike Put Women in the Line of Fire
(March 2008) Early in the 20th Century, fully half of the 80,000 people living in Lawrence, MA, labored in its textile industry. The typical workplace was dimly lit, dangerously cramped with machinery, cold in the winter, and hot in the summer. Most of the workers were female immigrants younger than 18. In the factory, they were subject to all manner of ethnic slurs and sexual harassment. [read article]

Bayard Rustin:
Unsung Crusader for Social Justice

(January 2008) Although he was always at the forefront of the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin’s contributions to the struggle are often overlooked. Perhaps best known as the lead organizer for the 1963 March on Washington that set the stage for Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, Rustin was a ground-breaking theorist and shrewd tactician for the trade-union movement and the fight for racial equality. “He conceived the coalition of liberal, labor and religious leaders who supported passage of the civil rights and anti-poverty legislation of the 1960s,” notes an AFL-CIO tribute, “and worked closely with the labor movement to ensure African- American workers’ rightful place in the House of Labor.” [read article]

The History of Labor’s ‘Day’
(September 2007) The celebration of the first Monday in September as a holiday “is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In the mid-1890s, Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor, noted that “Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country. All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power … Labor Day is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.” [read article]

The 1911 Furniture Workers Strike

(July 2007) A century-old and nearly forgotten story about furniture workers who overcame deep cultural divisions to unite for their common good was recently put back in the limelight by a group of labor activists. “When people think about the union movement in Michigan,” said APWU Western Michigan Area Local President Jennifer Amos, “they usually think about automobile workers in Flint and Detroit.” The 1911 furniture workers strike, however, created a spirit of solidarity that Amos and others say set the stage for many labor gains to come, and that has prompted a civic memorial project to honor that spirit. [read article]

Pete Seeger:
Activist, Master Songsmith

(March 2007) Even if you’ve never been to a labor rally, a civil rights demonstration, or a folk music concert, chances are you’ve been touched by the music of Pete Seeger. For more than six decades, this gifted performer has traveled the world spreading messages of unionism, social justice, and peace. Many of the songs Seeger wrote or popularized are now part of the American cultural fabric, and along the way he has inspired countless labor, anti-war, civil rights, and environmental activists, as well as a diverse range of musicians. [read article]

Evelyn Dubrow:
Labor’s Legendary Lobbyist

(March 2007) For much of the last half-century, Evelyn Dubrow, a tiny and plainly-dressed woman stood tall among the giants of the lobbying business, tirelessly advocating for the garment workers she represented, and the rest of working America as well. When Dubrow arrived in Washington, requiring employers to reward women with equal pay for equal work was barely a blip on the political radar screen, and laws were structured to allow racial and gender discrimination in hiring, housing and health care. By the time she finally retired, at age 86, she had had not only helped usher in a new era in which women came to serve as leaders in every field, she had been a pivotal figure in winning passage of many laws that improved the lot of working families: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the establishment of Medicare, fair housing laws, pay equity legislation, and the Family and Medical Leave Act. [read article]

Frederick Douglass:
Activist, Orator, Publisher, Statesman

(January 2007) Unquestionably, the single greatest leap forward in the quest for social and economic justice is the abolition of slavery. In the United States, after decades of struggle and a bloody civil war, slavery was formally abolished in 1865. Today, while we easily recall the contributions of many 20th-Century civil rights leaders, we often ignore a giant from the earliest days of the abolitionist cause: Frederick Douglass. In one of the most remarkable of all American lives, Frederick Douglass rose from slavery to become one of the 19th Century’s most influential activists for the cause of human rights. [read article]

Labor, History Cast Unfavorable Glance at the Pinkertons:
A Checkered Past

(November 2006) Offering a range of “private investigative” services, the Pinkerton Detective Agency was founded in 1850 and at first specialized in train robberies: the protection of railroad property. By the late 1860s, however, Pinkerton agents were protecting all manner of property — most notoriously when its ownership was at odds with organized labor. “Pinkerton” survives to this day as part of an international security business, but is nothing more than a brand name, while the name itself maintains its strong historical associations with anti-worker movements that typically involved organized brutality. [read article]

Postal Workers ‘In the Line of Duty’
Part of the

(September 2006) Since 1775, we have honored our pledge to defend the security of the mail, on which much of our nation’s commerce and communication system has always depended. From the dangers of transporting mail on horseback across the wild frontier to sorting it in the current era of chemical and biological terrorism, we have always faced the risks and fulfilled our mission with pride. The 230 years of commitment is honored by an exhibit at the National Postal Museum, a part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. “For more than two centuries, America’s postal workers have maintained a constant and vigilant watch over every home and business,” states the introduction to “In the Line of Duty: Dangers, Disasters and Good Deeds.” [read article]

John L. Lewis: A Giant Among Labor Leaders
Part of the

(July 2006) A dominant figure in labor history, John L. Lewis was the founding force behind several national unions and a leader of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) for more than 40 years. In aiding the union struggle for better wages and benefits, he confronted presidents, corporate powers and even other unions to shape and expand the union movement during the decades when labor made its greatest gains. [read article]

Joe Hill:
Labor’s Legendary Troubadour
Part of the

(May 2006) At sunrise on Nov. 19, 1915, a firing squad at the Utah State Penitentiary executed a labor activist who many people believed had been falsely convicted of murder. Nearly a century later, the legend of “Joe Hill” is frequently invoked in the ongoing struggle for social and economic justice. You may have heard his name in a folk song or at a labor rally – here is the rest of his story. [read article]

Frances Perkins:
Trailblazer for Workers’ Rights

(March 2006) In an era when few women had risen to positions of prominence, Frances Perkins in 1933 became the nation’s first female cabinet secretary. During her long tenure as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Secretary of the Department of Labor, she was a trailblazer for workers’ rights, women’s rights, and civil rights... Perkins was the driving force for passing important pro-worker legislation, including the Social Security Act (1935), which created unemployment insurance and income security for elderly Americans and for children whose parents die or become disabled; The Wagner Act (1935), which gave workers the right to organize; and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938), which established a national minimum wage and standards for a maximum workweek. [read article]

The Post Office Department and Jim Crow

(January 2006) Although slavery had been outlawed, there were virtually no laws or regulations after the Civil War that provided African-Americans with protection against racial discrimination on the job, unless they worked for the federal government. In 1883, as part of a reform movement to root out corruption and political cronyism, Congress created a civil service system that based federal work rules on merit. The rules, at least in theory, were supposed to be colorblind. [read article]

Postal Landscape Includes Art of the New Deal
(November 2005) If the facility you work in was built during the Great Depression, chances are that its public lobby features a unique work of art. Though many post offices have undergone repeated renovations, most of the art has been preserved. Today, about 1,000 of the 1,200 murals of that era are still on display. The murals have drawn renewed attention for both their artistic and historical value. Many postal workers and postal customers, however, are unaware of how the murals came to serve as a testament to the American spirit and the country’s efforts — amid more than a decade of economic misery — to connect a treasured past with a promising future. [read article]

Mail by Rail:
Not Always a Smooth Ride

(September 2005) Mail transportation took the obvious route when the Continental Congress founded our nation’s postal system in 1775. The horse and rider — and maybe the occasional “buggy” — were the main features of the system for decades. The first big change in postal transportation began nearly six decades after the Second Continental Congress put Benjamin Franklin in charge of the “Constitutional Post.” With several commercial railroad ventures getting under way, U.S. mail rode the rails for the first time in 1832. From time to time, the postal department tried shipping via stagecoaches, subcontracting to “Pony Express” relay routes, steamships, and even hot air balloons and pneumatic tubes. However, for much of the system’s history, most of the mail was moved by rail. And the postal clerks who handled it went along for what was a difficult and often dangerous ride. [read article]

Walter Reuther:
Labor Movement’s Social Conscience

(July 2005) Remembered mainly as the longtime president of the United Auto Workers, Walter Reuther was one of the modern labor movement’s most important figures, not only because of his success as a union leader, but because of his lifelong passion for social and economic justice. Born in Wheeling, WV, in 1907, Reuther adopted these values as a youngster. His father, German immigrant Valentine Reuther, was a brewery-wagon driver and local labor leader who led regular family discussions on the societal role of unions. [read article]

Groundbreaking, Heartbreaking ‘Harvest of Shame’

(May 2005) Half a century ago, the plight of the nation’s migrant farm workers was brought home to millions of Americans, many of whom had just enjoyed their biggest meal of the year. Harvest of Shame, a prime-time CBS documentary, was first televised on Thanksgiving Day 1960, confronting families throughout the country with a graphic exposé of the terrible working and living conditions of the men, women, and children who had put much of their holiday feast on the table. “Meet your fellow citizens,” legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow told viewers at the beginning of the hour-long show. “These are the forgotten people — the under-protected, the undereducated, the under-clothed, the underfed.” [read article]

Mother Jones

(March 2005) Although vilified by her detractors as “the most dangerous woman in America,” struggling workers all over the nation had a more affectionate way of referring to Mary Harris Jones: They called her “Mother.” From 1871 to 1924, Mother Jones traveled far and wide to fight for decent wages and better working conditions, spreading the union gospel to those who needed it most. A frequent visitor to in worker camps, shantytowns, tenements, union halls, and jails, the diminutive Mother Jones was nonetheless a charismatic figure and a powerful if, at times, salty-tongued, orator. [read article]

Memphis 1968:
Sanitation Workers’ Strike Spurs Cause of Economic Justice

(January 2005) During a heavy rainstorm on Jan. 31, 1968, about two dozen Memphis sewer workers — all of them black — were sent home without pay. Their orders came from supervisors — all of them white — who were paid for their day’s work. The next day, two black sanitation workers were crushed to death by a malfunctioning compactor in an accident attributed to standard operating procedure during inclement weather. The response to formal protests about these outrageous employment practices came about two weeks later. [read article]

Sam Reiss:
Eyewitness to Labor History

(November 2004) The photography of a dedicated unionist with an artist’s eye is now available online, in an exhibit sponsored by the Tamiment Library at New York University. The images captured by Sam Reiss, known to many as “labor’s photographer,” provide a rich visual legacy of the struggle for workers’ rights. From the Great Depression through the rise of the modern labor and Civil Rights movements, Reiss helped document the fight for decent wages and dignity and respect on the job. [read article]

The Evolution of the World’s Largest Postal Union

(September 2004) Postal workers will celebrate a centennial in 2006, noting the birth of a forerunner of the APWU, the National Federation of Post Office Clerks. The origin of the Federation, as it was known, is traced to 1906 when it held its first convention. Actually, “NFPOC” barely convened at all — it was only during the final stages of writing the organization’s first constitution that it occurred to those gathered in Chicago that a name was in order. [read article]

Courage, Determination Forged Foundation for Chinese-American Labor

(May 2004) Like many others seeking a better life in America, the Chinese workers who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s suffered workplace exploitation and discrimination. And many decades would pass before they would begin to find justice, equality, and a piece of the American dream. When the Civil War ended in 1865, the United States redoubled its efforts to build an almost 1,800-mile railroad from Omaha to San Francisco, an unprecedented feat of engineering and human will that became the greatest construction project the world had ever known. [read article]

Sweatshop Tragedy Ignites Fight for Workplace Safety
Women Workers Seize The Moment
(March 2004) As women unionists struggled for better wages and working conditions, a tragic fire in New York City 93 years ago captured the nation’s attention and forever changed the course of labor history. Although for most Americans the disaster remains part of a dim collective memory, the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of March 25, 1911, ushered in a new chapter of the Industrial Age in which unions led the fight for workplace safety for all Americans. ... One of the more notorious sweatshops was the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, New York’s largest manufacturer of women’s blouses. Most of the factory’s 500 workers were Jewish or Italian women in their teens and early 20s who worked excessively long hours for low pay in overcrowded, dimly lit rooms on the factory’s upper floors. [read article]

Union’s Anti-Discrimination Stance At Heart of WWII-Era Transit Strike

(January 2004) For five tense days in august 1944, a renegade faction of Philadelphia’s transit workers brought the city’s 2,600 trolleys, buses and trains to a standstill. The wildcat strike – staged to keep Black workers out of higher skilled jobs — was broken only after federal troops were called in to get the city moving and to protect equipment, passengers, and the union members of all colors who opposed the strike. In the early days of World War II, the privately run Philadelphia Transit Company had about 11,000 employees working under a collective bargaining agreement, including just over 500 Blacks. For several years, the NAACP had been pressing the PTC to allow Blacks to train for work as motormen, conductors, bus drivers, station clerks, and other higher-grade jobs. [read article]

Moe Biller

(December 2003) Feisty, fiery, irascible, crusty, blunt, and tough — all terms used on the national stage, and with regularity, to describe Morris “Moe” Biller, who died Sept. 5, 2003, in New York. Moe was described in such ways for most of his 87 years. But those who best knew the APWU’s President Emeritus, know better.

“He was a real character, a strong man with a sometimes gruff exterior. But his tough veneer masked a soft heart,” said Bill Burrus, Moe’s successor. “He never forgot where he came from, and he truly loved the working men and women of the post office, America, and the world.” [read article | PDF]

Newspaper Union Survives 150 Years of Changes, Then All But Disappears

(July 2003) In the middle of the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg combined his knowledge of molten metal with a colleague’s wine press to create the first publication to rely on reusable type. The German goldsmith’s invention of “movable” type launched both a printing revolution and a craft. For about 400 years, skilled “printers” arranged and set the type in place by hand, and were the indispensable link between an author and the published page. During that time, there was little change in the basic technology of creating a publication, so it’s not surprising that printers banded together to form some of the first labor unions. [read article]

Labor Organizing Changed the Hawaiian Islands Forever

(May 2003) The birth of the Hawaiian labor movement was a painful experience, marked by a number of failed job actions on the islands’ sugar-cane plantations over the course of 50 years. The largely Asian workforce learned bitter lessons from several failed farm-worker strikes, most notably in 1909, 1920, and 1924, before the great strike of 1946. That all-island work stoppage was a success because workers of all races finally organized into a single labor union. Once it took root, labor organizing forever changed the Hawaiian islands, economically, politically and socially. [read article]

Dolores Huerta
The Unsung Heroine of the United Farm Workers Union

(March 2003) While most people are familiar with Cesar Chavez, relatively few know the name of Dolores Huerta, the cofounder of the United Farm Workers Union. During the UFW’s earliest days, however, she was the one who ran the business of the fledgling organization and served as its main contract negotiator. And she’s never let up: For more than 40 years she never has been far from the union’s front lines or its back rooms. ... This year marks the 10th anniversary of her induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and she may be better known among contemporaries as a crusader for women’s rights than as a labor activist. [read article]

The Alliance That Began With the Brotherhood

(January 2003) As the civil war divided the nation figuratively, transcontinental rail travel brought it together literally. The nation’s railroad system also brought together for the first time Black workers and the labor movement. From that alliance, several decades later, A. Philip Randolph would emerge as a major historical figure not just in labor, but in civil rights. When George Pullman began to capitalize on the growth in passenger rail travel in the late 1860s, he had no idea that he was providing fertile ground for the Black labor movement. Pullman, who manufactured luxury rail cars, was concerned more about his customers than about his workers, whether in the factory or in the rolling “sleepers” hauled by the railroads. [read article]

Titanic Postal Clerks
Five Brave Men Stuck to Their Duties Until It Was Too Late

(November 2002) In the 90 years since it departed England on its only journey, the R.M.S. Titanic has remained of unwavering great interest, with the focus tending towards its design or the actions of its many famous passengers. But the greatest ship of its day was also a floating mini-economy. On the maiden voyage alone, it was supposed to provide two weeks of comparatively well-paid work for nearly 900 “crew,” including a few postal clerks: R.M.S. stands for “Royal Mail Steamer,” which indicates that the luxury liner was legally commissioned to carry mail. [read article]

Remembering Father George Higgins
The Life and Times of a ‘Labor Priest’

(September 2002) The union movement lost a dear friend when Monsignor George G. Higgins passed away on May 1st at age 86. The son of a Chicago postal clerk, Father Higgins came of age during the Great Depression and learned about the struggles of working people firsthand from family members, including pro-union uncles who worked as machinists, firefighters, and engineers.... From the California grape fields to the Kentucky coal mines, and in the halls of Congress, Father Higgins marched with striking workers, offered benedictions at union meetings, and tried to persuade politicians that working people deserve a fair deal. [read article]

A Look Back: Glen L. Howard

(July 2002) The early days of the union movement were difficult times for workers who dared to fight for better wages and working conditions, and we should never forget the hardships that many early unionists suffered in order to win the right to collectively bargain that we enjoy today. President Burrus recently received a letter from a gentleman in Georgia who recalls how in 1920, his father was fired by the Post Office Department for a letter he had written to Congress in support of higher wages and better working conditions for railway postal workers.
[read article]

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