Category Archives: Labor History

Why the Seattle General Strike of 1919 should inspire a new generation of labor activists

Source: Steven C. Beda, The Conversation, February 6, 2019

It shut down a major U.S. city, inspired a rock opera, led to decades of labor unrest and provoked fears Russian Bolsheviks were trying to overthrow American capitalism. It was the Seattle General Strike of 1919, which began on Feb. 6 and lasted just five days.

By many measures, the strike was a failure. It didn’t achieve the higher wages that the 35,000 shipyard workers who first walked off their jobs sought – even after 25,000 other union members joined the strike in solidarity. Altogether, striking workers represented about half of the workforce and almost a fifth of Seattle’s 315,000 residents.

Usually, as a historian of the American labor movement, I have the unfortunate job of telling difficult stories about the decline of unions. However, in my view, the story of this particular strike is surprisingly hopeful for the future of labor.

And I believe it holds lessons for today’s labor activists – whether they’re striking teachers in West Virginia or Arizona, mental health workers in California or Google activists in offices across the world….

How Black Activists Shaped the Labor Movement

Source: Kim Kelly, Teen Vogue, No Class, February 7, 2019

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent his final full day on earth advocating for the rights of workers in what’s now known as his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. It was April 3, 1968, and King stood up at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, and spoke in support of the city’s 1,300 sanitation workers, who were then on strike fighting for better safety standards, union recognition, and a decent wage — a work stoppage that was inspired partly by the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who had been crushed to death by a garbage truck.

“We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end,” he told the assemblage. “Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”,,,

Seattle General Strike: Labor’s Most Spectacular Revolt

Source: Cal Winslow, Labor Notes, February 6, 2019

On February 6, 1919, Seattle’s workers struck—all of them. In doing so they took control of the city.

The strike was in support of 35,000 shipyard workers, then in conflict with the city’s shipyard owners and the federal government’s U.S. Shipping Board, which was still enforcing wartime wage agreements.

The strike rendered the authorities virtually powerless. There was indeed no power that could challenge the workers. There were soldiers in the city, and many more at nearby Camp Lewis, not to mention thousands of newly enlisted, armed deputies—but to unleash these on a peaceful city? The regular police were reduced to onlookers; the generals hesitated.

Seattle’s Central Labor Council, representing 110 unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), called the strike. The CLC’s Union Record reported 65,000 union members on strike—a general strike, the first and only of its kind in the U.S. Perhaps as many as 100,000 people participated…..

Everything You Need to Know About General Strikes

Source: Kim Kelly, Teen Vogue, No Class, January 24, 2019

The word strike seems to be on everyone’s lips these days. Workers across the world have been striking to protest poor working conditions, to speak out against sexual harassment, and to jumpstart stalled union negotiations. And as we just saw with the Los Angeles teachers’ successful large-scale strike, which spanned six school days, strikers have been winning. Despite the shot of energy that organized strikes have injected into the labor movement, many people aren’t content with run-of-the-mill work stoppages, or even with more militant wildcat strikes…..

….. So what does it all mean? How is a general strike different from a planned, industry-specific work stoppage; why are people interested in the idea now; and what would one look like in 2019? …..

An American Approach to Social Democracy: The Forgotten Promise of the Fair Labor Standards Act

Source: Kate Andrias, Yale Law Journal, Vol. 128 no. 3, January 2019

There is a growing consensus among scholars and public policy experts that fundamental labor law reform is necessary in order to reduce the nation’s growing wealth gap. According to conventional wisdom, however, a social democratic approach to labor relations is uniquely un-American—in deep conflict with our traditions and our governing legal regime. This Article calls into question that conventional account. It details a largely forgotten moment in American history: when the early Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) established industry committees of unions, business associations, and the public to set wages on an industry-by-industry basis. Alongside the National Labor Relations Act, the system successfully raised wages for hundreds of thousands of Americans, while helping facilitate unionization and a more egalitarian form of administration. And it succeeded within the basic framework of contemporary constitutional doctrine and statutory law.

By telling the story of FLSA’s industry committees, this Article shows that collective labor law and individual employment law were not, and need not be, understood as discrete regimes—one a labor-driven vision of collective rights and the other built around individual rights subject to litigation and waiver. It also demonstrates that, for longer than is typically recognized, the nation experimented with a form of administration that linked the substantive ends of empowering particular social and economic groups to procedural means that solicited and enabled those same groups’ participation in governance (to the exclusion of other groups). Ultimately, recovering this history provides inspiration for imagining alternatives to the current approach to worker participation in the American political economy and to administrative governance more broadly.

Labor History Booklist

Source: Rosemary Feurer, Labor History Links, 2019

This page is organized with an emphasis on the most recent work in the field, as well as the most important work of scholars from the past. some sections are more developed than others.

Categories include:
Chronological
• Colonial thru Early Nineteenth Century
• Slavery
• Late 19th through early 20th
• Working Class Formation/Working Class Community Studies 1850-1950
• Twentieth Century Approaches and overviews
• Labor and Radicalism late 19th early 20th
• IWW early 20th
• World War I
• Interwar Years/1930s
• World War II
• Cold War & Labor-Anticommunism/Red Scare
• Postwar-present
• Capital Disinvestment in recent years

Topical
• Books that are highly readable
• Books for Children
• Overviews and Surveys of Labor History
• Documents Collections
• Essay Collections
• Biographies and Oral Histories
• U.S. Labor History in Global/Transnational Perspective
• Interpretations of Class in the USA
• Managerial Strategies /Bourgeois Class Formation
• Professionals and Class Issues
• Working Class Cultures/Cultures of the Workplace
• Exceptionalism (why no Labor Party/Socialism)
• Labor and the State/Labor and the Law
• Unemployment/Hours/Leisure
• African-American Labor History/Race and Labor
• Latinos/Latinas in US Labor History
• Labor Rights & Civil Rights
• Immigration Ethnicity and Labor History
• Women/Gender/Labor and Feminism
• War and the Working Class/War and Labor
• Labor and the Environment
• Specific trades/industries
• Geographical treatments
• Unions and Corruption

Martin Luther King Jr., union man

Source: Peter Cole, The Conversation, January 18, 2019

If Martin Luther King Jr. still lived, he’d probably tell people to join unions.

King understood racial equality was inextricably linked to economics. He asked, “What good does it do to be able to eat at a lunch counter if you can’t buy a hamburger?”

Those disadvantages have persisted. Today, for instance, the wealth of the average white family is more than 20 times that of a black one.

King’s solution was unionism…..

Related:
Economic justice was always part of MLK Jr.’s message
Source: Peter Kelley, Futurity, January 20, 2019

Labor rights and economic justice were always part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s progressive message, historian Michael Honey reminds us in a new book.

The book, To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice, (W.W. Norton, 2018) came out April 3—the day before the 50-year anniversary of King’s assassination. ….

When King Was Dangerous
Source: Alex Gourevitch, Jacobin, January 21, 2019

Martin Luther King Jr is remembered as a person of conscience who only carefully broke unjust laws. But his militant challenges to state authority place him in a much different tradition: radical labor activism.

Working Women versus Employers: An Insider’s View

Source: Anne Ladky, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History, Vol. 15 no. 3, September 2018
(subscription required)

In her book, Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide, Lane Windham compellingly illuminates the context of organizing in that decade and dispels long-held myths. She makes clear that it was not a lack of organizing that resulted in the decline in unionization in the following decade but the aggressive refusal of companies to tolerate union organizing activity—or any campaigns that they perceived could lead to unionization—aided by government failures. The experiences of those of us in what has been called the working women’s movement bear out her arguments.

I am not a historian—my comments are aimed at connecting what I was experiencing as an organizer with Windham’s narrative. I was organizing in the 1970s around women’s employment issues as a member of the Chicago Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and then as a member of Women Employed (WE). I joined the staff of Women Employed in 1977, became its executive director in 1985, and served in that position for thirty-two years. WE, whose founding is noted in the book’s second chapter, is now a forty-five-year-old organization whose mission is to break down barriers to women’s economic advancement and promote workplace fairness. It has a staff of twenty; it is locally based with national policy reach. The organization has opened hundreds of occupations to women, helped outlaw and reduce sexual harassment, did some of the very first work on family-friendly workplace policies, made affirmative action a dramatically effective tool for women’s advancement, and much more. Today, its priorities are to change workplace policies and practices that affect low-paid working women, expand work-family policies, and enable more low-income women to enter and succeed in higher education. While the organization’s priorities have changed to address evolving barriers facing low-paid female workers, the organization’s mission is unchanged since its founding in 1973….

Related:
Tangled Up in Race: Working-Class Politics and the Ongoing Economic Divide
Source: Dan Graff, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History, Vol. 15 no. 3, September 2018
(subscription required)

The title of Lane Windham’s impressive new exploration of union organizing in the 1970s, Knocking on Labor’s Door, immediately calls to mind Bob Dylan’s hit single “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Whether the allusion is intended or not, the song’s release date resonates, since 1973 — marked by the oil crisis and stagflation — is widely considered among historians to be the year of reckoning for the New Deal order, the US labor movement, and the heyday of American liberalism. But where Dylan’s song is a dirge, with its mournful narrator accepting “the long black cloud” announcing death, Windham’s monograph exudes an opposite tone. By uncovering stories of worker-activists who organized with a purpose and a passion reminiscent of the 1930s, Windham rejects the notion of the 1970s as “the last days of the working class” (3)….

Labor Feminism Meets Institutional Sexism
Source: Katherine Turk, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History, Vol. 15 no. 3, September 2018
(subscription required)

Lane Windham’s Knocking on Labor’s Door offers important contributions to labor and working-class history and to the emerging literature on American capitalism. Most important, the book reminds us that the 1970s did not mark a gloomy descent into neoliberalism; rather, those years were shot through with electrifying possibilities.

My comments will reflect on how Knocking on Labor’s Door handles the identity politics of sex and class. The book offers striking insights into the political economy of the 1970s; in particular, it sheds new light on employers’ efforts to protect their profits as they navigated a globalizing landscape. But in blaming those employers when union campaigns led by women and men of color fell short, Windham downplays other factors — especially the roadblocks thrown up by wage-earning white men. Laboring women had to aim their campaigns for equity at their employers as well as at their union “brothers.” Aware of the distinct yet related challenges they faced everywhere they worked, many women experimented with and blended new and well-established forms of activism. The formal labor movement thus offers too narrow a lens to capture the range of outcomes that working people — women in particular — imagined and pursued as they fought the baked-in inequities that shaped workplaces and unions alike…..

I Hear You Knockin’. . . . But You Can’t Come In
Source: Alex Lichtenstein, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History, Vol. 15 no. 3, September 2018
(subscription required)

Knocking on Labor’s Door is an impressive achievement. By combing through National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) records and revisiting some crucial but forgotten labor struggles from the 1970s, Lane Windham seeks to refute pessimists like Jefferson Cowie, who regard that decade as ringing the death knell of an empowered American working class. Specifically, Windham wants to call our attention to the energized struggles of African American, women, and immigrant workers. Newly emboldened by the previous decade’s rights revolutions, these members of the working class sought to join and reinvigorate the flagging American labor movement that had previously done much to exclude them. They indeed were “knocking at labor’s door.”

But did that door open? With all due respect to Windham’s ability to uncover the dynamics of previously ignored or overlooked struggles of this era, I want to provoke discussion by laying out an alternative narrative, based as much as possible on the compelling evidence of labor ferment she herself has unearthed and brought to life in the pages of this book.

Here is my alternative narrative:…

Author’s Response
Source: Lane Windham, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History, Vol. 15 no. 3, September 2018
(subscription required)

I am grateful to Anne Ladky, Dan Graff, Katherine Turk, and Alex Lichtenstein for their carefully considered and provocative analyses of Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide. In writing the book, I aimed to open up a fresh discussion of the workers’ movement in the pivotal 1970s and also to offer new approaches for understanding working people’s struggles today. These accomplished scholars and activists clearly have embraced both undertakings. I would like to also thank the Newberry Library for hosting this forum and the journal Labor for allowing us to further our dialogue here….

Connecticut Labor History in the Classroom

Source: Cecelia Bucki, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History, Vol. 15 no. 3, September 2018
(subscription required)

In May 2015, the Connecticut General Assembly passed Public Act No. 15 – 17, encouraging local school districts to teach the history of the American labor movement. This was the culmination of years of advocacy by teachers, union activists, and supportive legislators.

Unions for Workers in the Gig Economy: Time for a New Labor Movement

Source: William J. Tronsor, Labor Law Journal, Vol. 69 no. 4, Winter 2018
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
The gig economy has fundamentally changed the employer-employee relationship throughout America. In the past, employers relied on an industrial model for production, depending on long-term employees to ensure quality and productivity. The traditional employer-employee relationship was the norm and America’s labor laws were built around that relationship. Today, in order to hinder collective action and skirt America’s labor laws, employers are classifying their workforce as independent contractors. Whether these companies are accurately classifying their workforce as independent contractors requires an extremely fact-based legal assessment, but the ambiguity in the law has made it advantageous for employers to deliberately misclassify their workers. This has resulted in the rise of the gig economy, led by companies like Uber, TaskRabbit, and Grubhub. The gig economy has created a new class of workers, i.e., gig workers. A class of workers whose numbers are growing every year and workers who find themselves unable to avail themselves of the protections of America’s labor laws. The American workforce has evolved, and America’s labor laws need to evolve to respond to these changed circumstances. This article examines the history of organized labor, the importance of organized labor, and the circumstances that brought about the gig economy in America. The article also proposes new organizing strategies, changes that should be made to the law to ensure that all workers are able to collectively organize and avail themselves of the protections of America’s labor laws, so that the organized labor movement can be brought into the 21st century.