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From its inception to now, the labor movement continues to make history


May is National Labor History Month and many key events played a role in building the labor movement.

One such event is the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Janus v. the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) case, which has already made the history books, even though the full outcome remains to be seen.

June 27 will mark the one-year anniversary of the court’s 5-4 ruling that the application of public-sector union fees to non-members is a violation of the First Amendment.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote that agency-shop agreements violate “the free speech rights of non-members by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”

Alito also realized, along with Justices Neil Gorsuch, Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts and Clarence Thomas, that losing these fees would put a financial burden on public-sector unions.

Unionized workers in New York state have stood in alliance with their unions, despite the JANUS ruling. In fact, PEF now has 54,746 members, more than it had a year ago. They obviously realize the many benefits and protections union membership provides. And New Yorkers have also witnessed the demise of unions in states such as Wisconsin, and how workers there are now struggling financially, with diminished wages, lost pensions, no or weakened health insurance plans, and the loss of the sacred ability to bargain collectively.

The roots of unionism

If you take a step back in time, there are dozens of examples of how men and women realized the need to coalesce their ideas and goals, and then fight together to achieve a decent and fair living. It is because of their vision and activism that we enjoy the way we live and work today.

Labor activism has been recorded as far back as 1619, when North America’s first recorded labor uprising occurred. Polish craftsmen, who produced glass, pitch and tar for the Jamestown colony, were among the first to strike and protest their lack of voting rights. The incident ended peacefully when the Poles were granted full voting rights.

In 1881, after the brutal civil war, Atlanta’s washerwomen were among the first to demonstrate the power of collective bargaining. Twenty laundresses formed The Washers Society and asked for a $1 for each dozen pounds of wash they did, which included making soap from homemade lye and starch. They also gathered wood to feed fires to heat gallons of water that they carried from wells or ponds. And, they hung clothes outside to dry and pressed them with heavy irons from the same hearths they used to cook for their families.

They went door-to-door to build their ranks, and used church meetings to spread the word. Within three weeks, the group had swelled to more than 3,000 members, including some white women, and they went on strike. Within a month, the city’s leaders conceded, as the organized washerwomen’s show of resolve also inspired and created unrest among cooks, maids and nurses, and an awareness to the power of solidarity.

The Cripple Creek miner’s strike in 1894 is another event to mark what worker unity can accomplish. Miners flocked to Cripple Creek from around the nation to seek jobs at flourishing gold mines. They quickly organized the Free Coinage Union, which affiliated with the Western Federation of Miners and became Local 19. They protested the lengthening of the workday to 10 hours from eight. Mine owners finally agreed to an eight-hour day but lowered the pay from $3 to $2.50. The strike had an immediate effect and included so much violence that 300 troopers from the state militia had to intervene.

LEFT: Union men on parade before the strike in Victor, Colorado, 1894. Image courtesy of the Cripple Creek District Museum, made available via Heritage West. RIGHT: Front page of The New York Herald newspaper of the March 25, 1911 disaster.

The Cripple Creek strike was a major victory for the miners union. Almost every other worker in the region, including waitresses, laundry workers, bartenders and newsboys united and formed 54 local unions in the region.

In 1909, a significant strike took place in McKees Rock, Pa. when immigrant workers rose up and changed the course of American unionism. It took place at the huge Pressed Steel Car Company plant near Pittsburgh, where nearly 8,000 mostly immigrant workers from 16 nationalities created railway cars.

Eugene V. Debs, one of the foremost union activists in American history, said, “This is the greatest labor fight in all my history in the labor movement.”

Year after year, more and more strikes occurred as the voices of workers became stronger and louder.

Activists from across New York state and the nation pushed for fundamental reforms after 146, mostly young women, died in the well known Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. For some, such as Frances Perkins, who stood helpless watching the factory burn, the tragedy inspired a lifetime of advocacy for workers’ rights.

Throughout the 1990s, labor advanced by forming unions, councils and coalitions comprised of not only working men, but women and people of various nationalities and occupations.

Key people in labor history such as the farm worker’s leader Cesar Estrada Chavez, or Samuel Gompers, the longest serving president of the American Federation of Labor, or Mother Jones, “the most dangerous woman in America,” became household inspirations.

Current times

Many of our nation’s working people have recognized that standing together is the most effective means of improving their lives on and off the job. Strikes continued. In 1970, Time magazine shouted on its cover, “The strike that stunned the country,” referring to the 200,000 postal workers who got fed up, united and transformed the Postal Service and their own lives.

As time and technology has changed the way of life, it also has changed the way unions operate. In November 2018, a labor wave spread across the country and working people were a driving force in the midterm elections.

November 6 marked the culmination of the AFL-CIO’s largest member-to-member electoral effort in its history. Members knocked on  2,350,949 doors; distributed 5 million worksite flyers; sent more than 12 million mailers; left 69 million impressions on social media; sent 260,094 text messages; and, visited 4,650 worksites.

The result was 743 union members were elected.

AFL-CIO’s successful effort is one example of how we can funnel support for working families and keep the scales of justice balanced on the side of labor. Unions are empowered by the strength in solidarity. Working-class unity is still the key to the American dream of fairness and the opportunity for all working families to succeed.

Table of Contents – May 2019

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