today in labor history

Today in labor history, March 12, 1912: The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)-led “Bread and Roses” textile strike of 32,000 women and children ends after ten weeks when the American Woolen Company accedes to the workers’ demands. Soon, the rest of the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile companies followed suit and wages were raised for textile workers throughout New England.

Bread and Roses

An internet rabbithole, as they go.

Not long ago I watched the film Pride (set largely in 1984 Wales), and there was a scene where the community hall broke into the song Bread and Roses.  I was on a plane, otherwise I’d probably have googled it.

I was looking at some labor history links today after looking at some titles on Scribd and came across this by the Labor Education Service from the University of Minnesota: there again, Bread and Roses (1912, far from Wales).

So now, reading the lyrics and looking up the strike and the song both, this is how we get the name Rose Schneiderman - who coined the phrase that was turned into a slogan, poem and song.

All of this to say that I was moved by a speech from Rose herself, in the wake of the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  Thank you wikipedia for that.  And now perhaps I ought to find more to read of hers, but that is the beauty of internet rabbitholes, there is always more to read:

“I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.

This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.

We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.

Public officials have only words of warning to us – warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.

I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”


—Rose Schneiderman

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May 4th 1886: Haymarket Riot

On this day in 1886, in a violent altercation between police and protestors, the Haymarket riot occurred in Chicago. The previous day, several people were injured and one killed when police attempted to break a strike aimed at securing national eight-hour day legislation. In retaliation to such police brutality, a group of anarchist labour leaders organised a meeting in Haymarket Square. The meeting was initially peaceful, but when the police called for the crowd to disperse, one anonymous protestor threw a bomb. In the ensuing chaos the police opened fire, and violence reigned in Chicago’s streets. Ultimately, seven police officers and a few civilians died, with one hundred more people injured. The riot stoked fears of working class militancy, and resulted in a crackdown against labour leaders and immigrants. A group of anarchist leaders, known as the ‘Chicago Eight’, were arrested for alleged involvement in the bombing and subsequent violence. While many of the group were not even present at Haymarket, four anarchists were convicted on slim evidence and executed in November 1887. The surviving three of the group (one had committed suicide) were pardoned in 1893 when the case was reconsidered and thrown out on the basis of poor evidence. While proving a blow for the labour movement at the time, the Haymarket riot - and the martyrdom of the Chicago Eight - has endured as a symbol for labour leaders and activists in America and abroad. 

“The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today”
- Anarchist August Spies, one of the Chicago Eight, before his execution for alleged involvement in the Haymarket riot

Today in labor history, October 4, 1936: An estimated crowd of more than 100,000 trade unionists, anti-fascist activists, and local residents barricade streets leading into London’s East End to stop a march by British fascists. The 6,000 police officers who attempted to clear a route for the fascists were met with fierce resistance in what became known as the Battle of Cable Street and the march was re-routed.

Today in labor history, February 25, 1941: The February Strike begins. It was a general strike in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands by workers against the pogroms and deportation of Jews in Amsterdam. It was the only direct action of its kind during World War II in Europe against the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. The strike is commemorated annually on February 25 at the statue of the De Dokwerker (“The Dock Worker”) in Amsterdam.

Today in labor history, June 15, 2000: In Quito, Ecuador, union and student demonstrators participating in a general strike are met with tear gas when they try to approach the Government Palace. Trade unions and grassroots organizations called for a general strike in the country against International Monetary Fund economic “reforms,” which included privatization of state-owned companies and other measures.

Today in labor history, January 5, 1933: Construction officially begins on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Safety netting suspended under the floor of the bridge from end to end saved the lives of nineteen workers; however, ten of the eleven deaths on the job occurred when a section of scaffold fell through the net. The bridge opened in 1937 and was, until 1964, the longest suspension bridge main span in the world.

Today in labor history (international edition), December 22, 1998: Chico Mendes – rubber tapper, trade union leader, and environmental activist – is assassinated by a rancher. Mendes fought to preserve the Amazon rainforest and advocated for the rights of Brazilian peasants and indigenous peoples. Mendes was the nineteenth rural activist murdered that year in Brazil.

Today in labor history, September 8, 1965: Filipino American grape workers walk out on strike against Delano, California, table and wine grape growers, protesting years of poor pay and working conditions. Latino farm workers soon joined them, and the strike and subsequent boycott lasted more than five years. In 1970, growers signed their first union contracts with the United Farm Workers union, which included better pay, benefits, and protections.

Today in labor history, January 18, 2016: Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a U.S. federal holiday celebrating the birthday of civil rights activist and organizer Martin Luther King, Jr. The campaign for a federal holiday in his honor began soon after his assassination in 1968. President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, and it was first observed three years later. It was officially observed in all fifty states for the first time in 2000.

Today in labor history, December 2, 1859: Having been found guilty of murder, treason, and inciting slave insurrection, abolitionist John Brown is hanged in Charlestown, Virginia. Frederick Douglass said of John Brown: “His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine – it was as the burning sun to my taper light – mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.”

Today in labor history, December 3, 1946: In Oakland, California, 130,000 workers from 142 unions – including workers from factories, industries, services, retail stores, transportation systems, and more – declare a “work holiday” and walk off their jobs in support of striking department store clerks and in opposition to police intervention that was facilitating strike breaking activity. The Oakland General Strike lasted for two days.

Today in labor history, April 19, 1974: A one-week national strike by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers begins over wage inequality. The Canada Post Office’s new postal mechanization system was staffed with female postal code machine operators paid $2.94/hour compared to male postal clerks making $3.69/hour. In the end, an arbitrator awarded female postal coders the same wages as male postal clerks.

Today in labor history, November 13, 1974: Union activist and whistleblower Karen Silkwood dies under “mysterious circumstances” while en route to a meeting with an Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union health and safety staffer and a New York Times investigative reporter. She was bringing them documents proving that the company she worked for – Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corporation – had falsified quality control records of nuclear fuel rods.

Today in labor history, January 25, 1972: 18-year old Nan Freeman – a college student who responded to appeals for help by striking farm workers at the Talisman Sugar plant near Belle Glade, Florida – is struck and killed by a double trailer truck driven by a scab driver. Pickets had complained to the police about scab drivers speeding by the picket lines through stop signs at the plant gates to splash rain and mud on the striking workers. Cesar Chavez wrote of Freeman, “…she is a sister who picketed with farm workers in the middle of the night because of her love for justice…to be honored and remembered for as long as farm workers struggle for justice.”