Labor History: Taking a Look Back to Advance the Movement

Everything I learned, I learned from Mother Jones. Mary Harris Jones was a school teacher, but more importantly she was a labor organizer and a fighter. In 1902 she was coined, “the most dangerous woman in America” because she dared to take a stand and fight for the safety of all workers. Her story teaches determination and perseverance. The only loss for workers happens when we stop fighting. In the words of Mother Jones, “If they want to hang me, let them. And on the scaffold I will shout Freedom for the working class.” Her spirit was fixed in my heart when I walked into my School for Workers labor history class this summer with my brothers and sisters from Madison Teachers, Inc. (MTI) whose thoughts are embedded in this article. Labor history matters, because this struggle doesn’t begin or end with us. By studying this movement that transcends centuries, we learn lessons from our past and are able to take meaningful strides forward.

According to Margaret Stumpf (MTI), “Labor history is a reminder that we cannot take our own working conditions for granted.”  In the past, workers put in 12, 14 or even 16 hour workdays to keep their jobs and put food on the table. The eight hour work day and weekends have become common place, but current conditions were born out of revolt and bloodshed. “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, and 8 hours for what we will” was the plea of workers nationwide in 1886. That slogan had its grips on workers in Milwaukee, WI as laborers stood up and fought for their own quality of life. This fight led to the tragic Bay View Massacre when the republican governor, Jeremiah Rusk, ordered shots to be fired into the crowd of “eight hour” demonstrators. Seven people died, including a thirteen-year-old boy. This tragedy is humbling, but it serves as a reminder not to take rights in the workplace for granted. To give up these rights or to take them for granted is a discredit to those who gave their lives for the cause. The rights that we enjoy today came at a cost.

These rights are extended to all workers, whether that worker is black or white, a woman or a man, an adult or a child, an immigrant or a person born in the United States. In 1902, Mother Jones led child laborers in a march to meet with President Roosevelt. Their message was simple, kids should have a right to an education and be free from the dangers of mills and mines. Women too have their place in labor struggles. Women played a critical role in the General Motors sit-down strike of 1936-1937 in Flint Michigan, which ended in victory for the GM workers. The Women’s Emergency Brigade was an important part of both the labor movement and the women’s movement. For the first time, women attended Union meetings, picketed alongside men and put their lives in danger with bold moves, such as throwing rocks through windows in a effort to save the men staked out in a plant quickly filling with tear gas. Later in history, Martin Luther King Jr would show that poverty and race are also connected to the labor movement. The Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike led by Martin Luther King Jr, was a war fought not just for workers, but for equality and a right to live free from poverty. Labor history teaches us that we all have a part to play in the struggles for workers’ rights. When we see injustice, we must do something. According to Greg Vallee (MTI), “If you do nothing you will not affect change, and worse you give subtle and active support to societal injustices.” Our fight is a fight we fight together, without discrimination or bias; workers rights are human rights.

As we continue to fight for workers’ rights, we can use successful strategies from past struggles. Laurie Solchenburger (MTI) explains, “People need to understand how the past influences the present, and we cannot do that without knowing past events and motivations.” Things couldn’t have been more heated in 2002 when President Bush joined forces with big business to try to bust the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The reason for this slowdown and lockout is becoming all too familiar in present times. Due to government policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, corporations often times want to reduce jobs to non-union work and pay low wages. Even though President Bush invoked the Taft-Harley Act (otherwise known as the “slave labor bill”) and threatened to have federal troops come in and take over port jobs, the ILWU were able to successfully negotiate a contract. Their strategies were successful because they had strong negotiation skills, deep political influence, and vast media outreach. Most importantly, their strike utilized unity and solidarity among the workers.

No story shows power in unity better than the Republic Windows and Doors sit down strike of 2008. The United Electrical (UE) workers were lied to as their employers and Bank of America tried to close the plant with three days notice without proper compensation, shortly before Christmas. What both the bank and the employer overlooked was the power held in the hearts and minds of the workers. The UE workers voted unanimously to stay in the plant until they received the 60 days pay that they were entitled to under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act. The sit down strike is a strategy that has been outlawed for a very simple reason; it is effective. With workers taking up space in the workplace and refusing to move, very little can be done by the employer, other than bring in the police. When the police entered the Republic factory, the UE workers explained that they were having a Union meeting; they were simply waiting for negotiations to proceed to a vote. With the media, public and even the president on the side of the workers, the employer could do very little but negotiate. This six day factory occupation ended in successful negotiations, the terms of which were accepted unanimously by the workers. Moves like this show the intelligence of the working class as they outsmart their corporate bosses. It teaches us that if we act strategically and we act together that we can prevail.

Not all battles are won, but they are all important and each is connected to present day struggles. In the words of Gale Stone (MTI), “Defeats, defeats, defeats.   But how can we live with ourselves if we do not fight?” The 1973 grape workers strike in Fresno, CA occurred when mistreated immigrants chose to fight for a United Farm Workers (UFW) contract. Employers used poverty and their citizenship status against them. This struggle mirrors the current strike in Milwaukee, WI by the Palermos pizza workers who are fighting for their right to unionize.

Both battles are linked to a basic human right – health and safety in the workplace. Drawing parallels between historical events shows us that our work is never over, but it is built upon year after year as this movement continues. According to Tim Valdez (MTI), we can even use these stories to help frame Wisconsin’s recent labor battles.  He is reminded when studying labor history of “how long struggles take to change conditions” and speculates that others may mistakenly expect change “to take place as quickly as many other things in mainstream U.S. society.” As labor activists look at Wisconsin’s failure to remove Governor Walker from office last June, even after the governor stripped most  collective bargaining rights from public workers, this broader outlook can provide us with an important lesson. Change takes time.

We are all workers who have inherited a rich history and it is us who will write the next chapter in labor history. As the Billy Bragg labor song tells us, “There is power in a factory, power in the land, power in the hands of a worker. But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand. There is power in a Union.” Studying labor history brings this power alive and gives workers inspiration to take that next step forward. This is a step that must be taken together with bravery and armed with knowledge. This knowledge can be found in Labor history.

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One Response to Labor History: Taking a Look Back to Advance the Movement

  1. Aerenia says:

    For unions, holiday begins somber election countdown: CHICAGO (Reuters) – After suffering a string of defeats in 2012, U.S. union lea…

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