Labor & Wobbly History
- View SourceNews & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Sunday, September 05, 2004, 12:00 A.M. Pacific
Labor pains: The struggle for workplace justice continues
By Dan Jacoby
Special to The [Seattle] Times
To be a member of a labor union in the United States was
once to be legally defined as part of a criminal conspiracy.
Upon recognition of its right to organize, labor's
relationship with business and government improved, reducing
industrial hostilities through the solution of legitimate
disputes. These changes were advanced by a recommendation
from the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations that had
investigated labor conditions throughout the country in the
early part of the last century.
When the commission arrived in Seattle, exactly 90 years
ago, it heard testimony well worth revisiting today,
particularly as we ponder the ways this nation should
respond to current global threats. With luck, our current
enemies may be militarily subdued, but the problems upon
which they thrive are unlikely to abate if the conditions of
workers around the world don't improve. The U.S. Commission
on Industrial Relations was conceived in 1912 as a response
to an apparent act of terror that caused the destruction of
a building and the loss of civilian life. Although a blast
was set by renegade elements within the labor movement,
violence at the turn of the century was anything but
one-sided. Workers rightly complained that while business
could call on troops and police to protect its interests,
labor defenses rested on much shakier legal grounds. Even
democratically passed laws, such as maximum hours or minimum
wages, were regularly undone by court rulings.
Workplace violence as frequently resulted from employer
indifference to worker health and safety as from class
warfare. Two tragic incidents illustrate these different
facets of this often brutal early labor regime. The first
involved a fire at New York's Triangle Shirt Waist Company
in 1911, where 146 garment workers, mostly young women, were
either burned alive or jumped to their deaths. The workers
had been locked inside by an owner concerned more by the
possibility of theft than by worker safety.
A second incident occurred in April 1914 when a National
Guard unit, brought in to protect John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s
Colorado Fuel and Iron, attacked workers in the tent camp
where they resided after being locked out from the company's
mines. Some 25 men, women and children were shot and burned
to death. The event colored the rest of the commission's
While in Seattle, the commission uncovered numerous labor
difficulties. Insecurity of employment was the root cause
for many of the problems. Migrant workers roamed the region
seeking seasonal employment. One such worker, Henry Pauly,
testified that employers shipped men by train to remote jobs
where they had little recourse but to work or starve.
Theresa McMahon, a young University of Washington professor,
told of female and child cannery workers who, in season,
might work 12-hour shifts to make their living. But it was
in the lumber industry that labor strains reached their
Fiercely independent loggers, commonly referred to as timber
beasts, traveled about with their bindle sticks seeking
camps with palatable conditions. Seldom finding them,
loggers were particularly responsive to the radical message
of the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the
IWW or the Wobblies.
J.P. Thompson, an IWW organizer, told the commission that
"we studied that one big union of bosses, employers'
associations, and so on . . . and we got the idea that
everyone in a craft should stand together in the shop . . .
not only that every craft in an industry stand together, but
the workers of one industry should back up the workers of
another industry, and that we should all combine into one
big union having for our motto an injury to one is an injury
Northwest employers reacted militantly. Owners testified of
their resolve to prevent union control within their shops
and, as documented to the commission, organized to blacklist
unionists and import strikebreakers.
Perhaps the shrillest note in the hearing was sounded by
J.V. Paterson, owner of the Seattle Construction and Dry
Dock Company, who protested against legislative comprises,
like the labor exemption from antitrust legislation then
being debated in Washington, D.C. Paterson announced such
bills would "force us, the people, to the point where we
will fight you. We will rise with a counterrevolution. We
will fight you. We have a right to do it. We have got the
Such testimony provided context for coming deadly
confrontations, such as occurred in 1916 when seven people
were shot and 50 more wounded in crossfire between Wobblies
sailing to protest in Everett and awaiting locals.
Not all reactions to labor organization were violent.
Indeed, lumber employers played a central role in creating a
state workers' compensation bill in 1911. Prior to this,
workers injured on the job, of which there were especially
many in the logging industry, were forced to seek
compensation through a court system in which employers'
legal excuses made compensation uncertain. Most worrisome
was their defense that workers willingly assumed the
consequences when taking risky jobs.
The state also addressed problems encountered by women and
children, with an industrial welfare commission designed to
implement minimum wages. In this effort, Washington was
among a handful of leaders -- though here, too, legislative
reforms would be undermined in 1923 by a damaging Supreme
Court opinion on minimum-wage laws. Still, the law remained
on the books, ultimately forming the basis of a landmark
Supreme Court case in 1937, West Coast Hotel vs. Parrish,
that acknowledged states' authority to regulate wages.
Across the board, labor relations were strained by the
questionable legal standing of workers who sought remedies
for their concerns. For many analysts of the time, as for
even more today, no special entitlements were needed. Market
competition, these individuals assumed, works to lift all
boats. Yet, history enables us to understand why such claims
only inflame worker grievances.
The worst of labor abuses, slavery, was eliminated by war,
not by competitive markets. After abolition, employment
contracts still involved visibly unequal relations entitling
employers to withdraw company housing, store credit, or
promised pensions to enforce worker obedience on the job.
Markets alone have never been able to ensure that workers
had sufficient income to educate their children or secure
adequate health insurance. The U.S., like current
industrializing countries, improved labor standards under
threat of collective resistance.
Ultimately, the quandary for workers in a free-labor market
is the uncertainty they face in knowing which elements of
their personal freedom -- leisure, speech, health and
self-respect -- employers may exact in exchange for a wage.
The slippery slope between labor freedom and labor
degradation hinges, everywhere and at all times, upon the
capacity of contractors to effectively negotiate, grieve and
enforce their agreements. Competitive markets may be
helpful, but the market alone has never been able to
guarantee this. Labor has had little choice but to guard its
Frank Walsh, the chairman of the Industrial Relations
Commission, offered forceful recommendations for change.
Walsh urged labor rights that entitled workers to organize.
It took 20 years before Congress agreed with Walsh and
passed the National Labor Relations Act. Finally, Congress
declared in the law's preamble: "Experience has proved that
protection by law of the right of employees to organize and
bargain collectively . . . promotes the flow of commerce by
removing certain recognized sources of industrial strife and
With this declaration by Congress, American prosperity and
liberty have advanced profoundly, and particularly through
the constant advocacy of a labor movement -- a movement
that, but for this grant of rights, still is in search of
The bombing with which this commentary began, like the
events of 9/11, shattered America's sense of security and
left citizens bewildered how such violence had come to pass.
Tellingly, however, the responses to the two events have
been quite different.
Where today, amidst growing mea culpas concerning our
readiness, we single-mindedly place emphasis upon a war on
terror, in 1912, Republican President William H. Taft
instead responded with a public investigation into
underlying conditions. At the time, Lincoln Steffens deftly
queried, "What are we Americans going to do about conditions
which are bringing up healthy, good-tempered boys like these
McNamara boys [the confessed bombers] to really believe, as
they most sincerely do -- they and a growing group of labor
-- that the only recourse they have for improving the
conditions of the wage earner is to use dynamite against
property and life?"
Essentially the same question is put forward today when
people ask, "Why do they hate us?"
Today, labor has gone global and competition has been
reorganized along national lines. Where once they struggled
to unionize their firms, citizens now struggle for the
control of their states. In this environment, painting
resisters as evil terrorists should not be allowed to
distract us into believing the causes of violence will
disappear of their own accord.
The poor of the world are hard-pressed to bear their
economic burdens quietly when their faith in the future is
dim. In most poor nations, even minimal labor standards are
enforced only for an elite few who work in the formal
sectors of their economies. Forced labor, sweat shops, ill
health, minimal safety protection, corruption, bad
education, and inaccessible justice often appear to global
workers as conditions imposed by outsiders. Particularly is
this so when our government insists nations reduce their
spending and subject their economies to unfettered markets.
If we allow this to become the prevailing perception by
concentrating our investigations solely upon our own
defense, we can expect that attacks will likely continue.
Yet, if workers of the world can be convinced that their
attempts to organize and fashion solutions for themselves
will be respected, even accommodated, they will likely be
too busy acting out their own dreams to have time to listen
to the bin Ladens and the McNamaras of the world.
Dan Jacoby holds the University of Washington's Harry
Bridges Chair in Labor Studies for 2004-06. He teaches in
the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences program at the
University of Washington, Bothell, and is the author of
"Laboring for Freedom, A New Look at the History of American
Labor" (1998, M.E. Sharpe).
The state of the state's unions
By Angela D. Smith
In 1882, when Labor Day was first celebrated, masses of
people took to the streets in parades to celebrate the
American worker in particular, the unionized workers who
pushed for the creation of such a day.
But recognition of the day, along with overall union
membership, has waned in recent decades.
The day is now more known as a last hurrah of summer before
the start of school.
Increased corporate influence, corruption associated with
organized crime, lack of interest from a younger generation
of workers and the decline of traditionally unionized
industrial jobs have all contributed to a national decline
in union membership.
The number of people represented by a union has steadily
decreased since 1983, when the U.S. government started
tracking the data in earnest.
In Washington state, representation overall declined since
1983, though union membership has held fairly steady in the
past decade and has increased slightly in the past four years.
In Kitsap County, data on union representation and
membership is not readily available, but local union leaders
say that, like the state, union presence has held steady.
"Health care workers have some real successes," said Karen
Keiser with the Washington State Labor Council. "Nurses have
been organizing like gangbusters," she said.
Washington state ranked sixth highest in the percentage of
workers in 2003 covered by a collective bargaining
agreement. Of the 2.5 million workers in Washington, 20.9
percent are represented by a collective bargaining
agreement, of which 19.7 percent are members of unions,
according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.
New York tops the list at 25.6 percent representation. North
Carolina is at the bottom with 3.9 percent.
Nationwide, unions represent 14.3 percent of the work force.
It's a far cry from two decades ago, when the numbers were
20.1 percent of national and 32 percent of state workers
The national union rate has dropped each year since then.
The state rate reached a two-decade low in 2000 of 19.9
percent and has increased in small increments since.
Most of the decline has been in the private sector.
Currently 8.2 percent of national private jobs are union
represented, half the rate it was in 1983.
Part of the reason for the area's continued union presence
is the high number of jobs in the public sector, which
traditionally has been a refuge for organized labor and has
maintained a steady percentage of union membership.
Roughly a third of Kitsap's civilian workforce and less than
a quarter of Washington's has public sector jobs.
Washington also has a long history of organized labor.
"It goes back almost a hundred years from when the very
first loggers realized that they didn't like being treated
like animals and they organized," said Keiser.
Loggers organized with the Industrial Workers of the World,
dubbed "Wobblies," and earned a reputation for radicalism.
Seattle also has been the stage for the famous General
Strike of 1919 in which 65,000 people walked off the job,
joining 35,000 shipyard workers who had gone on strike weeks
before. The strike, however, backfired, divided labor and
drew harsh public criticism.
Labor peaked in the 1960s and 1970s.
More companies have offered benefits without a collective
More manufacturing jobs have gone overseas.
Some economists believe that unions are out of touch with
workers in an emerging knowledge-based economy.
Thousands of jobs were lost in an economy weakened by the
dot-com burst and terrorist attacks.
Union leaders say some are afraid of losing their jobs if
they organize or that organization necessitates a strike.
One of organized labor's biggest foes, is a lack of interest
especially among younger workers, many of whom have never
been exposed to unions before joining the workforce.
Some of the younger workers are less interested in health
and retirement plans than with making money, which with the
current economy has been difficult to negotiate.
In addition, in the past 25 years, "labor laws have not been
in our favor and we're having to fight a defensive battles,"
said Ken Troup with Teamsters local 589 which represents
about 800 people in West Sound.
Most unions have been put on the defense and have spent less
of their resources on organizing, he said. "When you're in a
position of just maintaining what you've got, you're not
Despite two decades of lows, unions charged by this year's
election believe better organization is possible.
"I think the power of labor is rebounding" with a new
generation of labor leaders, he said.
Reach reporter Angela D. Smith at (360) 415-2673 or at
Organized labor saw early start in Joplin
By Kay Kirkman
On this Labor Day weekend, I thought it would be interesting
to look at the holiday's history and the labor movement in
Unions or guilds of carpenters, cabinet makers and cobblers
appeared early in Colonial America history. The Boston Tea
Party in 1773 was led by union carpenters disguised as
Indians. The Continental Congress met in Carpenters' Hall in
Philadelphia. By the early 1800s, various unions were
seeking shorter hours and higher pay for workers. Their
efforts increased as the factory system, which often created
deplorable working conditions, grew rapidly.
The Knights of Labor was formed in 1869 with membership open
to all workers, skilled or unskilled, including blacks and
females. Within a few years, the Knights had a membership of
almost 750,000. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was
founded by Samuel Gompers in 1886. The AFL organized skilled
workers by trade.
In Joplin, worker combines (a type of union) were organized
as early as 1872. The combines were for the protection of
miners who owned small leases they operated themselves. By
the late 1880s, the Knights of Labor was trying to organize
local miners, but its initial efforts weren't successful.
However, several other groups of workers joined unions in
Joplin's early days. The AFL unionized carpenters in the
early 1890s when the Keystone Hotel was built on the
southeast corner of Fourth and Main streets. In 1899, the
Joplin Typographical Union was organized. By 1916, there
were 26 unions in Joplin.
Labor Day was created by the union movement as a day to
honor the social and economic achievements of American
workers. The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on
Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. In 1884, the first
Monday in September was selected as the holiday. Two men,
Matthew Maguire and Peter J. McGuire, are credited with
founding the annual day to honor working people. In 1894,
President Grover Cleveland signed a bill making Labor Day a
national holiday. It is observed throughout the United
States, Puerto Rico and Canada. Australia and Europe have
similar days to recognize laborers.
G. K. Renner, in his book "Joplin: From Mining Town to Urban
Center", wrote that the Knights of Labor sponsored Joplin's
first observance of Labor Day on September 6, 1886. However,
the Joplin Globe's archives reports the first Labor Day
celebration was held in 1899. A parade of over a mile led
off the day, followed by speeches and entertainment.
According to the Globe, "By 10 o'clock Cycle Park, on (16th
Street and) South Main, was well filled with members of the
different labor organizations. The air rang out with cheer
after cheer for the different organizations as they appeared
in the grand stand and were photographed." The Globe
chastised local businessmen for not decorating their
businesses to recognize the workers' holiday.
After 1900, organized labor became more active in the Joplin
area. In the spring of 1900, workers went on strike against
the Granby company mines at Oronogo, demanding that their
wages keep pace with rapidly rising ore prices. They were
successful and soon labor unrest engulfed the mining field
over the demand for eight-hour working days. Local chapters
of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies)
were active here as they were throughout the mining fields
of the western United States. The radical IWW was connected
to the Socialist Party, which published the Socialist News
at Carl Junction in 1906 and 1907. For Labor Day 1909, the
Carpenters and Jointers Union brought Eugene Debs to Joplin,
where he spoke at Schifferdecker Park.
Debs was the most widely known Socialist of the time, and
was an eloquent speaker. He founded the American Railroad
Union in 1892 and ran for president on the ticket of the
American Socialist Party in every presidential election
except one between 1900 and 1920. Debs believed in the
dignity and humanity of individual workers, and spoke in an
optimistic, evangelical way that drew huge crowds of workers.
Labor Day celebrations have often been a mix of
entertainment and serious reflection on the state of
workers. In 1915, one of the highlights of the Labor Day
celebration was a staged train wreck in Schifferdecker Park.
Two train engines were aimed at each other on a specially
built track. They roared forward, reaching about 20 mph
before crashing into each other. The Globe reported, "The
fronts of both engines were battered in, the cabs smashed
and the tanks jarred forward several feet on the tenders by
the jar. Smoke and steam obscured the two hulks for about
five minutes after the affair. Neither engine left the
rails, nor was the noise of the collision especially
deafening." The cost for viewing this spectacle was only 50
cents, but many people had expected the exhibit to be free
and the police delayed the collision while they cleared
spectators from the arena.
The 1915 Labor Day parade was more successful. Held at
night, the parade featured illuminated floats. A gasoline
engine and dynamo were mounted on a motor truck that was
placed in the middle of the parade. Long cables connected
the floats to the truck, which then supplied current for the
electric lights. As the Globe said, the parade was "very
Sources: "Angling in the Archives" edited by Charles E. Gibbons
"The History of Labor Day,"
"History of Labor Unions,"
"Joplin: From Mining Town to Urban Center" by G. K. Renner.
Address correspondence to Kay Kirkman, c/o The Joplin Globe,
P.O. Box 7, Joplin, Mo. 64802, or
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