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Labor & Wobbly History

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  • Dan Clore
    News & Views for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo ***** Sunday, September 05, 2004, 12:00 A.M. Pacific Guest columnist Labor pains:
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 6, 2004
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      News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:


      Sunday, September 05, 2004, 12:00 A.M. Pacific
      Guest columnist
      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
      highest pitch.

      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
      to all."

      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
      freedoms vigilantly.

      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
      Sun Staff

      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
      bargaining agreement.

      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
      early Joplin.

      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

      Dan Clore

      Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
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