After the qualified Union victory in the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation warning that in all states still in rebellion on January 1, 1863, he would declare their slaves “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” January 1 came, and with it the final proclamation, which committed the government and armed forces of the United States to liberate the slaves in rebel states “as an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity.” The proclamation exempted the border slave states and all or parts of three Confederate states controlled by the Union army on the grounds that these areas were not in rebellion against the United States. Lincoln had tried earlier to persuade the border states to accept gradual emancipation, with compensation to slave owners from the federal government, but they had refused. The proclamation also authorized the recruitment of freed slaves and free blacks as Union soldiers; during the next 2 1/2 years 180,000 of them fought in the Union army and 10,000 in the navy, making a vital contribution to Union victory as well as their own freedom. Emancipation would vastly increase the stakes of the war. It became a war for “a new birth of freedom,” as Lincoln stated in the Gettysburg Address, a war that would transform Southern society by destroying its basic institution.
In the dead of a Massachusetts winter, the great 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike—commonly referred to as the “Bread and Roses” strike—began. Accounts differ as to whether a woman striker actually held a sign that read “We Want Bread and We Want Roses, Too.” No matter. It’s a wonderful phrase, as appropriate for the Lawrence strikers as for any group at any time: the notion that, in addition to the necessities for survival, people should have “a sharing of life’s glories,” as James Oppenheim put it in his poem “Bread and Roses.”
Though 100 years have passed, the Lawrence strike resonates as one of the most important in the history of the United States. Like many labor conflicts of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the strike was marked by obscene disparities in wealth and power, open collusion between the state and business owners, large scale violence against unarmed strikers, and great ingenuity and solidarity on the part of workers. In important ways, though, the strike was also unique. It was the first large-scale industrial strike, the overwhelming majority of the strikers were immigrants, most were women and children, and the strike was guided in large part by the revolutionary strategy and vision of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
Beyond its historical significance, elements of this massive textile strike may be instructive to building a radical working class movement today. It is noteworthy that the Occupy movement shares many philosophical and strategic characteristics with the Lawrence strike—direct action, the prominent role of women, the centrality of class, participatory decision-making, egalitarianism, an authentic belief in the Wobbly principle that We Are All Leaders—to name just a few. During the two months of the strike, the best parts of the revolutionary movement the IWW aspired to build were expressed. The Occupy movement carries that tradition forward, and as the attempt at a general strike in Oakland and solidarity events such as in New York for striking Teamsters indicate, many in Occupy understand that the working class is uniquely positioned to challenge corporate power. While we deepen our understanding of what that means and work to make it happen, there is much of value we can learn from what happened in Lawrence a century ago.
A town on the brink of labor unrest
The city of Lawrence was founded as a one-industry town along the Merrimack River in the 1840s by magnates looking to expand the local textile industry beyond the nearby city of Lowell. Immigrant labor was the bedrock of the city’s development. Early on, French Canadians and Irish predominated. By 1912, when Lawrence was the textile capitol of the United States, its textile workforce was made up primarily of Southern and Eastern Europeans—Poles, Italians and Lithuanians were the largest groups, and there were also significant numbers of Russians, Portuguese, and Armenians. Smaller immigrant communities from beyond Europe had also been established, with Syrians being the largest. Though very small in number, a high percentage of the city’s African-American population also labored in textile.
Mill workers experienced most of the horrors that characterized 19th century industrial labor. Six-day workweeks of 60 hours or more were the norm, workers were regularly killed on the job, and many grew sick and died slowly from breathing in toxic fibers and dust while others were maimed or crippled in the frequent accidents in the mills. Death and disability benefits were virtually nonexistent. Life expectancy for textile workers was far less than other members of the working class and 20 years shorter than the population as a whole. It was a work environment, in short, that poet William Blake captured perfectly with the phrase “these dark Satanic mills.” Living conditions were similarly abominable: unsanitary drinking water, overcrowded apartments, malnutrition and disease were widespread. Thousands of children worked full time and were deprived of schooling and any semblance of childhood because families could not survive on the pay of two adult wage earners. Constituent unions of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had no interest in organizing workers who were immigrants, “unskilled,” and overwhelmingly women and children. The local of the United Textile Workers (UTW) had a small number of members drawn, true to the AFL’s creed, exclusively from the higher-skilled, higher-paid segment of the workforce.
The IWW was also in Lawrence. The Wobblies led several job actions in 1911 and its radical philosophy resonated with mill hands far beyond the several hundred who were members. Faced with lives of squalor and brutally difficult work, despised by their employers, the political sub-class, the press, and mainstream labor, textile workers, once introduced to the IWW, came increasingly to see that militant direct action was both viable and necessary. Many had experience with militant working class traditions in their native lands—experience the IWW, in contrast to the AFL, not only respected but cultivated. Though there was an undeniable spontaneity to the Lawrence strike, the revolutionary seeds the IWW planted in the years before 1912 were also a catalyst.
Workers walk out on strike
The spark was lit on Jan. 11, 1912, the first payday since a law reducing the maximum hours per week from 56 to 54 went into effect on Jan. 1. Because mill owners speeded up the line to make up the difference, workers expected their pay would remain the same. Upon discovering that their pay had been reduced, a group of Polish women employed at the Everett Cotton Mill walked off the job. By the following morning, half of the city’s 30,000 mill hands were on strike. On Monday, Jan. 15, 20,000 workers were out on the picket line. Soon, every mill in town was closed and the number of strikers had swelled to 25,000, including virtually all of the less-skilled workers. The owners, contemptuous of the ability of uneducated, immigrant workers to do for themselves, did not bother to recruit scabs, certain they would prevail quickly. By the time they realized they had a fight on their hands, the strikers were so well-organized that importing scabs was a far more difficult proposition.
Several days after the strike began, workers in Lawrence contacted the IWW’s national office for assistance, and Joe Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti were dispatched from New York to help organize the strike. Though Ettor would spend most of the two-month strike as well as the rest of 1912 in a Lawrence prison, the work he did in the strike’s early days was indispensable to victory. Radiating confidence and optimism, Smilin’ Joe had the workers form nationality committees for every ethnic group in the workforce. The strike committee consisted of elected reps from each group, and meetings, printed strike updates and speeches were thereafter translated into all of the major languages.
In addition to the democratic nuts and bolts, Ettor brought an unshakable belief in the workers to the strike. The IWW had a faith in the working class that is markedly different from the often self-serving proclamations of union organizers of today who are mostly out to build their organizations. In contrast to the all too common practice of organizers “taking charge,” Ettor displayed a fundamental belief in the ability of workers to do for themselves. He, Giovannitti, and, later, Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, made every aspect of the strike a learning experience. As the strikers worked to achieve greater power in the short term by winning their demands, many came to see that the society could not function without workers and that there was no job or task that was beyond the collective skill of the working class. Ettor, Haywood, and Flynn also provided a vision of workers managing society, underscoring that it was an achievable goal. Without ever downplaying the particularities of the strike or of the strikers’ lives, they boldly proclaimed their opposition to the capitalist system and encouraged the Lawrence workers to explore what that meant. In practice, the vision of a new world played out in the decision-making process, the support services the strikers established with the help of contributions from around the country (soup kitchens, food and fuel banks, medical clinics, free winter clothing and blankets) and in direct action on picket lines, in the courts, during the strike’s many rallies and parades, and in the IWW’s insistence that all negotiating be done directly by rank and filers.
Perhaps the most important of the IWW’s contributions was its incessant emphasis on solidarity. The only way to victory, they emphasized, was unity and the only way to unity was to respect the language and culture of each nationality group. Ettor, Haywood and the other Wobblies understood that solidarity did not mean dissolving differences; it meant enriching the experience of all by creating space for each to participate in their own way. They encouraged the workers to view each other that way and emphasized again and again that the only people in Lawrence who were foreigners were the mill owners (none of whom lived in town). With each passing day, the strikers’ solidarity increased. They came to understand that solidarity was not just the only way they could win the strike; it was also the only way to build a better world.
So inspired, the strikers rose to every challenge. They circumvented injunctions against plant-gate picketing with roaming lines of thousands that flowed through Lawrence’s streets and turned away would-be scabs. After early incidents where some scabs were attacked, they embraced Ettor’s emphasis on nonviolent direct action without ever diminishing their militancy. When Massachusetts Governor Eugene Foss—himself a mill owner—pleaded with them to return to work and accept arbitration, the workers refused, recognizing the offer as a ploy that would leave their demands unaddressed. Whenever strikers were arrested (as hundreds were), supporters descended en masse to Lawrence’s courtroom to express their outrage.
The involvement of women was absolutely crucial to victory, beginning with the rejection of the self-destructive violence of some male strikers. Though the IWW’s record on promoting female leadership was spotty at best, Ettor and the other Wobblies in Lawrence were sensible enough to let the women’s initiative fly free. The presence of Flynn, the “Rebel Girl,” was a factor, but the large-scale participation of women resulted overwhelmingly from the efforts of the women themselves. Knowing all too well that violence always reverberates hardest on those on society’s lowest rungs, women strikers called the men on their beatings of scabs and their fights with police and militia. It was women who moved to the front of many of the marches in an effort to curtail state violence against the strike (though the police and militia proved not at all shy about beating women and children as well as men). It was also the women who led the way in the constant singing and spontaneous parading that was such a feature of the strike that Mary Heaton Vorse, Margaret Sanger and numerous others remarked at length about it in their accounts of Lawrence. And it was the women who made the decision to ship children out of town to supportive families so they would be better cared for. A common practice in Europe unknown in the United States, the transporting of children drew much attention to the strike, first because it revealed much to the world about living conditions in Lawrence and later because of the stark violence of the police who attacked a group of mothers attempting to put their children on an outbound train.
State violence was so extreme that it actually reverberated in the strikers’ favor, as there were outcries from around the country over the police killings of a young woman and a 16-year-old boy as well as the large-scale beating of women and children. There were also national howls of outrage when strikers were arrested for “possessing” dynamite in what turned out to be a crude frame (it was later determined that a prominent citizen close to the mill owners had planted it). Similarly, the Stalin-esque jailing of Ettor and Giovannitti without bail as “accessories before the act of murder” in the police killing of Annie LoPizzo, was widely criticized and served only to spur the strikers on.
In the end, in the face of the state militia, U.S. Marines, Pinkerton infiltrators and hundreds of local police, the strikers prevailed. They achieved a settlement close to their original demands, including significant pay raises and time-and-a-quarter for overtime, which previously had been paid at the straight hourly rate. Workers in Lowell and New Bedford struck successfully a short while later, and mill owners throughout New England soon granted significant pay raises rather than risk repeats of Lawrence. When the trials of Ettor, Giovannitti and a third defendant commenced in the fall, workers in Lawrence’s mills pulled a work stoppage to show that a miscarriage of justice would not be tolerated. The three were subsequently acquitted.
Longer-term, the strike focused national attention on workplace safety, minimum wage laws and child labor. Though change in these areas was still too slow in coming, it did come and it came much sooner because of Lawrence. Locally, patriotic forces campaigned vigorously against “outside agitators” in the years after the strike and IWW membership eventually slid back to pre-strike levels. Still, despite tremendous repression, the IWW maintained a solid local chapter in Lawrence until the state effectively destroyed the organization with a massive campaign of jailings, deportations, lynchings and other violence after U.S. entry into World War I.
However, just as it was never the IWW’s objective to gain official recognition from employers, its accomplishments should not be measured by its membership rolls or the limited span of it organizational presence. The goal was to build a revolutionary movement of the working class and the Wobblies implemented the strategy for achieving that end in Lawrence. This is not to say the IWW was without weaknesses in building lasting organization; it was and there are lessons for Occupy and all future movements to learn from those weaknesses. However, the IWW’s weaknesses are ones that virtually every radical group from the Knights of Labor to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) share. These weaknesses speak more to the difficulty of building a revolutionary movement than to specific organizational flaws. The fact that the Wobblies were not able to sustain the great work they did over a longer period does not detract from the thoroughgoing way they imbued the Bread and Roses strike with revolutionary values, strategy and vision.
Lessons from the Strike
There are several aspects of the Lawrence strike that may be helpful to building a radical working class movement today. One is the symbiotic relationship between the strikers and the IWW. Since at least the bureaucratization of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) 70 years ago, unions have approached organizing workers with the goal of building membership rolls, as opposed to building working-class power. The type of organization workers may want, not to mention what they may want beyond organization, has been largely irrelevant. The choices that workers are presented with are quite limited: join one or another top-down union, or else fight on alone. The best features of pre-union formations—direct democracy, easy recall of representatives, requirements that all officers remain in the workplace, widespread rank-and-file initiatives, and so forth—are almost always killed quickly after affiliation. Workers will reject top-down approaches and embrace unionism that speaks to their needs if they are given the chance. The fact that they are not presented such an option is neither accidental nor inevitable; it is because the union bureaucracy is as threatened by an independent rank and file as any employer.
Workers are not even really free to join the union of their choosing. Once an exclusive bargaining representative is chosen, no matter how that’s determined, the affected workers cannot join any other labor organization, often at the risk of expulsion and loss of employment. The IWW, rather than seeking to ensure itself a steady flow of dues revenue, sought to challenge capitalism. Through direct action, particularly strikes, the working class would learn how to fight capital and in so doing would discover and develop its own potential until it was strong enough to wrest control of work away on a massive scale. That goal remains. To build such a movement today and on into the future, we will either have to do away with many of organized labor’s entrenched ways or increasingly circumvent mainstream unions altogether, much as is happening so far with Occupy.
The flip side of the IWW/striker relationship in Lawrence is that the workers did not strike to gain unionization or even to get a contract. They struck over specific demands while understanding the need to change the balance of their relationship with mill owners. Early on, they sensed intuitively what they came to understand explicitly as the strike lengthened: that politicians and the courts were against them almost as completely as the bosses and Pinkertons were. When Governor Foss offered arbitration in an attempt to end the strike without addressing any of their demands, for example, the workers refused. Their distrust extended not just to the owners but to the machinery of the state, not to mention the top-down UTW—whose head attacked them relentlessly throughout and whose members scabbed from the outset. The strikers embraced the IWW philosophy of doing for themselves while utilizing its highly developed solidarity network because their experience showed them it was the only way they could win.
A second possible lesson from Lawrence is a feminist approach to organizing. Though the IWW too often adopted an approach premised on rugged (male) individualism that relegated women to secondary roles, that was not the case in Lawrence. Rather, its radical approach encouraged women strikers and supporters to act in highly creative ways. Whenever women workers in Lawrence struggled with the men for full participation, Flynn and the other Wobblies sided with them. It is impossible to imagine the strikers winning otherwise, and though Ettor, Haywood, and Flynn’s efforts on this score were not insignificant, it was the tireless work of thousands of rank and filers that proved decisive
The degree to which women took to heart Ettor’s declarations that striker violence would inevitably boomerang a hundredfold was also crucial. Few believed that a non-violent approach would cause the state to reciprocate, certainly not as the strike progressed and state violence escalated, nor did it necessarily mean that an absolute principle of nonviolence was appropriate in all situations. In Lawrence, however, it was clear early on that the strikers would lose if the physical confrontations that have been so prominent in the almost apocalyptic vision that many men through history have brought to the class struggle continued. The women, more than the men, understood that the complete withdrawal of their labor was the strongest blow the workers could strike. In the end, it was the ability to keep the mills almost completely non-functional for two months that won the strike.
Women were also at the heart of the singing and parading that characterized the Bread and Roses strike. Surrounded by enemies, with death a very real possibility, the Lawrence strikers, the women most of all (much like the black liberation activists in the Deep South in the early 1960s, also mostly women), sang to foster strength, courage and solidarity. Their songs and that tradition echo as loud and true as a drum circle through Occupy.
Lastly, Lawrence was the first major strike along industrial lines. Not only did the strike reverberate throughout textile mills, it made real the IWW goal of organizing wall-to-wall. The violent suppression of the IWW forestalled capital’s day of reckoning, but the seed had been planted. When industrial organizing exploded two decades later, it was thoroughly Wobbly-esque, especially in the sit-down strike with its explicit challenge to private ownership. Again, the degree to which Occupy implicitly understands the importance of such approaches is one of its great strengths. The massive withdrawal of labor, the large scale Occupation of workplaces—these are lessons of Lawrence, direct and indirect, that Occupy (as well as movements of the future) carry forward and do well to consider more deeply. In so doing, we can perhaps begin to create a world where everyone has both sufficient bread to eat and “life’s glories” as vivid as the reddest roses.
Much has been written about the Lawrence strike. Here are just a few of the better accounts:
“Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology,” edited by Joyce Kornbluh
“The Rising of the Women,” by Meredith Tax
“The Bread and Roses Strike of 1912,” by Julie Baker
“Bread & Roses,” by Bruce Watson
Hundreds of social justice professionals, activists and community leaders will join together in Houston for the AFL-CIO Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Conference.
This year’s theme: Reclaiming the Dream: Strategize, Organize, Mobilize! Is about shifting the rules and building power so that working communities can thrive and families can enjoy the fruits of their labor. Too many of our family members, friends, loved ones and neighbors are overworked, underpaid and underemployed. And far too many are barely making it from day to day.
“There is nothing new about poverty," Dr. King said in 1964 during his Nobel Peace Prize address. "What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”
We are the resources, and when we join together January 12–15, 2018, to celebrate the legacy and dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we will explore how we can better advocate for racial and economic equity, and honor those who work day-in and day-out to advance our rights and help lift up people from poverty's grasp.
1600 Lamar Street, Houston, Texas 77010
Excerpt from Ralph Chapin - "Why I wrote Solidarity Forever"
When I wrote “Solidarity Forever”, I had no way of knowing that less than half a century later it would be keynoting the none-too-reassuring news that an unborn generation would learn about on tomorrow's newscasts. But that is the way things worked out. Recently I have been asked to tell the story. Frankly, I hardly know where to start.
The fact that an obscure labor editor happened to write a song like that is of no particular historical importance. What is important is that it was written at all, timed as it was, almost to a split second, to indicate a tide in the affairs of men that was destined to put a large part of the world's population either behind the Iron Curtain of totalitarian statism or in the uneasy rocking chairs of the Welfare State. In spite of intentions that were emphatically otherwise, that seems to be the sour note on which the story ended – the story of the song, that is – not the story of the turbulent era of pioneering labor history that went into its making. If the people who read these lines are of familiarly with the conditions from “Solidarity Forever” emerged, they will more than likely be unable to understand the significance of the banner headlines in the morning newspapers.
One thing is certain: nothing of the sort went into the making of “Solidarity Forever”. It was originally designed to meet the needs of a nonconformist, nonpolitical labor organization that was critical of the crudely divided craft unions of the times and practiced voluntary libertarian teamwork at the point of production to obtain its objectives through the “One Big Industrial Union”. The name of this crusading organization was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Historians using the hysterical newspaper headlines of the day as source material have depicted its stormy career in colors blacker than the hinges of hell. Erudite professors, quoting on another as “authorities”, label it as a conspiracy of alien arsonists and dynamiters, the purpose of which was to place all law-abiding citizens at the mercy of the mob. Infuriated by the IWW's libertarian singleness of purpose, the Communists have fought it more bitterly than they have at any time fought the hated bourgeoisie. As for the author of “Solidarity Forever”, he is not at all unhappy to have been associated with the very first indigenous anti-statist, anti-totalitarian labor organization that Moscow saw fit to liquidate – and for good and sufficient reasons. If present-day historians do not get this seemingly confused picture into focus, their lucubrations will be something other than authentic history.
I wrote “Solidarity Forever” at a time when there was a life-or-death struggle between fiercely competitive ideological groups to see which of them would shape the future the then embryonic left-wing labor movement. It was a knockdown-drag-out fight with no holds barred, and every available weapon from gentle persuasion to brass knuckles was used to gain a fair or unfair advantage. Indicative of the final outcome is the fact that it was returning Russian-born IWW members who manned the Soviet Union's last barricade of freedom when Trotsky's janissaries liquidated the anti-Communist sailors of the Red fleet after their unsuccessful rebellion at Kronstadt. Many of those young men and women came from Chicago's West-Side close to the IWW headquarters, their rich voices singing what the Communists sneeringly referred to as the “Anarchists' Marching Song”. As for me, the thunderous rhythm was full of the revolutionary affirmation I tried to weave into the pattern of “Solidarity Forever”. Those voices still haunt me, coming as they did from the Russia of Turgenev, Tolstoi, Kropotkin, and Pasternak.
All of this harkens back to the beginning of the war of ideas that was starting to jell in the first decades of the last century, and that was to split the contenders into warring camps for a long time to come. It is my opinion that those ideas have made history, and a whale of a lot of it. Unless present-day historians can identify and define the conflicting elements involved in this confused situation, they will be unable to make the world upheaval that followed in their wake understandable. Every now and then some nitwit theoretician will brush the IWW aside with the owlish observation that we were “the Communists in those days!” Certainly the ideas of such divergent personalities as Lucy Parsons, Victor Berger, Daniel De Leon and William Dudley Haywood were important factors in the struggle, but it was the larger clash of irreconcilable social and economic philosophies that met head on and refused to merge that was back of the prevailing ferment.
What hung precariously in the balance at the time “Solidarity Forever” was written was first a choice between political action at the ballot box and direct action at the point of production for the attainment of immediate objectives, and secondly a choice between armed insurrection and the general strike as a means of putting “the parasite and outmoded capitalist system in its place”. It was as simple as that. Either way the goose of the private enterprises would have been cooked. As for the young author of “Solidarity Forever”, he had already seen too many mobs in action to relish the prospect of bloody revolution summed up in the hateful words of “La Carmignole”, which the Commies sang so boisterously in their halls and during the street demonstrations. There was no such thing as “co-existence” in those days; it was either whole-hog or nothing. Co-existence was destined to come later on, when the Commies had the world by the tail with a downhill pull and had developed the fine art of liquidation to a point where it was a cat-and-mouse routine to make the fun last longer. We were all that way. It was a question as to whether those who dished it out could take it.
Perhaps it is worth noting that Nikita Khrushchev was born the same year the IWW was organized. That was also the year the first Russian Revolution was put down in St. Petersburg, and both “Babushka” and Gershuni were touring the United States telling about it. I was eighteen years old at that time. Confronting me and other idea-hungry non-conformist youngsters at that moment was a choice among armed insurrection of the Nevsky Prospect variety, the political action of the “Yellow” Victor Berger kind of socialism, the craft unionism favored by Samuel Gompers, or the “red” socialism of Debs coupled with the concept of revolutionary industrial unionism favored by Haywood and the fighting Western Federation of Miners. There was also a weird admixture of politics and industrial unionism dreamed up by the dogmatic Daniel De Leon, but that seemed hardly worth mentioning. Because of the fact that my father was, as a freight yard tower-man, an active participant in the ARU railroad strike of 1894 in Chicago, I had witnessed no small part of violence from the front porch of the cottage adjoining the Pan Handle yards where we were then living. It was from that vantage point that I heard Debs appeal for the kind of united strike action that would make violence unnecessary. To me this made sense. Talking these matters over with Debs long afterwards, my father confided to me that the sight of bloodshed always made him sick. This I could understand also, maybe because I had been reading Shelley at the time I first read the Communist Manifesto.
It was from the lips of Eugene Victor Debs that I first heard the world “solidarity” uttered, and from Debs also that I first learned of the Western Federation of Miners, and of Bill Haywood, who, like Debs, brought down on his battle-scarred head the wrath of the employers and the invective of the capitalist press. Naturally, I could not remain neutral. It wasn't in the cards, however, for me to meet Haywood until eight years later and through him to contact that One Big Union of the Industrial Workers of the World that was to become a lifetime dedication. Debs remained in the Socialist Party, which he had organized in Woodstock Jail after having been persuaded that the time was ripe for a combined labor union and Labor Party crusade on behalf of the economic underdog. He started out frankly critical of both politics and politicians, sharply disagreeing with those who looked upon political action as a cure-all. Many of us thought that Debs looked upon the Socialist Party as a means of appealing to splinter nonconformist groups for united action against a common enemy. About that time Charles Edward Russell called the cut in the International Socialist Review by charging that “anyone who sits at that grimy board cannot remain uncontaminated.” This was the policy of the Review at the time I was selected to take Seymour Stedman's place on the board of directors. I was then twenty-one years old and needed no coaxing to declare war on Victor Berger and his craft union—political action fixation.
Haywood, in complete agreement with Debs at that time, was denouncing Berger and Gompers as “two labor fakirs tarred with the same stick”. Debs went so far as to beg his huge audiences to see to it that he never was elected to public office lest he too succumb to the temptation to misuse power. Debs in the “red” Socialist Party, and Haywood in the “red” Western Federation of Miners always held up – over and above the winning and the maintenance of living wages and humane working conditions – the vision of a free world in which man's inhumanity to man would become a thing of the past. That was why they were “revolutionary”. Debs, like Haywood, took the position that union officialdom is not the master of the rank-and-file membership, but its servent. That is why, in their own estimation at least, they were “democratic”. In my humble opinion they were both right in proclaiming that no one gains, and everybody loses, by getting masses of men to march shoulder to shoulder in the wrong direction. “Solidarity Forever” was written on the assumption that we knew where we were going and knew how to get there. Overseas we saw the Socialist and Labor parties becoming more and more hidebound with Marxist dogmatism. Tom Mann and Jim Larkin in Britain, and the various syndicalist movements of the Continent and Latin America, met with our whole-hearted approval. What we were seeking was a united labor movement – “all for one and one for all” – and it was this principle that I tried to embody in “Solidarity Forever”. That is why, if for no other reason, that the story of “Solidarity Fovever” may be worth the telling.
At all events, my “Marching Song of Industrial Freedom” has been making history for a long time (so I am informed), and it is still going strong,. It was launched into a world in which issues were shaping up that would shake the established order to its foundations. One part of the American heritage is the heritage of conflict, this for the good and sufficient reason that our years of conflict have shaped our national destiny more significantly than our uneasy intervals of peace. No one had to spell out the meaning of the “class struggle” for us; it was one of the inescapable realities of our daily lives. I didn't write “Solidarity Forever” for ambitious politicians or for job-hungry labor fakirs seeking a ride on the gravy train. I wrote it, or thought I was writing it, for a bunch of “timber beasts”, “gandy dancers” and “harvest stiffs” who wouldn't have had a full belly or a place to flop if they hadn't learned to become “the stick-together guys that organize”. These were my people, and they looked to me to write this kind of song for them. I prefer to think that it was they, rather than any special skill on my part, that breathed the breath of life into whatever it was that made the words and rhythm click. That it became the them song of the “fighting, singing IWW” is understandable; that it became, at a later date, the them song of the not-so-needy, not-so-worthy, so-called industrial unions spawned by an era of compulsory unionism is not so understandable. Something also beyond the wildest stretch of my imagination was the possibility of Big Unionism competing with Big Business on fairly equal terms – and using identifcal promotional devices, including singing commercials – to keep business booming. That sort of “solidarity”, in my humble opinion is nothing to brag about, or sing about.
The Industrial Workers of the World, at the time “Solidarity Forever was written, was distinctly indigineous. Even at this late hour I am more grimly convinced than ever that neither the song itself nor the organization that sparked it could have emerged from any environment other than the Pacific Northwest in the afterglow of the rugged period of American pioneering. If we had waited for the industrialized East to inspire what went into its making, we might still be waiting. Neither was it a foreign importation. Few old timers agreed with Brissenden's thesis that the IWW was a rehash of European syndicalism. To us it was more akin to what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he declared that “The government that governs the best, governs the least.” The raw frontier did that to men.
It is true that “Solidarity Forever” was written in Chicago, but it is also true that nobody ever heard of it until fifty thousand striking Puget Sound loggers bellered it out to a world that didn't care a hoot about the problems of vote-less and cruelly exploited “timber beasts”. It is also true that the young author of “Solidarity Forever” had been shaped by bitterly contested labor struggles, including a two-year strike against mine owners of Kanawha County, West Virginia, but that it took the sustained militancy of the grass-roots Western Federation of Miners, in the face of equally ferocious opposition to put the hefty punch into “Solidarity Forever” that later on made it the theme song of the entirely latter-day labor movement.
This is not the attempt of a nostalgic old-timer to impress a less ideologically alert generation with the notion that “there were giants in those days”, and that the author of “Solidarity Forever” was one of them. The fact is that there were no supermen among us – and none would have been tolerated. We were faced with the choice of being either true-blue rebels or “scissorbills”. The “scissorbill” was that belly-aching element among the unorganized that would rather remain unorganized than do anything about it. When the IWW harvest workers announced, “We are out for a winter stake in this summer, and we want no scabs around”, they confirmed the declaration by singing “Solidarity Forever” instead of “Hallelujah I'm a Bum”. And it worked, at least to the extent that the niggardly “going wage” was quickly discarded in favor of the regional five-dollar day. When a hostile “town clown” would confront the union harvest stiffs at the freight yards, demanding, “Who are the leaders here?” the unanimous response was “We are all leaders – what are you going to do about it?” When asked by a police court judge to define the word “scissorbill”, Joe Hill is reported to have replied “The 'scissorbill', your Honor, is an 'I guy'; we happen to be 'we guys'.” It was as simple as that to Joe Hill and his fellow workers. That is why, in my opinion, Joe Hill's satirical “Mr. Block” was far more definitive than “Solidarity Forever”.
All that belongs to yesterday, but it is needed to make labors yesterdays understandable, particularly in relation to the crazy-quilt pattern of industrial relationships that grew out of them. Among those of us who managed to survive those stormy pioneering years, there is no one who does not look with a rather jaundiced eye upon the “success” of “Solidarity Forever”. All of us deeply resent seeing a song that was uniquely our own used as a singing commercial for the soft-boiled type of post-Wagner Act industrial unionism that use million-dollar slush funds to persuade the congressional office boys to do chores for them – chores that the case-hardened crusaders of the old days were eager to do themselves for the good of the cause, with their bellies flapping against their backbones. Many people these days wonder how Joe Hill could stop traffic on busy skid row street corners singing such hilarious songs as “Pie In The Sky” and “Mr. Block”, or how he could refuse to be blindfolded when he faced the firing squad at the Utah State Prison, and himself give the order for the fatal volley that made his name the symbol of dedicated service to the economic underdog. Or why the striking loggers on the S.S. Verona chose to die singing “Hold the Fort” and “Solidarity Forever” in the rain of bullets from a mob of respectable businessmen on the docks at Everett, Washington. Or why young Wesley Everest, union organizer and World War I veteran, was lynched at midnight from “Hangman's Bridge” in Centralia, Washington. Or why my good friend and fellow worker Frank Little was given the same treatment by hired anaconda gun-thugs for attempting to organize the mercilessly exploited hardrock miners at Butte, Montana. This could go on and on, every word of it is true, but only to be discounted as the resentment of an old codger mumbling through his beard.
It is still my contention, however, that the story of organized labor, both in principle and practice, is too important to be misrepresented or swept under the rug of labor-hating pressure groups or individuals. I contend also that when the labor movement ceases to be a Cause and becomes a business, the end product can hardly be called progress. It must be remembered that my “Battle Hymn of Industrial Democracy” was tailored to meet the unique requirements of free-born, pioneering Americans who resented the status of unresisting wage-slavery; and that it was critical of the archaic craft unionism of those days because of disillusionment with repeated and uniformly hostile efforts to find a political answer to pressing economic problems. More than ever before in a long lifetime I am convinced that there are not such answers. To me the record clearly reveals that “anyone who sits at that grimy board cannot remain uncontaminated.”
An outstanding example of what set the IWW apart from the stuffed shirt organizational pattern of its day was the 1916 drive to put union cards in the pockets of the unorganized, voteless army of boxcar bindle stiffs who were expected to fill the breadbaskets of the nation that eventful year. The IWW Agricultural Workers Union, Local 400, armed with the Little Red Songbook plus a lot of selfless crusading fervor, did its job so well that it sent hysterical scare headlines screaming from coast to coast. How it appeared through the eyes of a competent, history-minded contemporary is preserved for the record by James Jones, the noted author of From Here to Eternity. An imprisoned World War II soldier, describing the spectacular fight that preceded the Local 400's successful operation, nostalgically recalls the dedicated IWW militancy of his boyhood days:
You don't remember the Wobblies. You were too young. Or else you weren't born yet. What they really were was a religion. They were welded together with a vision we don't possess. It was their vision that made them great. And it was their belief that made them powerful. And sing! You never heard anyone sing the ways those guys sang unless it was for a religion. Bunches of them, ten or twenty at a time, out in the harvest fields or in one of their free speech fights, sitting in the barred windows of the second floor of the jail singing the songs that Joe Hill had written for them or Ralph Chaplin's “Solidarity Forever”, a singing that swelled through the town until nobody could escape it.
The story of “Solidarity Forever” would have finished on a glory note had it finished right there. At the time I had no way of knowing that it would go into orbit, both with the type of unionism with which it had so little in common, and with the Red Star of monolithic statism that was already rising ominously in the East. Long after the IWW had seemingly joined the best laid plans of mice and men, “Solidarity Forever” continued to make headlines in one major strike after another, as such practical labor leaders as Walter Reuther and Harry Bridges plumming themselves with stolen feathers, hit pay dirt where the “pesky-go-abouts” of the IWW had been prospecting. Finally, the AFL-CIO elaborately printed Songs of Work and Freedom appeared, with “Solidarity Forever” emerging from the uneasy grave in which the IWW refused to lie buried as “the most popular union song on the North American Continent … If a union member knows only one song it is almost sure to be this. It has become, in effect, the anthem of the labor movement”.
This, of course, was a high honor and one not unappreciated, but what disturbed me was a clipping from the New York Times, bearing the same date line, that a promising presidential candidate was singing it from a soapbox to a bunch of striking workers in Wisconsin in an effort to cinch his nomination in the primaries. Even less reassuring were tidings that “Solidarity Forever” had been translated into a number of African dialects and used effectively by less tribes beyond the law, together with the made-in-Moscow slogan: “White Men Go Home!”
Rather belatedly, I was learning that solidarity for solidarity's sake is not enough. Seemingly, with the best of intentions, I had unleashed an element that made the high-voltage emotional power generated more potent than the instrument itself. Whatever it was, Walt Whitman must have had the same thing in mind when he spoke of “songs that sometimes come back to their authors dripping blood”. This I might profitably have kept in mind when it was scribbled hastily on a crumpled scrap of paper while members of the Western Federation of Miners were being shot down like jack rabbits from the Colorado state boundary to the Canadian border. At that time also I recalled the “Good Gray Poet” and the unforgettable Walt Whitman's caution: “To the States, or any one of them, or to any city of the States, resist much, obey little. Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth ever afterward resumes its liberty … When there are no more memories of heroes and martyrs, and when all life and all souls of men and women are discharged form that part of the earth, then only shall liberty or the idea of liberty be discharged from that part of the earth, and the infidel come into full possession.
In my poor opinion it was grassroots, frontier Americanism of this kind that sparked both the IWW and the songs of solidarity that set it apart from the more “practical” and less dedicated craft unions that delivered the goods but had little to sing about. Those of us who gave the best years of our lives in the service of the singing, fighting IWW were enriched in the giving. At all times – on the soapbox, on the picket-line, and even in prison – we were aware of being part of something more important than our unimportant selves, a Cause worth living for and, if need be, dying for. We didn't enjoy ourselves; we enjoyed one another. We didn't envy the high and might of our generation; we pitied them, as the early Christians must have pitied the pagans. At heart we were probably the world's worst snobs, so sure we were that nothing on earth could be deader than a dead tycoon, and that nothing could be more deathless than a cause beyond the reach of death.
Even on the sunset trail I fail to see where and advantage has been gained for anyone living today by substituting the tyranny of capitalist exploiters with the even more merciless tyranny of a new elite of nonfunctional commissars, bureaucrats, and egg-noggin' do-gooders. We of the IWW made mistakes and paid for them dearly, but were we so wrong, after all, in contending with Thomas Jefferson that “the government that governs the best, governs the least”? Or with Patrick Henry, who, spurning the principle of involuntary servitude, shouted out to a similarly divided world: “Give me liberty or give me death”? It seems to me, at this late hour, that the stage is all set for the final conflict, not between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, as Marx predicted, but between the parasitic elite of totalitarianism and freeborn men who prize liberty more than they do their own lives. Either Man's last, best hope of freedom is at stake or it isn't. It just happens that the author of “Solidarity Forever” was convinced when he wrote it, and is still convinced, that there can be no co-existence with involuntary servitude. We learned this lesson in the school of hard knocks. We learned it early in the game by being around when things were happening. And because we learned it the hard way, those of us still alive are more than ever convinced that nothing less than the solidarity of freedom, God-guided men can make the “final conflict” anything other than Armageddon. If this be chauvinism, then let the cockeyed world make the most of it!
The Sheet Metal Workers' International Association was a trade union of skilled metal workers who perform architectural sheet metal work, fabricate and install heating and air conditioning work, shipbuilding, appliance construction, heater and boiler construction, precision and specialty parts manufacture, and a variety of other jobs involving sheet metal. On August 11, 2014, it merged with the United Transportation Union (UTU) to form the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, known by the acronym, SMART.
The Sheet Metal Workers' International Association represented about 150,000 members in 185 local unions in the United States and Canada.
In 1887, Robert Kellerstrass, secretary of the Tin and Cornice Makers Association of Peoria, Illinois—a local sheet metal workers' union—began agitating for the formation of a national sheet metal workers' union. Contacting as many tinsmiths' locals as he could, Kellerstrass arranged for a founding convention to be held in January 1888. Eleven delegates from Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Tennessee met for four days. The union was founded on January 25, 1888 in Toledo, Ohio, as the Tin, Sheet Iron and Cornice Workers' International Association.
In five years the organization grew to include 108 locals in the United States. The first local in Canada was chartered in 1896 as well, in Toronto. A second Canadian local formed in Montreal in 1900, and a Vancouver local in 1902.
The union joined the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1889. The Panic of 1893 weakened the union significantly, however, and the union's finances collapsed. The AFL revoked the Tin, Sheet Iron and Cornice Workers' charter in 1896, even though many locals continued to exist.
The union reorganized in 1897 as the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers' International Association, and was rechartered by the AFL in 1899.
In 1902, the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers' union instituted its first national death benefit for its members.
In 1903, the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers' merged with the Sheet Metal Workers' National Alliance, a secessionist group that had broken away from the union in 1902, creating the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers' International Alliance.
In 1907, the union merged with the Coppersmiths' International Union.
The union became embroiled in a bruising battle with the plumbers' and carpenters' unions in 1919. The Sheet Metal Workers had organized thousands of railway locomotive fabricators nationwide, but now the plumbers' union was arguing that it had jurisdiction over the piping work that went into building these engines. Railroad shop workers from the machinists, blacksmiths and plumbers met in St. Louis, Missouri in 1920 after a number of local plumbers' railroad unions defected to the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers. Although the workers could not agree on which union should have jurisdiction over the work, the workers did agree to form the Federated Railroad Shopmen's Union to protect their work from being taken over by non-railroad workers. In 1921, the federated union disbanded, but the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers won substantial jurisdictional concessions from the plumbers. The conflict would continue into the 1950s, substantially weakening the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers. Finally, on April 26, 1955, the National Mediation Board reaffirmed Amalgamated Sheet Metal Worker jurisdiction over plumbing and pipefitting work in the railroad industry.
The introduction of metal moldings in buildings also created a problem for the union. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America claimed jurisdiction over trim and moldings, which had previously been made of wood. The carpenters' union had won a jurisdictional award from an arbitrator in New York City in the spring of 1909. But the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers demanded that the Building Trades Department (BTD) of the AFL issue a ruling. By a 3-to-1 majority, delegates to the Building Trades convention voted in favor of the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers. The carpenters, then the second-largest union in the AFL, withdrew from the Building Trades and initiated a series of jurisdictional strikes against the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers at job sites nationwide. The BTD retaliated by asking AFL president Samuel Gompers to revoke the carpenter's union charter. Instead, Gompers led the AFL executive council in demanding that the BTD reinstate the carpenters' union. The Building Trades did so in 1910, but continued to vote in favor of the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers' claims on work. The carpenters' union disaffiliated again. The carpenters' union continued to conduct strikes against the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers, and increasingly won the support of building contractors and local building trades councils. The National Board of Jurisdictional Awards also voted in favor of the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers. But the pressure by the much larger carpenters' union proved too great, and the Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers conceded jurisdiction over interior work in 1926.
The Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers' railroad affiliates were deeply involved in the Great Railroad Strike of 1922, which proved to be a disaster for the union's railway unions.
The Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers' absorbed the chandelier, brass, and metal workers in 1924, and once more changed its name—this time to the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association.
In 1926, the Sheet Metal Workers co-founded the Railway Labor Executives' Association, a union lobbying group.
In the spring of 1927, members of Local 206 in San Diego, California, build structural reinforcements for Charles Lindbergh's aircraft, "The Spirit of St. Louis".
During World War II, Sheet Metal Workers members assisted in the building of buildings, experimental machinery, and atomic weapons-making equipment at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as part of the Manhattan Project. In 1946, the Sheet Metal Workers became one of the founding members of the Atomic Trades and Labor Council.
The Sheet Metal Workers are notable for negotiating a number of "firsts" in the construction industry. In 1946, Local 28 in New York City negotiated the first local health and welfare plan in the construction industry. In 1950, Local 28 negotiated the first pension plan in the construction industry. In 1966, the union established its first national pension plans (one for construction workers, one for manufacturing workers).
In 1960, the Sheet Metal Workers organized its first political action committee, the Political Action League (PAL).
Samuel Gompers was the first and longest-serving president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL); it is to him, as much as to anyone else, that the American labor movement owes its structure and characteristic strategies. Under his leadership, the AFL became the largest and most influential labor federation in the world. It grew from a marginal association of 50,000 in 1886 to an established organization of nearly 3 million in 1924 that had won a permanent place in American society. In a society renowned for its individualism and the power of its employer class, he forged a self-confident workers' organization dedicated to the principles of solidarity and mutual aid. It was a singular achievement.
Born in 1850 into a Jewish family in London, Gompers began making cigars alongside his father at the age of 10. In 1863, the entire family immigrated to New York City. Settling into a tenement apartment on Houston Street, Gompers continued rolling cigars at home with his father until he found work in one of the local shops. In 1864, he joined Local 15 of the United Cigar Makers; two years later, he married Sophia Julian, with whom he would have 12 children. At his job and in his local union, Gompers socialized with a group of older émigré socialists and labor reformers whom he would always credit for his commitment to trade unionism as the essential vehicle for bringing about social reform.
In 1875, Gompers was elected president of the reorganized Local 144 of the Cigar Makers' International Union (CMIU) in New York City, a post he held from 1875 to 1878 and again from 1880 to 1886. He then served as second vice president of the CMIU from 1886 to 1896, when he was elevated to first vice presidency. In the 1880s, Gompers was also instrumental in establishing the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which he served as vice president from 1881 to 1886. When the FOTLU re-organized in 1886 as the American Federation of Labor, Gompers was elected its first president, a position he held for nearly 40 years.
As a local and national labor leader, Gompers sought to build the labor movement into a force powerful enough to transform the economic, social and political status of America's workers. To do so, he championed three principles. First, he advocated craft or trades unionism, which restricted union membership to wage earners and grouped workers into locals based on their trade or craft identification. This approach contrasted with the effort of many in the Knights of Labor to organize general, community-based organizations open to wage earners as well as others, including employers. It also contrasted sharply with the "one big union" philosophy of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Second, Gompers believed in a pure-and-simple unionism that focused primarily on economic rather than political reform as the best way of securing workers' rights and welfare. Gompers's faith in legislative reform was dashed in the 1880s after the New York Supreme Court overturned two laws regulating tenement production of cigars that he had helped pass. Gompers saw that what the state gave, it could also take away. But what workers secured through their own economic power in the marketplace, no one could take away.
Third, when political action was necessary, as Gompers increasingly came to believe in his later years, he urged labor to follow a course of "political nonpartisanship." He argued that the best way of enhancing the political leverage of labor was to articulate an independent political agenda, seek the endorsement of existing political parties for the agenda and mobilize members to vote for those supporting labor's agenda.
With his election as president of the AFL in 1886, he sought to build a national federation of trade unions dedicated to these principles. He immediately threw himself into the organization's first big effort—a nationwide general strike on May 1, 1886— in support of an eight-hour workday.
At the end of the 1890s, the AFL's membership began to soar-faster than in any other period in the history of the U.S. union movement. But the anti-union hostility of many employers halted the AFL's rapid growth in the early 1900s and forced Gompers and the AFL to adopt a more political stance. Employers had long sought to use the nation's new anti-trust laws as a legal basis for court-issued injunctions against strikes and boycotts. And in 1906, after nonunion employers sued the hatters' union and each individual member for triple damages in compensation for the losses they had suffered in a union boycott, Gompers concluded that the movement had to seek legislative relief. The Danbury Hatters' case, he wrote, "threatened the very existence of organized labor." It was "of paramount importance that labor unions be specifically removed from the application of anti-trust law and that injunction use be defined and regulated."
To secure the rights of labor to organize and engage in economic action, the AFL and its affiliates launched a far-reaching and ultimately successful campaign to elect union members and other labor-friendly candidates to political office.
The high point of the AFL's new, more political strategy came during the administration of President Woodrow Wilson (1912–1920), when Gompers and the federation enacted much of their program and enjoyed their greatest influence. During World War I, Wilson appointed Gompers to the Council of National Defense, where he helped mobilize labor support for the war. Gompers also was crucial in convincing Wilson to craft a wartime labor policy that for the first time in U.S. history explicitly articulated government support for independent trade unions and collective bargaining. Labor union membership soared by the end of the war, reaching into the millions. At the war's end, Wilson appointed Gompers to the Commission on International Labor Legislation at the Versailles Peace Conference, where Gompers helped create what would become the International Labor Organization (ILO). Although labor suffered considerable reverses in the 1920s, with the war crisis over and Wilson's administration at an end, the labor policies forged in this period laid the basis for the New Deal endorsements of labor rights in the 1930s.
Gompers died in December 1924 in San Antonio, Texas, where he had been rushed after falling ill in Mexico City while attending the inauguration of the new president of Mexico.
Under Roosevelt’s leadership, union membership and the size of the American economy grew hand-in-hand.
“It is now beyond partisan controversy that it is a fundamental individual right of a worker to associate himself with other workers and to bargain collectively with his employer.” FDR –Address at San Diego Exposition, October 2, 1935
Just over three quarters of a century ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed one of the most important — though frequently overlooked — pieces of the reform legislation to come out of the New Deal: the National Labor Relations Act. More often referred to as the Wagner Act, after its champion, Senator Robert Wagner of New York, this landmark bill established the National Labor Relations Board, an independent, quasi-judicial government agency that played a critical role in the remarkable expansion of union membership that took place during the Roosevelt era.
Prior to the passage of the Wagner Act, and thanks in part to the anti-union climate of the 1920s, union membership in the United States had declined precipitously. At the onset of the Great Depression, for example, membership in the American Federation of Labor had fallen from a high of five million in 1919 to less than 3 million in 1933. Seeking to expand workers rights as part of his administration’s efforts to launch the New Deal, FDR created a weaker NLRB as part of the 1934 National Recovery Administration. But the 1934 agency proved largely ineffective and in 1935 FDR endorsed Senator Wagner’s efforts to make the NLRB permanent and more powerful. The new law declared a whole series of coercive management practices to be illegal, and gave private sector workers the right to form unions and to engage in collective bargaining. It also gave the NLRB the right to determine bargaining unit jurisdictions, oversee union elections and certify the results as legally binding. The law also insisted that management had a duty to bargain with a properly certified union, though of course it did not compel the union to agree with the union demands.
As with many other pieces of New Deal legislation, the establishment of the NLRB was bitterly attacked by employers as a measure that would ruin the US economy. But such fear mongering proved completely unfounded. Over the next ten years both union membership and the size of the US economy would grow hand in hand, so that by 1945 the ranks of unionized worker had reached a record 35 percent of the non-agricultural workforce, while wages had increased by 65 percent, unemployment had fallen to less than one percent, and the US economy exploded to meet the demands of the Second World War.
Moreover, the labor legislation of the New Deal helped form the basis of a long period of post-war prosperity that vastly expanded the size and wealth of the American middle class. Yet sadly, the right of American workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining — and hence protect their job security and wages — is once again under attack. The recent attempt by conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives to challenge the NLRB authority to act through the introduction of such bills as the Protecting Jobs from Government Interference Act is but one example of this ongoing attempt to weaken the NLRB’s authority and with it the power of unions to fight against unfair labor practices. In 1935, in the wake of the Wagner Bill, FDR asserted that the “fundamental…right of a worker to associate himself with other workers and to bargain collectively with his employer” was “now beyond partisan controversy.” Based on the recent activities of this Congress, and the strong anti-union movement among conservatives in states like Wisconsin and New Jersey it would appear that he was sadly mistaken.
Texas AFL-CIO Scholarship applications due
San Antonio pecan shellers’ strike begins, 1938
San Antonio was the site of a major uprising by laborers in 1938.
The 37-day pecan shellers strike involved as many as 6,000 workers, largely Hispanic, and is regarded as the first labor victory for Tejanos and Mexicans in U.S. history.
One of the strike’s organizers was a petite but feisty activist, Emma Tenayuca, an avowed communist who “helped Mexicans achieve a sense of unparalleled confidence and group pride as racial minorities” even though the economic gains from the walkout were short-lived, Zaragosa Vargas wrote in his 2005 book “Labor Rights Are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America.”
Commercial pecan shelling originated in San Antonio and was its single biggest industry in 1938. The city’s 125 plants annually produced 30 million pounds of shelled pecans — “approximately 700 carloads,” the San Antonio Light reported during the strike.
Yet the industry’s 12,000 shellers didn’t share in the industry’s prosperity. Workers earned low wages and toiled in miserable conditions — some factories lacked water and toilets. The large supply of unskilled labor allowed the industry’s biggest company — Southern Pecan Shelling Co. — to reverse “the moves toward mechanization,” University of Incarnate Word associate professor Patricia E. Gower noted in an article on the strike for the Journal of the Life and Culture of San Antonio.
At the start of 1938, shellers earned 6 cents a pound for pieces and 7 cents a pound for halves, or about $2 a week. On Jan. 31, 1938, however, Southern — whose owner Julius Seligmann was known as the “Pecan King” — dropped wages by 1-cent a pound.
“A spontaneous walkout followed,” Selden Menefee and Orin Cassmore wrote in the 1940 Works Projects Administration tome, “The Pecan Shellers of San Antonio: The Problem of Underpaid and Unemployed Mexican Labor.”
“It is a pivotal moment in CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) organizing during the Great Depression,” Vargas said in an interview. He is a distinguished professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Police Chief Owen W. Kilday’s response to the strike was swift and severe. He maintained that the strike was a “revolution” led by communists “who had never shelled a pecan in their lives,” the Light reported. He sent raiding squads to disperse picketers and smash banners. Tenayuca was jailed for a short time.
About a week into the strike, Tenayuca was forced out of her leadership role because of her open communist ties, which some believed were hurting the workers’ cause. Donald Henderson, international president of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers union (part of the CIO), took charge — despite his own communist membership, Vargas wrote. The change infuriated Tenayuca.
“I organized that strike, led it, and then Don Henderson came in, a left- winger,” Tenayuca told Vargas in a 1990 interview for his book. “I was given a paper to sign removing myself from the leadership of the strike so workers could get support of the people here.” She remained involved, however, by holding daily meetings, producing and distributing circulars and sending strikers to the picket lines, Vargas wrote.
Henderson accused Kilday of aiding pecan plant operators in “driving and intimidating workers into plants,” the Light reported on the strike’s ninth day. A few days later, the paper reported police tear gas bombs “routed 300 angry pecan shellers” who had gathered to protest the closing of a soup kitchen set up for strikers. Other picketers were arrested for blocking sidewalks.
The clashes and incidents led Gov. James V. Allred to order a state investigation into possible violations of workers’ rights by San Antonio police, an “intervention (that) was unprecedented in the South,” according to Laura Cannon, who wrote about the strike for her master’s thesis. She is a Ph.D. candidate at Texas Tech University. The investigation found police had not been justified in interfering with the strike, while also concluding that wages paid shellers were abnormally low and living conditions “insupportable,” the Light reported.
In an editorial, the Light described the standards of living among many Mexican residents as “deplorable.” But the paper said it was Kilday’s “SACRED DUTY” to “maintain order and prevent possible rioting and bloodshed.” Kilday had claimed he was fighting communism and he had estimated the number of strikers at 500 to 600. Two court rulings, one affirmed by the 4th Court of Appeals, ruled police had the right to arrest picketers.
On the strike’s 20th day, calls to remove Henderson as the strike’s leader were finally heeded because of concerns over his communist connections. J. Austin Beasley, an international organizer for the union, took over. Beasley blasted San Antonio citizenry for “protecting one man in his exploitation of the pecan industry.” He didn’t name the individual but he was clearly referencing Seligmann, “pecan czar of America,” the Light reported.
Mayor C.K. Quin, who had supported Kilday’s handling of strikers, moved to bring the 29-day-old strike to an end by meeting with Beasley on Feb. 28. But then picketers were once again tear-gassed on March 2.
On March 5, Allred appealed to Seligmann and Beasley to arbitrate the strike. “I think a settlement can be worked out if both sides will keep out of the newspapers with statements of their grievances,” Allred was quoted in the Light. He also said shellers should be paid better wages “if they can be.”
The two sides agreed to arbitrate and the “embattled shellers began trooping back” to factories on March 8, thus ending their strike, according to the Light. A three-man arbitration panel was selected.
On April 14, the panel reached a compromise that called for workers to continue to receive wages of 5 to 6 cents a pound until June 1, when a ½-cent per pound increase would take effect. Union leaders had demanded 7 to 8 cents a pound. The agreement expired Nov. 1.
About a week before the agreement was set to expire, the Fair Labor Standards Act took effect, setting the nation’s minimum wage at 25 cents an hour. Southern and the union jointly applied for a temporary exemption from the provisions of the act, Menefee and Cassmore wrote in their book. The request was denied, however.
Rather than pay the new hourly wage, shelling companies laid off workers, installed machinery or closed their doors, Mark Reisler wrote in “By the Sweat of Their Brow: Mexican Immigrant Labor in the United States, 1900-1940.” Soon, fewer than 3,000 laborers worked in the industry. The balance were faced with starvation. “Scores of workers trudged several miles daily to the Salvation Army’s breadline to obtain a loaf or two for their families,” Reisler wrote.
Nevertheless, Cannon, whose doctoral dissertation also is on the strike, deemed the walkout a success.
“The San Antonio pecan shellers were able to force the industry leaders to come to the table and arbitrate this issue,” Cannon said. The workers were “able to succeed in Texas in this anti-union environment. But then the federal government, trying to help workers, kind of steamrolls the pecan shellers unintentionally” with the new minimum wage.