labor union history

Tierra y Libertad

On January 29, 1911, a small band of 18 revolutionaries marched into Mexicali and seized the town, practically without firing a shot. Thus began one of the most unusual and controversial episodes in Mexican history.
These revolutionaries were not the typical warlords that Mexico was used to seeing. These revolutionaries had American volunteers, but not the sort of filibusters that Baja California was already very familiar with. In fact, this revolutionary movement had little in common with anything Mexico had experienced before or since.

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These revolutionaries weren't interested in just overthrowing the corrupt and repressive government, they wanted to overthrow society as well.

Historic anniversaries in labor history

As a people we like to mark the anniversaries of important events in our lives. This is true for nations, individuals, corporations, and political groups.
The labor movement has been mostly left out of this tradition. This is my effort to change that. For instance, this Wednesday is the 160th Birthday of Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL.

For this essay I would like to concentrate of events, such as this Tuesday is the anniversary of the very first worker's compensation agreement.

"We are all leaders"

By any standard measure the suicide of Wesley Everest should be considered unusual.
Everest had only recently returned from the front lines of WWI France, so a suicide isn't all that shocking. However, the circumstances of his death on Veterans Day 1919, should have raised questions with the coroner. That is, if the coroner had bothered to examine the body before declaring it a suicide.

Everest's teeth had been knocked out with a rifle butt. He was then tossed over the side of a bridge several times until his neck was broken from the noose tied around it. Afterward his lifeless body had been shot full of bullets, which is very difficult for a dead man to inflict upon himself.

Perhaps the coroner was just stating that Everest's suicidal action happened long before his death. It happened when he decided to become a member of the Industrial Workers of the World.

The Spartacus of Baseball

John Montgomery Ward was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964. He debuted with the Providence Grays on July 15, 1878, as a pitcher. He won 164 career games with a 2.15 ERA. He threw the second perfect game in baseball history.
When an injury ended his pitching career in 1884, he learned to throw with his other arm and became a shortstop and second baseman. He went on to collect over 2,100 hits and steal 540 bases, including 111 in just one season.
He played on two pennant winning New York Giants teams, and managed the team for two other seasons. No other player in the history of baseball has won over 100 games as a pitcher and also collected over 2,000 hits.
For all these reasons he deserves to be remembered.

However, these accomplishments were nothing in comparison to the real legacy that defined him as a person and left its mark on baseball.

The Tennessee Convict War

In 1997 the Tennessee branch of the AFL-CIO made an agreement with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to support the privatization of Tennessee's state prison system. This opened the door for Tennessee's prison labor being used to compete with private industry.
Currently the highest-paying prisoner in Tennessee earns 50 cents an hour to produce jeans for Kmart and JC Penney, among other things.

Of all the states, Tennessee unions should have been the last ones to support prison labor. The reason lies more than a century in the past, in the days following the end of slavery.

Joe Hill

"I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize."
- Joe Hill's last written words

Every successful popular movement has its legendary, or near legendary, characters. People, or groups, who seemed bigger than life, and in the end must be sacrificed to the cause. The civil rights movement had Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. The American Revolution had Nathan Hale.

For the labor movement the group that fit that role was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). While the roll-call of the IWW is filled with legendary characters, far more than can be written in anything less than a book, one character stands out above them all - Joe Hill.

Knights of Labor

The reason Labor Day exists is because of a long-defunct labor union known as the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. This labor union didn't allow bankers to join. It also excluded doctors, lawyers, gamblers, stockholders, and liquor manufacturers because they were considered "unproductive members of society".
Considering the insane amounts of money that investment bankers get paid to move other people's money around, the Knights of Labor may have had a point.

The Great Strike

"Terrors Reign, The Streets of Chicago Given Over to Howling Mobs of Thieves and Cutthroats."
-Chicago Times headline, 1877

130 years ago America was a different place. Labor unions were small in number and relatively powerless, the federal government was immensely corrupt, and the presidential election had just been openly rigged.
Hmmm. OK. Maybe America wasn't different from today's world after all. But it was a great deal different from the America of most of that 130 years.

The Red Neck War

On a Dreary Morning in May of 1920 Seven Men Carrying Winchesters and pistols boarded the Norfolk and Western's No. 29 at Bluefield, West Virginia, bound for the little mining town of Matewan on the Kentucky border.
- Robert Shogan

It was the only time in American history that government airplanes intentionally bombed its own citizens. It was the largest armed insurrection fought on American soil since the Civil War.
And it has been almost totally forgotten outside of the lore of the United Mine Workers of America.

The General Strike

Workers Rise; Seize Control In Cities
- NY Times headline, March 16, 1920

There has been nothing more inspiring to the working class than a popular movement of the people, taking over the streets, flexing their muscles by sheer numbers, and sweeping away all that oppose them. And nothing is more terrifying to the entrenched power than this scenario.
Class struggle has been with western society since the dawn of civilization, and it will continue as long as there is inequality in the world.