Happy Labor Day to us all!

Picketer's being beaten by police








In a day and age when organized labor seems largely irrelevant to many, this is an appropriate time to stop and reflect on the gains made by unions in the past 100 years.

Although no one seems to remember now, some of the most basic protections we presently enjoy – like Social Security and Unemployment Insurance – came to workers courtesy of the push from organized labor. This package also includes the 40-hour workweek, the minimum wage, overtime, the child labor laws and much more, including some very basic things like the right to join a union and the right to strike. Most of this was enacted as parts of President Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation.

But none of these rights and protections were just handed to the workers, even if they were part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. People died to obtain these protections.

The years leading up to the New Deal – particularly the 20’s and 30’s – were a bloody, bitter time for workers. Strikes – where people died for their union beliefs – were commonplace.

Back in those days, the typical scenario was that the workers would go on strike or get locked out, and then the employers would hire scabs, and detectives (like the Pinkerton’s or the notorious Baldwin-Felts Agencies) to “protect” the scabs. Then the war was on.

The strikers were most often cast as “Commies” or communist-dominated in propaganda put out by the employers – the “Red Menace” was a very common theme. The Chamber of Commerce and other civic organizations usually backed the employers. Often, local citizen groups, augmented (or supplanted) by the hired detectives and backed by the local governments formed “posses” and took on the strikers in open warfare – all in the name of “civic virtue” (cleaning out the Red’s). Occasionally the National Guard even got into the act.

Good examples of this sort of open labor warfare include The Ludlow Massacre (1914), The Battle of Matewan (part of the West Virginia Coal Wars – 1920), the Battle of Blair Mountain (1921), The Herrin Massacre (1922), The Columbine Mine Massacre (1927), The Auto-Lite Strike of 1934, The Minneapolis Teamsters Strike (1934) and the 1934 West Coat Maritime Strike (which evolved into the West Coast General Strike of 1934).

Hundreds and hundreds of workers died in those years, fighting for even the most basic of protections.

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Labor’s Bloody History

Strikers get clubbed by police

The period in American history leading up from the Civil War to World War II was particularly violent and bloody for labor. It was through that struggle that many of the very most basic rights we enjoy today came about. These include:

  • Abolition of child labor
  • The eight hour day
  • Unemployment insuance
  • Social security
  • The right to form and join unions, and bargain collectively

To give a glimpse of the background that led up to these changes, here’s a list of the major strikes that took place in the United States from after the Civil War on (courtesy of Wikipedia):


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Conservatives Declare War On Unions – Public Employee Unions to Be Outlawed in Wisconsin

State workers protest in Madison
This week in Wisconsin, conservatives are making perhaps the single biggest assault on collective bargaining that’s taken place in the last 60-80 years.
The republican-controlled Wisconsin state legislature is trying to take away the collective bargaining rights of state, county and municipal workers.
These takeaways include:

  • Automatic yearly elections where 51+% of all employees in a bargaining unit would have to vote in favor of union representation or the union would be decertified;
  • No more union shops where membership or an equivalency fee are required as a condition of employment;
  • Would limit wage increases to a small percetage based on the increase in the cost of living;
  • Would force employees to pay nearly 13% of their healthcare costs;
  • Reduces employers pension contributions.

And those are just the highlights. Basically, it would do away with public employee unions in Wisconsin.

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