The recent attacks on public sector labor unions in Wisconsin and Ohio should serve to remind us of the great debt of gratitude we all owe to the labor movement in this country. Our ancestors fought long and hard for such basic human rights as a safe working environment, a 40 hour work week, overtime pay, paid vacations, sick leave, unemployment compensation, workman’s compensation, the minimum wage, and many other standards we all now take for granted in the workplace. Some of these courageous people even lost their lives in the struggle to bring good working conditions and a fair wage to American workers. Let us remember their struggles and sacrifices with due reverence.
In commemoration and appreciation of those who suffered to make this a more fair and better world, I today begin a periodic series of posts honoring those who fought so hard for us in the past. I will feature two American labor leaders in each post. Some will be well known and others less so. But each contributed mightily to the establishment of our middle class, which today’s ultra-conservative Tea Party members, Republicans, and their wealthy corporate allies are all out to destroy.
Sarah George Bagley (1806-1884?) was not only the first female telegraph operator, but an activist for labor in the 1840s, nearly a century before labor unions were made legal here . She was a true pioneering go-getter, who first started working in the twxtile mills of Lowell, MA way back in 1835, well before women could even legally vote, and a year before the Alamo, in the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution. She was also a writer who began contributing articles for the Lowell Offering, a publication written, edited, and published by working women to show the world that working women could also write and shared the desire to learn.
In late 1844, she helped create the Lowell Female Labor Association, in response partly to wage cuts and increased production quotas mill bosses had imposed, but also to help improve health conditions and press for the 10 hour work day. (Women at that time worked 13.5 hour days. See how far we have come, people?). Under Bagley’s presidency, the LFLA grew to some 600 members and even began publishing the Voice of Industry, their own labor newspaper. They began a three year petition drive to the Massachusetts state legislature, prompting the first-ever state investigation into labor’s working conditions. But alas, then as now, significant portions of elected officials were in the pockets of industry, so the state failed to take ay action on the workers’ behalf. The labor reform movement she created persisted nonetheless, and with constant pressure, by 1853, the work day had been reduced to 11 hours. Nothing ever comes easy with industry (corporations), but if you persist long enough, you DO realize SOME progress!
In 1847, Bagley was contracted to run the magnetic telegraph office in Springfield, MA. She became the very first female telegraph operator, but was very unhappy to learn that she would be paid only 3/4 the rate of the man she had replaced! For back then, gender discrimination in pay was even worse than today. It fueled a lifelong passion in her for women’s rights. She met and married husband James Durno in 1850, and they moved to Albany, NY to set up their practice as homeopathic physicians catering mainly to women and children. Their rate was $1 to the rich, and free for the poor. Dr. Durno began manufacturing his own line of herbal medicines. They moved their manufacturing plant to Brooklyn in 1867, and he died there in 1873. She passed on about 10 years later, having spent most of her adult life fighting and acting on behalf of workers and the poor.
Walter Reuther (1907-1970) was a labor leader who put the United Auto Workers squarely on the map. A socialist in the early 1930s, he became a leading liberal spokesman and New Deal supporter during the FDR years. He led several auto union strikes and was twice hospitalized for having been badly beaten by violent strike-breaking thugs. As a senior union organizer, he was successful in bringing strikes to force union recognition in GM in 1940 and Ford the year later. He survived two assassination attempts and his right hand was permanently crippled during an attack on him in 1948. The man sacrificed a lot for his workers.
Reuther strongly supported the war effort and refused to engage in wildcat strikes that would adversely affect munitions production. He won increasingly large wage and benefits packages for his workers. He founded the group Americans for Democratic Action in 1947, and in 1952 was elected President of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) . Shortly thereafter, he merged that group with George Meany’s American Federation of Labor (AFL) to form the powerful AFL-CIO.
Reuther had an ingenious way of winning contract concessions for his workers. He would choose to strike against only one of the big 3 U.S. automakers. If the company didn’t deliver what the workers wanted, his members would strike, allowing the other 2 auto companies to grab the third’s sales. By playing each company off against the other, he was able to negotiate not only high wages and benefits, but also employer-funded pensions and medical coverage. At one point, he even tried to negotiate lower automobile prices for consumers! Now THAT was a friend of working people!
In later years, Reuther was a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement and even participated in the 1963 march on Washington, which was capped off with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s magnificent “I have a dream” speech. My very favorite quote of Reuther’s was “There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to have done it well.”
Hard core, conservative Republican corporatist governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich, Maine’s Paul LePage, and New Jersey’s Chris Christie would all do well to reflect upon, and then emulate, the fine examples set for them by Sarah George Bagley and Walter Reuther. But, of course, they will not, and that is why they will soon be mere forgotten footnotes in history instead of being revered years after their deaths, as Ms. Bagley and Mr. Reuther are.
Both Bagley and Reuther are true heroes of American Labor. I will present more such examples over the next 5 weeks, all the way up until May Day.