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.


About jackjodell53

I am an American Dissident trapped in a country where poor and middle class people are constantly being exploited and lied to by a very rigid and conservative plutocratic elite. I believe in government OF, FOR, and BY the people, not one controlled as it now is by corporations and special interests.
This entry was posted in Commentary, History, labor unions, Politics, RoundTree7 Info, Social Issues, Tea Party. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to HEROES OF AMERICAN LABOR (Part I)

  1. Norman Morley says:

    It certainly blows my mindset, to borrow a well used phrase, as I watch helplessly from the sidelines, that these Republicans are doing what they are today. What’s astounding, is the fact that they enjoyed the fruits of sacrifice of others, yet want to tear down every one of the steps that have allowed them to get where they are. From my vantage point, Reagan started it, got away with it, and the rest is history. These people have done more in the last 30 years to destroy the American dream, than any so called terrorists could ever dream of. Ironic, the Cold War lasted as long as it did, until the Russians called it quits, couldn’t overcome the U.S.A., but instead of harvesting the fruits of besting them, the country has become a declining Empire, with the plutocracy hell bent on destroying the very country that made them what they are.

    • jackjodell53 says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Norman, and I share your wonderment over how the Republicans, who constantly praise and gloss over “the American dream”, are in reality destroying it altogether. But we needn’t sit by helplessly. We CAN and we MUST act to oppose and then defeat them. I’ve been saying it for weeks: get involved any way you can! Donate to progressive causes! Joinyour local Democratic caucus next year and speak out and vote against this economic tyranny! Write letters to the editor! Send a letter or email to your Senators and Congressperson! These people are OUR employees—we DON’T work for them! Avenge the people of Wisconsin with your new activism!

  2. osori says:

    Thank you. I knew of Walter Reuther, but I hadn’t known what a truly great man he was. Sadly I’d never heard of Sarah Bagley and I’m glad to know of her now.

    I recall working in a factory years ago, there were two wage scales, for men and for women. Women were all put in assembly work, men were given marginally less menial tasks to justify our 2.00 an hour over the women’s 1.25 an hour. A couple months before I hired on there’d been a union movement, which the company appeared to approve of – they allowed certain people to speak out in favor of unions and hand out literature. A day or so before the vote all of the union spokespeople were fired, and the vote failed.

    When I finally lucked into a union job it was was like climbing out of a hole into the sunlight.

    • jackjodell53 says:

      Thanks, Oso. I hope that light will continue to shine for you AND your children well into everyone’s retirement!

  3. Gwendolyn H. Barry says:

    Extraordinary info on Ms. Bagley. Yes, Yankee Women~! I, like Oso, know of Mr. Reuther… but I was uneducated to Ms. Bagley. Thanks Jack. We truly have to discover and stand clearly on which *ever* side we are on, now. There is a terrible social war going on in this country. And propaganda for the ‘conservative right wing’ is being gobbled down by poor and (well, no middle class) poor!

  4. My son and daughter-in-law are union organizers. They are both highly talented, well educated young people who believe that the future of our country depends upon fair wages and benefits for those who work the hardest. They live what they believe.
    They are my heros.

    • Oh, and my daughter, who is also talented and well educated works for a large federal benefits program and tries her best to get everyone who deserves a fair compensation what they deserve.

      All of them work for wages much less than they could get elsewhere, but they care about their fellow citizens.

      • jackjodell53 says:

        Sagacious Hillbilly,
        You are to be commended for raising such a fine young son and daughter and instilling them with brains AND a heart! We tip our hats to you for that!

    • jackjodell53 says:

      Your son and daughter-in-law are indeed heroes of today’s labor movement! We all owe them a debt of gratitude for their courage, too!

  5. Krell says:

    ALL the benefits that workers get today are due to the hard fought battles by the unions. How many times have I heard that …. “Well, Unions were a good thing in the past, but.. “, mostly by the very people that will be harmed the most when all the advances are rolled back.

    I had not heard of Sarah Bagley before this post, Jack. Thanks for being a teacher!

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