By Jack Jodell, May 1, 2011. Previous installments of this series may be found at THE SATURDAY AFTERNOON POST (http://jackjodell53.wordpress.com/).
Today is May Day, celebrated in every country (except the United States) as a day to honor laborers. This is my seventh and final installment devoted to people who struggled and sacrificed a great deal to make our job places better and safer, and whose efforts netted us higher wages and a lot of benefits in the process. Now, as the ultra-conservative Republican Party and their severely misguided Tea Party followers are trying to strip workers of the gains they have made by denying us the right to collectively bargain, destroying our labor unions, and to freeze or force down our wages, let us remember these great heroes who paved the way for us. They knew the only way such changes could be made was through the strength of numbers exercised by workers in a united front. Let us go even further by agreeing to stand resolute and remove the anti-labor conservatives from office altogether in next year’s elections!
Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972) was born in Saven, Poland, the first of four children. Both of her parents were poor and worked in the sewing trade. By 1890, the family had scraped together enough money to emigrate to New York City. They, like millions of others, hoped to improve their lot by taking advantage of the opportunities the New World would offer. Unfortunately, two years after arriving, father Samuel Schneiderman died and left his poor family in very desperate straits. The kids had to be shipped off to nearby Jewish orphanages and it took their mother more than a year to get them all back.
Rose, the eldest, started work at the tender age of 13, as a cashier at a department store. 3 years later, she became a lining stitcher in a cap factory. In 1902, the family moved briefly to Montreal, and it was here, at the age of 20, that Rose developed an interest in radical politics and trade unionism. In 1903 she returned to New York. There she and a co-worker set out to unionize their factory. She applied for membership in the United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers Union, but was told to come back after she had organized 25 more women. They did that within a few days, and soon that union chartered its first women’s local. During a capmakers’ strike two years later, Schneiderman was elected secretary of her local and a delegate to the New York City Central Labor Union. Here she came in contact with the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). She became one of its more prominent members, becoming the New York branch’s vice president in 1908. She soon left the factory and began working with the League. She even started attending school, aided by funds provided by one of the League’s wealthier feminist members. She took part in a massive strike by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in 1909 called the Uprising of the 20,000 (to give you an idea of what these workers had to endure, keep in mind that they WORKED 7 AM – 8 PM WITH ONLY A HALf-HOUR BREAK SEVEN DAYS A WEEK; MANY WERE ONLY 15 YEARS OLD; MANY HAD TO USE THEIR OWN THREAD, NEEDLES, AND IRONS; THEY WORKED IN LOCKDOWN AND HAD TO LEAVE THE ROOM TO GO TO THE BATHROOM [AND ONLY FOREMEN HAD THE KEY TO THE LOCKED DOORS, TO ENSURE PRODUCTION REMAINED ALWAYS AT A HIGH LEVEL]; THEY WERE PAID A MEASLY $6 per WEEK FOR THIS SLAVE LABOR [BARELY MORE THAN 7 CENTS AN HOUR],; AND ALL THEY ASKED FOR WAS A REDUCTION IN THE WORK WEEK FROM 84 HOURS TO 52 HOURS, WITH EXTRA PAY FOR OVERTIME). The factory owners refused to budge and hired policmen to beat and arrest the strikers. A NUMBER WERE EVEN SENT OFF TO EVEN MORE HARSH LABOR CAMPS. One very obviously hypocritical, ignorant, fundamentalist “Christian” (NOT THE REAL KIND) judge, when sentencing a picketer, exclaimed very self-righteously, “You are sinning against God and Nature, whose law is that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against God!” How utterly pathetic!
(I sincerely hope that somehow, in some way, that sanctimonious old fool eventually saw that HIS cruel sentence was a sin against God)!
The striking women held out for a month, and slowly public opinion turned in their favor. Liberal wealthy suffragettes began to sympathize with them and took up their cause. In 1910, the strike was finally settled, with striking workers being rehired at higher pay and shortened hours. The next year, the horrible Triangle Shrtwaist Factory Fire, in which 146 garment workers were burned alive or jumped to their deaths from the 9th floor of a factory due to woefully inadequate fire escapes served to reinforce everything that Schneiderman and the WTUL were fighting against. Now a very impassioned speaker, she addressed the wealthier members of the League by saying, “I would be a traitor to those poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and have found you wanting…This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city…Every year thousands of us are maimed. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us…I know from my experience that it is up to the working people to save themselves…The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”
Rose Schneiderman kept on working with and organizing for the WTUL. She became its national President for more than 20 years. In the 1930s, she was part of FDR’s “brain trust” on the National Recovery Administration’s Labor Advisory Board. She became a close associate of Eleanor Roosevelt, teaching the First Lady about all aspects of trade unionism, and also served as secretary of the New York State Department of Labor from 1937-1944. Ever a believer in free speech, especially for workers, she became a founding memer of the American Civil Liberties Union.
She died at the ripe old age of 90 in New York, in the Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged. Her passion, determination, and steadfastness serves as an example for us all.
John L. Lewis (1880-1969) was a very important union leader who served as President of the United Mine Workers from 1920-1960. He also played a very heavy hand in the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the United Steelworkers of America, which organized millions of industrial workers in the 1930s.
Lewis, the son of Welsh immigrants, was born in Cleveland, Iowa, a small company town set up and built around a coal mine. He attended 3 years of high school in Des Moines, but at 17 went to work in the Big Hill mine in nearby Lucas. He soon set up a feed-and-grain distributorship, but it failed so he returned to coal mining. In 1906 he was elected a delegate to the United Mine Workers (UMW) national convention. He moved to Panama, Illinois and was soon elected President of the local UMW there. In 1911, Samuel Gompers, President of the AFL, hired Lewis as a union organizer, traveling throughout the midwest and Pennsylvania with a particular interest in coal and steel districts. After serving as vice president of the UMW, Lewis became its acting President in 1919. That November, he called the first major coal miners strike, and 400,000 workers walked off their jobs. Winter was approaching, so President Wilson obtained an injunction to get the striking workers to return to their jobs, which Lewis obeyed. The next year, he was elected union President in his own right, and he quickly asserted himself in what was then the largest trade union in the nation. During this period, communists tried to seize control of UMWA locals, but Lewis, more committed to progress and cooperation between labor, management, and government than to outright revolution, took tight control of his union and packed its bureaucracy with men loyal to him. By 1928, he had beaten back the communist threat, having ruthlessly used any means at his disposal. Those on the far left were expelled. They tried challenging Lewis in certain pockets, but he prevailed. Upon forming his CIO union, he invited a number of the leftists back as organizers of drivers, and after 1935 they soon gained powerful CIO positions in the automotive and electrical sectors.
Lewis was denounced as being dictatorial and a “traitor to the working class” for the way he ran a tight ship and routinely expelled political rivals. But as a skillful strategist and powerful speaker, he consistently obtained higher wages and improved benefits and safety for his miners due to the country’s dependence on coal. He accomplished this even in the face of several recessions.
In 1924, Lewis, who was a Republican at the time, drew up a plan for his workers that provided them with a pay scale of $7.50 a day (roughly $93 in today’s dollars) for three years. The plan impressed President Coolidge and then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover so much that Lewis was offered the post of Secretary of Labor, but he declined. He later regretted this decision, because without government support, contract talks soon collapsed and mine operators ended up hiring non-union miners. But the very next year, largely due to his oratorical ability, he was successful in winning a strike for his anthracite miners.
Lewis supported Herbert Hoover for President in 1928, but once the Great Depression hit, he quietly shifted his support to Franklin Roosevelt four years later, even though publicly proclaiming he was for Hoover’s re-election. In 1936, he strongly supported FDR’s re-election and was appointed a member of FDR’s Labor Advisory Board. He shrewdly used Roosevelt’s popularity to greatly expand his union’s rolls, telling miners that “The President wants you to join the UMW!” He successfully negotiated wage increases and helped secure passage of two bills favorable to miners. In 1937, his CIO affiliates won collective bargaining contracts with General Motors and United States Steel, two very powerful anti-union corporations, and the growth of the CIO in meat, glass, and electrical equipment was huge. The union gained a lot of strength and prestige as a result. In 1940, Lewis resigned from the CIO but held onto his position as UMW President. During World War II, Lewis inflamed public opinion by calling for coal strikes several times. This made the hand of anti-union Congressmen stronger and resulted in some tough anti-union legislation being passed. At one point, FDR even seized the mines for a time to keep production unhindered.
Lewis continued his union militancy after the war, calling strikes or work stoppages in 1945, 1946, 1948, and 1949-1950. President Truman went so far as to declare some of these strikes to be threats to national security. They also led to the public shifting away from coal and emracing oil as the major energy source, but he did achieve a coup by securing a welfare fund financed entirely by management but totally administered by the union.
Throughout the 1950s, Lewis continued to gain wage hikes for his workers and press for mine safety measures. But strip mining and oil were beginning to cause a decline in the demand for coal, and along with this came a decline in membership for the union. After a lifelong struggle for his workers, numerous battles with management and government, Lewis retired in 1960, leaving in his wake a legacy of achievement on their behalf. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Johnson in 1964, and he died 5 years later.
There are a great many threats to labor now, probably more at this moment than at any time since labor unions were first legalized in this country nearly 80 years ago. Greedy corporations are actively trying to destroy unions altogether, and are aided in this quest by short-sighted and uncaring ultra-conservative Republicans and their deluded Tea Party allies. These people are acting to set the clock for workers backward. They are doing this by outsourcing your jobs, doing away with or reducing your benefits, and even trying to reinstate child labor, just so those at the top of the income scale can grow even richer at your expense. THESE PEOPLE MUST BE STOPPED!
We should NEVER have to lose our 5 day/40 hour work weeks, paid vacations, overtime pay, safe job conditions, or the wage rates these heroes of American Labor have fought so long and hard for us to have! We should NEVER have to endure the horrible working conditions Rose Schneiderman had to endure 100 years ago! Yet that is exactly what these corporatists and conservatives are trying to do to us.
We can ensure that these gains and benefits will remain intact by nominating and electing only PROGRESSIVE candidates in next year’s elections. You owe this not only to yourselves, folks, but also to our future generations! This slow, steady attack on American workers and our poor must BE REVERSED!
Today, right now, this very May Day TODAY, seek out your local SEIU union and march in solidarity with them. Let conservative Republican Governors Scott Walker and John Kasich know you strongly oppose their attempt to make the rich richer and you poorer by what they have done to the union workers in their states by marching and loudly proclaiming your opposition!
IN 2012, FLOOD YOUR DEMOCRATIC PARTY CAUCUSES TO DEMAND, AS A MEMBER OF THE PRO-LABOR PEOPLES’ PARTY FACTION, THAT ONLY PROGRESSIVE CANDIDATES GET NOMINATED FOR GOVERNMENT! MOST IMPORTANTLY, IN THE GENERAL ELECTION, STRIKE TO THROW THESE ANTI-WORKER REPUBLICANS AND TEA PARTY CANDIDATES OUT OF OFFICE PERMANENTLY!!!