Part 1: So, You Think You Have It Bad?
By Joseph Cannavo
The story and history of working men and women and organized labor has never been about “fairness”. It has always been “what you can get”! And labor history tells us that workers who risked everything for themselves, their families and their communities got very little in the beginning. But through the years of struggles, they got a little more and little more. So, let’s look back and examine the blood, sweat and tears of those who came before us; those who made gains and defiantly said to the bosses: “You think this is the end? It's only the beginning!”
Not surprisingly and without the support of men, it was women in America who engaged in the first real “concerted activity” better known as a STRIKE. This first strike was led by women working in textile mills in Lowell, MA when their wages were cut in 1834. The mill owners referred to these women as “amazons” and not in a complementary way. In those days, mill workers lived on the company properly. That's where the term “company town” originated. And to the mill owners surprise, there was another strike by woman in 1835; and these were the washerwomen, cooks and cleaners in the company towns. They stayed out for months, fired and then successfully rehired with an hourly wage. In between these two strikes there was the first strike by federal civilian employees at the Washington Navy Yard. But this time, it wasn't women who led the struggle. It was enslaved and freed African American men who sought a 10-hour work day and a way to redress their grievances. That's right, they wanted a “grievance procedure”. The strike lasted a month. The men wanted a 10-hour work day and a decent lunch period. They got neither. White workers at the Navy Yard feared these workers would bring down wages. Sound familiar?
In the 1800s, workers in different crafts and trades formed associations and guilds. But there were no laws that gave workers the right to organize a union or be protected if they did. Such laws weren't enacted until 1935. With the industrial revolution in the late 1800s, workers who tried to organize a union were fired and “blacklisted” which made them unemployable. When workers did protest or strike, Courts ruled they engaged in a conspiracy to restrain trade and fined and jailed these “troublemakers”. To prevent the union organizing, the bosses required workers to sign “yellow-dog contracts” in which they promised not to join a union; and when there was union organizing Pinkerton Detectives were hired to infiltrate the organizing campaigns and inform on the troublemakers who were promptly fired. And when a Union organizing campaign got momentum, companies would “lockout” the workers and hire immigrants to replace the locked-out workers. In those days, protests and strikes by workers were greeted by local militia, Federal troops on horses, Pinkertons—all resulting in workers being killed, injured, arrested, fined or imprisoned. But in one particular case, the deaths were not in vain. And you, as Postal workers and members of the APWU, are direct beneficiaries.
There were some significant strikes in the 1920s not the least of which was by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1922. Clothing Workers from New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee went on a national strike. The strike was over one issue: Grievance and Arbitration. Piece rates were cut and workers wanted to have rates time studied along with the right to grieve and arbitrate the rates. That winter the strike went on for months until two women seamstresses in Chicago were shot dead in the snow by Pinkertons while they walked the picket line. With that, the owner of the largest suit maker in the country called for an end to the strike and all the suit makers agreed to give the Union Grievance and Arbitration. And in exchange, the Union agreed not to strike for the length of the contract. And no Union and its members have benefited more from what that strike stood for--arbitration-- then you, the members of the APWU!!!
I'm proud to say that I worked for the Amalgamated. In 1923 when you could only borrow money if you owned real estate, the Amalgamated opened the only surviving Union bank, The Amalgamated Bank, where if you had a job and a Union card, you could get a loan; and where today, the interest rate for a domestic auto is less than for an import. The Amalgamated also lifted its members out of multi-family tenement apartments and built housing for Union members including the Van Courtland Apartment Buildings and Co-op City in the Bronx.
There is never enough time or space to talk about the heroes of labor. Take the time to learn about A. Philip Randolph and the railroad workers, Cesar Chavez (who I was assigned to work for) and the farm workers, Walter Reuther, the first president of the United Auto Workers, Samuel Gompers and the Cigar Makers, the first Union to admit women members and John L. Lewis of the Mine Workers, who at negotiations had one word for the mine owners while he pounded his fist: MORE! MORE!