Monday marked the 60th anniversary of the NLRB election that brought Local 123, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, into UE. UE Director of Organization Robert Kirkwood called it “one of [UE’s] most significant organizational victories since the Union was split in 1949.”
Labor and Working-Class History
Seventy-five years ago, the labor movement suffered its greatest setback of the 20th Century: the Taft-Hartley Act.
Despite a valiant effort by millions of rank-and-file workers to prevent its passage, Taft-Hartley became law on June 23, 1947 when the Senate overrode President Truman’s veto. Taft-Hartley halted what had been a remarkable decade of progress for working people, tamed union militancy, and set the stage for the long decline of the U.S. labor movement. We are still feeling its effects today.
In the 1930s, as rank-and-file workers in the electrical manufacturing industry were establishing UE in workplaces like the giant General Electric plant in Erie, PA (Local 506) and Sargent Lock in New Haven, CT (Local 243), a union with a similar “Them and Us” philosophy of unionism was building militant, interracial unions in iron ore mines in an area known as “Red Mountain” near Birmingham, Alabama.
September 5 marks the 75th anniversary of a National Labor Relations Board election that took place at the China American Tobacco Company in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. It was the first NLRB victory in eastern North Carolina for the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers of America (FTA-CIO), part of a campaign that would bring nearly 10,000 tobacco “leaf house” workers, most of them African-American women, into unions.
Decades before the modern LGBTQ+ movement, a small but militant union of maritime workers on the West Coast with openly gay members and leaders coined a slogan linking discrimination against gay men, racial discrimination, and red-baiting. For the better part of two decades, the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union fought discrimination on the ships where its members worked and in society, until it was crushed by the same corporate and government forces that tried to destroy UE during the Cold War.
In their attacks on President Biden’s much-needed proposals to invest in physical and human infrastructure, the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, many Republican politicians have derided applying the term “infrastructure” to programs that support working families. They dismiss child care, elder care and paid family leave as “liberal social programs” as opposed to the “real infrastructure” of buildings, roads, and bridges.
The experience of UE members during World War II, when millions of women took jobs in manufacturing, tells a different story.
Working-Class Heroes: A History of Struggle in Song, by Mat Callahan and Yvonne Moore is a collection of pre-WWII labor songs. The lively, contemporary arrangements are a reminder that these songs were written to bring the union message to other workers in the popular styles of the day. They were part of the organizing process — many of the songwriters featured on this album, like textile worker Ella May Wiggins and tenant farmer John Handcox, were active leaders in their union, and numerous choruses simply urge the listener to join the union or a picket line.
In Can the Working Class Change the World? economist and labor educator Michael Yates makes the case that the working class — and only the working class — can indeed overcome economic inequality, eliminate racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination, and meet the challenge of environmental degradation and climate change. Historian Erik Loomis’s A History of America in Ten Strikes is an original and engaging way to re-learn U.S. history through the lens of working-class struggle.
Fifty years ago, African-American sanitation workers in Memphis stood up for dignity, striking to demand recognition of their union — and their humanity.
An unexpected commotion disrupted routine in a busy city center on an April morning one hundred years ago. Armed men commandeered the main post office in a major city in the world’s most powerful empire. One of their leaders interrupted the musings and conversations of those going about their business by reading out a proclamation declaring an Irish Republic.
The Easter Rising of 1916 was underway.