Social Security has become an indispensable part of the American social safety net, but it’s also something we often take for granted. Listen to Rick Smith tell the story of the day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Social Security into law, and what it has meant to Americans ever since.


On this day in Labor History the year was 1936.

That was the day that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law.

The act was a key piece of the President’s “New Deal” a series of federal programs responding to the ravages of the Great Depression.

Social Security would provide an income for retirees and the disabled, to ensure they did no slide into complete destitution.

On signing the bill, President Roosevelt, known for delivering memorable speeches, addressed the press.

He said, “Today, the hope of many years’ standing in large part fulfilled.  The civilization of the past hundred years, with its startling industrial changes, had tended more and more to make life insecure.  Young people have come to wonder what will their lot when they come to old age.  The man with a job has wondered how long that job will last.  This Social Security measure gives at least some protection to 50 million of our citizens who will reap direct benefits through unemployment compensation, through old age pensions, and through increased services for the protection of children and the prevention of ill health.”

He went on to say, “The law will flatten out the peaks and valleys of deflation and inflation. It is, in short, a law that will care of human needs and at the same time provide the United States an economic structure of vastly greater soundness.”

Over the past few decades, politicians, have increasingly sounded the alarm that Social Security will not remain viable as the large baby boomer generation retires and draws benefits.

Yet despite those who seek to attack Social Security, it remains a bedrock of the social safety net for millions of Americans.


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Click the play button to hear Rick Smith discuss “The Silent Parade” – a part of our history that you won’t find in many textbooks.


On this day in labor history, the year was 1917.

That was the day more than 10,000 African-Americans marched down New York City’s 5th Avenue in what is known as the Silent Parade.

The protest came in the aftermath of the July 2, East St. Louis race riot and a number of lynchings in Texas.

Organized by black scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson and the NAACP, the Silent Parade protested lynching and anti-black violence.

Children led the march, dressed in white.

Women, who were also dressed in white, followed them. Men dressed in dark suits, marched behind. It was considered the first major public protest of racial violence in the United States.

Alexis Newman describes the scene as the parade proceeded to Madison Square.

“The marchers carried banners and posters stating their reasons for the march. Both participants and onlookers remarked that this protest was unlike any other seen in the city and the nation. There were no chants, no songs, just silence.”

Some signs read, “Mother, Do Lynchers Go To Heaven?” and “Mr. President, Why Not Make America Safe For Democracy?”

Protesters hoped President Woodrow Wilson would make good on his election promises to promote rights for blacks.

But Wilson took no action. In fact, he opposed anti-lynching legislation and continued segregationist policies in federal offices.

In an editorial for The New York Age, James Weldon Johnson pointed out, “that their brothers and sisters, people just like them, were “Jim-Crowed” and segregated and disfranchised and oppressed and lynched and burned alive in this the greatest republic in the world, the great leader in the fight for democracy and humanity.”


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Click the link to hear Rick Smith discuss the corrupt and barbaric practice of convict leasing, which many scholars simply call “slavery by another name.”


On this day in labor history, the year was 1928.

That was the day the state of Alabama outlawed the convict lease system that had been in practice for decades.

Slave masters throughout the South had routinely loaned out enslaved people before slavery was finally abolished.

The convict lease system continued this practice, as the South worked to rebuild in a rush of rapid industrial growth after the Civil War.

African-Americans found themselves increasingly subject to sweeps by local and state authorities that coincided with harvest time or when labor agents arrived, looking to man the coalmines.

Many were convicted on trumped up charges and shipped off to prison.

Once there, they were leased to private industries and dispatched mostly to coal mines near Birmingham.

By 1890, the state profited $164,000 a year.

By 1912, prison mining brought in over $1 million in state revenues.

In the PBS documentary, Slavery By Another Name, Douglas Blackmon and other scholars note that prisoners could be driven in a way that earlier enslaved workers and free labor couldn’t.

Convict labor served to depress wages, curtail union activity, organizing and strikes.

These workers could also be worked practically to death and easily replaced.

Progressive reformers, Socialist Party leaders and UMW District 20 would wage an unrelenting war against the convict lease system for years.

Even the 1911 Banner Mine explosion that killed 123 African American prisoners couldn’t outlaw the practice.

Finally, newly elected Governor Bibb Graves yielded to the public outcry that condemned the practice as a relic of barbarism.

He also ceded to workers demands for jobs.

Graves subsequently put prisoners to work on chain gangs building roads throughout the state, making Alabama the last state to abolish the convict lease system.


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When Timothy McVeigh was arrested in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, a copy of the racist novel The Turner Diaries was found among his things. The book spins a tale about a violent revolution and the overthrow of the US government, and the eventual mass murder and systemic execution of any and all non-white people. The book published in 1978, and has since become required reading for hate groups, and has also become the source of an uncountable number of violent acts.

Today, The Turner Diaries pales in comparison to right wing media, whether it’s the diet white nationalism of Fox News, or the full flavored hate of NewsMax, OAN, and their copycats.

It can be argued rather easily that today’s right wing hate machine is far more popular, and far more accessible than ever before. While copies of The Turner Diaries were carried under jackets and tucked away in backpacks, Tucker Carlson and his ilk are openly available in every living room in America, during prime time, no less. Attacking the military, railing against the existence of government, whitewashing a violent insurrection … all spewing the same lies,  and all on the same page. All hiding behind a free speech argument that none of them actually understand.

If we ignore the open incitement that has become the standard script for right wing outlets, then we risk the inevitable consequences. And when those consequences come, the most likely response will be to say the perpetrators are just patriotic Americans doing what patriotic Americans do. Or at least that’s how Tucker will spin it.

This is not a prediction we enjoy making. But the rage machine is making McVeighs every minute, and our tolerance for it is permission. Again, this is an “I told you so” that we hope to never deliver, as we want nothing more than to be wrong about this.

But we’re not.


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Through the years, legislators of both parties have created and supported laws that hurt working people. But in American history, few laws have done more damage than the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Click the link to hear Rick Smith tell the story:


On this day in labor history, the year was 1947.

That was the day the despised Taft-Hartley Act became law.

It was a direct retaliatory response to the 1946 post-war strike wave, where millions walked off the job after waiting years for basic demands.

The labor movement mobilized against the slave labor bill through numerous rallies.

The AFL joined the CIO in threatening 24-hour strikes across whole industries in protest, as the bill wound its way through Congress.

11,000 soft coal miners in Pennsylvania walked out in a spontaneous protest strike earlier in the month.

The bill passed over the veto of President Harry S. Truman, who would invoke it a dozen times over the course of his presidency.

Many union leaders hailed Truman as a friend of labor for his 11thhour veto.

Labor party advocates were incensed that of 219 congressional Democrats, 126 voted in favor of the bill.

Practically overnight, the labor movement had been pushed back 25 years.

Taft-Hartley was nothing short of disastrous for the American labor movement.

With the stroke of a pen, the Act criminalized many of the actions key to historic union victories in the thirties and forties.

Jurisdictional strikes, secondary boycotts, solidarity strikes, closed shops and mass picketing were just a few of the most basic trade union activities now outlawed.

The Act helped fire the first shots of the McCarthy Red Scare by mandating that union officers file non-Communist affidavits with the government, later found to be unconstitutional.

The Act also provided the ammunition needed to strangle strikes by empowering the president to easily acquire strikebreaking injunctions.

And it allowed for the rapid growth of right-to-work laws at the state level.

The union movement has suffered ever since.


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It’s difficult to believe that, in the land of the free, a person can go to jail for giving a speech, and an anti-war speech at that. But that’s what happened. Click the video below and read along as Rick Smith tells the story:


On this day in labor history, the year was 1918.

That was the day Eugene V. Debs, leader of the Socialist Party gave his legendary anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio.

It was the speech for which he would eventually be arrested, tried and convicted under the Espionage Act.

Though he avoided explicitly criticizing World War I or President Wilson, he made clear his views.

He gave the speech at a park near the jail where Charles Baker, Charles Ruthenberg and Alfred Wagenknecht, three prominent socialists, were being held on Espionage Act related charges.

Debs noted, “it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.”

Debs was defiant.

He unloaded his rage against the judicial system and the conviction of Socialist leader Kate Richards O’Hare for her anti-war views.

He railed against the suppression of Max Eastman’s Socialist press and the ongoing persecution of Socialists Tom Mooney and William Billings.

Debs briefly reviewed the history of wars in Europe and made the following observation:

“The master class has always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war… the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace…”

For this he was convicted of advocating disloyalty and draft resistance and sentenced to 10 years in prison.


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On this day in labor history, the year was 1917.

That was the day the Granite Mountain and Speculator Mines in Butte, Montana caught fire, killing 168 miners.

It is considered the worst underground hard-rock mining disaster in the nation’s history.

Just weeks after the United States had entered World War I, the demand for copper had surged.

Granite Mountain, like many of the nation’s mines, operated around the clock to meet war production needs.

In his book, Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917, Michael Punke notes the irony of the disaster, which began as an effort to improve safety.

A sprinkler system had just been installed.

The final task was the relocation of an electrical cable.

The cable was insulated with oil-soaked cloth, sheathed in lead.

Workers lost control of the three-ton cable as they lowered it into the mine and it fell to the bottom of the shaft.

Carrying a commonly used carbide-burning lamp, the night shift foreman accidently ignited the cable as he planned its removal.

The conflagration was virtually immediate and burned for more than three days.

At the time, 415 miners were at work on the overnight shift.

Smoke and gases quickly filled both mines.

With no alarm system in place, those that could not escape succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning.

In 1996, a memorial plaza was dedicated to those who lost their lives.

It details a slice of Butte’s mining and labor history that culminated in tragedy.


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On this day in labor history, the year was 1921.

That was the day one of the worst race riots in American history began in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In a frenzy of anti-black violence, a white mob destroyed virtually the entire black neighborhood of Greenwood.

Over the course of two days, as many as 300, mostly black residents were killed. ‘Black Wall Street’ had been burned to the ground, leaving 10,000 homeless.

The day before, Dick Rowland, a young black man tripped as he boarded an elevator at his job.

He fell against the young white woman elevator operator.

When she shrieked, nearby department store employees assumed she had been assaulted.

Rowland was arrested and newspapers fanned the flames of race violence and vigilantism.

On this day, white racist mobs surrounded the Tulsa County Courthouse where Rowland was being held and demanded he be turned over to them.

Returning black veterans had become increasingly assertive about their rights as citizens.

They marched to the courthouse, armed in an attempt to prevent Rowland’s lynching.

When the vets refused to disarm in the face of demands by the white mob, gunfire ensued, touching off 16 hours of fighting that literally decimated the community black workers and professionals had built up over the course of decades.

The National Guard was called out, mainly to disarm and round up black residents of Greenwood. Witnesses reported that Greenwood was bombed from the air by police and by Sinclair Oil company planes.

The history of the riot was buried for more than half a century.

It would take until 1997 for the Oklahoma State Legislature to set up a commission to uncover the bloody details, produce a 200 plus page report and recommend millions in reparations.


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The argument is simple: large segments of the US working population once belonged to unions. In those unions, we found power, but we also found community. And while a lot of attention has been paid to the power we lost as union membership declined, we have spent much less time talking about how we lost that sense of togetherness, that sense of solidarity that unions provided. And what has replaced that community, in many cases, has been a dangerous form of right-wing conspiracy worship in the form of militia membership, Qanon, and anti-government lunacy in a variety of forms.

Historian Kevin Gannon, who many remember from the Netflix documentary 13thjoined The Rick Smith Show to talk about how this happened, beginning with those who could have fought it, should have fought it, but mostly chose to sit it out, and how that choice was perceived:

Rick: “[Workers] want somebody who they perceive is going to fight for them, even if it’s the wrong fight.”

Rick: “If there’s a street fight, [the Democrats] will offer to hold your coat. Maybe. I want somebody who’s gonna ball up their digits and get in there and mix it up.”

Kevin: “The Democrats stopped fighting for them because the Democrats have stopped fighting for the working class … period.”

Kevin continued, turning to the subject of how the right co-opted those old coalitions and transformed them into a population that now votes for the very people who have been taking power away from working people for generations:

Kevin: “[The] working class […] is the most powerful multi-racial coalition in this country and when you have white workers who […] feel alienated and are committed to having somebody fight for them and then the right says “We’ll fight for you because you’re white,” well, you’re still fighting for me, so all the potential that is embedded in working-class politics and good progressive union-oriented working-class politics has been co-opted for the last several decades.”

Rick: “[T]his is where unions served a real purpose. It brought people together. It got people to join into a common interest and that common interest is better wages, hours, conditions, better opportunities for our families, better communities. That was the what drew us together and as Republican policy – and some Democratic policy […] Democrats were responsible for the destruction of unions too – destroyed the union’s ability to bring people together, those people sought other things out. And that’s how you end up with the Q-kooks and all these right-wing militia groups and all of this insanity that’s out there.”

While no one argues that this is the entire reason for the rise of the conspiracy culture we now live in, none can argue that this is not a significant factor in how we ended up where we are today. It’s an important discussion, and one that isn’t going away any time soon.

To hear the rest of Rick and Kevin’s conversation, the podcast is available below:


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On this day in labor history, the year was 1863.

That was the day the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry marched through the streets of Boston in a farewell parade and then boarded ships headed for Beaufort, South Carolina.

Thousands lined the streets for the send off, including prominent abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass.

It was the first Black regiment organized to fight in the Civil War.

Abolitionists had wrestled with Lincoln and others that the Civil War wasn’t just about preventing national disintegration but about ending the slave labor system.

They were emphatic that slaves and free black men had a right and a vested interest in fighting for their freedom and the freedom of their families.

Finally the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 codified that demand as it abolished the slave system.

The Union Army began accepting black enlistees and embarked on recruitment campaigns to enlist future black soldiers.

By May, over 1000 black men had enlisted from 24 states.

Others came from as far away as Canada and the Caribbean.

Fathers and sons enlisted together.

The Union Army was far from free of its own anti-black prejudices.

Secretary of War Edward Stanton determined white officers would lead all black regiments.

Nonetheless, black enlisted men were trained, armed and ready to fight.

A young Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was put in charge of the regiment.

Though Shaw and hundreds of troops would soon be killed in battle at Fort Wagner, the regiment forced the Confederacy to abandon the Fort altogether.

The “Swamp Angels” as they were called, would continue to exact justice throughout the South for the duration of the war.

They served as a model for other black regiments, whose fighting proved decisive for victory.


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