On this day in Labor History the year was 1926.

That was the day that one of the great labor leaders in U.S. history, Eugene V. Debs, died in Elmhurst, Illinois.

In 1894, Debs gained national attention when his American Railway Union launched a boycott in support of the striking workers of Pullman Palace Car Company.

The strike and the boycott were crushed by federal troops and a federal court.

Debs served six months in jail for his role in the boycott.

Later Debs again would go to jail for standing up for his beliefs.

He was convicted for speaking out against U.S. involvement in World War I.

He was among the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905.

He ran as a Socialist for President of the United States five times, receiving nearly a million votes running his campaign from a prison cell in 1920.

In 1891 Debs wrote an article for the Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine titled “The Unity of Labor”

His words stand as an eloquent case for worker solidarity.

Debs wrote, “If workingmen were united in sympathetic bonds…if a bricklayer could comprehend the fact that he is dependent on the hod carrier;

if the locomotive engineer could grasp the fact that he is dependent on the locomotive fireman…

the interdependence of labor would at once constitute a bond of union, a chain whose links, forged and fashioned to hold workingmen in harmonious alliance, would girt them with a defense in every time of trouble and resist invasion, though assailed by all the plutocrats that ever cursed the earth.”

Debs spent his life trying to bring about this “harmonious alliance” of working people, and standing up for the causes of peace and justice.


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On this day in Labor History the year was 1919.

That was the day that began the Elaine Massacre.

The massacre took place in Arkansas, where more than 100 black farmers and sharecroppers were gunned down for daring to organize their labor.

The Year before, a black farmer by the name of Robert L. Hill had founded the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America.

Union members pooled their money to purchase land.

They also hired a lawyer to sue planters who did not give black tenant cotton farmers their fair share of the profits.

The group grew in membership in the Arkansas delta region, including near the town of Elaine in Philips County.

But white landowners would not allow this challenge to their power.

Armed white militias came to a church where the union was holding a meeting.

The black attendees were also armed.

Gunfire broke out.

In response, white posses and federal troops unleashed a wave of terror across Philips County.

Hundreds of black residents were arrested.

At least 100 black Arkansans were killed.

Some estimates of those murdered is considerably higher.

Five white people also died.

122 black men and women were charged with murder.

Twelve were given the death sentence.

No white vigilante was ever charged.

The convicted African Americans appealed their cases.

One appeal for six of the defendants went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where it was overturned in a landmark ruling.

The year of 1919 was one of the deadliest years of violence against African Americans in U.S. history.

Civil Rights activist James Weldon Johnson called those bloody months the “Red Summer.”

Twenty-six race riots left thousands of African Americans homeless and hundreds dead from Chicago to Washington D.C. to Omaha.


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On this day in Labor History the year was 1985.

That was the year that the first Farm Aid concert was held in Champaign, Illinois.

A retrospective article in Time magazine reported, “In the 1980s, American farmers were hit hard by what were, at the time, the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression.  Droughts ravaged the fields, property values plunged, loan interest rates soared, thousands were forced off their land and faced foreclosure and bankruptcy.”

Farmer suicides rose at alarming rates.

The idea to use music to aid the farmers began with Bob Dylan at an event to help African famine victims.

Then, musicians Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young took up his idea and ran with it.

Fifty musicians took the stage at the University of Illinois football stadium.

The organizers were joined by such headliners as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Bonnie Raitt, Kenny Rogers, Joni Mitchel, the Beach Boys, Jimmy Buffet, Bon Jovi, Foreigner, and more.

The musicians played for fourteen hours to a rain-soaked crowd of nearly 80,000.

A telethon also helped to bring in donations.

It raised $9 million for farm relief.

More importantly it helped raise national awareness of the dire economic conditions faced by many small farmers.

Farm Aid has continued to hold concerts for small farmers.

In 2015 the thirtieth anniversary concert was held in Chicago.

As an organization Farm Aid has raised more than $50 million for small farmers.


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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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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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