FlashPoints in Labor History

by Paul Schaefer, Secretary-Treasurer, Local 881

Our Labor family is responsible for many things we take for granted; workers’ rights, the abolition of child labor, workplace safety regulations, and equal pay for equal work. But it was not without a fight! Read about some of the jaw-dropping moments and figures in Labor History which are worth reflecting on.

1871

MOTHER JONES

Labor Trailblazer Mother Jones Leading a Union Protest

No stranger to hardship, Mary Harris Jones survived the Irish Potato Famine, lost her entire family to yellow fever,  and watched her home and dressmaking business go up in flames in the Great Chicago Fire. As the city rebuilt, Jones began her work within the Labor Movement. She dedicated the rest of her life to the fight for workers. She fought fiercely for coal miners and railroad workers and especially for children, even into her late 90’s.

Jones organized strikes, marched alongside miners, welcomed African Americans, women, and children in strikes, and spoke out against unjust working conditions. Those in power called her dangerous, for how successfully she organized workers, and the workers called her Mother because of the way she cared for those she helped.

A true Labor legend, she said to men who were hesitant to fight “I have been in jail more than once and I expect to go again. If you are too cowardly to fight, I will fight.” 

1911

TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FIRE

Many Women Who Died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 Were Young Immigrants

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a deadly fire broke out on the upper floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City.  

Firefighters tried their best to help the workers, but they were unable to reach the top floors in time because of the short height of their ladders. The owners horrifically had locked the fire escape doors.  Within a half an hour, 146 workers—mostly young women— were killed either trapped by smoke and flames or from jumping to their deaths to escape. 

The next morning throughout New York’s garment district over 15,000 shirtwaist workers walked out, effectively shutting down the garment industry. The workers demanded a 20% pay raise, a 52-hour workweek, safer conditions, and overtime pay. 

The struggle and spirit of the women strikers caught the attention of many! Other workers followed their lead and this tragedy paved the way for modern worker safety laws and protections.

1984

JEWEL CUTS WAGES!

UFCW Local 881 Union Members Protesting Jewel Corporate

In 1984, Local 881 faced its own fierce Labor battle. Shortly after ratifying a new contract, Jewel asked for wage concessions to be made, citing fierce competition within the grocery industry. The Union of course refused. 

Jewel went ahead and unilaterally and illegally enacted drastic wage cuts in direct violation of the contract. They cut as much as $1.25 an hour for workers.

Local 881 fought back. The Union immediately filed charges against Jewel and the company counter filed. Within 48 hours the Union held a member meeting with over 2,800 members in attendance. Members volunteered for picket lines and trained to help with the crisis. 

After a long 18-month battle in federal court, the Union won the judgement and ultimately restored the wage rates and back pay for the affected 15,000 members.

What can we learn from the past?

Ron Powell, our longest serving Local 881 President, had these words for Union members shortly after the crisis in 1984: 

We must never grow complacent. We should never take for granted the things we have, especially those that we have fought long and hard to obtain. There will always be people waiting in the wings to try taking these things away from us, or to keep us from acquiring them in the first place. That means we must always be ready and willing to fight! Not only for the things we want and deserve, but to protect those we already have.”