News & Events

Leaders in American labor history: part one

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
January/February 2006 Edition

The following are profiles of some of the most prominent labor leaders in American history. They have varied backgrounds and represent diverse workers, industries and workplaces. But they all shared a burning desire and life-long commitment to activism, equality, and social and economic justice—as well as a belief in the dignity of all workers.

Often they were controversial figures, but they all dedicated their lives to helping working men and women, usually at great personal sacrifice and expense, up to and including their own lives.

They are great examples and inspirations for those who struggle for equality, justice and economic well-being today. Too little is taught in our schools about the rich history and figures of labor history, and the topic is almost never highlighted in the media or celebrated in popular culture. What follows is a meager attempt to address that vacuum.

Mother Jones
Born Mary Harris Jones (Aug. 1, 1837 – Nov. 30, 1930) better known as Mother Jones, was a prominent labor and community organizer. She has become known as “The Grandmother of All Agitators.” Mother Jones rose to prominence as a fiery orator and fearless organizer for the mine workers during the first two decades of the 20th century. Her voice had great carrying power. She felt so strongly about the labor movement that she once said, “The labor movement was not originated by man. The labor movement, my friends, was a command from God Almighty.”
Her energy and passion inspired men half her age into action and compelled their wives and daughters to join in the struggle. She welcomed African American workers and involved women and children in strikes. She organized miners’ wives into teams armed with mops and brooms to guard the mines against scabs. She staged parades with children carrying signs that read, “We want to go to school and not to the mines.”

In her 80s, Mother Jones settled down near Washington, D.C., but she continued to travel across the country. In 1924, although unable to hold a pen between her fingers, she made her last strike appearance in Chicago in support of striking dressmakers—hundreds of whom were arrested and black-listed during their ill fated, four-month struggle. She died at the age of 94 in Silver Spring, Md., and was buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Ill. Her most memorable and celebrated quote? “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living!”

John Sweeney
President of the AFL-CIO since 1995, Sweeney was also a past president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Born in the Bronx in 1934 to Irish immigrant parents, he attended union meetings with his father from an early age. He worked as a grave-digger and building porter (when he first joined a union) to pay his tuition at Iona College where he earned a degree in economics.

Sweeney initially worked at IBM but took a huge pay cut to take a position as a researcher with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. He eventually took a position with SEIU and became president of the large New York City SEIU Local 32B where he aggressively led the union to win contracts with significant wage and benefit increases for maintenance workers. As SEIU president, the union grew to a one million members in 1993?the first union to do so in over 20 years.

He is also recognized for working on behalf of the poorest and least powerful segments of the work force. He pushed for rapid expansion into new sectors and base areas, including office and health care workers. Under Sweeney, the union began pushing for stronger federal laws in the area of health and safety, sexual harassment, and civil and immigrant rights. It also advocated for legally-mandated paid family leave, health care reform and a raise in the minimum wage.

Internally, Sweeney devoted nearly a third of the union’s budget to organizing new members and pushed for stronger diversity in the union’s ranks. In 1995 he led a “New Voice” slate of candidates—with aggressive agendas—to win elections as heads of the AFL-CIO. He challenged labor to major reforms, including: a major expansion of the federation’s role in organizing; hiring and training thousands of new organizers; union “summer programs” that employed college students; creating a Center for Strategic Campaigns to coordinate all national contract campaigns; creating a Strike Support Team of organizers that could be deployed to help support strikes; called for a modification of labor’s political tactics and withdrawal of support for Democrats who did not support labor’s agenda; and an expansion of the political activities of the state federations and central labor councils.

Sweeney also called for internal changes in the federation to insure more women and minority representation. His tenure as head of the AFL-CIO has accomplished much, but there has been continued decline in the percentage of organized workers in the US. In 2005 a group of unions disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO to create The Change to Win Coalition—a new labor federation aimed at organizing aggressively to reverse this trend of declining numbers.

Sweeney, the author of “America Needs A Raise: Fighting for Economic Security and Social Justice,” recently said, “We believe hard work nourishes the soul and should nourish the body and support the family as well. We believe every one of us has an equal claim to the prosperity of America. And that it’s our job to ensure a better life for the generations that come after us.”

A. Philip Randolph
April 15, 1889 – May 16, 1979. Born in Crescent City, Fla., A. Philip Randolph was the son of an ordained minister and a skilled seamstress. He excelled in school and traveled to New York City to seek employment.

While there, Randolph took classes in economics and philosophy at City College. As a writer and editor of the black magazine The Messenger (later, The Black Worker), which he helped to found, Randolph became interested in the labor movement. He unsuccessfully ran for political office in New York, but in 1917 he organized a small union of elevator operators in New York City.

He was involved in organizing black workers in laundries, clothes factories and cinemas and eventually became president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP). Over the next few years he built it into the first successful black trade union despite the Pullman Company’s bitter and vicious opposition. At that time, the Pullman Company was the one of the most powerful business organizations in the country. After years of bitter struggle, it finally began to negotiate with the Brotherhood in 1935, and agreed to a contract with them in 1937.

Randolph eventually won recognition for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, with pay increases and shorter hours. He understood that, “Nothing counts but pressure, pressure, more pressure, and still more pressure through broad organized aggressive mass action.” An untiring fighter for civil rights, he organized the 1941 March on Washington Movement in protest against job discrimination and racial discrimination in the armed forces. This movement, although it did not culminate in a march, is credited with hastening the establishment of the Fair Employment Act of 1941 during World War II. It was the first federal law to prohibit employment discrimination in the United States.

Randolph was also one of the most prominent leaders in the fight against segregation in the armed forces. Throughout his long career, he consistently kept the interests of black workers at the forefront of the racial agenda. According to Randolph, “A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess.”

Walter Reuther
Reuther was born in Wheeling, W.Va. in 1907. He attended Wayne State University in Detroit. At the age of 29, he was elected president of his Local 174 of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and rose to become one of the most influential labor leaders of the century as a reform-minded, liberal and responsible trade unionist.

He is considered the leading labor intellectual of his age, and a champion of industrial democracy and civil rights who used the collective bargaining process and labor’s political influence to advance the cause of social justice for all Americans. Reuther had a passion and personal commitment to civil rights, social and economic justice.

He also firmly believed that the impact of unions must reach beyond their own membership bases. This belief led him to become an advisor to presidents and instrumental in the passage of civil rights legislation and in developing programs for President Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” He helped get passed through Congress increases in social security payments, which benefited millions of people who were not union members.

Reuther also helped finance through the UAW the Freedom Marches in Detroit and Washington, including the 1963 march where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. As leader of the UAW he led strikes and organized workers to win the members unprecedented gains in their working lives, including financial benefits, pensions, vacations, increased job security and supplemental unemployment benefits. He prided himself in the fact that he was the lowest paid union president in the country.

During World War II, Reuther had the foresight to propose that auto plants be converted to produce aircraft for the war effort with a goal of producing 500 aircraft daily. He was the target of kidnappers and assassins on a number of occasions, suffering permanent arm damage from a shotgun blast in 1948. He pioneered organizing internationally to deal with multi-national corporations decades in advance of the hyper-globalization that is occurring today. And finally, Reuther was an ardent advocate of worker education and to that end established an education center in Black Lake, Mich.

He and his wife were tragically killed in an airplane accident while flying to the education center in 1970, but Reuther’s philosophy on labor and activism has endured: “There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. And there is no greater satisfaction than to have done it well.”

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
Flynn, known as “Rebel Girl,” was a union organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW). She was born in 1890 and raised in poverty in New Hampshire and the South Bronx. At an early age she became interested in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights; attended political meetings; and became active in the IWW.

Later Flynn organized immigrant workers and helped to lead major strikes in the mills of Lawrence, Mass. and with silk workers in Paterson and Passaic, N.J. She was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union and was active in the campaign against the conviction of Nicola Sacco and Bartolemeo Vanzetti.
Flynn was also fiercely committed to the struggle for women’s rights and criticized the unions’ leadership for being male dominated and not responsive to women’s issues. Later in life she was convicted and spent time in a federal penitentiary for her political beliefs. She died in 1964.

Flynn’s personal philosophy is summarized with the following quote: “What is a labor victory? I maintain that it is a twofold thing. Workers must gain economic advantage, but they must also gain revolutionary spirit, in order to achieve a complete victory. For workers to gain a few cents more a day, a few minutes less a day, and go back to work with the same psychology, the same attitude toward society is to achieve a temporary gain and not a lasting victory.”

Lucy Parsons
Lucy Parsons was an African, Native and Mexican-American revolutionary anarchist and labor activist during late 19th and 20th century America. Emerging out of the Chicago Haymarket affair of 1886, in which eight anarchists were imprisoned or hung for their beliefs, Lucy Parsons led tens of thousands of workers into the streets in mass protests across the country.

Defying both racial and gender discrimination, she was at the forefront of movements for social justice her entire life. She sparked rebellion and discontent among poor and exploited workers wherever she spoke and her fiery, powerful orations invoked fear in authority nationwide. The Chicago Police Department termed her “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.”

After almost 50 years of continuous activism, Parsons died in a fire in her Chicago home in 1942. Viewed as a threat to the political order in death as well as life, her personal papers and books were seized by the police from the gutted house. More than 60 years after her death, one of her most recognized quotes still rings true: “Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to vote away their wealth.”