News & Events

Leaders in American labor history: part two

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
March 2006 Edition

The following is the second part of a very selective list of some of the key 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.

Cesar Chavez
Cesar Estrada Chavez founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) union. He was born in Arizona in 1927 and became a migrant farmer at the age of 10 along with the rest of his family. He served in the U.S. Navy and, when on leave in California, he sat in a white section of a racially segregated movie theatre and refused to move.

This action foreshadowed his life-long commitment to civil rights and to work nonviolently for social change. He worked as an organizer for the Latino civil rights group called Community Services Organization, and eventually became its director. He later founded the National Farm Workers Association which became the UFW.

Chavez understood the importance of symbols as he designed the UFW’s black and red flag, explaining that, “A symbol is an important thing. That is why we chose an Aztec eagle. It gives pride. When people see it they know it means dignity.” The eagle had intentionally squared off wing edges so that it would be easier for union members to draw them on handmade flags. He attained national prominence in 1965 by launching a strike for California grape-pickers and a national boycott of grapes that lasted five years. By 1975, a Louis Harris poll showed 17 million American adults were honoring the grape boycott. It forced growers to support then California Governor Jerry Brown’s collective bargaining law for farm workers, the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act. This led to the first major labor victory for migrant farm workers in the US. He continued to use organizing tactics such as pickets and consumer boycotts of grapes and lettuce in following years but also added personal suffering through hunger strikes to focus attention on migrant workers’ causes. He also protested the use of toxic pesticides on grapes. He was successful in signing collective bargaining agreements that improved migrant farm workers’ lives. In 1966, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Service Center, Inc. (NFWSC), a California non-profit corporation. The Service Center builds and preserves quality affordable housing in concentrated Latino and underserved communities. Additionally, the NFWSC is dedicated to creating healthy communities and brings critical amenities and social services such as English language classes, after-school mentoring, homework assistance, computer labs and healthy aging programs for seniors to every housing project. The organization also bridges community ties through the airwaves by operating the popular Radio Campesina network. The network includes nine Spanish-language stations that bring news and educational programming on a variety of topical issues critical to the daily lives of its listeners. He had a passion for education despite his negative childhood experiences in segregated schools. This was seen in his office in UFW headquarters, which was lined with books ranging from philosophy to economics, labor history and biographies of Gandhi and Robert Kennedy. He believed that, “The end of all education should surely be service to others.” He died in 1993. March 31 is celebrated in California, Texas, Arizona and Colorado as a public holiday in his honor —the first in the United States in honor of a Mexican-American and a labor leader. Robert Kennedy called him “one of the heroic figures of our time.” He was also awarded the Medal of Freedom posthumously by President Clinton. Chavez never lost focus, saying that “the fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.”

Joe Hill
Joe Hill was born in Sweden in 1879. He immigrated to the United States in 1902 and worked as a migrant laborer moving across the country from New York and eventually to San Francisco.

Hill joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1910 while working on the docks. He became an organizer for the IWW and traveled writing labor songs and poems as he organized workers. He was arrested for murder in Utah and was tried, convicted and executed by firing squad on Nov. 19, 1915—all based on faulty evidence. The state of Utah years later admitted that he should not have been executed based on the evidence of that trial. Hill’s last words were “Don’t mourn for me–ORGANIZE!” And in speaking those words he became more famous in death than he had been in life.

Prior to his execution, Hill wrote the following to Bill Haywood, the former president of the Western Federation of Miners and the best-known leader of the IWW: “Goodbye Bill. I die like a true rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning, organize! It is a hundred miles from here to Wyoming. Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.”

Apparently Hill did die like a rebel. A member of the firing squad at his execution claimed that the command to “Fire!” had come from Hill himself.

Joe Hill is remembered for his devotion to union organizing and his many clever song lyrics, some of which continue to be sung today, including, “I have nothing to say for myself, only that I have always tried to make this earth a little bit better.”

Linda Chavez-Thompson
The daughter of sharecroppers, Chavez-Thompson worked as an agricultural laborer before joining the labor union, eventually rising through the ranks of the AFL-CIO to become the first person of color, and the first woman, elected to be the Executive Vice-President of the AFL-CIO in 1995.

She was born in Lubbock, Texas in 1944. Chavez-Thompson began her trade union career in 1967 when she joined the Laborers’ International Union and served as the secretary for the union’s Lubbock local, where she began to learn the workings of the labor movement. As the only Spanish-speaking official, she also served as a union representative for the Hispanic American members.

In 1971, Chavez-Thompson went to work for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and held many positions. She became responsible for advancing legislative, political action, and education programs as well as conducting every level of grievance procedures for membership representation within AFSCME. The position of the public employee was frustrating to Chavez-Thompson because unlike the Laborers, public workers in Texas did not have a contract spelling out work rules and pay rates. Chavez-Thompson began to work with these new members. “The public employees didn’t have anybody except me to help them,” she explained. “Then a strange thing happened: I began to love this thing called public employees/public sector.”

Chavez-Thompson became business manager of AFSCME Local 2399 in San Antonio and went on to become the founding executive director of Texas State Council 42. She was elected AFSCME International vice president in 1988. In 1994 she was asked to run on the New Voice slate to reform and invigorate the AFL-CIO, and won the position of executive vice president.

As the third-ranking leader of the AFL-CIO, she continues to work on forging closer ties between the union movement and women and other minorities and to increase the union’s general membership. She is undertaking legislative and educational programs to help the rank and file in its fight against downsizing, budget cuts, and companies that contract out to nonunion sources. Chavez-Thompson brings to the labor movement the perspective of a woman who has worked low-paying, low status, back-breaking jobs. Her labor-minded perspective is summed up in the following quote: “Together, we can create a community where [all are] treated with dignity, regardless of their sex or skin color or orientation, regardless of whether their family came here on a slave ship or the Mayflower four hundred years ago or through Ellis Island at the turn of the century or from Central America last year.”

Karen Silkwood
Karen Silkwood was a union activist in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW). She worked as a chemical technician at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant near Crescent, Oklahoma. She was elected to the union’s bargaining committee in 1974, as the first woman committee member in Kerr-McGee history. She focused on health and safety concerns at the plant, specifically worker exposure to plutonium—a known carcinogen. Silkwood herself had tested positive for plutonium contamination.

She died in a single car crash on her way to meet with a New York Times reporter to deliver documents and evidence of Kerr-McGee’s production of faulty fuel rods and falsified production inspection records. There was much suspicion surrounding the events leading to her death—including the possibility of her intentionally being forced off the road (there were suspicious dents on the back of her car and no documents were found with her)—but nothing was ever substantiated.
Ultimately, her family settled out of court and Kerr-McGee did not admit liability in the settlement.

In her life, Silkwood raised real issues of worker safety and corporate accountability and responsibility. Ultimately, there was a federal investigation into plant security and safety at Kerr-McGee and reports of 44-66 pounds of misplaced plutonium. The plant closed in 1975.

Dolores Huerta
Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers (“The UFW’s Grand Lady of Steel”), labor leader, organizer and social activist, was born in 1930 in New Mexico. Her parents divorced when she was very young, and she was raised by her mother in Stockton, California, with the active help of her grandfather, Herculano Chavez.

Her mother ran a restaurant and then a hotel, where Huerta helped out as she grew older. She also kept in touch with her father about his struggles to make a living as a migrant laborer and coal miner. His union activity helped inspire her to work with a Hispanic self-help association.

Huerta became involved in a community group supporting farm workers that merged with the AFL-CIO’s Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), where she served as secretary-treasurer. It was during this time that she met Cesar Chavez, and then formed with him the Farm Workers Association, which eventually became the United Farm Workers (UFW).

Huerta served a key role in the early years of farm worker organizing, though she has only recently been given full credit for this. Among other contributions was her work as the coordinator for East Coast efforts in the table grape boycott, 1968-69, which helped to win recognition for the farm workers’ union. She stated, “I think we brought to the world, or the United States anyway, the whole idea of boycotting as a nonviolent tactic. I think we showed the world that nonviolence can work to make social change.”

In the 1970s Huerta headed up the farm workers’ union’s political arm and helped lobby for legislative protections. In 1988, while demonstrating peacefully against the policies of candidate George Bush, she was severely injured when police clubbed the demonstrators. She eventually won a considerable financial settlement from the police, as well as changes in police policy on handling demonstrations. After her recovery from this life-threatening attack, Huerta returned to working for the farm workers’ union.

Cesar Chavez once described Huerta’s driven character as “totally fearless, both mentally and physically.”

In 1993 Huerta was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. That same year she received the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Roger Baldwin Medal of Liberty Award; the Eugene V. Debs Foundation Outstanding American Award, and the Ellis Island Medal of Freedom Award. She is also the recipient of the Consumers’ Union Trumpeter’s Award.

In 1998 she was named one of the “Women of the Year” by Ms. Magazine and one of the “100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century” by Ladies Home Journal.

Her belief in activism is reflected in her challenge, “Walk the street with us into history. Get off the sidewalk.”