History of Labor Unions with Illustrations


In 1982 I lived on the Lower East Side of New York City. The corner of Allen and Rivington Streets. I was living with my friend John Hammond, the gay activist and his partner Bruce Eves. They were compiling a Gay History Archive which later became part of the New York Public Library’s Archive, and parts of my library ended up there. Joe Voijtko had been a previous roommate of John’s and I was hanging out with him, too.


The Lower East Side is the traditional immigrant area of not only New York, but the country.

My grandfathers came through Ellis Island, and my wife’s family did, too. Some of them lived on Mott Street, just blocks from my corner. Jack Kirby was born here on Essex Street, before his family moved to Suffolk Street. Emma Goldman lived slightly uptown on Fourth Street.

Here’s how Jack Kirby remembered the Lower East Side:


Here’s how Will Eisner remembered Jack Kirby

I had known Mike Royer in my teens and he was generous in showing me how to use professional tools and gave me great critiques of my stuff, and I’d been in New York before, where Larry Hama helped me develop further and introduced me to Josef Rubinstein, who I helped out on an issue of Warlord.  When I returned  I had a foot in the door at Marvel and I did some background work on Frank Miller’s Wolverine books, which Joe inked. I was doing other work for Joe, and elsewhere for Mark Gruenwald (when Mike Carlin was his assistant editor), Tom DeFalco, Mike Esposito,  Vinnie Coletta (who still owes me ten bucks), and even full inks on some Thor pages for  Jack Abel, and some Avengers pages for  Chic Stone, who had taken seriously ill with a tight deadline.


Comic production requires a quick turnaround for work. A deadline is a Deadline. Press time is scheduled months in advance, and press deadlines must be met. There are stories of artists and editors taking late night trains to Sparta, Illinois, delivering pages personally to the printer.


Everything is always late and editors are not prone to trusting new artists to function well under commercial pressure and when one gets work that needs a quick turn-around, one works late.

I remember finishing work at midnight and walking down to the bodega and getting a couple of beers and sitting on the benches in the long cement island running the length of Allen Street. Despite the traffic, this was a residential neighborhood and during the day there were always families and kids playing. It’s hot in New York, and twelve o.clock isn’t late, there were always people on the street.

There was an old fashioned garment sweatshop across the street, and I used to watch the women work through the open door of the unventilated shotgun rooms. I saw the sewing machines running, adjustments being made, baskets and boxes in motion, children and food passing through. Men, husbands, deliveries, mail and more children and food.

It was all very happy. The way people are happy. The workers in this small corner had work that was local and communal. Their social and economic needs were mixed and sustained. They obviously had some flexibility in their lives. I liked living there.

But day in day out, those machines had to run, and those workers were not paid unless they produced shirt pockets. Trimmed on the sides, hemmed on the top, and in stacks of 100s, ready to be attached to a shirt that’s being made somewhere else.

I’d done production work, too. Metal fabrication in Los Angeles and fiberglass molding in Seattle, where I was fired for union organizing. My love for comics and cartooning notwithstanding, I saw my work then, as I do now, essentially the same as theirs.

Jack Kirby lived around the corner from there, and in many ways only the cars had changed in fifty years. I was lucky enough to spend a couple of mornings with Jack Kirby in his studio when I was younger. He said that the guys who created Superman were poor, and the guys that published Superman were rich. I’ve always remembered that.

  Jack Kirby and Jerry Siegal

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities             

– Delmore Schwartz      






With Illustrations

People have come together for work and economic reasons since the beginning of time.


Trans-regional trade routes and early forms of money are documented to 10,000 BC. Banking, commerce and money have all developed to fit changing times, but labor has remained the single unchanging measure. One hour of labor today is the same as an hour’s labor in the year 10,000 BC. Only what a worker receives in exchange has changed.



“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”                                     – Abraham Lincoln



Democracy was established in the Greek nation-state of Athens about 500 BC and stories of other Greek states throwing off their aristocracies were likely spread through trade with Rome.


In 500 BC Rome one was either a Patrician (aristocrat), a Plebian (worker) or a slave. Rome had been continuously at war, and the plebs formed the majority of the troops. They were tired and refused to fight. The workers who were not in the army, but who served society in the same way we all do today, as farmers, delivering merchandise to markets, running shops, keeping up the infrastructure of roads, bridges and waterways, etc. were of the same families as the soldiers and dissatisfied for the same reasons. They wanted more wealth, personal freedom and political power and they were the majority. They stopped working unless a number of important concessions were made by the aristocrats


“He (C. Canuleius, tribune and plebian leader) was advocating the breaking up of the houses, tampering with the auspices, both those of the State and those of individuals, so that nothing would be pure, nothing free from contamination, and in the effacing of all distinctions of rank, no one would know either himself or his kindred. What other result would mixed marriages have except to make unions between patricians and plebeians almost like the promiscuous association of animals? The offspring of such marriages would not know whose blood flowed in his veins, what sacred rites he might perform; half of him patrician, half plebeian, he would not even be in harmony with himself”             TITUS LIVIUS – The History of Rome


The patricians realized they had to deal with this situation in a political way and over the next couple of centuries a series of compromises were struck during times of economic unrest which eventually ended in 287 BC when the plebs had the same societal rights as the rich, but in reality, another class was established that included the more talented of the common-born, who came to have little in common with the average worker.



Why is the Patrician smiling?
Because he lives a life full of personal choices and money.
Why is the Plebian smiling?
Because he gets to work in poverty until he dies in pain, but at least he isn’t a slave.
Why is the slave smiling?
Because he will soon be eaten by a lion for the drunken amusement of his social superiors.
Why are there no women?
They don’t count.


Workers guilds are known from late Egyptian times (200 BC) and they showed up in China and India around the same time.

Ancient history can be fragile. Very little is actually known about the plebian refusal to fight, but their recognition of themselves as a class or group is notable and their refusal to cooperate in a situation that is bad for them is called a strike. It’s what people have done forever when facing ongoing stupid, wasteful, destructive or similar situations, people just stop cooperating. They go on strike.



Rome wasn’t burned in a day, but eventually world events caused the empire to collapse. It was a skeleton in Western Europe by 500 AD and held out in Eastern Europe until about 1500.

About 1000 AD, the populations of Europe settled into a system called Manorialism, where the workers and farmers gathered in villages around manors and paid rent and services to the lord of the manor. It was a socially rigid system that may have derived from the Roman system of villas worked by slaves, combined with German tribal laws. If you were born a serf (IE: dude) or a noble  you died in that class. This is the time of knights and feudalism. The Crusades lasted until the late 1200s and the Robin Hood stories are from this time.

In pre-industrial cities men formed work related guilds and lived in egalitarian (co-operative) communities, recorded as early as 850 AD. The word guild comes from the fact that they held their wealth in common, and a medieval document (France 1250) notes that there is little division of labor within guilds.

Guilds, with their ascending levels (apprentice, craftsman, journeyman, master and grand master) helped insure the quality of the work in any skilled craft, such as woodworking, and set consistent standards for pay. They were also early expressions of basic human economic needs like education, banking, insurance and probably childcare.

Guilds were established not only around craft, but around mercantilism, religion and other social and economic needs. Many believe fraternal organizations like the Masons and Odd-Fellows have their beginnings here. A guild charter from the 1200s mentions an initiation fee, and an oath to keep personal confidences, guild secrets, and support other members in their endeavors and feuds.

Medieval Fair

European guilds were at the height of their influence about 1300. They were especially strong in Germany, and controlled several major European cities. Craft guilds controlled the quality of workmanship in building and goods, and mercantile guilds controlled the flow and cost of goods within these early cities.

Even at this early stage of economic development there were social and economic tensions as one’s status became connected with their guild’s status. There was cooperation and competition between the guilds, trade and mercantile. They both wanted the economy to grow and run smoothly but each group wanted a fair share of the profits, and the idea of “fair” is something that’s always legitimately up for debate.

Also, merchant guilds were trying to expand themselves into the governments. They wanted governments that could keep the peace, enforce contracts and make it safe and convenient to conduct business, but didn’t like taxes and regulations.

This was a time where money was becoming more important. Tax payments at this time can be made in livestock, agriculture or silver. The merchant class used and accumulated money in greater amounts than other classes, including royalty. A royal might have land, prestige and a very nice life, but not access to money in the way a merchant did.

Here’s an illustration from a medieval translation of Aristotle made for King Charles V of France.

It shows the structure of society under the king.

Royal power is based on military power, and an effective bureaucracy.

 The clergy and the peasants are next, and the new classes of artisan and merchant are included .

Europe was prosperous and as work became more specialized and commerce became more monetized, the guild system came to define a class that had the wealth and social connections to afford the extensive education involved, which included three years of foreign study. From their communal beginnings, guilds had become hierarchic bureaucracies, entrenched in politics and economics.

Vestiges of the guild system exist today. Some guilds in London are over a thousand years old. There’s no direct link between the medieval guild system and modern unions, but the roots of both unionism and corporatism come from this time.

The earliest expressions of patent, trademark and copyright laws come from this time, which on one hand allowed innovators exclusive rights of their work, but ignored previous works that may have existed, and by centralizing manufacture or distribution may have limited economic growth and further innovation.

The earliest known union activity comes from this time as a distinct movement within the worker’s guilds, as, during prosperous times, the ruling class had multiplied beyond the ability of the economy to care for more royals. Wealthy families who could afford the full education the guilds offered expected their children to be employed in some kind of supervisory position, and rank-and-file guild members opposed this.

The Black Death was carried on trade routes from China

In 1347 the Black Death hit Europe and wiped out between 1/4 and 1/3 of the population. In an economy that was becoming more dependent on money, the early cities with jobs in the new factories offered all the enticements that cities and money still offer. The system of serfs and manors was decimated. Landlords had died. Labor was in demand and one could simply walk away to the cities and start fresh.


In England there was an almost immediate response to this in the form of the Statute of Laborers established in 1351. It established a pay freeze for workers (retroactive to the previous year) yet only mentions food prices should remain “reasonable”,  orders all men under 60 years of age to work, and sets a liberal criteria for the circumstances under which any one could easily become a slave. Should you find yourself in this situation and try to flee, you were then an “escaped slave” and subject to mutilation, torture or death.

Over the next couple of centuries it became increasingly illegal to “live rough” or be a vagabond. Yet, without the structure of feudalism, any “masterless man” would have to travel for work, live rough and be without money at times. All of this clearly “illegal”, and if our poor traveler is commanded to work by his betters, then it’s either work or jail. Categories of vagrants came to include “common players”, “tinkers and peddlers”, Gypsies and minstrels. Buncha fuckin hippies.

Enclosure Riots, above 

Additionally, “enclosure laws” were being used to sub-divide land to the exclusion of the peasant families that had lived there for generations. Whole towns were lost during this process. The land remained fertile and productive, but the rich were simply excluding the workers and declaring them criminal.

F U N  F A C T

King John of England signed the Magna Carta in 1215. This proclamation acknowledged the limits of the king’s powers and the status of the lesser royals. Upon this recognition, the lords began stealing the peasant’s lands by creating the “writ of novel desseisin”. Seven hundred years later, Lord Denning described the Magna Carta as “the greatest constitutional document of all times. the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot” Nice how these guys stick together.

 E N D

Just as peasants had been ordered legally not to leave the land on which they were born, and sons were ordered to maintain the crafts of their fathers, so too were they disenfranchised if their lord decided to graze sheep rather than farm. Sheep require less labor than farming, and brought cash for the sale of their wool to the new factories, rather than rent in crops. This meant there was less room for farming, and the peasants had to go.

The law locks up the man or woman
That steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose

For the next couple hundred of years, peasant revolts broke out intermittently. In 1381 an army of angry peasants stormed London demanding tax relief. They beheaded the archbishop of Canterbury and forced the king, Richard ll to hide in the Tower of London. He consented to their demands, including amnesty, then had them killed. There were 60 revolts in Germany alone during that time, and though they.re called “peasant revolts” it really included shop owners, trades people, landless knights, defrocked priests and others in marginal social positions.

The peasants are revolting 

The poor were becoming noticeable, and eventually “poorhouses” were built to allow them to die out of sight. The poorhouses became workhouses, and the survivors of this system were among the first colonists arriving in North America. There were twelve slaves on the Mayflower.

Irish  Slavery



In England, 1657, a woman and a pig were sold on the same day. The woman was valued at 6 pence a pound and the pig’s worth was one goat per pound.



Slaves were often labeled as criminals or indentured servants, but in 1659 there were discussions in English Parliament about the appropriateness of selling British (“Christian”) slaves to the Colonies. They seem to have approved the idea, because by 1679 there was a colonial census of whites who had escaped slavery. Even some who thought they were coming as indentured servants to learn a trade found themselves used as farm labor.



Workers, the peasants, were compared to slaves in legal documents during this time and they were shipped off to America with no regard to their desires, their families split and their children stolen. Children, the preferred working class, were stolen so frequently that we still use the word “kidnap” to describe any such “abduction”. Upon arriving in America they were legally forced to stay in conscription, and torture or death were the consequences for any servant, white or black who tried to escape.


Africans were also imported as slaves and after 1800 their numbers increased despite an Atlantic trade ban, and white supremacy became codified into United States law.


Reward offers for slaves commonly mention they are wearing iron collars or have recent whip marks, and the terms “slave” and “servant” are interchangeable.

whip“Baton Rouge, LA, April 2, 1863. Ten days from to-day I left the plantation. Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. My master was not present. I don’t remember the whipping. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping and my senses began to come–I was sort of crazy. […] My master’s Capt. John Lyon, cotton planter, on Atchafalya, near Washington, Louisiana. Whipped two months before Christmas.”

There were responses to this kind of oppression, but they were responses to specific local issues, without long term goals or philosophies. In addition, it was illegal to meet (‘conspire’) to discuss a solution to  such oppression


The White Boys (known for their white shirts) were an Irish group first known in the 1760s focusing on labor issues, often working at night to fill in the ditches used for cattle enclosures, and other efforts to ensure tenant farmers land rights.

The movement was rural and unfocused, and got caught up in the Catholic/Protestant politics of the time, but for over 20 years they kept a constant presence as a worker/revolutionary force that birthed numerous other organizations; Steelboys, Oakboys, Peep-o’-day Boys, Defenders. Some were Catholic, some Protestant, some mixed and some fraternal organizations. Eventually any kind of rural violence became associated with the Whiteboys, even when the groups involved were non-political.

Remember, at this time the North American Colonies were part of the British Empire, as were Ireland and Scotland. Irish workers were regularly shipped off as slaves. One English Lord writes during this time that he believes the Irish to possess prehensile thumbs.


Adam Smith writes in The Wealth of Nations that unions (“combinations”) have been illegal everywhere for years and the penalties for organizing them are severe, up to death. He also notes:

“We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combination of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labor above their actual rate. When workers combine, masters … never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combination of servants, labourers, and journeymen”.


By the time Smith writes, 1776, the Industrial Revolution is a generation old and America’s factories are being worked by another generation of slaves. Between 1609 and the early 1800s, as many as 2/3 of white immigrants were slaves. In 1778 2/3 of the cotton mill workers in England and Scotland were children as young as four years.



Early factories were horrible, dark, wet, covered with a sludge made up of cotton dust and oil, or wood dust and oil. Thirteen and sixteen hour days were enforced at the crack of a whip and children were the preferred labor force. You simply worked till you died.

English Factories 1750

Now, this was working out well for some people. It had taken Europe a hundred years to recover economically from the Black Death, and during that time advances in farming and manufacturing had increased the standard of living, and there was a small middle class of merchants and people with high-end trade skills needed by the rich. The royalty, the factory owners, the bankers, the slavers were doing great. But the majority of the people who were born into that time and place weren’t doing so well. In the year 1680 10,000 slaves a year were being shipped to the Colonies from England. In the year 1800 the majority of people were still treated as slaves in the factories and fields or left to an impoverished self-sufficiency on the outskirts of towns.


By the very late 1700s there had been at least one successful skilled-trade strike (of tailors) in England. Francis Place was an organizer, and eventually leader of this and he was unable to find work for a year afterward. He devoted his time to self-study, and continued to be radically active throughout his life. John Gast is also noted as a union organizer during this time and he was later associated with the Friendly Society movement. There was a rising political consciousness that it wasn’t in the best interests of society as a whole to have the extreme class distinctions that had developed. Theories of social reform, economic equality, and public education proliferated among the literate population. Anarchism was first theorized during this decade by William Godwin, and the early socialist theories of Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen would soon follow. Profit sharing was first used in the United States before 1800.

In England the Combination Act was passed by parliament 1799, which outlawed union activity. “Combination” here means “union” as it does in the above Adam Smith quote. It made the act of “combining” with other workers to address political or economic issues illegal.

The Combination Act was aimed at the Friendly Society system or movement. Friendly Societies were early economic associations of people who were grouped together for whatever reasons of clan or location or work. Like the guilds of 850, they pooled their common money to cover funerals, sickness, and other needs. The idea of “savings banks” (for individuals, not investment banks) had been proposed as early as 1697, and the first mutual savings bank (Scotland 1810) was called the Savings and Friendly Society.

To even discuss the notion of union or combination, we’re assuming a stable workforce. The pooling of money is more proof of a stable workforce. This wasn’t directed against the myriad of bandits and layabouts that were considered troublesome in many documents, but a settled population. Sharing; the division of labor, the pooling of resources, these are intuitive forms of democracy. It was illegal for average people to put their money together for economic advantage in 1800.

The Combination Act was repealed in 1834, and the bankers and manufacturers immediately worked to have it reinstated. It was back within a couple of years, but in that window, there was a lot of union activity, including the first union newspaper.

In 1834 one such group, the Friendly Society of Agricultural Laborers, led by George Loveless, a Methodist minister, met at the home of Thomas Stanfield in Dorset to unionize for standard pay during inflationary times. James Frampton complained in a letter to the prime minister and the group was sentenced to live in Australia. There was a huge public outcry, with 800,000 English people petitioning in their support. There was also an organized march, which was almost without precedent. Most conspirators were released after a couple of years, and the last died in 1902. This is not ancient history.


William Smith

Age 8


Died Jan 3 1841

(English tombstone)



Back in the United States, in 1806, Commonwealth v. Pullis was the first known court case arising from a labor strike in the United States. After a three-day trial, the jury found the defendants guilty of “a combination to raise their wages” and fined. It wasn’t until 1840 that unions were given their first judicial legitimacy in a state court.

In 1825 women working in New York City sweatshops formed the first actual union and won strikes, improving their pay and working conditions.

In 1827 Philadelphia there were 800 men in debtor’s prison. One anonymous prisoner wrote an articulate letter about the state of typical workers which was widely circulated and commented on. In those days printing was expensive and common mass communication was in the form of broadsides, or posters. Broadsides would be posted around town and discussed. This discussion helped focus public dissatisfaction on the length of the typical work day, which was twelve hours.


In June of 1827, Carpenters went on strike. They demanded that the ten hour day be retained, with no loss of pay. With no strong unions, and each union independent, work days had increased to twelve hours. Within a couple of months not only glaziers, bricklayers and painters, but typographers and other skilled trade workers struck in sympathy.

The Mechanic’s Union of Trade Associations was formed in October and it was the first trade union to cross craft lines. Even though there were internal disputes in the union, and it took ten years, in 1837 it became illegal for an employer in Philadelphia, to expect more than ten hours of work a day.

People took note of the Mechanic’s efforts and success and the years 1833 – 1837 were good years for trade unions, including the establishment of the first union for domestic workers, the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union (1834) but unfortunately most were decimated in the Panic of 1837, when the banks collapsed as a speculative land bubble burst, sinking the country into depression.

The Mechanics opposed private ownership of land, hereditary transmission of wealth, chartered monopolies, and favored taxation of the church, free public education, abolition of debt prison, the universal right to vote and a mechanic’s lien law.

Back in England, there was continued discourse among Workingmen’s Groups, and all of this coalesced around Chartism in 1838, when 6 members of parliament and six working men met and published a set of goals for their group. The Chartists wanted the universal right to vote, secret ballots, no requirement of land-holding for members of parliament, pay for members of parliament (which would allow working class representation) and other measures to ensure greater worker representation in parliament


Chartists’ Riot

Many radicals found this to be too conservative a position, but there was widespread support among the working class, and eventually a large petition was presented to parliament, which refused it. This convinced the more revolutionary elements of the groups that there was no dealing with the power structure and a series of “risings” or armed revolts was planned, hoping to ignite a more popular revolution. Several thousand were involved in the Newport Rising, but the revolution never took off.

In 1842 three million signatures were presented to the parliament in support of Chartist positions, and they were again refused. A general strike ensued, effecting 14 English and 8 Scottish Counties. There were 1500 arrests, and 250 prison sentences for the leaders of up to 21 years.

The Chartists remained strong, and began building planned communities in 1844, but they were shut down by parliament, who didn’t like their “bookkeeping”.

In 1848 a mass demonstration was held to present Parliament with a third petition. There were 150,000 marchers, and 100,000 extra police. The event was peaceful but there was violence elsewhere, and later that year public meetings were banned and tough new sedition and treason laws were enacted. Many Chartists planned a new uprising, but they were arrested. The group lost influence at this point, but continued to have influence in the British Colonies in Africa, where indigenous demands for democracy were seen as an extension of the Chartists. work. They are considered to be the first self-consciously working class group in history.


Photograph of Chartist Demonstration, London 1848

In 1848 Marx and Engles published The Communist Manifesto. Communists, socialists, anarchists and trade unionists all had irreconcilable ideas about how to provide goods and services, and which goods and services to provide to people, but they agreed on enough that they decided to come together as the International Workingmen’s Association, also known as The First International in London, 1864. The meetings continued until 1876.


Are You “In The Know”?

Anarchism, Socialism and Communism are all responses to Capitalism. Big capitalism that’s backed by the state. Generally, they want Capitalism made irrelevant. There are sub-groups within each philosophy that overlap greatly with subgroups of the others, and it’s very hard to summarize. All agree that our means of production should be geared towards providing the goods and services we need, and profit is secondary, if considered at all. Communists believe “the system” should be run from the top down by a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Socialists believe the system should be run democratically by the citizens, and Anarchists don’t believe in the system at all.

Anarchism, contrary to popular belief has nothing to do with chaos or destruction. It’s about trust and building. An anarchist will tell you that if society alienates someone to the point that they feel they have to dress in black and break corporate windows, then that says something about society, but for a century anarchists also have had little need for “solitary bombers”.

Many radicals are pacifists or non-violent, believing violence to be a coercive, state-like act.


I’ve included English history here because of the historic ties between the US and England. But there were similar workers’ movements across Europe. Most were based on widespread dissatisfaction among workers, and not really based on any philosophy, or goal. But Marx and the First International gave a structure to the way literate people began to think.


In America, the Civil War (1861 – 1865) decimated the working class. There were draft riots on both sides by working class men who felt it was a war the poor were supposed to fight for the benefit of the rich. During the 1860s sixty national crafts unions were established, of which the National Labor Union (1866) is notable for its inclusion of many types of workers. Except black workers. The NLU excluded blacks and only offered them the advice of forming a separate organization, and affiliating, which they did.


The Colored National Labor Organization was formed in 1869, but because the prevalence of racism in the NLU, and its loss of importance, the CNLU was never an effective organization.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers was the first of the railroad brotherhoods and established in 1863. Railroads were the technological marvel of the age in the 1860s, and their crews had an immediate status that carpenters did not have. Railroad brotherhoods are independent and conservative.

The Knights of St. Crispin Outside their Co-Operative Factory

The Knights of Saint Crispin (1867) was a shoe maker’s union that was formed as machines were replacing skilled shoemakers in factories. Named after the Catholic saint of cobblers, they were a big regional union, but like the Luddites (England, 1811), who opposed new steam-looms, they were unable to stop technological progress.

The Daughters of Saint Crispin

The daughters of St. Crispin were a women’s group associated with the Knights. They worked for political and economic rights for women and were among the first groups to advocate those rights.

The Nobel and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was started as a fraternal organization within the Philadelphia Tailors Union (1869), but with the demise of the NLU they shortened their name to Knights of Labor, abandoned their membership rituals, and took on the responsibilities of a real union. They were the first union to have influence and membership beyond their locality.

The Knights had a philosophy behind them. They believed in creating the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. They believed in productive work, civic responsibility, education, temperance and family life.

The Knights attracted a lot of Catholics, and that may have had something to do with the Church’s prohibition of Masonic membership, but Catholics have had a history of supporting workers’ rights, and the Catholic Workers are a vital force today in the progressive and anti-war communities.


The Catholic Worker movement was founded in the United States in 1933,  Its aim is to “live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ.”

If you’re a Christian who believes in social justice

you should check them out

R+I+P  Father Bill Bischell, Tacoma


There was a Poor People’s March on Washington DC in 1894 when 6000 marchers arrived from Ohio, Pennsylvania and as far to the west as Tacoma Washington, and Portland Oregon.  This was during an economic recession and unemployed workers were petitioning the government to create jobs through public works projects. This was the first major march on Washington, but it was unorganized and the leaders were soon arrested for trespassing and the march dissipated.

The Knights had an economic belief that there were “producers” and “non producers” in the world, so small business people and carpenters were considered “producers”, but gamblers and teachers were both “non producers”. Only producers were allowed in the Knights. Women and blacks were allowed after 1883, but Asians were excluded. In 1886 out of 700,000 members, 60,000 were black.

They had a successful strike against Jay Gould’s railroads in 1885, and by 1886 they were organizing 600,000 strikers on 1400 strikes and they became over-extended, facing violent opposition while trying to organize disparate types of railroads. Public, private, freight, passenger, inner-city, and each had its own issues, sometimes including other unions.

The Knights had done a lot of organizing behind the Eight Hour Day movement, and in Chicago, 1886, during the second day of a demonstration which had seen 2 demonstrators killed by police the previous day, a bomb was thrown into a phalanx of police attempting to end the event, and seven officers were killed. Anarchists were believed to have been responsible, and they became connected with the Knights through the press and popular belief, and the Knights lost members to the more conservative AFL and Railroad Brotherhoods.

Additionally, there were disputes in the union between the skilled and non skilled factions, and in 1895 members of the Social Labor Party left the Knights and started the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance and their membership shrank to a low of 17,000. The rank and file of the Knights carried boldly onward, however, and during a trolley strike in 1895 they fought the National Guard for six weeks while Brooklyn was under martial law. The leadership didn’t think strikes were an effective way of dealing with working class issues, and when the IWW was founded a few years later the radicals joined on there, but the Knights were an organization until 1949.


Jacob Riis was an early photo-journalist who photographed the poor in New York City. His best known work is How The Other Half Lives. The Photo is from 1880. This is a woman living in a basement.

“New York’s wage-earners have no other place to live, more is the pity. They are truly poor for having no better homes; waxing poorer in purse as the exorbitant rents to which they are tied, as ever was serf to soil, keep rising. The wonder is that they are not all corrupted, and speedily, by their surroundings If, on the contrary, there be a steady working up, if not out of the slough, the fact is a powerful argument for the optimist’s belief that the world is, after all, growing better, not worse, and would go far toward disarming apprehension, were it not for the steadier growth of the sediment of the slums and its constant menace. Such an impulse toward better things there certainly is. The German rag-picker of thirty years ago, quite as low in the scale as his Italian successor, is the thrifty tradesman or prosperous farmer of to-day.

“The Italian scavenger of our time is fast graduating into exclusive control of the corner fruit-stands, while his black-eyed boy monopolizes the boot-blacking industry in which a few years ago he was an intruder. The Irish hod-carrier in the second generation has become a brick-layer, if not the Alderman of his ward, while the Chinese coolie is in almost exclusive possession of the laundry business. The reason is obvious. The poorest immigrant comes here with the purpose and ambition to better himself and, given half a chance, might be reasonably expected to make the most of it. To the false plea that he prefers the squalid homes in which his kind are housed there could be no better answer. The truth is, his half chance has too long been wanting, and for the bad result he has been unjustly blamed.”

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In 1881 Samuel Gompers founded the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions. Its purpose was to encourage formation of trade unions and work for legislation supporting an eight hour day, end to child labor, end to convict labor, exclusion of foreign contract workers, and for the proposed Labor Day holiday. In 1886 the organization merged with others to form the American Federation of Labor.


The AFL was a trade union. They only organized workers with specific training, skills or tools. This excluded blacks and immigrants, and the union also imposed literacy tests, which narrowed their membership further. Additionally, they supported anti-immigration legislation, particularly against Asians. That didn’t seem right to a lot of unionists, many of whom were immigrants or children of immigrants.

Trade unionism makes sense for early unionization. But there’s a tendency of skilled workers to see themselves as a separate class of worker, deserving of special considerations beyond their greater access to consumer goods (“stuff”) and generally easier work. The AFL trade unions were all independent, and did not support each other. So, if the brick-layers on a construction site went on strike, the plumbers, window glaziers and electricians would still work, even if they were AFL affiliated.


The opposite of this was industrial unionism, which organized all the work in one industry together.

In 1900 the AFL aligned itself with “liberal” manufacturers to form the National Civic Federation, which, while successfully mediating strikes and being instrumental in expanding and making uniform laws pertaining to child labor, workman’s compensation and factory safety, also suppressed sympathy strikes and other forms of worker solidarity with binding national trade agreements and arbitration of disagreements.

Many rural unions, especially in the west, were more radical than this. Working to establish a union in a rural cowboy town was a bold undertaking, and many miners, loggers and dock workers identified with the socialists and anarchists, and not the AFL.


Even within the AFL there were more progressive groups. The Woman’s Trade Union League, 1903, was formed within the AFL to support the organization of unions and halt sweatshops. It was generally ignored by AFL leaders, but nonetheless, pushed the organization to recognize women’s suffrage (the right to vote) and they unionized more women than at any other time.


They were composed of a combination of philanthropists and working women, and though there was some class tension, they actively supported many strikes and ran soup kitchens. Some leaders were active in the founding of the NAACP. The criticized the male dominated beaurocracy of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and publicly supported the Wobblies over the AFL. The WTUL eventually withdrew from union activity and worked on legislative reform, including woman’s suffrage, minimum wage and the eight hour day.

There had been a Poor Peoples’ March on Washington DC in 1894 when 6000 marchers arrived from Ohio, Pennsylvania and as far to the west as Tacoma Washington, and Portland Oregon.  This was during an economic recession and unemployed workers were petitioning the government to create jobs through public works projects. This was the first major march on Washington, but it was unorganized and the leaders were soon arrested for trespassing and the march dissipated.


 Are You “In The Know”?

A strike is usually a protest by a group of people to call attention to a social issue. Most strikes are by groups, and planned for a specific end. But strikes can be by single individuals, or break out spontaneously. These are called wildcat strikes.

STRIKE ACTION, also known as a walkout, a work stoppage caused by the mass refusal of employees to perform work

CULTURE STRIKE refusal of artists or art institutions (arts organizations, festivals etc.) to respectively produce and show art

GENERAL STRIKE strike action by a critical mass of the labor force in a city, region or country. There have been two successful general strikes in US history

HUNGER STRIKE  participants fast as an act of political protest, or to provoke feelings of guilt in others

PRISON STRIKE  strike taking place inside a prison, involving either a hunger strike or a prison work strike

RENT STRIKE when a group of tenants en masse  agrees to refuse to pay rent until a specific list of demands is met by the landlord

SIT DOWN STRIKES  occur when workers stay at their work stations to interfere with business, and prevent scabs (non-union replacements) from working

STUDENT STRIKES  occur when students enrolled at a teaching institution such as a school, college or university refuse to go to class. Historically, students have struck over America’s involvement in foreign wars, domestic and foreign racism and excessive regulations and tuitions. Students have also struck over their school’s economic involvement with oppressive institutions. In 2018 students across the county boycotted classes to protest the lack of appropriate gun registration laws.

Colloquial derived use, such as “the washing machine’s gone on strike.”

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In 1905 only five percent of the country was unionized, and on 24 June, 200 socialists, anarchists and radical trade unionists met in Chicago to form the International Workers of the World. The IWW’s first organizers included William D. (“Big Bill”) Haywood, Daniel De Leon, Eugene V. Debs, Thomas J Hagerty, Lucy Parsons, “Mother” Mary Harris Jones, Frank Bohn, William Trautmann, Vincent Saint John, Ralph Chaplin, and many others.

The IWW believed that all workers should have solidarity as a single class. They believed that anyone who trades work for labor is a worker and the difference between skilled and unskilled workers is a conceit of some workers which can be exploited by their bosses. They worked towards the abolition of the wage system, and membership was open to all, including members of other unions, blacks, women, Asians and immigrants. Early on, the IWW, or Wobblies, wouldn’t even sign contracts, believing no man could sign a contract for another, and they had no “representatives”, and besides, contracts would obligate them to a cause other than worker solidarity, which was their first concern.

Where the Knights of Labor’s creed was “An injury to one is the concern of all, the Wobblies’ motto was “An injury to one is an injury to all“.

One Big Union. That’s what the Wobblies wanted. One Big Union. The AFL was immediately critical of the IWW and refused to acknowledge it. Further, any IWW member was disqualified to work on an AFL site. That was probably OK with the Wobblies, they had formed because the AFL was too conservative and too conciliatory towards management. The IWW believed the bosses and the workers had irreconcilable differences.

The goal of the IWW was the destruction of capitalism through generally non violent means. They weren’t pacifists, but they didn’t advocate “propaganda of the deed” (revolutionary violence), which had been criticized by anarchists by this time. The Wobblies believed above all in education, they had libraries and study groups. They printed millions of pamphlets and there are references to paper stickers they plastered around protesting World War One. They believed that through having an educated working class the contradictions of capitalism would become so glaring and repugnant that people would come to a spontaneous state of General Strike. At that point, capitalism would become irrelevant.

What this strike would be like, or exactly what would follow was never clear, other than there would be new systems of delivery for goods and services based on need, rather than profit. Like Emma Goldman’s “beautiful ideal” of anarchy.


The IWW initiated the first sit-down strike in American history on December 10, 1906, at the General Electric Works in Schenectady, New York, where workers sat down on the job and stopped production to protest the dismissal of three union members. Before, strikers would picket in front of their job, but this was the first time workers used passive resistance, a tactic that would prove to be popular in other democratic movements.

There was a schism between members in 1909 where members who wished to pursue political action affiliated themselves with the Socialist Labor Party (established 1872) while those who believed in direct action through strikes and education remained with the union.

Also in 1909 the city of Spokane Washington outlawed street meetings in response to IWW agitation. Spokane was the hub for unskilled labor in that farming country and phony job placement businesses were regularly charging migrant workers money to be placed in non-existent jobs or jobs that required kickbacks (money paid by the worker back to the boss). The Wobblies took this as a serious affront to all working people, and picketed the business, warning away customers. Street meeting were outlawed and the IWW complied. However, street preachers continued to street preach, and the IWW found that unfair.

They declared 2 November 1909 as Free Speech Day and invited members to come and be arrested, stressing in the invitation that all “meetings will be orderly and no irregularities of any kind will be tolerated”. IWW members showed up and using an overturned wooden box as a podium began extemporaneously speaking or reading the Constitution.

One hundred and fifty persons were arrested that day, including 18 year old Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, who hand-cuffed herself to a lamp post to frustrate the process. Four hundred arrests were made within twenty days. The jails were filled to capacity, and boycotts against Spokane products were enacted. The strikers were heroes to the public, who threw them gifts of fruit and tobacco when they were marched through town. When the Wobblies called for more men to be arrested, the city surrendered. Nineteen “employment” agencies were closed and the IWW was given the right to organize in public.

Similar fights were waged in Kansas City, Missouri, Aberdeen Washington, Fresno, Denver, Duluth, Portland Oregon, New Castle Pennsylvania, and New Bedford Massachusetts. In San Diego there was a particularly violent response from vigilantes. IWW members were facing jail, deportations, beatings, and tar and feathering. Anarchist Emma Goldman was also in town and her lover and manager Ben Reitman was kidnapped, beaten, tortured and tarred and feathered and still Wobblies showed up, volunteering for this treatment. The police beat at least one man to death in jail and the state of California eventually investigated. The state found the IWW to have been within its rights, but no charges were filed against the vigilantes, who were well known townspeople. There was further conflict when an IWW member was killed by police gunfire and a small cache of weapons was found at their headquarters. But please consider the following editorial in the San Diego Tribune, 4 March 1912:

Hanging is none too good for them and they would be much better dead, for they are absolutely useless in the human economy. They are the waste material of creation and they should be drained off into the sewer of oblivion, there to rot in cold obstruction like any other excrement.

By 1912 the IWW had a membership of 25,000, but they had influence way beyond those numbers. At their peak in 1923 they had 100,000 members and another 200,000 supporters, but even beyond that, they had established the vocabulary of workers rights. They were truly democratic and that’s what made them popular. And dangerous.

During World War I, the AFL had a sub-rosa agreement with the United States government; the AFL would coordinate with the government both to support the war effort and to join into an alliance to crush radical labor groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World and Socialist Party of America.

German Troops Execute a Communist, 1919

Look at this from a hundred years later. Would you have fought in World War One? For who? Why? Did the average farmer or factory worker in America have more in common with the workers of Germany or with rich American and German industrialists and bankers who profited from the war?


War! What is it good for? Absolutely Nothing!

Between 1915 and 1917 the IWW unionized 100,000 agricultural workers and won strikes in major industries, but because they didn’t believe in collective bargaining they lost ground because no other group of workers could apply the kind pressure they could.

They opposed World War One as it approached, but generally kept to working-class issues afterward. Frank Little, their most vocal anti-war organizer was lynched in Butte Montana in 1917. Dashiell Hammett, who worked as a Pinkerton Detective at the time was offered $5,000 to kill Little, and he left the agency at this point.



In 1915, IWW member Joe Hill was executed for his alleged connection to a murder in Salt Lake City. He has been assumed to have been innocent of this crime and executed for his class and political beliefs, and recently evidence was found in favor of his innocence.


JOE HILL 1916 Executed by the State of Utah


In Everett Washington, 1916, 200 armed vigilantes met the first of two boatloads of wobblies arriving at the city dock. The 200 armed vigilantes, hidden not only on the dock, but in the bushes and on a tugboat to totally surround the IWW, blamed the IWW for starting the fight that left at least 5 (maybe ten or more) wobblies dead and 27 wounded, with 2 “citizen deputies” dead from being shot in their backs by other “citizen deputies”, and 16 wounded. Over 175 bullets were fired into the pilot house of the boat. The two boats returned to Seattle, and, undaunted the local IWW went ahead with the rally that the Seattle group was showing up in support of. They were all arrested, as was the Seattle contingent, but all charges were eventually dropped. And never pursued against the 200 “citizen deputies”.


In 1917 twelve IWW members and 5 supporters were whipped while tied to a tree, then tarred and feathered by the Knights of Liberty, a KKK associated group, with the help of local police in Tulsa Oklahoma.


After the war the government was worried about radical unionism. Soldiers were returning, and they were returning with severe injuries, including respiratory problems. This was the first chemical war and respiratory damages can’t be worked around, like a lost limb, or eyesight, they just get worse. Medical advances had allowed soldiers to be saved on the battle field where previously they would have died. These young men were conscripts; they had no choice but to serve. They were coming back really messed up.

The Russian revolution had occurred. There were other anti capitalist movements continuing in the other industrial countries. There had been a series of anarchist bombings in the US. The class that ran factories and newspapers was worried.  There was no GI Bill or Veteran’s Administration but a series of promises were made to these young men who had been mostly forced to fight, including the promise of a cash bonus to be paid in 1945.


There was a new Espionage Act in 1917 and in September of that year the Justice Department raided the offices of the IWW in 48 cities. One hundred and sixty-five leaders were arrested for conspiracy to hinder the draft, encourage desertion, and similar charges. Of 113 men eventually tried, most were sentenced to the maximum of “one year and one day”, some given longer sentences. Big Bill Heywood was given 21 years and he fled to Russia.


In Centralia, Washington on November 11, 1919, IWW member and army veteran Wesley Everest was turned over to a mob by jail guards and lynched.


The IWW continued to be prosecuted under various state and federal laws and the 1920 Palmer Raids singled out the foreign-born members of the organization. By the mid-1920s membership was already declining due to government repression and it decreased again substantially during a schism in 1924 when the union split between two factions and the Communist Party attempted to dominate the organization. By 1930 membership was down to around 10,000.


The IWW continued to organize into the 1930s, having success not only with agricultural workers, but with lumber workers in the Northwest, and with maritime unions on both coasts. They were active in the Seattle and San Francisco General Strikes, and in Philadelphia, the IWW Local 8 was composed mostly of blacks and immigrants. They were a strong voice in metal shops in Cleveland until the mid 1950s.

The Taft-Hartley act of 1946 called for expulsion of communists from labor union leadership. I’m not sure what the Wobblies of 1946 found most irrelevant; labor union leadership, communists or the federal government, but they lost membership, and in 1949 were placed on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations, which meant members couldn’t get federal jobs (this has been repealed).

They were at their lowest membership in the 1950s, but the political activism of the 1960s through today has brought continued attention to this organization, which still exists and would love you to go to their website.

The Industrial Workers of the World are American democracy in the workplace, they have a history that is anti-war, anti-racist, anti-globalization and radically pro-democracy. They not only produced the first sit-down strike in history, the method was proposed at their inception by Lucy Parsons, whose husband was executed in the aftermath of the Haymarket Affair. That was probably the first planned act of civil disobedience in history. Their Free Speech action of 1909 was even more radical, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s act of handcuffing herself to a lamp post was the civil-disobedience icing-on-the-cake. This seems to be the first time in history where people have planned to come together for the purpose of protesting unjust laws and using themselves non-violently to overwhelm the system.

Elizabeth  Gurly Flynn New Jersey 1913

In 1919 Seattle a General Strike occurred for the first time in the United States. Lead mostly by the industrial unions affiliated with the AFL and the IWW, the city shut down for five days. During that time no essential services were cut and all work was done by volunteers who picked up garbage, washed hospital linens and formed impromptu delivery systems for essential goods such as food, as well as huge public soup kitchens to replace the closed restaurants. Conservative national AFL leaders eventually put pressure on the strikers from within to end the confrontation, and the city government was putting on pressure from the outside.

The strike ran out of steam. The IWW was arrested. The mayor of Seattle toured the country and made a ton of money encouraging people to fear “domestic bolshevism”.


Seattle 1 May 1917

The Sons of the Farm was active in the Filipino community in California in the 1920s. With anti-Asian racism high, and supported by conservative unions, the group pulled off occasional wildcat strikes in the 1920s and the Filipino Labor Union organized the only successful agricultural strike of the early 1930s.

The AFL had always had some industrial unions in the federation. The United Mine Workers was an AFL union as were the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and the Brewers Union, but the old style craft unions had the political power. UMW president John L Lewis saw the future in Industrial Unions. He could see how the steel industry was connected to mining, and then to automotive production, and how rubber was connected to auto production, too.

It was not until 1938 that the IWW allowed contracts with employers, and they had lost ground despite popular support, because of this.

The AFL was the most powerful union in America and support was growing for industrial unionism. The AFL had “authorized” union organization in steel, rubber, glass and related industries without offering any real support, which alienated workers. When John L. Lewis organized the CIO as a sub-group within the AFL, it was not recognized, and ordered to disband. This further alienated industrial workers from the AFL and made the CIO more attractive.


There was a massive strike on the west coast in 1934, lasting eighty-three days. The IWW had worked hard to organize the docks, and their influence was still strong. Triggered by police killingsand a four-day general strike in San Francisco , the longshoremen’s strike led to the unionization of all of the West Coast ports of the United States.

The San Francisco General Strike, along with the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite Strike led by the American Workers Party and the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934 led by the Communist League of America, were important catalysts for the rise of industrial unionism in the 1930s, much of which was organized through the Congress of Industrial Organizations

The CIO formally split from the AFL in 1938, and both continued to organize workers until the start of World War Two, when an informal series of agreements kept the economy free from labor troubles for the duration of the war effort.

While the CIO was a more conservative organization than the IWW there were radicals within the organization, and there was radical capitalist opposition to any attempt at union organization from the beginning.

Industrialists had for years used private detectives and thugs to break up union organization meetings and strikes. They’ve used agents provocateurs to incite violence towards the unions and from their members. They’ve used their political connections and money to buy their way out of trouble and to propagandize through mass media.

What Adam Smith wrote in 1776 was as true in 1940 as it is today: If you don’t think there’s a ruling class that organizes itself to the exclusion of the working class you don’t know anything.


During World War Two, General Motors Corporation continued to function as an international corporation in violation of international law. Ford, Chase Bank and Standard Oil all had close economic ties with Germany well into the war.  It was just business.  Seriously. that’s a quote. “It was just business.” Prescott Bush profited through his banking connections and that’s probably where his family’s money comes from.  Without General Motors’ factories and technology, Nazi Germany never could have launched their war.


Many CIO members had learned about unionism from the Wobblies , and they were serious about class struggle. They fought cops, private cops, the National Guard and vigilantes. The AFL suffered the same beatings and persecution. Child labor was still so prevalent in 1938 that the New York State Senate voted to ban products manufactured under those conditions. In the south, blacks were routinely imprisoned as crops or roadwork needed attention. People died during those times working to establish democratic rights for all workers. The eight hour working day, and five day work week, with overtime pay wasn’t federally established until 1937. Without unions there’s no reason to believe that people would not still be working 12 or 16 hours a day.


There’s been way more labor violence than I can write of here, but one can’t mention labor violence without mentioning private police and spies. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was the best known of the private police organizations favored by industrialists. At their peak they had more agents than the US Army, and were outlawed in Ohio for that reason. By the mid 1930s they had infiltrated most major unions with nearly 4,000 informers.


More violence can be historically attributed to industrialists, public and private vigilantes, agents provocateurs and reactionary right-wing groups than to union organizers.

 These are the bodies of the children of striking mine workers in 1913. There was a Christmas celebration and someone yelled ‘fire’ in the union hall. 73 people, including 53 children were killed.

In the years before World War Two, the United States was working its way economically out of the Great Depression, which hit in 1929. Since the country’s founding, the United States had been hit by a series of bank crashes. The crash of 29 was caused by unregulated stock sales. Stocks were becoming so profitable so quickly and such a “sure thing” that people were able to buy more stocks with their profits, which only existed on paper. Banks had invested in stocks, and when this bubble burst, it was the workers that suffered.


In addition, due to poor farming technologies and years of bad weather, large populations of farmers were being displaced in the Midwest.

President Roosevelt initiated a series of government interventions including not only forestry and urban works projects, but artistic and intellectual as well.

The tools used by Roosevelt worked as successfully to stimulate the economy in 1932 as they would have when the Socialists proposed them in 1912.

During the war the strikes were shorter and more focused on local issues like safety or scheduling. The government during this time was generally friendly towards labor, and management began to see the benefits of cooperation with labor in the form of less industrial accidents and greater productivity. It is during this time that paid vacation becomes customary and the pay discrepancy between new and skilled workers lessens.


The CIO made an effort to educate workers of the effects and costs of racism (some white workers wanted to protest the advancement of black workers), and tried to unionize the southern states, but entrenched racism and the after effects of previous organizational failures (beatings, burnings and lynching) made it difficult. Left wing independent unions like Mine, Mill and the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers Union of America, that aggressively organized both black and white workers had more success.

Although slavery had been banned in the south since the Civil War, most of the mechanism, both legal and psychological was still in place, and collectively this was called Jim Crow.


White superiority was written into the laws and practiced on the streets. In the 1930s and 1940s a field boss in the south could beat a black worker to death easier than he could a mule. If you killed a mule, somebody was going to have to buy another one. If you killed a black guy you just waited by the jail and another “criminal” would come along soon.

Lynching, and the idea of lynching were so popular that they generated tourist collectibles. This early 3D image required a hand-held viewer.

The Jim Crow that oppressed black workers after the civil war was also an economic system that oppressed white workers in the same way black slavery oppressed white workers. How can any free worker compete with slave labor? We’re finding out that now with the products of the Chinese prison system flooding our shops.


 F U N  F A C T S

P R I S O N   L A B O R   I S   S L A V E   L A B O R

In 1860 North Carolina was a slave state. The population was just under 100,000, of which a third were slaves and over 30,000 were Free Negroes.


North Carolina seceded from the Union, and overwhelmingly supported the Confederacy, though many in the rural areas supported the North or stayed neutral. The North won the civil war, and the president, Abraham Lincoln was Republican. At the time the Republican Party was the more liberal of the two parties in the United States, and they ran the state in bi-racial coalitions, sometimes with populist groups.

However, the state was majorly Democratic and at that time in the South that meant they had the support of the KKK and the Red Shirts, a paramilitary organization which used terrorist tactics to discourage black voting.



This coalition came to power in 1896 and imposed Jim Crow legislation for racial segregation. In 1898 a mob of 1500 whites rioted in ‘the colored section’ of Wilmington killing an unknown number of people and destroying the black newspaper office. Having then run off the elected officials, they established their own government, thus pulling off the only coup d’état in US history. In 1899 literacy tests and poll taxes were imposed on the black citizens of the state, and voting rights were effectively denied them for over half a century. It’s been over another half century since the 1965 voting rights act, and the right to vote is still being debated and restricted in conservative states. In fact the Supreme Court has ruled that voting is a privilege and not an absolute right.


As early as 1875 private employers were able to lease prison inmates as workers. This proved profitable to the state, and the system developed over time. There were eventually horse-drawn prison cages used to transport workers to job sites.

Prison labor continued to be counted on to build roads and there was a series of permanent road camps established to house the inmates who did the work and the State Highway Commission and the State Prison Department were consolidated into one agency. 


At this time, 1930, the prisons also began making concrete pipe for the highway system. Federal laws prohibited this in 1936, and prison industry shifted its focus to work essential for prisons, like farming or uniform making, but prison labor continued on the highway system until 1957.


Human Zoo, 1958

Institutionalized slavery and wage slavery are the result of the same economic systems. That’s either something you understand or you don’t. There are some people who historically just don’t like unions, and they don’t like other forms of democracy either.


F U N  F A C T S

In November 1934, retired General Smedley Butler told the New York Evening Post and a congressional subcommittee that representatives of powerful industrial interests and the American Legion were trying to induce him to lead the Legion in a campaign to preserve the gold standard and to engineer a coup against President Roosevelt with Butler’s aid in marshaling the support of veterans. The McCormack-Dickstein Committee, which investigated, confirmed some of Butler’s accusations in its final report. “In the last few weeks of the committee’s official life it received evidence showing that certain persons had made an attempt to establish a fascist organization in this country”. There is no question that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient.


After the war, the Taft-Hartley act made it harder to organize unions. The act barred communists from official positions in unions. There were communists in the CIO and they had been instrumental in the union’s success, but they were forced out. In the union movement, there were those who found it convenient to name others as communists to advance themselves. There were further conflicts in the union about the Marshall Plan, and eventually the radicals left the unions or their voices were diminished.


Here’s a page from the 1949 TAFT comic. It was considered scandalous at the time.

But look at it today, it’s still the same basic conflicts between conservatives and liberals. Do you want to conserve a past that has never had a plan for the future, and human activity is controlled by the cash-flows of international corporations that channel ninety percent of the world’s wealth into one percent of the population or do you want to plan for a humane and sustainable system that assumes all people have the same rights?

Let’s Ask Al Hartley!

Al Hartley was born in 1921, in Kearny, New Jersey, the son of Re. Frederick Allen Hartley Jr. The senior Hartley was a Republican from New Jersey who became the youngest member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1929 and is best remembered for drafting what has become know as the Taft Hartley Act.

i mean no disrespect for Al Hartley here, though i probably wouldn’t agree with his politics. His comic book art is brilliant including his Spire comics, and this was a simple way to get more comic art into the article .

that is so pretty…


But the war hysteria and economy continued, and the second red scare and the Cold War were fueled by a worry of international communism, and found their public focus in Senator Joe McCarthy, who carried on a series of fraudulent and distracting senate hearings on the communist infiltration of America before being discredited.


i need a fun fact here that connects joe mccarthy, and his mob lawyer roy cohn to all the corruption of the nixon administation and then with roger stone (nixon insider) through to the corruption of the trump administration, but i don’t really have time

one picture is worth a thousand words


By the time the AFL and the CIO united in 1955 the benefits of organized labor were made clear by President Eisenhower, who said the “American philosophy of labor” had brought the country greater prosperity by recognizing the inherent rights of liberty, dignity and equal rights and justice for all.

Eisenhower spoke further of the interests of workers and employers as being a shared prosperity, and of his belief that labor relations were best when worked out in honest negotiation between employers and unions

In the 1950s America was a generally prosperous place. Union membership was high and we had a tax structure that could support construction of the new national highway system and new schools and libraries for the new boom of babies. The GI Bill, unique in history, had provided soldiers returning to work with financial and educational aid, federal corporations guaranteed mortgages, allowing home ownership, which provided a stable workforce. The banking regulations put in place after the stock market crash of 1929 had produced the longest banking success in American history, with no major crashes since then.

The Teamsters Union, which had been a very early AFL union, got a lot of bad press in the 1950s. The Teamsters originally drove horse-driven delivery wagons in cities and were first organized in the late 1880s. This was a job that required a lot of muscle and they were immediately a powerful union because their trade had a direct impact on all commerce “The Teamsters” leadership ultimately indentified more with the goals and methods of organized crime than they did of the work place democracy of the IWW which was still strong in parts of the AFL-CIO.

There were other corrupt unions, and many who had previously used “red baiting” (accusing one’s opponents of being communists in order to get power) had criminal ties, but the Teamsters were the extreme example before being put out of the AFL in 1957. James Hoffa, their leader disappeared mysteriously in 1975, and the union rejoined the AFL in 1987.

The United Farm workers called attention to America’s agricultural workers in the 1960s, and they’ve had continued success not only politically, but in popular opinion. North Americans, even conservatives have come to understand the complexities of immigration reform, and radicals have provided asylum for political and economic refugees even though it serves a ruling class agenda of keeping a pool of unskilled labor to exploit.

In 1980 President Reagan took immediate steps against unions after entering office by breaking up PATCO, the federal air-traffic controllers union. Presidents Bush 1 and Clinton both weakened labor’s position with the NAFTA agreements, and continued other programs that began with Reagan that further weakened the economy with theories of “trickle down” economics, and deregulation of banking and Wall Street.

Bush 11 continued the downturn in the economy with tax-cuts for the extreme upper classes and two unfounded and unfunded wars. He also de-regulated the banks and Wall Street and both of them crashed, leaving the United States in the worst economic shape since 1929.

F U N  F A C T S

When Ronald Reagan de-regulated the savings and loan industry it immediately collapsed in a bubble of speculation that involved the criminal negligence of Neal Bush. Bush was sued in civil court and lost. His savings and loan, Silverado, cost taxpayers more than $1.3 billion. Neal Bush was recently shilling for the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church. Moon claimed to be Jesus, but was actually a fascist who ran munitions factories in South Korea. Moon is currently dead and probably having a hard time explaining himself to the real Jesus

Neal Bush (L), Sum Dhood (C), Sun Myng Moon (R)

American manufacturing has shifted to overseas, which has created not only a loss of jobs, and union membership, but allowed corporations to shut down dirty plants, leaving local communities to clean up or live with the mess. Farming has become more mechanized, not only displacing workers, indeed, whole communities in the Midwest, and money no longer paid to farm families is now paid to banks and corporations which supply the finances , the huge machinery and own patents on the DNA of the plants themselves .

Reagan and his unofficial advisor Milton Friedman thought this would lead the United States into a bold new era as a Service and Information Economy, but eventually service and information were shipped off-shore, too.

F U N   F A C T S

The only time that the libertarian/free market theories of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics has been fully implemented was in the very stable country of Chile in the early 1970s. The Nixon administration was worried about the new socialist government of Salvadore Allende, which had recently nationalized the copper industry. Even though he was elected democratically, the US backed a coup in which he was killed. A military leader, General Augusto Pinochet (later tried as a war criminal) was put in power and Friedman was put in charge of the economy. The economy immediately tanked, unemployment increased ten times, and large populations became homeless. It was only the ironic fact that the copper industry remained socialized (owned by the people of Chile, not a foreign corporation) that kept the government solvent and in 1982, Friedman was out, and Pinochet had nationalized the banks. Without banking regulations in a libertarian paradise, the international banksters had looted the country. When Pinochet died in 2006 while under house arrest for war crimes including murder, money laundering and tax evasion people celebrated in the streets.

War Criminals Augusto Pinochet and Henry Kissinger, Above

These are the economic theories that the United States has been running on since the 1980s

 E N D

Union membership has declined in the United States as it has world-wide, and some of this is connected to the economic downturn, but America has lost a greater percentage of union membership than most developed countries.

Porn Stars Arrested for Animal Abuse, Tijuana, 1972

Labor history is no longer taught in most schools, even though it’s something that effects all Americans.



We don’t identify ourselves as workers anymore.

We’re professionals or entrepreneurs or freelancers. Sales people. Customer service. A worker is some guy who stands out in front of Home Depot, hoping to remove asbestos from your walls.

Along the way, unionists got associated in the public mind with strong-arm tactics and big-money corruption. In the late 1960s they were connected to right wing violence after the Hard Hat Riots, and there were divisions on the left over the new Green thinking as environmental concerns began to be factored into concepts of goods and services.

As the labor market changed, unions didn’t pursue organizing the newer, mostly low-wage, forms of labor, but paradoxically, groups of professionals like doctors and lawyers, have found themselves employed in large numbers by government and corporations, and they’ve found strength in unionism.

Dissatisfaction within the union movement has coalesced around some of the more progressive unions, and various coalitions have organized to put forward a more activist agenda, and this culminated in 2005 with the Change to Win Federation disaffiliating itself from the AFL-CIO.

Some members returned to the AFL-CIO, but CtW currently consists of four member unions: The International Brotherhood of Teamsters(IBT);Service Employees International Union(SEIU);United Farm Workers(UFW); and United Food and Commercial Workers(UFCW).

While worker productivity has increased greatly over the last thirty years, family income has dropped dramatically, and union membership in some circles has come to be seen as a cost that society cannot bear.

F U N   F A C T

Dwight Eisenhower’s brother got influenced by right-wing thinking and the President wrote him the following:

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

 e n d

Serious efforts are being made in a number of states to limit the rights and effectiveness of unions, especially in the public sector. It should come as no surprise that there are also serious efforts being made to disenfranchise voters through new regulations that place unfair restrictions on voting, such as mandating photo ID which can be costly to the poor and hard to get for the elderly. Original copies of 50-year-old marriage licenses have been demanded in many cases to prove the maiden names of voters who have lived in the same place for thirty years. Veterans have been told they were dead, or guilty of felonies.

Cities in Michigan are being declared “economic disaster areas” and their democratically elected governments are being superseded by emergency economic managers appointed by the governor, and paid for by the workers. The governor is also saying that police and fire services will be curtailed in less affluent areas.

The governor was also in on the appropriation of local park land to build a golf course and residential development that will only benefit a few political cronies and the Whirlpool Corporation. Whirlpool closed their last plant there in March of 2011, but is building a new $87,000,000 headquarters there, with $20,000,000 aid from the state, and that $500,000,000 golf course will be a nice addition. Not only for them, but their friends who are helping them improve the city.

Whirlpool is also holding out a $200,000,000 “gift” to the city, they’re just waiting for the right “improvement” to come along. Not only for them, but their friends who are helping.

This is the way corporations run things when they can. This is why corporations want to buy governments. When government is too weak and corrupt to represent the people, people organize for themselves. And that’s why unions organize.

The governor of Wisconsin, who tried to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees and barely survived a recall election because of it, gave his candid economic plan for unions: “divide and conquer”.

Once average workers do not understand themselves as workers and begin to see union benefits like health care and retirement funds as “cadillac luxuries” rather than basics that all workers deserve, then other worker rights can be chipped away.

There are already state bills limiting child labor laws. In the 2012 Republican primaries every candidate spoke of eliminating the federal departments of education, commerce and transportation. Prohibition of abortion, even of contraception and repeal of the Voter Rights Act are discussed

Fun Facts:


Black Lives Matter is a civil rights organization created after the police killing of 18 year old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on 9 August 2014. The movement gained momentum during a series of racially motivated murders of black Americans by cops and neighborhood vigilantes.

The Justice Department investigated and issued a report condemning Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, not a small, isolated area, as a place where law was not used as a means for protecting public safety, but as a way to generate revenue. A community in which both policing and municipal court practices were based on implicit and explicit racism, and disproportionately harmful to African American residents.

The public trust was found to have been undermined in a community where social conditions, unlawful practices and constitutional violations have undermined the public trust eroded police legitimacy, made local residents feel less safe and created an atmosphere where people feel under assault by those who claim to serve and protect, according to Attorney General Eric Holder on 4 March 15.

The report went on to detail how the town’s bureaucracy had supported itself for years by imposing as severe court fines as possible, which effected the poorest citizens, who were disproportionately black, because of the historic reality of Jim Crow .  Court fines, of which traffic tickets are the most common, can turn to jail time if left unpaid by poor people, and jail time leads to gaps in employment history and loss of residence, which puts stress on the resources of the community. police brutality *(edit)*   *work in progress*


The Citizens United decision by the Supreme court has made it easier than ever for out-of-state economic interests to anonymously disrupt local politics, and the same economic interests, but more than that, the same corporations, the same families that plotted to kill President Roosevelt and install a totalitarian government, the same people President Eisenhower called “stupid” and the same people who funded the John Birch Society in the 1960s are now funding the Tea Parties.

The American Union movement has been involved in all progressive movements since its inception. You could argue the labor movement is the foundation of progressive movements in America. Labor unionism is where ideas like “civil disobedience” work their way out of nineteenth century sermons and into real life.

1477836069challenger%20003-06-2People who don’t like unions don’t like other kinds of democracy. They don’t want everyone to vote. They don’t want public education. They don’t want universal health care. They don’t want gays to demonstrate affection in public and they don’t want any miscegenation.


Some very organized groups do not believe in public education or public health. Every time they have power they use that power to “prove” that government does not work. Imagine a government being run by people who think government does not work.

But it works for them. Ask George Bush, either of them, or Dick Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld, they’ve made $million$ off the government and their children don’t have to go to public schools, war or jail. Big Bill Heywood put it this way: If a man has a dollar he didn’t work for there’s a man who worked and didn’t get paid.

In Guernica Pablo Picasso

F U N   F A C T

During the Spanish Civil War, anarchists successfully ran farms and factories. Without bosses industrial production almost doubled, and agriculture was up 30% or more, according to contemporary reports. Anarchists spontaneously created a series of democratic, non-authoritarian methods for carrying on modern daily life during wartime. Anarchism in government: The new Minister of Justice destroyed all criminal profiles and eliminated judicial fees. The Ministers of Health and of the Economy were anarchists. The Communists, who were also in the improvised government fighting against the Fascists, fought against the Anarchists in their propaganda and instigated violent confrontations, killing thousands. The Fascists won, and killed more. But the Anarchists continued as an underground movement, working for Spain’s freedom. During World War Two they worked with the French Resistance against the Nazis, and smuggled Jews to safety in Spain.

e n d

As the economy falters around us and congress stalls and fails to take the simple steps needed to goose the economy (the same economic mechanisms that got us out of the depression, and the same tax structure Eisenhower had), and the Detroit train station is on sale on eBay for $500, the 99% or Occupy Movement has been instrumental in bringing working class issues to a focus, and will hopefully continue to be so.

As the 99% started to get noticed labor unions made offers of assistance which were rebuffed. But Labor unions are among the most progressive groups in the United States.


Labor unions by nature support public health and educational programs, integration, freedom of speech and an economic system that creates “The greatest good for the greatest number of people” as the Knights of Labor used to say a hundred years ago.

It is the American people who have created the wealth of America, which is, of course inherent, and yes, we were lucky to find it here, but it was the workers who actually built the place. We built the factories and machinery and produced our own goods to sell back to ourselves. Why do we feel the need to give control of our economy to a small group of international investors?

Unionism is democracy in the workplace, and workers need to remember that it’s been 100 years since industrial unionism was established. In that time we’ve seen the establishment of the five-day work week, the eight-hour day, paid vacations, pensions, workers compensation, the end of child labor, the end of convict labor (slave labor) the decrease of work place sexism and racism both in act and pay.


And that’s only in the workplace. Outside of work, a stable workforce increases the tax base of communities and allows schools and parks to be built. Extra income for workers means extra income for small businesses. Unlike the rich who save, invest or spend on luxury items that don’t have an effect on local economies, workers spend on necessities within their local towns. And remember this; when people buy houses or use credit to open a business, they pay that money back with interest. The investor class always profits from a strong working class.


Progressivism has improved the United States far more than conservatism, which has nothing to offer. It can’t. It never changes. Conservatives are proud of this. Historically conservatism has supported racism, gender inequality, economic stagnation, embarrassing wars with smaller countries and a grinding passive aggressive hysteria that insists on repression during a constant state of war. This is the America they vow to “win back” with their “second amendment solutions”.

All the major Republican presidential contenders over the last decade have declared some version of libertarianism that supposes a federal government that is purposely inadequate to regulate giant international corporate and monetary interests while at the same time large enough to raise an army whenever United Fruit is in danger from foreign democracies

The 99% are discovering what the IWW and the anarchists knew  over 100 years ago. The interests of capital and labor differ and are in some ways irreconcilable. Our factories are designed to produce profit, and not goods, and in this way we’ve backed ourselves into a crazy situation where the big corporations have socialism. We have banks that are too big to fail, even when they have very legitimately failed by being criminal enterprises but you and I, we’re stuck with capitalism.

References and Notes

As I update this (2017) I honestly can’t imagine anyone caring. I don’t really think anyone is going to read the entire 15,000 word piece, but I do want to explain it a little.

everything I’ve written previously has had some kind of commercial consideration. it’s petty obvious what my politics are, but nonetheless, I had to understate my beliefs to avoid editorial intrusion.

The history of labor day article elsewhere on this site was written to hopefully sell as a seasonal tie in to a comic book trade journal. It was too big and too weird, and as I was setting up my original website, I just put it up there.

In the early days of the internet it was the fist history to incorporate new information about the first celebrations in NYC and contained a clear timeline for development of the holiday, which was piecemeal in all the sources I referenced.

and comics. it has great comics.

it was picked up by NPR and I got something like 20,000 hits in one day, it was used as an adult teaching tool in I think Tennessee, and Joe Worker became a very collectible comic book. When, years later, I started this article and Wikipedia was organizing its labor union sections I was surprised to see that the Labor Day article was being discussed favorably by academics.

I believe in the labor movement, and believe democracy in America began with the labor movement. I decided to write a history of the movement, and it became  a ball of wax kinda thing, and i’m still not done adding either text or graphics.

the result is border-line crazy.  the text is way too big for the casual reader, has no real footnotes to be useful to a student and is punctuated to the point of incoherence by illustrations.

but i’m hoping that an occasional reader will get interested in the mix of short paragraphs and great classic art and read a little further than they expected to do

(original notes start here)

     The majority of this piece was referenced from Wikipedia as it existed in the Spring of 2012. Specific references are impossible, but I read as thoroughly as I could on the subject of American Labor Unions and hit almost all their hypertext links. Almost every proper name, organizational name or philosophy was referenced as were related topics such as the origins of the Western banking system, and the treatment of veterans. I lifted the ‘strike’ chart directly from Wikipedia and a couple of times I took whole sentences where they summed up something in such a logical succinct manner that it was silly not to.

I used a couple of books: They Were White and They Were Slaves by Michael A Hoffman 111, On The Fringe by Henry Miller, and was coincidentally was reading The Land Where the Blues Began by Alan Lomax and Living My Life by Emma Goldman, both of which were informative.

After completion of the text, I found the 1890 book The Labor Movement: the Problem of Today, edited by George E McNeil, who also wrote large sections. It is a brilliant, densely researched book that traces the history of unionism in very specific detail, giving histories of all forms of unionism up to the day, and back to the days of medieval guilds. It’s a classic and i’d recommend it highly. Those guys were smart. I found no contradictions with anything I’d written, and it filled in a lot of information that wasn’t available commonly about the specific relationship between medieval guilds and modern unionism, as well as specifics about the development of the Knights of Labor, and other details that were not readily available previously.  These edits will be included in the text as time permits.

I exchanged a couple of  letters with the King County Washington Ask-A-Librarian service on the subject of civil disobedience, and was provided with a couple of scholarly pieces, one of which was by Gale Research.

Civil disobedience; the rights of citizens in the face of systematic oppression is an idea that has taken hold in modern society, and a certain criteria has been established to measure the legitimacy of such political action to distinguish it from mob violence.

I won’t go through the list. I understand the list and academics’ need for the list and how under their criteria the IWW’s Free Speech actions don’t qualify, but I believe they do.  ‘The roots of civil disobedience are lost somewhere in the past of the labor movement’ to paraphrase the Gale Research document. But they’re not. The idea of civil disobedience, the sit-down strike, was integral with the Wobblies, and by the time they were protesting for free speech in San Diego they were joined by others with differing politics. Their Free Speech actions were cited as an inspiration by the early ACLU.  The IWW was not a mob or a criminal activity, they were (and are) an American labor group, rooted in the American labor activities of the past.

The IWW’s Free Speech actions were distinctly unlike anything before them, and set the stage for protest to this day and clearly meet all the academic requirements unless one willfully misunderstands anarcho-syndicalism and conflates it with terrorism.

I think my opinion will eventually be accepted, but for right now, it’s not. That’s the only time I have written something here that I cannot back up with a reference.

When I pulled my notes together, i re-referenced almost everything and went to half a dozen websites outside of Wikipedia to check out more obscure facts as I wrote.

As I continue to edit this i’m referencing a lot of subjects and finding some great new sites out there, and i’m going to start listing some nice articles people might like that I’ve been at least impressed with, and probably taken a reference or graphic from:



The art in this article has been scanned from my collection, or lifted from the internet. These are used for historic context and no copyright is implied.


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