September 3, 1916 – President Woodrow Wilson Signs Adamson Act, Providing 8-Hour Day on Interstate Railroads

As the National Employment Law Project website recounts, in August 1916,
nearly 400,000 railway workers voted to authorize a strike if an eight-hour day was not implemented. The railroads refused, and fearing a nationwide rail strike, President Woodrow Wilson requested Congress to pass the Adamson Act. (The language of the Adamson Act is now recodified, with only minor changes, at 49 U.S.C. §§ 28301, 28302.) Signed by Wilson the following day, the law implemented a standard work day of eight hours for railway workers across the Unites States.

The terms of the act were negotiated by a committee of the four railroad labor brotherhoods of engineers, firemen, brakemen and conductors.

The act, named for Georgia representative William C. Adamson, was the first federal law that regulated the hours of workers in private companies. The United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Act in 1917 in Wilson v. New (243 U.S. 332).

The Library of Congress has a timeline highlighting important dates related to this legislation as well as links to a collection of primary documents from the time.

Eight Hour Day or We Strike. Meeting of Railroad Union Leaders.” August 19, 1916. The Goldfield News and Weekly Tribune (Goldfield, NV), Image 2. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. via Library of Congress

August 11, 1937 – Formation of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union

On this day, August 11, 1937, the the International Longshore and Warehouse Union formed. As Professor Erik Loomis writes in his excellent online history:

The ILWU would set the pace for how a leftist union could show leadership through the rest of the 1930s and well into the Cold War era when communist-led unions were being destroyed.”

He observes:

The ILWU became perhaps the most democratic union in the American labor movement, with most decisions made at the local level. Although never a particularly large union, it did a lot of solidarity work, helping to organize many other sectors of the economy, ranging from manufacturing work to the entertainment industry. It forced rank-and-file members to do most of the organizing, with the international only coming in later, which was quite opposite to the top-down professional organizing model quickly adopted by most unions.”

Today, as Wikipedia notes, the ILWU primarily represents dock workers on the West Coast of the United States, Hawaii, and in British Columbia, Canada. It also represents hotel workers in Hawaii, cannery workers in Alaska, warehouse workers throughout the West and bookstore workers in Portland, Oregon. In all, it represents some 42,000 members in over 60 local unions.

This newspaper briefly served as the official communications organ for West Coast longshoremen.

May 4, 1886 – Deadly Bomb Explodes at Chicago’s Haymarket Square During Labor Demonstration

In 1886, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions organized a May Day general strike to demand an eight-hour day.  A PBS online history avers that because Chicago had a sympathetic mayor in Carter Harrison, the nationwide movement focused on that city. On May 1st, 80,000 workers lay down their tools and marched up Michigan Avenue behind August Spies, the editor of the English-language anarchist newspaper, “The Alarm.” That day ended peacefully.

Meanwhile, a strike was on at the nearby McCormick Reaper Works. The factory was located on the north bank of the Chicago River, east of the Michigan Avenue Bridge. On May 3, strikers attacked scabs leaving the McCormick building. (A scab is a strikebreaker who willingly crosses the picket line.) Immediately, two hundred policemen attacked the crowd, swinging nightsticks and firing their guns. Two workers were killed.

The anarchists called for a rally the next night at Haymarket Square to protest the deaths.

Mayor Harrison was there, but after he left the rally, the Chief of Police sent in his troops. From somewhere in the crowd, a bomb was thrown in front of the columns of police. The explosion left seven police officers were dead and sixty wounded, many of them hit by wild shots from fellow policemen. Reportedly a similar number of civilians were killed or injured but, as PBS notes, “the number is uncertain because few would admit to being at the rally.”

The police rounded up suspicious foreign workers and anarchist leaders. Seven men stood trial for murder. On June 21, they were joined by an eighth — Albert Parsons, leader of the American branch of the International Working People’s Association (I.W.P.A.), an anarchist group whose stated goal was to engineer a social revolution that would empower the working class. Parsons had fled the city after the bombing, but turned himself in to be tried with his comrades. No one had been identified as the bomber, but the eight defendants were tried as accessories to murder based on their inflammatory speeches.

Sketch of the seven men complicit in the Haymarket Affair. November 16, 1887. Watertown Republican (Watertown, WI), Image 3. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, LOC

The defense lawyer provided alibis for all eight men. The only two who were at the rally at the time of the bombing had been on stage, in full view of the crowd and police.

The prosecuting attorney, Julius S. Grinnell declared:

Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial… Gentlemen of the jury, convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society.”

The jury reached a verdict in three hours: death by hanging for seven of the men, including Parsons and Spies, 15 years in prison for the eighth, August Neebe.

Two men had their sentences commuted to life and prison and one man committed suicide in prison.

On November 11, 1887, the remaining prisoners were brought out to the hangman’s platform. Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer stood before the crowd with hoods covering their faces. And then Spies spoke: “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”

The Library of Congress has an online research guide for the Haymarket Affair, including links to digitized historic newspapers from that time, here. For more background, also see the account by the Illinois Labor History Society, here.

April 10, 1880 – Birth of Frances Perkins, First Woman to Serve in the U.S. Cabinet

Frances Perkins, born on this day in history in Boston, Massachusetts, served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. She was not only first woman appointed to a U.S. Cabinet position, but had the longest tenure of anyone serving in that job. Moreover, as the “Washington Post” notes, “During FDR’s first 100 days in the White House in 1933, Perkins was the force behind so many pillars of his program to combat the Great Depression that some called it ‘the Perkins New Deal.’”

Roosevelt meets with his his Cabinet in 1938. (George R. Skadding/AP)

Perkins graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry and physics in 1902. While attending Mount Holyoke, Perkins discovered progressive politics.

In 1907, she moved to Philadelphia and enrolled at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School to learn economics. After two years in Philadelphia, Perkins moved to Greenwich Village, where she attended Columbia University and became active in the suffrage movement. She obtained a master’s degree in economics and sociology from Columbia in 1910.

She achieved statewide prominence as head of the New York office of the National Consumers League in 1910, lobbying for better working hours and conditions. The next year, she witnessed the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a pivotal event in her life. The factory employed hundreds of workers, mostly young women, but lacked fire escapes; one hundred and forty-six workers died.

Because of this fire, Perkins left her position at the New York office of the National Consumers League, and on the recommendation of Theodore Roosevelt, become the executive secretary for the Committee on Safety of the City of New York. In 1919, she was added to the Industrial Commission of the State of New York by Governor Al Smith. Perkins was confirmed on February 18, 1919, becoming one of the first female commissioners in New York, and began working out of New York City. Six months into her job, her fellow Commissioner James M. Lynch called Perkin’s contributions “invaluable,” and added “[f]rom the work which Miss Perkins has accomplished I am convinced that more women ought to be placed in high positions throughout the state departments.” In 1929, the newly elected New York governor, Franklin Roosevelt, appointed Perkins as the inaugural New York state industrial commissioner.

Perkins helped put New York in the forefront of progressive reform. She expanded factory investigations, reduced the workweek for women to 48 hours, and championed minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws. She worked to put an end to child labor and to provide safety for women workers.

Frances kept a red envelope entitled “Notes on the Male Mind” which she would fill with notes about how men thought and how she could best make them listen. One way she endeavored to overcome the prejudice of the men she worked with by trying to remind them of their mothers in her appearance and demeanor. She later said, according to biographer Kirsten Downey, “They know and respect their mothers – ninety-nine percent of them do.” If that’s what it took, that’s the persona she would adopt. In this way, she went on to push successfully for workplace safety reforms and measures to reduce unemployment.

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Perkins to join his cabinet. Perkins presented Roosevelt with a long list of labor programs for which she would fight, from Social Security to minimum wage. As secretary, Perkins oversaw the Department of Labor. Perkins went on to hold the position for 12 years, longer than any other Secretary of Labor. She also was the first woman to hold a cabinet position in the United States, and thus became the first woman to enter the presidential line of succession.

As Secretary of Labor, Perkins played a key role in the cabinet by writing New Deal legislation, including minimum-wage laws. Her most important contribution, however, came in 1934 as chairwoman of the President’s Committee on Economic Security. In this post, she was involved in all aspects of its reports, including her hand in the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the She-She-She Camps.[11] Perkins also drafted the Social Security Act of 1935.

The “Washington Post” recounts:

“Perkins faced a Christmas deadline to finish the plan for what would become Social Security. Alone in her big house, she called in members of her team, all men, ‘placed a large bottle of Scotch on the table and told them no one would leave until the work was done,’ wrote Kirstin Downey in her book The Woman Behind the New Deal.

FDR signs Social Security Act with Frances Perkins over his left shoulder

With the death of President Roosevelt, Harry Truman ascended to the office on April 12, 1945, appointing his own cabinet but asking Perkins to serve on the United States Civil Service Commission. In her post as commissioner, Perkins spoke out against government officials requiring secretaries and stenographers to be physically attractive, blaming the practice for the shortage of secretaries and stenographers in the government.

Following her government service career, Perkins remained active as a teacher and lecturer at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University until her death in 1965 at age 85. She also gave guest lectures at other universities, including two 15-lecture series at the University of Illinois Institute of Labor and Industrial relations in 1955 and 1958.

President Jimmy Carter renamed the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., the Frances Perkins Building in 1980. Perkins’ was honored with a postage stamp that same year.

The Frances Perkins Center is a nonprofit organization located in Damariscotta, Maine. Its mission is to fulfill the legacy of Frances Perkins through educating visitors on her work and programs and preserving the Perkins family homestead for future generations. On the website, there are two documentaries you can watch on the life and work of Perkins.

December 4, 1867 – Founding of the Grange Lobbying Organization for Farmers

The Grange, founded on this day in history in Fredonia, New York, was formed as a political force to lobby on behalf of farmers at the state and federal level to promote the economic and political well-being of agriculture and its workers. As the Seattle University Law Library points out, the organization was unusual in that it allowed women to be full members from the outset.

In 1873 the organization was united under a National Grange in Washington, D.C. Paid agents organized local Granges and membership in the Grange increased dramatically.

”I feed you all!” – modification of the Grange motto “I pay for all” – lithograph by American Oleograph Co., Milwaukee, ca. 1875. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Grange membership has declined considerably, however, as the percentage of American farmers has fallen from a third of the population in the early 20th century to less than two percent today. Between 1992 and 2007, the number of Grange members fell by 40%.

Nevertheless, in 2005, the Grange had a membership of 160,000, with organizations in 2,100 communities in 36 states. It is headquartered in Washington, D.C., in a building built by the organization in 1960. Many rural communities in the United States still have a Grange Hall and local Granges still serve as a center of rural life for many farming communities.

September 26, 1874 – Birth of Lewis Hine, the Photographer Instrumental in Changing U.S. Child Labor Laws

Lewis Wickes Hine was born on this date in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He studied sociology at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and New York University, using a camera as both a teaching strategy and as a tool for social change and reform. As art critic Billy Anania observes, “Few American photographers have captured the misery, dignity, and occasional bursts of solidarity within US working-class life as compellingly as Lewis Hine did in the early twentieth century.”

The Washington Post reports:

In the early 1900s, Hine traveled across the United States to photograph preteen boys descending into dangerous mines, shoeless 7-year-olds selling newspapers on the street and 4-year-olds toiling on tobacco farms. Though the country had unions to protect laborers at that time — and Labor Day, a federal holiday to honor them — child labor was widespread and widely accepted. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that around the turn of the century, at least 18 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 15 were employed.”

The “breaker boys” at a Pennsylvania coal mine, photographed by Hine in 1911. (Library of Congress)

In 1907, Hine became the staff photographer of the Russell Sage Foundation. He photographed life in the steel-making districts and people of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for the influential sociological study called The Pittsburgh Survey.

In 1908 Hine left his teaching position to become the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). Over the next decade, he documented child labor, with a focus on the use of child labor in the Carolina Piedmont. In this capacity he aided the NCLC’s lobbying efforts to enact child labor laws better protecting children.

May 9th, 1910. Newsies in St. Louis, Missouri. (Wikimedia Commons)

However, as the International Photography Hall of Fame pointed out:

Child labor was extremely profitable and many business owners were unwilling to accept or adhere to the laws.”

Thus Hine’s work taking pictures for the NCLC was often dangerous. He was frequently threatened with violence or even death by factory police and foremen. To gain entry to the mills, mines and factories, Hine pretended he was there on some official business.

He published the photos he took along with background notes, which had great potency. The Washington Post noted:

Hine’s photos were paired with captions and stories from his interviews with the children, who would tell him their ages, backgrounds and working conditions.

If they didn’t know their own age, Hine would estimate it by measuring them. As a Bible salesman or in one of his other disguises — he posed as a postcard salesman and a machinery photographer, Hine could hardly be seen whipping out a measuring tape. That’s why he wore a three-piece suit. He could measure the children against the buttons on his vest.”

Maud Daly, age 5 and Grade Daly, age 3, photographed by Hine in 1911. Hine wrote that each girl picked a pot of a shrimp a day for a Mississippi oyster company. “The youngest said to be the fastest worker,” Hine noted. (Library of Congress)

The International Photography Hall of Fame recounted:

Eventually these images helped convince government officials to create and strictly enforce laws against child labor. The impact of these photographs on social reform was immediate and profound. They also inspired the concept of art photography, not because of the subject matter, but because the images showed a stark truth that dramatically differed from an emerging artistic character.”

During and after World War I, Hine photographed American Red Cross relief work in Europe. In the 1920s and early 1930s, he made a series of “work portraits,” which emphasized the human contribution to modern industry. In 1930, Hine was commissioned to document the construction of the Empire State Building. To obtain his famous pictures of the workers in precarious positions while they secured the steel framework of the structure, he took many of the same risks that the workers endured.

Icarus, Empire State Building, Lewis Hine (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Hine continued documenting conditions during the Great Depression, drought relief in the American South, life in the Tennessee Mountains, and he served as chief photographer for the Works Progress Administration’s National Research Project, which studied changes in industry and their effect on employment. Hine also made a visual record of working conditions of women during the 1920s and 1930s. Notably, Hine also photographed housewives; he believed that homemakers deserved recognition as workers.

Power house mechanic working on steam pump, 1920. (Wikimedia Commons)

Anania writes:

Hine once argued that a good picture is ‘a reproduction of impressions made upon the photographer which he desires to repeat to others.’ For him, an organized workforce was the epitome of empathy and mutual benefit, which he hoped to convey to the greater American public.”

The last years of his life were filled with professional struggles by loss of government and corporate patronage. Few people were interested in his work, past or present, and Hine lost his house and applied for welfare. He died on November 3, 1940 at Dobbs Ferry Hospital in Dobbs Ferry, New York, after an operation. He was 66 years old.

September 1, 1946 – The Great Hawaii Sugar Strike: “Rice and Roses”

Some 26,000 sugar workers and their families – 76,000 people in all – began a 79-day strike on September 1, 1946 – this day in history – that completely shut down 33 of the 34 sugar plantations in the islands. The Great Hawaii Sugar Strike, directed by the leadership of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), ushered in a new era of participatory democracy both on the plantations and throughout Hawaii’s political and social institutions, according to the University of Hawaii ’s Center for Labor Education and Research.

Chinese contract workers on a Hawai’i sugar cane plantation

Historian Miyako Martinez argues:

Hawaii is an exceptional case in American labor history because of its workforce made up of mostly non-white and immigrant workers—particularly of indigenous Hawaiian, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese descent.”

William Puette, Director of the Center for Labor Education and Research at the University of Hawaii – West Oʻahu observed: “In Hawaii, these plantations exercised what has really been described to a lot of people as ʻfeudalisticʻ control over workers.”

Martinez explains that a group of five families, from American, German, and English backgrounds, dominated the economic and political circumstances on the islands. They recruited contract laborers from other countries to build their workforce. She reports: “In 1922, 2,533 Portuguese, 16,992 Japanese, and 18,189 Filipinos” made up about 85% of the sugar production workforce.”

The workers had attempted strikes prior to this one, but because the labor unions had been organized by ethnic groups, internecine conflict plagued the efforts. In 1946, however, all the sugar workers of every ethnic group joined together in the same labor organization.

Plantation workers with clothing to protect skin and prevent centipedes from entering, via Topics of Meta

Puette outlines the challenges faced by the ILWU:

Understanding that every strike committee had to have Filipino and Japanese leadership and that all the meetings had to be conducted in English, Japanese, and Ilocano at the bare minimum, and sometimes also Visayan. . . . It’s amazing how they were able to do things. They were able to show the way for organizing and not by racial or ethnic groups, which was a pretty common thing to do in Hawaii before then and had never really been successful.”

Martinez documents how extensive the strike was, pointing out that ILWU dockworkers on the islands and on the U.S. mainland coasts shut down the flow of sugar and supplies. As the strike became more successful, union members also stopped picketing on the plantations and moved to mass picketing at managers’ homes.

The strike concluded with an agreement for the improvement of the material conditions of Hawaiian workers, including a wage increase and a ban on foreign contract labor. Other features were implemented such as “a nondiscrimination policy, a formal grievance procedure, increased sickness and vacation allowances (six to nine days) […] seniority preferences, pensions, and severance pay.”

The University of Hawaii labor center points out:

The strength of the 1946 sugar strike and the community organizing it built upon was so solid on the neighbor islands, especially Kaua’i and Hawai’i, that it soon became the bedrock of a new political order.”

December 21, 1916 – Birth of Labor Organizer Emma Tenayuca

Emma Tenayuca was born into a large Commanche family whose residence in South Texas predated both Mexican independence and the Mexico-U.S. War. Because of her work as an educator, speaker, and labor organizer, she became known as “La Pasionaria” (The Passionate One).

Emma Tenayuca in 1938

Emma’s family as well as those around her were hit hard by the Depression. She became a labor activist even before graduating from high school in San Antonio. Her first arrest came at the age of 16, in 1933, when she joined a picket line of workers in strike against the Finck Cigar Company.

After high school, Tenayuca obtained a job as an elevator operator, but spent most of her time pursuing her passion for labor rights. She founded two international ladies garment workers unions, and organized a protest against the beating of Mexican migrants by United States border patrol agents. In her early adulthood she was arrested for a second and third time: once on a charge of “disturbing the peace” during a nonviolent protest, and again for her leadership role in the 1938 Southern Pecan Shelling Company worker’s strike.

In the 1930s Texas pecans accounted for approximately 50 percent of the nation’s production, with nearly 400 shelling factories in San Antonio alone. But it was one of the lowest-paid industries in the United States, with a typical wage ranging between two and three dollars a week. According to the Texas State Historican Association:

“Working conditions were abysmal – illumination was poor, inside toilets and washbowls were nonexistent, and ventilation was inadequate. Fine brown dust from the pecans permeated the air, and the high tuberculosis rate of San Antonio – 148 deaths for each 100,000 persons, compared to the national average of fifty-four – was blamed at least partially on the dust.”

Tenayuca, only 21 years old in 1938, led 12,000 workers (mostly Hispanic women) in a strike of pecan shellers in San Antonio, Texas. Historians have described this as the first successful large-scale act in the Mexican-American struggle for civil rights and justice.

Union workers took over control of the strike, however, out of concern for Tenayuca’s controversial political ties. Like many other labor activists, she had joined the Communist Party in 1936.

The workers who picketed during the strike were gassed, arrested, and jailed. It ended after thirty-seven days when the city’s pecan operators agreed to arbitration. [Over the next three years, cracking machines replaced more than 10,000 shellers in San Antonio shops when the plant owners mechanized operations to avoid the higher labor costs.]

Emma Tenayuca

In 1939, Tenayuca was scheduled to speak at a Communist Party meeting in San Antono, but a crowd of 5,000 attacked the auditorium with bricks and rocks, “huntin’ Communists.” Police helped Tenayuca escape from the mob, but she was blacklisted and forced to move out of San Antonio.

Tenayuca moved to San Francisco where she majored in education. She later returned to San Antonio, earning a master’s in education. She went on to teach in San Antonio schools until her retirement in 1982.

In 1988, Tenayuca was interviewed by Luis R. Torres, as part of a project to document the history of the Mexican American civil rights movement. As the University of Texas at San Antonio reports:

During the 32-minute interview, Tenayuca discusses her family’s history in Texas, the genesis of her early radicalism and participation in the Communist Party during the 1930s, and her role in organizing the 1938 pecan shellers’ labor strike in San Antonio.”

Emma Tenayuca in 1988

You can watch a video of the interview here.

Shortly after retirement Emma Tenayuca developed Alzheimer’s disease and died on July 23, 1999.

December 16, 1884 – New Priest in Massachusetts Locked Out of Church For the Crime of Being Irish

Fall River, Massachusetts, approximately 50 miles south of Boston, was a leading textile manufacturing center in the 19th century. Many French Canadians came to the area to work, which caused tensions with the English Protestants and the Irish Catholics already battling for political hegemony and workforce dominance.

David Vermette, writing in Smithsonian Magazine, avers that the Canadians formed cultural archipelagos, “outposts of Québec scattered throughout the Northeast in densely populated pockets.” By 1900, he notes, one-tenth of New Englanders spoke French. And in the region’s many cotton mills, French Canadians made up 44 percent of the workforce—24 percent nationally—at a time when cotton remained a dominant industry.

Mass Moments, the daily almanac of Massachusetts history, reports that the Quebequois who came to Fall River had no experience with factory work, and “their poverty gave them little choice but to accept lower wages than those paid to other groups.”

The Smithsonian article describes their poverty. According to journalist William Bayard Hale, who visited Little Canada in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1894, “It would be an abuse to house a dog in such a place.” Some Fall River tenements, continued Hale, “do not compare favorably with old-time slave-quarters.”

The willingness of the Quebequois to work for lower pay earned them the enmity of both the English Protestants and the Irish Catholics, especially in light of ongoing labor protests.

Textile mills via Mass Moments

“Mass Moments” recounts:

Throughout the 1870s, immigrant English and Irish textile workers organized a series of labor actions and strikes. The French Canadians did not support the strikes, and in their desperate poverty they frequently took jobs as scabs or ‘knobsticks,’ as they were called. The Irish hated the French Canadians for what they saw as betrayal . . . .”

Religion was a refuge for the Canadians; French-speaking priests provided ministry as well as community leadership and social services.

In August 1884, the French Canadian priest assigned to the church serving the French Canadians died suddenly. Three months later, the Bishop named a new pastor: Father Samuel P. McGee, an Irishman. The French Canadians were outraged. As “Mass Moments” relates the story, when the new priest arrived to say Mass in mid-December, he found the doors and windows nailed shut; when he managed to get into the building, several of the parishioners held him captive and threatened to kidnap him should he attempt to return to the church. Father McGee fled the pastoral residence and went into hiding. The Canadians collected money to send a delegation to Rome to plead for the appointment of a French-speaking priest.

Tensions escalated and fights broke out between those who were willing to accept the new priest and those who insisted on a French pastor. Angry crowds gathered outside the church and disrupted services. Police were dispatched to the church to prevent “sacrilege.”

On February 13, 1885, the Bishop closed the church and withdrew the priest. The church reopened the next year, under another Irish pastor, and conflict began again. “Mass Moments” observes that ethnic tensions between Irish and French Canadians in Fall River did not ease until the end of the century when the arrival of Portuguese, Greeks, Poles, Lithuanians, and Italian immigrants changed the ethnic, political, and social mix of Fall River and other Massachusetts cities.

November 13, 1933 – End of First Modern Sit-Down Labor Strike by Hormel Meat Packers in Austin, Minnesota

Ahmed A. White, Associate Professor of Law, University of Colorado School of Law, writing in “The Depression Era Sit-Down Strikes and the Limits of Liberal Labor Law,” 40 Seton Hall L. Rev. 1 (2010) (available online here) avers that the sit-down strike was relatively uncommon in American labor relations until the 1930s. He attributes part of the cause for this new aggression on the part of workers to the change in the status of labor rights. He notes:

Until the New Deal, basic labor rights were all but completely denied to workers by an array of legal doctrines that served the needs of anti-union employers, including the widespread use of injunctions, the enforcement of anti-radical statutes, the discriminatory enforcement of everyday criminal laws, and of course the absence of any laws of consequence affirmatively protecting labor rights.”

Then in 1932 Congress passed the Norris-LaGuardia Act, outlawing yellow-dog contracts (pledges by workers not to join a labor union) and significantly limiting the ability of employers to use federal court injunctions to undermine labor rights. Professor White also cites the importance of the passage in 1933 of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). This radical legislation required companies to write industry-wide “codes of fair competition” for the protection of consumers, competitors, and employers. It effectively fixed prices and wages, established production quotas, and imposed restrictions on entry of other companies into the alliances. Employees were given the right to organize and bargain collectively and could not be required, as a condition of employment, to join or refrain from joining a labor organization.

Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska and Representative Fiorello H. La Guardia of New York, the chief sponsors of the Norris-LaGuardia Act

Although the NIRA was rather rapidly found unconstitutional in A. L. A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (295 U.S. 495, 1935), it still, along with the Norris-LaGuardia Act, “created a sense of overall change in labor’s legal condition and helped trigger an upsurge in labor-organizing efforts.”

It was in this charged atmosphere that the workers at the Austin, Minnesota Hormel meatpacking plant went on strike demanding recognition of their union, higher wages, and a safer workplace. The plant employed 2700 of the town’s 17,000 residents in 1933.

Larry Engelmann, in his history “We Were the Poor — The Hormel Strike of 1933,” Labor History, Fall, 1974, wrote of Hormel’s CEO:

Jay Hormel boasted brazenly in early 1933 that his unchallenged and unchecked power over the policies and personnel of George A. Hormel & Company packinghouse in Austin, Minnesota, was a ‘benevolent dictatorship.’ Laborers for the Hormel Company conceded that Hormel’s rule was dictatorial, but they disagreed with his use of the adjective ‘benevolent.’ More often the term ‘sheer tyranny’ was used often by workers to describe their take on Hormel’s labor policies within the giant meatpacking plant.”

Jay Hormel in 1938

Jay’s father George, who founded the company, was a different man altogether, often laboring alongside his workers. Engelmann informs us that George, who came from the same humble origins as many of his workers, was friendly and open with them, and receptive to their grievances. After an unfortunate incident involving the embezzlement of over a million dollars by one of his officers, however, George delegated significant control over the company to his son Jay, having Jay completely replace him when he retired in 1929.

Jay had a relatively privileged and sheltered childhood, and neglected to develop humility or empathy along the way. Jay’s tenure as the director of the company was further impaired by the onset of the Great Depression. Moreover, as Engelmann observed, “[Jay] Hormel successfully surrounded himself with a corps of unusually insensitive and often narrow-thinking foremen and straw bosses who seemed to take particular delight in attempting periodically to damage the self respect and sense of security of company laborers.”

Conditions for workers continued to deteriorate, and they tried work stoppages and other direct action techniques in an effort to force Hormel to agree to their demands. After Hormel attempted to bring scabs in to replace the workers, the sit-down strike began.

Workers striking at Hormel Packing Plant, Austin, 1933, via Minnesota Historical Society

On November 8, members of the Independent Union of All Workers (IUAW), formed that July, presented Hormel with five demands. Hormel replied to them in an open letter on November 10, 1933, basically claiming the company couldn’t afford to concede them. A strike was called that evening; work was suspended by most but not all workers; and picket lines organized. Engelmann reports:

Hormel worried about the twenty million pounds of meat he believed was spoiling on racks inside the plant and the massive $500,000 refrigeration system itself that was threatened. The pipes of the refrigeration system would freeze solid and burst within twenty-four hours unless the dynamos were turned back on.”

Strike at Hormel Packing Plant, Austin. Photograph by the St. Paul Daily News, 1933

Minnesota State Governor Floyd B. Olson, a member of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, refused to send in the National Guard to break up the strike, as Hormel requested. Instead, he offered to take the lead in an arbitration. He managed to work out a compromise, with both sides agreeing to submit their problems to arbitration by the State Industrial Commission.

On November 13, 1933, this day in history, workers thus ended their labor action three days after it began.

On December 4, 1933, in accordance with a ruling by the State Industrial Commission, workers received an increase in wages, although less than the raises originally demanded. The Hormel Company made only minor concessions, Englemann argued, since the increases were in line with those that went into effect throughout the meatpacking industry that autumn.

Nevertheless, as the Encyclopedia of US. Labor and Working-class History, Volume 1 by Eric Armesen notes, the success of the Hormel strike “caught the imaginations of thousands of other workers,” and direct actions by workers to improve conditions and compensation spread around the country.