Labor History

Posted: July 25, 2015
By: Clay Cerny

On July 24, 1915, Western Electric, a company in suburban Chicago, held an outing for it workers.  They were to be taken aboard the SS Eastland for a trip from Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana.  The boat never left the Chicago River.  It was poorly engineered and began rock.  Frightened passengers shifted to one side of the boat, and it capsized.  Of the 2,500 passengers on board, 844 drowned, several complete families.  In an editorial to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the this tragedy, the Chicago Sun-Times asked why this disaster never received the attention of the Titanic.  It concluded that part of the reason is social class:  "The Titanic carried many passengers in society's top tier, while most of the those who died in the Eastland were factory workers and their relatives, many of them immigrants."  We value the lives more of the rich and famous.  Robin Leach taught us that.  Long before him, Edwin Arlington Robinson explored the same theme in his poem "Richard Cory."  I've been to the section of Bohemian National Cemetery where several victims of the Eastland disaster are buried.  It's shocking to look at gravestones and see the names of parents and children who all died on the same day.  As the Sun-Times pointed out, their lives had value and their deaths were tragic.  We need to remember that when we hear politicians demean those who work low wage jobs, including the immigrants who often do work we exceptional Americans refuse to do.

A headstone from Bohemian National Cemetery marking a couple who died on the Eastland:

Posted: July 7, 2015
By: Clay Cerny


Today is the 110th birthday of the Industrial Workers of the World (a.k.a., the Wobblies). Labor History in 2:00 offers a brief overview of the union and its famous founders. The Wobblies were persecuted by the federal government and their own policies of not signing contracts hindered their ability to grow. That said, the organization still exists and has carried out several successful organizing campaigns in recent years. As American workers struggle to have better pay and working conditions, it is important to know the history of groups like the IWW and other heroes of the American labor movement. Nothing will be won without solidarity and struggle.

Posted: September 2, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

I just spent a couple of days in Springfield, Illinois, visiting many sites that honor one of America’s greatest heroes, Abraham Lincoln.  People think of Lincoln as the President who fought the Civil War and ended slavery.  We also marvel at his wisdom and morality.  What we often forget that Lincoln was a worker who believed in the dignity of labor.  As a young boy and man, he was a farm worker, rail splitter, boat worker, and surveyor – all before he was 30.  After moving to Illinois, Lincoln became a lawyer and politician.  He often argued that freedom depended on the ability to earn a fair living, and he compared kings to those who “live off the toil of others.”

After Lincoln’s death, American workers joined in labor unions that brought improved wages and working conditions.  Labor Day was made a holiday not long after the Pullman Strike in the late 19th century.  Many workers were jailed and died in the strikes and protests that brought change, including the ability to join unions.  The influence of unions pushed politicians to build a social safety net with its base as Social Security and Medicare.  Over the last 30 years, too many Americans took these advances for granted.  They accepted anti-worker and anti-labor propaganda while more and more of wealth and income was transferred from working people to – in Lincoln’s words – “those who live off the toil of others,” wealthy investors and their bankers.

This Labor Day we might be seeing a change coming.  Last year, the Chicago Teachers Union defied a Democratic mayor who hates labor almost as much as the most conservative Republican – and they beat him (at least until the school closings and budget cuts). Low wage workers in the retail and fast food sectors are starting to fight as miners and rail workers did more than 100 years ago. Like their great grandparents, they are engaging in direct action, risking arrest just to have the right to ask for a raise and join a union.  Elsewhere in Chicago, I see signs in the windows of many homes and signs on the lawn: Proud Union Home.  Working people are beginning to make their voices heard.  Lincoln would approve. 

Labor Day Extras

 Senator Elizabeth Warren discusses the importance of unions and respecting labor.

 President Obama praises labor and organizing without mentioning unions

 Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times reflects on the day.

 Amy Dean looks at the new face of labor – alt-labor – and the tactics it uses.

Posted: March 12, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

Today is Labor Day in Australia, where it is also known as 8 Hour Day.  How many Americans think of Labor Day as anything other than a day off (if they even have the day off).  Australia’s version underscores what was gained in limiting the number of hours worked in a day.  Sadly, for many Americans the 8 hour day has become a memory of their parents’ world.  We need to take a lesson from the good people of Australia.  Let’s celebrate and fight for the 8 hour day.

Posted: July 29, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

In today’s Chicago Sun-Times, Mary Mitchell introduces us to the people who are on strike against Caterpillar, a company that had a 67% increase in profits for the second quarter.  Mitchell takes us beyond the cliché of spoiled union workers and introduces us to real people and the struggles they are facing.  Take a few minutes to read this column.  It gives voice to people who too often are ignored by the corporate media* and too often reviled by their fellow workers.

* Yes, the Sun-Times is a corporation.  Unlike the city's other paper, it can sometimes look at issues that affect working people and the poor.  The paper investigates issues that matter to Chicago, and it has great columnists in Eric Zorn, Mary Mitchell, Roger Ebert, and Rick Telander.  Do I like all of its writers and editorial policies?  No.  But it hits more than it misses.


Posted: May 3, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

During a speech in 1864, Lincoln said, “The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relationship, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds.”

I found this quote in The “S” Word by John Nichols.  More on this fascinating book in future posts.

Posted: April 23, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

Common Dreams offers a great interview with John Nichols on the history and power of the general strike.  Europe and England have seen massive worker protests.  Will the U.S. rise up in a similar way?

Common Dreams has reposted an article in which Diane Ravitch examines Michelle Rhee’s impact on education “reform.”  I use quotation marks because anyone who has read Ravitch’s great book The Death and Life of the Great American School System understands how most reforms seem to have one goal:  Destroy the public school system.

Ravitch takes Rhee to task for her alliances with politicians who are transferring funds and resources from public schools to charter and private schools.  Rhee’s primary argument centers on blaming teachers for poor performance.  Ravitch answers that the former Chancellor of Washington D.C. schools is basing her argument on “urban myths,” claims that do not stand the kind of research Ravitch has done throughout her career.  It’s easy to blame teachers.  Ravitch will not take that easy path, which is why I trust her.

Posted: March 26, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

Writing in Common Dreams, David Macaray argues that labor needs to follow some of the down and dirty tactics of its opponents to defend itself against right wing attacks.  He identifies three areas – sponsorship, patriotism, and safety net – as areas where labor needs to find some good slogans to counter terms that belittle union members.

I agree with Macaray, but I’d add another category:  history.  Americans don’t have the best memories.  They need to be remind not just that unions brought the 40 hour work week (which few enjoy anymore) and workplace rights.  They need to hear about the great strikes and labor martyrs, the people who went to jail and died because they wanted regular, “middle class” working people to get a fair shake and just a little justice.  We need to remember those stories because we’re sliding back to the days when workers have no rights and corporations rule.

Posted: December 26, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

Democracy Now has produced a powerful tribute to the lyricist Yip HarburgHarburg honestly captured the spirit of the Great Depression in “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.”  He went on to write lyrics for stage shows/films that included “The Wizard of Oz” and “Finian’s Rainbow.”  After WWII, Harburg was an early victim of Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt.  Blacklisted, he could not work on a film project until the 1960s. 

Harburg believed in telling the truth, especially about the struggles of working people.  What I like most about this film tribute to Harburg was its display of his courage and strength, his faith in a better world – somewhere over the rainbow.

One of my favorite jazz singers Kurt Elling recorded Harburg’s “April in Paris.”  Check  out this video to see how Harburg’s words sing on.