This summer, take a road trip and discover how Labor built America

By MICHELLE ZETTERGREN

From the bridges and tunnels of New York City to the fields of California, America’s history is steeped in the challenges, contributions and triumphs of working people. Celebrate this rich legacy by taking a cross-country trip to honor and better understand the people and places that elevated the American Labor movement.

Here are a few destinations to add to your itinerary.

1. BROOKLYN BRIDGE – NEW YORK CITY
This iconic landmark opened in 1883, connecting the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn via the East River. Its construction was a massive undertaking that took 13 years to complete.

The Sandhogs – who later became part of Local 147 of the Laborer’s International Union of North America (LIUNA) – dug the holes and sank the caissons that formed the bridge’s foundations. The Sandhogs also went on to build the city’s subway tunnels and sewers, as well as the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels.

At least two dozen workers died building the bridge, many of whom were Sandhogs. In 1872, 200 laborers went on strike to protest poor working conditions (including life-threatening decompression sickness) and low pay. The strike achieved a modest raise in wages – from $2.25 to $2.75 per hour – but was an important moment of organization for the Sandhogs.

2. CÉSAR E. CHÁVEZ NATIONAL MONUMENT – KEENE, CALIF.
This national monument pays tribute to Latino Labor leader César E. Chávez, who founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which later became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).

To fight for the rights of farm workers experiencing violence, discrimination and harsh working conditions, Chávez, along with Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla, formed NFWA in 1962. As the first lasting agricultural union, NFWA (later UFW) secured higher wages and safer conditions for farm workers nationwide. UFW also established resources like a credit union, health clinics, daycare centers and job training programs for members.

 

3. BLAIR MOUNTAIN – LOGAN COUNTY, W.VA.
In 1921, Blair Mountain was the site of the largest Labor uprising in U.S. history. Thousands of coal miners marched to the mountain, where they were met by local law enforcement and company guards. The subsequent battle lasted five days and resulted in at least 16 deaths.

The miners’ army was diverse, including both Black and white workers, new immigrants and those with a long history in Appalachia. Their goals were to unionize Southwestern West Virginia and fight against the coal companies’ long hours, unsafe working conditions and low pay in company scrip (which was routinely docked for housing and medical care).

The conflict ended with the arrival of federal troops and the disbursement of the workers.

Initially a setback for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), which had been organizing laborers in the area, in the long term, the events at Blair Mountain helped boost national sympathy for the plight of coal miners and ultimately boosted unionization efforts in the following decades.

 

4. PULLMAN NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK – CHICAGO
The Pullman neighborhood in Chicago was a model, planned industrial community completed in 1884 by industrialist George Pullman to attract skilled workers to build and repair Pullman railroad sleeping cars.

The neighborhood played an important role in Labor history as the site of the American Railway Union (ARU) strike of 1894, which quickly spread across the country.

After the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters – made up primarily of Black workers – was founded in 1925, the union gained a strong presence in the Pullman community. Led by A. Philip Randolph, BSCP was both a union and civil rights organization that fought against discrimination.

5. TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY – NEW YORK CITY
In 1911, a flash fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company led to the deaths of 146 workers, many of whom were Jewish and Italian young women and girls. It was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in American history.

In the factory, doors to the stairwells and exits were locked – a common practice to discourage theft or keep workers from taking unauthorized breaks. When the fire broke out, many of the workers could not escape the burning building and jumped from high windows to their deaths.

The incident caused national outrage and led to the adoption of stricter fire prevention laws and improved factory safety standards. It also helped garner support for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which fought for better conditions for sweatshop workers.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building is still standing in New York’s Greenwich Village. Now named the Brown building, it is owned by NYU.

If you’ll be near any of these sites this summer, seize the opportunity to learn more about the brave men and women who fought for the rights of workers. These advocates faced hardships and setbacks, but the strides they made formed a solid foundation for today’s Labor movement.

(Michelle Zettergren is President of MagnaCare, a national third-party administrator of Labor and Taft-Hartley Fund health plans.)


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