This week in labor history: May 18-24

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MAY 18
1912 – In an early job action by baseball players, the Detroit Tigers refuse to play after team leader Ty Cobb is suspended; he went into the stands and beat a fan who had been heckling him. Cobb was reinstated and the Tigers went back to work after the team manager’s failed attempt to replace the players with a local college team. Their pitcher gave up 24 runs.

1917 – Amalgamated Meat Cutters union organizers launch a campaign in the nation’s packinghouses, an effort that was to bring representation to 100,000 workers over the following two years.

1919 – Jerry Wurf, who was to serve as president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) from 1964 to his death in 1981, born in New York City. The union grew from about 220,000 members to more than one million during his presidency.

1928 – Big Bill Haywood, a founding member and leader of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), dies in exile in the Soviet Union.

1950 – Atlanta transit workers, objecting to a new city requirement that they be fingerprinted as part of the employment process, go on strike. They relented and returned to work six months later.

1959 – Insurance Agents Int’l Union and Insurance Workers of America merge to become Insurance Workers Int’l Union (later to merge into the UFCW).

1979 – Oklahoma jury finds for the estate of atomic worker Karen Silkwood, orders Kerr-McGee Nuclear Co. to pay $505,000 in actual damages, $10 million in punitive damages for negligence leading to Silkwood’s plutonium contamination.

MAY 19
1902 – Two hundred sixteen miners die from an explosion and its aftermath at the Fraterville Mine in Anderson County, Tenn.  All but three of Fraterville’s adult males were killed. The mine had a reputation for fair contracts and pay — miners were represented by the United Mine Workers — and was considered safe; methane may have leaked in from a nearby mine.

1920 – Shootout in Matewan, W. Va., between striking union miners (led by Police Chief Sid Hatfield) and coal company agents. Ten died, including seven agents.

1942 – The Steel Workers Organizing Committee, formed by the Congress of Industrial Organizations, formally becomes the United Steelworkers of America.

1950 – A total of 31 dockworkers are killed, 350 workers and others are injured when four barges carrying 467 tons of ammunition blow up at South Amboy, N.J. They were loading mines that had been deemed unsafe by the Army and were being shipped to the Asian market for sale.

2018 – William Burrus, president of the 360,000-member American Postal Workers Union from 2001-2010, dies at age 81. He is believed to be the first African-American to be elected president of a national union by direct member voting.

MAY 20
1926 – The Railway Labor Act takes effect on this day. It is the first federal legislation protecting workers’ rights to form unions .

1933 – Some 9,000 rubber workers strike in Akron, Ohio.

MAY 21
1921 – Italian activists and anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, widely believed to have been framed for murder, go on trial. They eventually are executed as part of a government campaign against dissidents.

1945 – The “Little Wagner Act” is signed in Hawaii, guaranteeing pineapple and sugar workers the right to bargain collectively. After negotiations failed, a successful 79-day strike shut down 33 of the territory’s 34 plantations and brought higher wages and a 40-hour week.

2004 – Nearly 100,000 unionized SBC Communications Inc. workers begin a four-day strike to protest the local phone giant’s latest contract offer.

MAY 22
1895 – Eugene V. Debs imprisoned in Woodstock, Ill., for role in Pullman strike.

1909 – While white locomotive firemen on the Georgia Railroad strike, Blacks who are hired as replacements are whipped and stoned — not by the union men, but by white citizens outraged that Blacks are being hired over Whites.  The Engineers union threatens to stop work because their members are being affected by the violence.

1920 – Civil Service Retirement Act of 1920 gives federal workers a pension.

1964 – President Lyndon B. Johnson announces the goals of his Great Society social reforms: to bring “an end to poverty and racial injustice” in America.

MAY 23
1903 – An estimated 100,000 textile workers, including more than 10,000 children, strike in the Philadelphia area. Among the issues: 60-hour workweeks, including night hours, for the children.

1934 – The Battle of Toledo begins; a five-day running battle between roughly 6,000 strikers at the Electric Auto-Lite company of Toledo, Ohio, and 1,300 members of the Ohio National Guard. Two strikers died and more than 200 were injured. The battle began in the sixth week of what ultimately became a successful two-month fight for union recognition and higher pay. One guardsman told a Toledo Blade reporter: “Our high school graduation is ... tonight and we were supposed to be getting our diplomas.”

1946 – U.S. railroad strike starts, later crushed when President Truman threatens to draft strikers.

MAY 24
1883 – After 14 years of construction and the deaths of 27 workers, the Brooklyn Bridge over New York’s East River opens. Newspapers call it “the eighth wonder of the world.”

1995 – Some 2,300 members of the United Rubber Workers, on strike for 10 months against five Bridgestone-Firestone plants, agree to return to work without a contract. They had been fighting demands for 12-hour shifts and wage increases tied to productivity gains.

(Compiled by David Prosten, founder Union Communication Services)

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