Labor Struggles, Now & Then

September 8, 2017

After a short quiz about current Fight for 15 movement, students read about and discuss U.S. labor's struggles — and historic strikes — through history.  



1. What is "Fight for 15?"

a) How the Mayweather/McGregor heavyweight boxing (with its $15 million prize) was billed.

b) The reality show where contestants may win a 15–minute appearance on "Fox and Friends."

c) The movement of low wage earners to raise the minimum wage to $15.

d) The ongoing diplomatic battle between China, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam to claim 15 small islands in the South China Sea.

e) The race among tech companies to develop the first 15–hour laptop battery.

Answer: (c)

2. How many people in the U.S. (population 323 million) make less than $15 per hour?

a) 5 million

b) 10 million

c) 20 million

d) 50 million

Answer:  (d) 50 million (according the the New York Times)


2. What percentage of the population supports raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour?

a)  <1%

b)  59%

c)  28%

d)  84% of Democrats and 32% of Republicans

e) This data cannot be determined because 21 states forbid polling on wage issues

Answer: Both (b) and (d) are correct, according to a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute


3. True or False

The Department of Labor will induct President Ronald Reagan (remembered most in labor history for his breaking of the 1981 strike by air traffic controllers, or PATCO, firing over 11,000) into its Hall of Honor.

Answer:  True. Before becoming president, Reagan had led the Screen Actors Guild.


4. Which of the following is an actual quote?

a) President Trump: "Raising the minimum wage is actually one of my top priorities."

b) Senator John McCain (R–AZ): "Fight for 15 is good for Arizona and good for America."

c) Senator Mitch McConnell (R–KY): "10, 15, 20 dollars an hour – I would support any of them."

d) President Lincoln: "In all its consequences for future American workers...I affirm my support for the $15 minimum wage."

e) President Putin: "Raising the minimum wage will be one of President Trump's top priorities."

Answer: None

Photo: Fight for 15 strike in Chicago, 2013, by Steve Rhodes



Labor struggles, current and past

On Labor Day 2017, low–wage workers in 400 cities around the U.S. protested and went on strike to fight for a $15 per hour minimum wage. Among the demonstrators were fast food workers, cashiers, nursing assistants, housekeepers, porters, childcare workers, call center operators, home health aides, laundry workers, manicurists, security guards, Uber drivers, parking lot attendants, and waiters.

Workers from McDonalds, Chipotle, Subway, Dunkin' Donuts and other restaurant chains were joined by other low–wage workers and supporters in celebratory parades, angry demonstrations, political rallies and music festivals. In Los Angeles and other cities, people also protested the Trump administration's plan to end the DACA program, which protects some young immigrants from deportation.

The Fight for 15 movement, which seeks to establish $15 as the minimum wage, has had some successes since it began in 2012. Several cities on the west coast, including Seattle, Tacoma, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, have adopted the raise (some in incremental stages). Two states––New York and California––have also passed $15/hour legislation. Other states and cities, including Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, and New Jersey, are expected to follow suit. The Fight for 15 organization is largely funded by the Service Employees Industrial Union. It began with a walkout of 200 fast food workers in New York City and continues to be moved and energized by minimum wage workers across the country, who often risk losing their jobs by participating.

The relationship between workers and employers has undergone enormous change since the industrial revolution. Up until the last decades of the 19th century, business owners had near complete control over the wages and working conditions of their workers. But the late 1800s saw the rapid growth of big business  and monopolies – as well as the emergence of national unions. Strikes were common, sometimes violent and often suppressed by government action.  Labor legislation beginning  with President Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s and furthered by economic prosperity after World War II, led to an era in which a relatively high percentage of workers were unionized. The era also saw growing labor–management cooperation. Since the 1970s  unions have steadily declined.  Researchers attribute the decline to a number of factors:

  • increased opposition from business
  • the ability of corporations to move their business to lower–wage states or countries
  • the shrinking of manufacturing employment in the U.S.
  • automation of unionized industries
  • workplace trends, including the growth of part–time and contract work
  • strong opposition to unions from government
  • changes in unions that distance workers from leadership

The decline in union membership and labor’s reduced power has led to a decline in the number of strikes and the likelihood that workers who do strike will win. Unions have always found it easier to win strikes when they have help from outside: from other unions, from civic organizations, sympathetic individuals, customers, and sometimes other businesses. Here is a sampling of some of the notable strikes in U.S. history.

Great Upheaval.  The strikes that have come to collectively be called the Great Upheaval were largely spontaneous actions of workers, in the absence of unions. The upheaval began with workers on the B&O Railroad in Martinsville, WV, receiving their third pay cut in less than a year. The workers struck and were supported by most of the town. Only when the National Guard was called in were any trains able to move. But the strike spread rapidly to B&O workers in other states and then to other railroads and industries, eventually involving 100,000 workers. Local police, state militias, and the National Guard had difficulty suppressing the rebellion (especially when the militia sided with the strikers). Over 100 people were killed and hundreds of railroad cars and buildings were destroyed.  he rebellion, lacking coordination, leadership, and specific demands, eventually petered out. Some local strikes were successful, but the forces of law and order prevailed.

Pullman Strike.  In 1894, railroad workers again were at the center of a nationwide strike. This time it was the 3000 employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company near Chicago who went out on strike. They sought help from the new American Railway Union (headed by socialist Eugene Debs), which asked its members not to run trains that had Pullman sleeping cars. 125,000 railroad workers heeded the call and rail traffic throughout the country was crippled.  Again, though public opinion was largely on the side of the strikers, it was federal power—through the courts, the president and the U.S. Army—that gave the railroad companies their victory. In a move to regain favor from voters who had sympathized with the workers, President Grover Cleveland gave in to demands for a national workers' holiday, and got Congress to pass legislation creating Labor Day.

Bread and Roses Strike.  On January 11, 1912, 30 women textile workers in the textile city of Lawrence,  MA, found that their already miserable paychecks were reduced by 32 cents. They refused to work. The low pay and terrible working conditions soon led garment workers in the entire city—30,000 in all—to also strike. The strike is special in labor history for a number of reasons.

  • Many of the workers were young women ( a majority working for one company were under 18 years old).
  • The workers, divided by 40 different nationalities, were nevertheless able to unite against the mill owners.
  • The strikers and their supporters were able to build a remarkable network of kitchens, relief committees, medical assistance, childcare, and other service.
  • The strike was opposed by the established unions. It was led by the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which empowered the strikers themselves to make decisions in numerous committee and mass meetings.
  • The strikers were unusually creative in their tactics. They were able to dramatize the poor and dangerous living conditions by sending hundreds of children out of Lawrence to temporarily live with other families.

Seattle General Strike. Shortly after the end of World War I, ship–building workers in Seattle demanded a pay increase (after years of war–time wage controls). When it became known that a federal agency acted to block the wage increase, over 100 unions representing 65,000 workers, walked off their jobs. The strike committee ended up essentially running the city—maintaining essential services and keeping the peace. Some 30,000 meals per day and milk distributed by 35 milk stations kept people well fed. After five days of success, the strike began to fail. Fears of radicalism (partially fueled by fears about the Russian Revolution) led the more conservative unions to abandon the strike. Public opinion turned against the unions and the local government threatened massive police and army response. The strike is remembered not for success at the bargaining table, but for the ability, even for a short time, for workers to democratically and cooperatively run a city.

Flint Sit–Down Strike.  On December 30, 1935, automobile workers at the General Motors Fisher Body Plant in Flint, MI, went on  strike. Instead of walking out, they occupied the plant and refused to allow anyone in. The time and place of the strike were strategic. A new, relatively sympathetic judge was set to take office in January, and the Fisher plant was one of only two factories to produce dies crucial for making car bodies. The workers formed committees for security, cleaning, entertainment, and defense. Food was provided by a nearby diner and by the Women's Emergency Brigade. The sit–downers survived the heat being turned off, company spies, police raids, and the presence of National Guard troops armed with machine guns. After six weeks of occupation (and car production cut down to a trickle), the strikers won union recognition for all GM workers.

Delano Grape Strike. Farmworkers have long been among the lowest paid workers in the country, and often suffer brutal and unsafe working conditions.  These conditions were exacerbated by farmworkers’ exclusion from protections under the National Labor Relations Act. (This core labor law also excluded domestic workers – another category of work dominated by workers of color.)  For decades, determined growers defeated efforts by the mostly immigrant and migrant agricultural workforce to organize. This was the background of the 5–year strike against grape growers in California. The strike began in September 1970 with a small group of Filipino workers and was joined by a much larger group of Mexican and Mexican–American farmworkers led by Cesar Chavez. The struggle for union recognition was strengthened by the principles of nonviolence that Chavez inspired. The cause became a fight not just for worker rights but for civil and human rights. Several years into the strike, the United Farm Workers began a national boycott of table grapes. Millions of Americans joined the boycott and stopped buying grapes. Eventually, the years of marches, picketing, boycotts, and support from other unions paid off, and growers began to negotiate with the farmworkers.

1970 Postal Strike.  It was illegal for postal workers to strike, or even bargain for wages, but the New York City letter carriers struck anyway to raise their pay, which was then about $7,000 per year. The strike soon spread  to over 200,000 workers across the country. National and local union leaders opposed the strike and President Nixon called out the National Guard to deliver mail. The "wildcat" (unauthorized) strike continued  for eight days and ended with no dismissals and with negotiations for reorganizing the postal service. In a matter of months five of the separate postal unions were merged into one union with the right to collective bargaining for wages and working conditions.

UPS Strike. In 1997,  over 185,000 Teamsters struck the United Parcel Service.  The main issues were job security and the large increase in part–time workers. These workers were paid much lower wages than full–time workers, and were entitled to no benefits. The new reform leadership of the Teamsters had spent an entire year organizing for the strike.  They won the union election on a platform of democracy, and proceeded to involve the membership in all aspects of the campaign, taking care to minimize the divisions among the  members––especially between the part–timers and full–timers. Other strategies involved:

  • getting the UPS pilots  and mechanics to support the strike
  • organizing unions representing UPS workers around the world  to show support
  • successfully appealing to UPS customers to honor the strike

The union ended the strike after two weeks when the company agreed to their demands.

Chicago Teachers Strike.  On Sept. 12, 2012, teachers in Chicago went on strike. 98% of the teachers who voted on whether or not to strike voted yes. Wages were an issue, but both sides acknowledged that they were close to agreement on compensation. What set this teacher strike apart from other teacher strikes was the extent to which the direction of education became an issue. Education policy in Chicago and around the country has been moving toward high–stakes testing, closing "failing" schools, firing teachers whose students score poorly, promoting charter schools, and eliminating music, art, and physical education classes. In Chicago (and nationally), this new model of education is supported by a powerful coalition of corporate sponsors, tech millionaires, conservative organizations, the Republican Party, and an important segment of the Democratic Party establishment. The Chicago teachers built a strong alliance with parent groups which advocate for smaller class sizes, greater funding for public schools, and an end to "teaching to the test." Ultimately though, the teachers had little room to bargain on educational policy. When the strike was settled, the teachers won their wage and job security demands and some concessions on lowering the stakes of standardized tests.



For Discussion

  1. Conservatives oppose minimum wage legislation because they feel that the labor market will find the correct balance without government intervention. Do you think the government should have a say in setting wages?
  2. Do you know any adults who earn less than $15 per hour? What kind of things can't they afford?
  3. Some union supporters see workers organizing (and fighting together) as a better solution to low wages than relying on the government to raise the minimum wage. What do you think?
  4. Going on strike is a last resort employees use to force their boss to give higher pay. Can you think of any other tactics that fast food workers (or other minimum wage earners) could use to increase their pay?
  5. What might you say to someone who was hesitant to risk losing their job by joining a Fight for 15 action?
  6. Economic conditions are vastly different than in earlier eras when hundreds of thousands of workers would strike their employers. Yet today, many people work full–time or work several jobs – and still barely get by. What should people do about this?


Sources great–upheaval–1877–jeremy– brecher updates/business–july–dec01– labor_day_9–2/–chicago–teachers–strike–sheet/post/chicago–teachers–strike–the–issues/2012/09/10/8a8173d8–fb69–11e1–b2af–1f7d12fe907a_blog.html?utm_term=.c53f4d8cebd2

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