The Reading Room 

Stories of Labor Union History

The Chilean labor movement - like all labor movements in the world-has had to confront a fierce wealthy class. Establishing unions has not been an easy task. Clotario Blest-Riffo comes from those we called the Christian left. His contributions to organized labors extends throughout his life. Yet, the most telling fact is that he was the first president of the largest federation of labor in Chile: the "Central Unica de Trabajadores de Chile (CUT)" - the Central Union of Workers of Chile. This photograph shows Charles James about the time he was elected St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly President. This may appear puzzling at first. Most people would not identify this man as a person of African heritage. Woody Guthrie songs, or as Woody preferred "people's songs" are, perhaps, his most recognized contribution to American culture, the stinging honesty, humor, and wit found even in his most vernacular prose writings exhibit Woody's fervent belief in social, political, and spiritual justice. In 1931, coal miners in Harlan County were on strike. Armed company deputies roamed the countryside, terrorizing the mining communities, looking for union leaders to beat, jail, or kill. But coal miners, brought up lean and hard in the Kentucky mountain country, knew how to fight back, and heads were bashed and bullets fired on both sides in Bloody Harlan. 
As early as age 5, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn already had the "indelible impression" of working class life and poverty where they lived in Manchester, N.H., "where the great mills stretched like prisons along the bank of the Merrimac River." Rosie the Riveter While American men were being shipped to the front lines in the 1940s, American women were moving to the factory lines.  

Samuel Gompers president of the American Federation of Labor for almost forty years, between 1886 and 1924, and the nation's  leading trade unionist and labor spokesman. 


Nellie Stone Johnson, the Grand Lady of Labor and Civil Rights in Minnesota.
Gerald W. McEntee is the International President of the 1.3 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the second largest union in the AFL-CIO and one of the fastest growing.  William (Bill) Lucy was elected International Secretary-Treasurer -- the second highest ranking officer -- of the 1.3 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), AFL-CIO, in May 1972. The Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) was founded to provide a presence for Jewish labor in the councils of the American trade-union movement and in the Jewish "establishment," and to mobilize labor in the struggle against fascism. B.C. Vladek was the founder of the JLC. Mother Mary Harris Jones, labor activist; her autobiography is absolutely one of the most stirring pieces of Labor history you will ever read. Enjoy! Read The Autobiography of Mother Jones.
Labor violence at Chicago's Haymarket Square - one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of Chicago, the United States, and of working people everywhere. Yoi u can also read Evidence From the Haymarket Affair. Joe Hill - a labor organizer executed by the state of Utah in 1915; PBS special, Labor Day, 2000. Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926) - his career would span some of the most turbulent times in American labor history, and he would leave a legacy as a tenacious fighter for the common man and the good of all. Debs ran for president five times on the socialist ticket. His final campaign in 1920 was from prison. George M. Pullman founded the town of Pullman as a place where his workers could live. This town was conceived and designed on the premise of being a model town where his workers could live, with every aspect complete including parks and a library. The Pullman Strike of 1894 was the first national strike in United States history.
The Bryant & May dispute was the first strike by unorganized workers to gain national publicity. The women at the company decided to form a Matchgirls' Union and Anne Besant agreed to become its leader. In 1925, with A. (Asa) Philip Randolph at the helm, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) began organizing the nearly 10,000 porters. Finally, in a hard-won victory hailed by African Americans and progressives nationwide, the company recognized their union in 1935. Celebrating Hispanic Heritage - Biography - Dolores Huerta, born 1930, the most prominent Chicana (Mexican American woman) labor leader in the United States. She is cofounder and first vice president of the United Farm Workers union.

Together with Dolores Huerta, his family and others, Cesar Estrada Chávez formed the United Farm Workers and was able to organize a strike against the growers to obtain union contracts and improve conditions for agricultural laborers. Read about Cesar and the struggles of the United Farm Workers.


Eva McDonald Valesh 'Joan of Arc' for St. Paul's working people, by Elizabeth Faue -- wrote about the "working girls" who toiled in Twin Cities sweatshops in the early 1900s.


Frank Little - Little's gravestone remains a much visited site in Butte, where he was killed. His graveston reads: "slain by capitalist interest for organizing and inspiring his fellow men" Rose Schneiderman - "I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement." Fannie Sellins was a labor organizer--and from all accounts, she was an exceptional one. But she paid with her life.