Labor History & Working Class Heroes

Salt of the Earth  is a powerful film from 1954.  Here is a quick snyopsis of it: At New Mexico's Empire Zinc mine, Mexican-American workers protest the unsafe work conditions and unequal wages compared to their Anglo counterparts. Ramon Quintero helps organize the strike, but he is shown to be a hypocrite by treating his pregnant wife, Esperanza, with a similar unfairness. When an injunction stops the men from protesting, however, the gender roles are reversed, and women find themselves on the picket lines while the men stay at home!

Singer Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912. As a young man he fled the Dust Bowl to the West Coast, where worked for a radio station, and eventually became a renowned singer who championed the working class.  Perhaps his best-known song is "This Land is Your Land," an anthem to democracy. During the Great Depression, he captured the mood of the country. Many of his songs live on at rallies and on picket lines.

From December 1936 to February 1937 members of the United Auto Workers organized a sit-down strike inside the General Motors plants in Flint, Michigan. They ultimately won recognition of their union and improved wages and conditions. "With Babies and Banners" tells the story of the Women's Emergency Brigade, composed of female GM workers and the wives of men involved in the sit-down strike. 

In 1999 a group of health care workers in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin got together and decided that they wanted to form a union.  What followed was a dramatic orgnizing drive that resulted in several elections where workers at St. Mary's, Millwer Dwan, the Duluth Clinic, St. Lukes and elsewhere, voted to join the United Steelworkers. 

He stands off beside the stage, wearing a suit and tie, neatly trimmed beard, mostly gray hair, and wire rimmed glasses. The muscles of his face are tight and he is about to pounce--launch into his speech. He is Charlie Kernaghan the executive director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. Charlie Kernaghan starts to explain: "This is a picture of a kid from Bangladesh who's sewn stuff for Disney" and then he shouts---"SHE MAKES 17 CENTS AN HOUR. DO THE MATH!"

Karen Silkwood was a union martyr. She died trying to protect the health and safety of her fellow workers. She died on Nov. 13, 1974, while en route to a meeting with New York Times reporter David Burnham. She was bringing him documents proving that her company, Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corp., had falsified quality control records of nuclear fuel rods.

On the way to the meeting, Silkwood’s car was run off the road. The documents she had with her were not found in her vehicle. An independent investigator provided convincing evidence that Silkwood’s car was struck from the rear and driven off the road, causing her death.

Mother Jones worked tirelessly for economic justice.  Her opponents called her the “most dangerous woman in America,” for her success in organizing miners and their families against wealthy mine owners.

Born in 1830, her family fled the devastation of the Irish Potato Famine and emigrated to America.  Jones worked as a teacher and a dress maker, but after her husband and four children four children all died of yellow fever in 1867, and her dress shop was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, she began working as a union organizer.

Ella Mae Wiggins was an organizer, speaker, and balladeer, known for expressing her faith in the union, the only organized force she had encountered that promised her a better life.

 On Sept. 14, 1929, during the Loray Mill strike in Gastonia, NC, Textile Workers Union members were ambushed by local vigilantes and a sheriff’s deputy. The vigilantes and deputy forced Ella Mae Wiggins’ pickup truck off the road, and murdered the 29 year-old mother of nine. Though there were 50 witnesses to the assault, and five of the attackers were arrested, all were acquitted of her murder.