We're the 'fanatically focused' comeback kids


AFT Local 1360

I wonder how many baseball fans, even those who pack union cards, notice the silver-painted state historical marker close to Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The metal plaque tells about one of the most important events in American labor history, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

Camden Yards was the city's rail hub. 

Baltimore and Ohio Railroad workers in Martinsburg, W.Va., walked off the job on July 14. Baltimore workers followed two days later.

The strike was "specifically a reaction against a 10% pay cut...and generally a protest against conditions on the railroad and arrogant management attitudes," Bill Barry wrote in The 1877 Railroad Strike in Baltimore.

Times were hard; the Panic (depression) of 1873 still gripped the country. B&O management called on workers to sacrifice by taking less pay. The 10 percent slash followed two other cuts. 

But the bosses didn’t pare their hefty incomes or trim stockholder dividends commensurately.

Brutal working conditions also fueled worker anger. Even before the depression, rail workers toiled long hours at low pay--brakemen made $1.75 for a 12-hour day--in dangerous and often deadly jobs.

"The refusal of these men in Baltimore to accept another reduction quickly became the country's first national strike, an epic event in working-class history, which created spontaneous solidarity among railroad workers from dozens of separate lines all across the country," Barry wrote.  

Workers also left their jobs in Martinsburg, W.Va. Scores, then hundreds, of trains--most of them freight trains--stopped running.

The strike rolled westward into 13 other states and dozens of rail cities and towns, including Louisville, Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco, according to Barry, who retired as director of Labor Studies at the Community College of Baltimore County.

"The strike met fierce, vengeful and violent opposition from the railroad owners and officials, who refused to negotiate and relied upon brute military force to break the movement," Barry also wrote, adding that the strike "reflected the determination of workers across the country, many of them immigrants, to confront their bosses with collective action."

Federal troops crushed the strike, which left about 100 people dead, according to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. (Barry and Zinn's paperbacks belongs on bookshelves in every union hall.)

Zinn wrote that 100,000 workers joined the strike, which “roused into action countless unemployed in the cities" and stopped “more than half the freight on the nation’s 75,000 miles of track” before it ended in early August.

The striking rail workers were hardly alone in their plight. Thousands of men, women and children employed in the country’s mines, mills and factories suffered the same misery that railroad workers endured. 

Unions were rare in industry, especially among unskilled laborers. Owners and managers stubbornly, even violently, resisted unionization. They got a boost from powerful friends in politics, the pulpit and the press.

Throughout the late 19th-century, the Democratic and Republican parties were mainly conservative, pro-business and anti-labor.

Bankrolled by big corporations, lawmakers in state capitals and in Washington eagerly passed measures to restrict unions. Most city, county and state government executives enjoyed business largess, too; mayors and county officials gladly furnished police and sheriff’s deputies to help employers break strikes. If workers persisted, most governors--they pocketed plutocratic lucre, too--willingly offered National Guardsmen.

At the same time, rich right-wing publishers harangued against unions. Harper's Weekly called the Railroad Strike "the reign of terror" and a "story of theft and fire and slaughter." Barry wrote that The New York Times smeared the strikers as "thieves, blacklegs, looters, communists...drunken section-men...reckless rapscallions...riffraff, terrible fellows, idiots."    

Conservative preachers condemned unions and strikers as anti-Christian. Too, almost all local, state and federal judges were anti-labor. So was a Supreme Court majority.

Bipartisan union-busting extended to the White House. Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes was the president who sent U.S. regulars against striking rail workers. Seventeen years later, President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, called out federal troops to smash the Pullman Strike.

Zinn quoted a press report about a Chicago police attack on striking railroad workers and their supporters: “The sound of clubs falling on skulls was sickening for the first minute, until one grew accustomed to it. A rioter dropped at every whack, it seemed, for the ground was covered with them.”

U.S. infantry, National Guardsmen and Civil War veteran volunteers showed up to assist the cops who opened fire, killing three men.

Added Zinn: “The next day, an armed crowd of 5,000 fought the police. The police fired again and again, and when it was over, and the dead were counted, they were, as usual, workingmen and boys, eighteen of them, their skulls smashed by clubs, their vital organs pierced by gunfire.”

Zinn said the strikers had no chance against “the combination of private capital and government power.” The same combination defeated the famous Homestead (1892) and Pullman (1894) strikes.

Meanwhile, employers brazenly fired and blacklisted pro-union workers. They forced workers to sign “yellow dog contracts,” under which they’d be fired if they joined or stayed in a union.

When workers dared strike, employers hired scabs and armed gunmen from Pinkerton, Baldwin-Felts and other detective agencies to escort them through picket lines. Judges routinely issued injunctions to stop strikes; strikers who persisted were thrown in jail.

Violence, or the threat of violence, underpinned the whole anti-worker system. Law officers, detectives, company guards and vigilantes beat and even murdered union organizers, virtually at will. Workers also knew that if they struck, National Guardsmen and Uncle Sam’s soldiers also were waiting in the wings with Gatling Guns.

Hence, most American workers remained unorganized for decades. Significant unionization didn’t happen until the 1930s when FDR’s Depression-fighting New Deal program included legislation giving workers the legal right to organize and bargain collectively and requiring employers to accept unionization.

History really doesn’t repeat itself. But there are often parallels between the past and present.

Today, friends of labor are few in the seats of political power. Our foes occupy the White House and command majorities in the House and Senate. Brett Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court guarantees an anti-union tilt on the nation’s highest court, probably for decades.

Matt Bevin is one of the most anti-union governors in Kentucky history. Few legislatures have been more hostile to organized labor than the current one.

Yet labor history teaches that we’re the comeback kids. “The combination of private capital and government power” indeed beat us down for decades. But workers rallied behind FDR’s New Deal, which lifted them up and led to unprecedented union organizing.

Most of the GOP has been fighting unions since the New Deal. But starting with President Ronald Reagan in 1981, Republicans stepped up their war on workers. Since 1985, eight Republican-majority legislatures, including Kentucky's, have voted in "right to work" laws.

But our latest comeback trail started last August in Missouri, our western neighbor. In a landslide, Show-Me State voters mustered at the polls and voted out the RTW law the legislature passed last year.

The Kentucky State AFL-CIO and Teamsters Local 89 sued to stop the Bluegrass State's RTW law. The case is in the Kentucky Supreme Court.  

“This is our time,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka vowed in a speech at the Arizona AFL-CIO’s Labor Day Breakfast. “We are mobilizing the biggest member-to-member political program in our history. We’re tearing down a system that listens to the whispers of CEOs and ignores the voices of working people. We’re filling the halls of power with union members and our allies.

“We can reclaim our country...from our city halls and our state houses to the U.S. House and Senate. We can do it because each of you is ready to stake a claim in building a better future.

“Each of you in this room—you are our greatest weapon. We need your passion. When you talk to your coworkers...when you talk to your friends and family...when you make the decision to fully participate in your union...that’s how progress is won!

“The march to Election Day starts now. And my message is simple: vote union.

“For higher wages and quality, affordable health care...vote union!

“To protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security...vote union!

“For the freedom to organize and bargain collectively...vote union!

“For trade that actually lifts workers up...vote union!

“For better roads, better schools and better jobs....vote union!

“For an immigration system that respects our border agents, keeps families together and welcomes those seeking a better life...vote union!

“For Arizona...for America...for each other.”

We don’t think President Trumka would mind if we substituted “Kentucky” for “Arizona.”

Meanwhile, Bevin and the bare-knucks Republican union-busters in the Senate and House are counting on “Remember in November” to be just another slogan, catchy, but not really a vote generator.

Anyway, “Disgusted With Donald Trump? Do This” challenged the headline on a Frank Bruni column in The New York Times.

We doubt the scribe would care if we added “and union-despising Matt Bevin and Republican legislators in the Bluegrass State."

Explained Bruni: “We got it wrong in 2016. We can get it right in 2018. There’s a far side to this American disgrace, a way to contain the damage, and it’s both utterly straightforward and entirely effective.

“It’s called voting [italics mine]. And from now until Nov. 6, we must stay fanatically focused on that — on registering voters, turning them out, directing money to the right candidates, donating time in the right places.

“….There’s no hyperbole in the frequent assertion that it’s the most important midterm in a generation. And those of us rightly appalled by this president must devote as much energy to giving Democrats control of at least one chamber of Congress [and the Kentucky House] — and the ability to restrain him [and Bevin] — as to finding fresh methods for mocking him. A blimp in a diaper is a hoot. A legislature with its foot on his throat is an insurance policy.”

I loved the Trump blimp, which floated over London. I even chipped in money to help send it aloft. I also have two miniature versions of the baby blimp.

I also got a kick out of the anti-Bevin and anti-GOP signs at those big rallies in Frankfort last winter and spring. But flipping the state House is our insurance policy, too.

To help everybody's memory for November, we're attaching a list of our endorsed candidates. Click here to view the roster but, most importantly, vote like your job and your union depend on it, because they do.