The Month of January In American Labor History

“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.”  – Martin Luther King, Jr. (Born January 15, 1929)

 January 27, 1734: New York City maids organize to improve working conditions.

January 29, 1834: Responding to unrest among Irish laborers building the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, President Andrew Jackson orders the first use of American troops to suppress a labor dispute.

January 26, 1850: Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), is born in London, England. He emigrated to the U.S. as a youth.

January 10, 1860:  The Pemberton Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts collapses, trapping 900 workers, mostly Irish women.  More than 100 die, scores more injured in the collapse and ensuing fire. The cause of the collapse: too much machinery had been crammed into the building.

January 1, 1875: Women weavers form union in Fall River, Massachusetts and lead a strike after their wages are cut.  The men quickly join.

January 12, 1876:  Novelist and social reformer Jack London is born. “The function of man is to live, not to exist,” he wrote.  “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.  I shall use my time.”

January 30, 1882: Franklin Delano Roosevelt is born in Hyde Park, N.Y.

January 29, 1889: Six thousand railway workers strike for a union and the end of 18-hour day.

January 17, 1891: Filipino/Hawaiian labor organizer, lawyer, and migrant-rights activist Pablo Manlapit is born.

January 27, 1891: A mine explosion in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania leaves more than 100 workers dead.

January 2, 1903: President Theodore Roosevelt issues an Executive Order forbidding federal workers from “…either directly or indirectly, individually or through associations, solicit an increase of pay…”

January 11, 1912: Female textile workers from Poland working in Lawrence, Massachusetts mills begin the IWW-organized “Bread & Roses” strike after collecting their pay, exclaiming that they had been cheated, and abandoning their looms.  The strike, which involved 32,000 women and children, lasted 10 weeks and ended in victory.

January 28, 1917: 17-year old house cleaner Carmelita Torres leads the “Bath Riots” at the Juarez/El Paso border, refusing the gasoline and chemical “bath” imposed on Mexican workers crossing the border into the U.S. Torres and 30 other women resisted and several hundred people quickly joined in the demonstration.

January 15, 1919: A molasses storage tank in the North End of Boston bursts, sending a 40-foot wave of molasses traveling 35 miles per hour through the streets, killing 17 workers, five others and injuring 150.

January 28, 1932: The state of Wisconsin enacts the first U.S. unemployment compensation law.

January 5, 1933: Construction officially begins on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Safety netting suspended under the floor of the bridge from end to end saved the lives of nineteen workers; however, ten of the eleven deaths on the job occurred when a section of scaffolding fell through the net. The bridge opened in 1937.

January 23, 1933: Metal finishers lead 6,000 workers off the job over wage cuts at Briggs Manufacturing Company, sparking a strike wave of 15,000 auto body workers that paralyzes Detroit’s auto industry. With scabs trucked in and finished products trucked out under police escort, the company quickly resumed production. When the strike was called off on May 1, strikers were not rehired, but their collective action forced wage increases in the industry.

January 25, 1937: In response to management’s firing of two of boiler room engineers for union activity, Transport Workers Union members – supported by their non-union coworkers – at the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation’s Kent Avenue power plant in Brooklyn lock themselves inside and announce that if the men are not reinstated, they will shut down the city’s subway lines. The two men were quickly reinstated unconditionally.

January 31, 1938: Some 12,000 pecan shellers in San Antonio, Texas—mostly Latino women—walk off their jobs at 400 factories in what was to become a three-month strike against wage cuts.

January 7, 1939: AFL organizer Tom Mooney is pardoned and released from jail after 22 years following a conviction for murder.

January 8, 1939: The Screen Guild Theatre radio show – through which the Screen Actors Guild raised money for needy and elderly actors – airs its first program.

January 31, 1940: Ida M. Fuller is the first retiree to receive an old-age monthly benefit check under the new Social Security law.

January 8, 1945: AFL grants a charter to the Office Employees International Union (which changed its name to Office and Professional Employees International Union in 1965).

January 16, 1946: The meatpacking industry in the United States effectively shuts down when both the United Packinghouse Workers of America and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America go on strike over wages. Just ten days into the strike, using the War Labor Disputes Act, President Harry Truman seizes control of the plants and orders the workers back to work with the greatest single wage increase ever in the industry.

January 21, 1946: 750,000 steelworkers walk off the job, joining what would become known as the Great Strike Wave of 1946. The post-World War II strike wave was not limited to industrial workers; there were more strikes in transportation, communication, and public utilities than in any previous year. By the end of 1946, 4.6 million workers had been involved in strikes.

January 22, 1959: One of the worst mining disasters in history occurs when the Knox Mine Company digs illegally under the Susquehanna River without drilling boreholes to gauge the rock thickness overhead. The insufficient “roof” cover causes 10 billion gallons of water to pour into the mine, killing 12 mine workers, whose bodies were never recovered. Ten people were indicted on a variety of charges, including violations of the Anthracite Mine Act, conspiracy, and involuntary manslaughter.

January 17, 1962: President John F. Kennedy signs Executive Order 10988, which guarantees federal workers the right to join unions and bargain collectively.

January 4, 1965: Eight thousand public social workers represented by two different unions in New York City go on strike over workload and wages. Mayor Robert Wagner fired all of the strikers and threw nineteen leaders in jail for two weeks, but with the support of organized labor, the civil rights movement, and community groups, the workers won the strike within a month.

January 27, 1969: A group of Detroit African-American auto workers known as the Eldon Avenue Axle Plant Revolutionary Union Movement leads a wildcat strike against racism and bad working conditions. They are critical of both automakers and the UAW, condemning the seniority system and grievance procedures as racist.

January 31, 1978: After successful representation elections under the oversight of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, the United Farm Workers of America officially ends its historic table grape, lettuce and wine boycotts.

January 20, 1986: First observance of Martin Luther King, Jr., federal holiday.

January 31, 2002: Union and student pressure forces Harvard University to adopt new labor policies raising wages for lowest-paid workers.

January 31, 2005: Five months after Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans school board fires every teacher in the district in what the United Teachers of New Orleans sees as an effort to break the union and privatize the school system.

January 29, 2009: President Barack Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, making it easier for women and minorities to win pay discrimination suits.

January 27, 2014: Pete Seeger dies in New York at age 94.

January 27, 2014: Members of the Northwestern University football team announce they are seeking union recognition.

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