Worst-case Scenario

A never-before seen report shows just how fragile our great cities were—and are

There was a time when urban Americans weren’t afraid of terrorists, bombs, and poison gas. The worst thing that could happen in a city was a strike. Cities were unprepared for labor walkouts because nobody could tell who would strike or when and where. Mayors saw to it that they kept on good terms with unions.Read more »

What Happened To Organized Labor?

FIFTY YEARS AGO unions seemed invincible, but they’ve been losing battles and members ever since. The reasons their fortunes fell suggest that they’re sure to rise again.

On October 24, 1995, in the thick of a bitter contest for the presidency of the AFL-CIO, John J. Sweeney, leader of the dissident forces, rose to address the union’s convention. If the delegates were “tired of being treated like so much road kill on the highway of American life,” he said, they must reject the Status quo and vote for him. He promised more activism and more organizing. Apparently most delegates needed little persuasion. They elected him president by a substantial margin.

 
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Butte, America

POISONED, RUINED, AND self-cannibalized, this city is still the grandest of all boomtowns

It’s spooky up here on the top floor of the Metals Bank & Trust Building. Shards of glass and crumbled plaster crunch underfoot, obscuring the elegant tile pattern of the corridor floor. Heavy oak doors with pebbled windows and missing knobs stand open to the hallway. Inside what used to be plush offices, the hardwood floors are buckling under porcelain washstands flecked with pigeon droppings. At one time this was some of the most exclusive real estate within a thousand miles. Now it gives me the creeps. Read more »

The, Actors’ Revolt

HISTORY’S MOST PHOTOGENIC LABOR dispute lasted thirty days, spread to eight cities, closed thirty-seven plays, and finally won performers some respect

 

1919. The first full year of peace after the World War was a restless one. It saw the advent of Prohibition and the Black Sox scandal. The Communist Labor party of America was founded, while the Socialist party leader Eugene Debs went to jail. The U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Read more »

The Lady Brakemen

Consigned to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Garbage Run,” they fought their own war on the home front, and they helped shape a victory as surely as their brothers and husbands did overseas

All the new lady brakemen on the Pennsylvania Railroad were put to work on what was officially known as the Jersey Coast Extra List. The crew dispatchers referred to it as the Women’s List, and the male brakemen, who had been consigned to it before the women were hired, called it the Garbage Run. It was also known as the meat—as opposed to the gravy, the cushy sit-down jobs on the main line Washington Express, which paid three times as much for about one-tenth the work.Read more »

Dirty-faced David & The Twin Goliaths

One of the country’ more bizzarre labor disputes pitted a crowed of outraged newsboys against two powerful opponents—Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolf Hearst

Joseph Pulitzer, nearly blind, suffering from bouts of depression, and so sensitive to sound he exploded when the silverware was rattled, managed his newspapers in absentia for the last twenty years of his life.Read more »

Working For The Union

At a time of crisis for American labor, an organizer looks back on the turbulent fifty-year career that brought him from the shop floor to the presidency of the United Automobile Workers.

Douglas A. Fraser is unusual among American union leaders of this generation. He started out as a worker, not as a professional union man, during that fervid time of union organization, the Great Depression, and witnessed the founding of his own union. When Fraser retired from the presidency of the United Automobile Workers in 1983, it marked the end of an epoch in the UAW and in American trade unionism. Almost alone among modern union leaders, Fraser knew firsthand what working was like before the union and what it was like after. Read more »

Rosie The Riveter Remembers

For millions of women, consciousness raising didn’t start in the 1960s. It started when they helped win World War II.

DURING THE FIRST three years of World War II, five million women covered their hair, put on “slacks,” and at the government’s urging went to work in defense plants. They did every kind of job, but the largest single need was for riveters. In song, story, and film, the female patriot, “Rosie the Riveter,” was born. Many of the new recruits had worked in service trades—as maids, cooks, or waitresses. Many more had never worked at any paying job. Practically none of them had ever made as much money.Read more »

“shut The Goddam Plant!”

The great sit-down strike that transformed American industry

At General Motors’ Flint, Michigan, Fisher Body Number One, the largest auto-body factory in the world, it was early evening of a chill winter day. Suddenly a bright red light began flashing in the window of the United Automobile Workers union hall across the street from the plant’s main gate. It was the signal for an emergency union meeting. Read more »

The West Virginia Mine War

BLOOD FLOWED IN THE PERENNIALLY TROUBLESOME COALFIELDS IN 1921, WHEN THOUSANDS OF MINERS DECIDED THEIR RIGHT TO ORGANIZE WAS WORTH FIGHTING FOR

On the morning of August 1, 1921, the Gazette of Charleston, West Virginia, carried under an eight-column banner on its front page the following dispatch from the city of Bluefield:

“Sid Hatfield lies in the morgue at Welch tonight, a smile frozen on his lips, eyes wide open and five bullet holes in his head and chest. On the slab next to him lies the body of his friend and bodyguard, Ed Chambers. Read more »