The story of America is the story of its working people—their struggles and successes and their hopes for a better future for themselves and their families.
These days, the town of Cripple Creek, Colo., is best known for casinos—14 of them. A century ago, Cripple Creek was famous for important, dramatic battles where workers fought to win their rights.
It all began in 1894. Cripple Creek had become a boom town after gold was discovered. Some 150 mines sprang up. So did a strong miners union—the Free Coinage Union No. 19, which was part of the militant Western Federation of Miners (WFM).
The 1892 Homestead strike in Pennsylvania and the ensuing bloody battle instigated by the steel plant's management remain a transformational moment in U.S. history, leaving scars that have never fully healed after five generations.
The skilled workers at the steel mills in Homestead, seven miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh, were members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers who had bargained exceptionally good wages and work rules. Homestead's management, with millionaire Andrew Carnegie as owner, was determined to lower its costs of production by breaking the union.
Eugene V. Debs, arguably the foremost union activist in American history, described the 1909 McKees Rock, Pa., strike this way: "The greatest labor fight in all my history in the labor movement." Yet today, few remember this struggle when immigrant workers rose up and changed the course of American unionism.
The strike took place at the huge Pressed Steel Car Co. plant in McKees Rock, a few miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, where between 5,000 and 8,000 mostly immigrant workers from some 16 nationalities created railway cars. Hailing mainly from southern and eastern Europe, they included "Russians who had served in the 1905 Duma [parliament], Italians who had led resistance strikes, Germans who were active in the metal workers' union," according to historian Sidney Lens. "But because of the language barrier they were easily divided, and thoroughly exploited."
On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Firefighters arrived at the scene, but their ladders weren’t tall enough to reach the upper floors of the 10-story building. Trapped inside because the owners had locked the fire escape exit doors, workers jumped to their deaths. In a half an hour, the fire was over, and 146 of the 500 workers—mostly young women—were dead.
Many of us have read about the tragic Triangle fire in school textbooks. But the fire alone wasn’t what made the shirtwaist makers such a focal point for worker safety. In fact, workplace deaths weren’t uncommon then. It is estimated that more than 100 workers died every day on the job around 1911.
The shirtwaist makers’ story was so compelling because it brought attention to the events leading up to the fire. After the fire, their story inspired hundreds of activists across the state and the nation to push for fundamental reforms. For some, such as Frances Perkins, who stood helpless watching the factory burn, the tragedy inspired a lifetime of advocacy for workers’ rights. She later became secretary of labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
With slavery less than two decades behind them, thousands of black laundresses went on strike for higher wages, respect for their work and control over how their work was organized. In the summer of 1881, the laundresses took on Atlanta’s business and political establishment and gained so much support that they threatened to call a general strike, which would have shut the city down.
In the 1830s, half a century before the better-known mass movements for workers' rights in the United States, the Lowell mill women organized, went on strike and mobilized in politics when women couldn't even vote—and created the first union of working women in American history.
The Lowell, Mass., textile mills where they worked were widely admired. But for the young women from around New England who made the mills run, they were a living hell. A mill worker named Amelia—we don't know her full name—wrote that mill girls worked an average of nearly 13 hours a day. It was worse than "the poor peasant of Ireland or the Russian serf who labors from sun to sun." Lucy Larcom started as a doffer of bobbins when she was only 12 and "hated the confinement, noise, and lint-filled air, and regretted the time lost to education," according to one historian.
The strike that stunned the country," read the headline in Time magazine.
Maybe Time was stunned. But 200,000 postal workers had a different view. For them, the Great Postal Strike of 1970 was the moment they were "standing 10 feet tall instead of groveling in the dust," as a Manhattan letter carrier put it. They got fed up, joined together, and transformed both the Postal Service and their own lives forever.
Postal workers were part of eight separate craft unions, including the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC). But they (like all other federal employees) were denied the freedom to bargain collectively over wages. And like all federal employees, they were forbidden to even advocate for the right to strike.