Today in Labor History May 25

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Today in Labor History May 25, 1805: The authorities arrested striking shoemakers (cordwainers) in Philadelphia. The authorities charged them with criminal conspiracy for violating an English common law that barred schemes aimed at forcing wage increases.

In 1794, the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers organized around protecting wages and blocking scabs from taking their jobs at lower wages. They struck several times over the next decade, sometimes winning wage increases. However, in November, 1805, the master shoemakers took the issue to court. As a result, a grand jury indicted 8 journeymen of “conspiracy to increase wages,” thus ending the strike. Prosecutors argued that the journeymen societies (precursors to modern unions) threatened the entire economy of the city. (Of course, it might, if other workers joined in and it became a General Strike). They further argued that if allowed to organize, such worker combinations could lead to civil war.

The judge was a Federalist. He denounced the workers and told the jurors that organizing was illegal. Consequently, they found all eight workers guilty. The judge fined them eight dollars each. This trial upheld the Federalist ideal of the sanctity of private property and industrial growth, unhindered by workers’ organizations.

1870s-1890s

Today in Labor History May 25, 1871: The “Bloody Week” assault on the Paris Commune continued. The reactionaries of Versailles now controlled the Left Bank and were summarily executing the Communards with machine-guns. 

Today in Labor History May 25, 1886Philip Murray was born in Scotland. He later emigrated to the U.S. and become founder and first president of the United Steelworkers of America. He also served as head of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) from 1940 until his death in 1952.

May 25, 1895: The authorities imprisoned libertarian socialist author Oscar Wilde for two years for “indecency” for having sex with men. Many potential witnesses refused to testify against him. However, he was still convicted. The judge said “It is the worst case I have ever tried. I shall pass the severest sentence that the law allows. In my judgment it is totally inadequate for such a case as this. The sentence of the Court is that you be imprisoned and kept to hard labor for two years.” The terrible prison conditions caused Wilde serious health problems and contributed to his early death. Wilde once said that “Work was the curse of the drinking class.”

Early 1900s

May 25, 1901: The Federación Obrera Argentine (FOA) held its founding congress. It was attended by workers, socialists and anarchists. 

Mexican Revolution

Today in Labor History May 25, 1911: Mexican President Porfirio Díaz resigned after a popular uprising (the Mexican Revolution). Diaz had been dictator for thirty years and was despised by the overwhelming majority of Mexicans. He took power in 1867 by overthrowing Archduke Maxmillian of Austria. As dictator, he opened up Mexico to imperialist exploitation to a degree not seen in his predecessors. For example, oil production went up from 10,000 barrels a day to 13 million between 1901 and 1913. Mexicans rose up against him in the revolution of 1911, led by Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and Madero. However, there were other uprisings by other revolutionaries, too. For example, the anarchist Ricardo Flores Magon led an uprising in Baja California.

1910s-1920s

May 25, 1917: IWW river workers won one the IWW’s shortest strikes ever in Brief, Washington

Today in Labor History May 25, 1925: Labor “racketeers” blew up two “company” houses where scab coal miners were living during a strike in Wheeling, West Virginia. 

May 25, 1925: The state of Tennessee indicted high school science teacher John Scopes for teaching his students the truth (i.e., teaching evolution). The court ultimately ruled against him. The judge issued a $100 fine. However, the court overturned this on appeal. Nevertheless, the state supreme court ruled that the law he broke, the Butler Act, was constitutional. It remained in effect until 1967.

1930s

May 25, 1932Thousands of unemployed WWI veterans arrived in Washington, D.C., to demand early payment of a bonus they had been told they would get, but not until 1945. They built a shantytown near the U.S. Capitol and called themselves the Bonus Army. However, U.S. troops forced them out after two months. And prior to that, police opened fired on the veterans, killing two of them.

Today in Labor History May 25, 1936: The notorious 11-month Remington Rand strike began. Remington Rand made office equipment, like typewriters. The federal union striking against them was affiliated with the AFL. The strike spawned the “Mohawk Valley (N.Y.) formula,” described by investigators as a corporate plan to discredit union leaders, frighten the public with the threat of violence, and use thugs to beat up strikers. The National Labor Relations Board termed the formula “a battle plan for industrial war.”

No one died during the strike, but violence was rampant. Both sides fought with bricks, bottles, fists, clubs and other weapons. However, it was later revealed that agents provocateur, employed by the company, had committed many of the violent acts blamed on the workers. Remington Rand also hired large numbers of private security to protect their scabs and properties. Furthermore, they used the local police to intimidate entire towns. Squads of cops armed with shotguns would stand guard at the edge of town, demanding identification from anyone wishing to enter or leave.

1940s-1950s

May 25, 1946: The railroad strike was settled with terms imposed by President Harry Truman. 

May 25, 1953: The U.S. conducted its first and only nuclear artillery test in the Nevada desert. Nuclear artillery is essentially firing a nuclear bomb from a cannon.

1960s

Today in Labor History May 25, 1962: The AFL-CIO began an unsuccessful campaign for a 35-hour workweek. Earlier attempts by Organized Labor for 32- or 35-hour weeks also failed.

May 25, 1968: The May Uprisings continued in France, with negotiations beginning in Grenelle between the government and the trade unions. The government was so afraid that soldiers would abandon their posts and fight with the workers and students, that they called up reservists and kept the soldiers in isolation. 

2000s

Today in Labor History May 25, 2018: President Donald Trump signed executive orders making it easier to fire federal employees and limit unions’ ability to defend their members. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees called the actions “more than union busting – it’s democracy busting.” A federal judge (appointed by President Barack Obama) later struck down key parts of the orders.

May 25, 2020: Police murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, setting off a worldwide wave of anti-police brutality protests.

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