Today in Labor History July 16

Today in Labor and Writing History July 16, 1862: Ida B Wells was born, Holly Springs, Mississippi. She was most famous for her nation-wide anti-lynching campaign, launched after the murder of three black businessmen in Memphis, Tennessee. Wells was born into slavery, in Mississippi and spent her lifetime fighting racism and prejudice. She worked as a journalist, where she documented lynchings. She also founded the NAACP. Her autobiography, “Crusade for Justice,” was published posthumously in 1970.

The Great Upheaval

Today in Labor History 7/16/1877: The Great Railway Strike (Great Upheaval) began in Martinsburg, WV, with strikes spreading across the country, despite the unions, which tried to block it. Boatmen, steelers, miners & workers of all ages, genders & races joined in. The authorities deployed militias & national guards. And they used federal troops for the first time to crush a strike. Workers fought back with rocks & bricks. They sabotaged equipment. Dumped railroad cars. Rerouted engines. Many of the poorly paid soldiers went AWOL & joined the strikers. In Lebanon, PA, they mutinied. Karl Marx called it “the first uprising against the oligarchy of capital since the Civil War.”

In Chicago & St. Louis, strikes were led by the communist Workingmen’s Party, affiliated with the First International. In Chicago, future Haymarket martyr, Albert Parsons, gave a fiery speech. In St. Louis, workers took over & ran the city for a week in what became known as the St. Louis Commune (after the Paris Commune of 1871). At a huge meeting in St. Louis, a black man asked: “Will you stand with us regardless of color?” The crowd replied: “We will!”


The Great Upheaval ended after 45 days, with over 100 workers slaughtered. In Pittsburgh, the militia killed 20 workers in 5 minutes. They killed another 20 in Chicago. In Scranton, they killed up to 50 workers. In the aftermath, unions became better organized, particularly the new Knights of Labor, which mushroomed in size. But the bosses learned many lessons, too. Many of the old stone armories we see across the country today were built after the Great Upheaval to provide cities with greater fire power for the next great strikes.

My novel, “Anywhere But Schuylkill,” is part of the “Great Upheaval” trilogy.


Today in Labor History July 16, 1894: Striking white miners killed many black mine workers in Alabama. 

Today in Labor History July 16, 1916: Carlo Tresca and other IWW strike leaders were arrested on charges of inciting the murder of a deputy. This was during a strike of 30,000 iron-ore mine workers of the Mesabi range in northern Minnesota. Tresca was an Italian-American IWW organizer and newspaper editor. He opposed fascism, Stalinism and mafia-infiltration of unions. He was assassinated in 1943. Some believe the Soviets killed him in retaliation for his criticism of Stalin. The most recent research suggests it was the Bonanno crime family, in response to his criticism of the mafia and Mussolini.

Tresca wrote two books. His autobiography was published posthumously in 2003. He also wrote a book in Italian, “L’attentato a Mussolini ovvero il segreto di Pulcinella.”

San Francisco General Strike

Today in Labor History July 16, 1934: The San Francisco General Strike began. The longshoremen’s strike actually started on May 9 and lasted 83 days, leading ultimately to the unionization of all West Coast ports. The strike grew violent quickly, with company goons and police brutalizing longshoremen and sailors. They hired private security to protect the scabs they brought in to load and unload ships, housing them in moored ships and wall compounds that the strikers attacked. In San Pedro, two workers were killed by private security on May 15. Battles also broke out in Oakland, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. On Bloody Thursday, July 5, in San Francisco, police attacked strikers with tear gas and with clubs while on horseback and later fired into the crowd, killing two and injuring others.

A General Strike was called on July 14 and began on July 16, lasting 4 days. Many non-unionized workers joined the strike. Movie theaters and night clubs shut down. Many small businesses shut down & posted signs in solidarity with the strikers.

On July 17, the cops arrested 300 people they accused of being communists, radicals or subversives. The National Guard also blocked both ends of Jackson Street that day with machine gun-mounted trucks to aid vigilante attacks on the Marine Workers Industrial Union headquarters and the ILA soup kitchen. They raided many other union halls and communist organizations. Vigilantes kidnapped and beat a lawyer for the ACLU, as well as 13 radicals from San Jose, CA.

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