Today in Labor History July 20

Kett’s Rebellion

Today in Labor History July 20, 1549: Kett’s Rebellion against the enclosures began. Insurgents began destroying enclosures in Morley St. Botolph on July 6. When they attacked the estate of John Flowerdew, on July 20, he tried to bribe them into attacking the estate of Robert Kett, instead. However, the plan backfired when Kett joined the rebels and helped them to tear down his own fences. Their 3,500-strong peoples’ army captured Norwich. They tried landowners en masse and established a Commonwealth on Mousehold Heath. The movement gained strength, with the army growing to 16,000.

The authorities eventually quashed the rebellion. Overall, 3,000 rebels and 250 mercenaries of the state died in the battles. But Kett refused the King’s pardon, arguing: “Kings are wont to pardon wicked persons, not innocent men. We have done nothing to deserve such a pardon. We have been guilty of no crime.” In response, the authorities tortured and hanged Kett slowly over several days. 

Numerous historical novels have portrayed Kett’s rebellion: “Mistress Haselwode: A tale of the Reformation Oak” (1876), by Frederick H. Moore; “For Kett and Countryside” (1910), by F.C. Tansley; “The Great Oak” (1949), by Jack Lindsay; “A Rebellious Oak” (2012), by Margaret Callow and “Tombland” (2018), by C.J. Sansom.

The Great Upheaval

Today in Labor History July 20 1877: In the midst of the Great Upheaval, the Maryland state militia fired on striking railroad workers in Baltimore, killing over 20, including children. The strike had started on July 14, in Martinsburg, WV, at the B&O Railroad yards. It quickly spread into Charleston, WV and Baltimore and Cumberland, MD.

In Baltimore, as the 5th Regiment marched toward Camden Station with fixed bayonets on their Springfield rifles, crowds attacked them with bricks. Miraculously, no serious injuries occurred. However, when the 6th Regiment began their march, the crowds drove them off with paving stones and fists. Without orders, they began firing at the crowd, killing several. When the two regiments met at Camden Station, the crowds again hurled stones and bricks, disabling locomotives, tearing up tracks and driving off the engineers. They set fire to railroad cars and buildings and cut the firemen’s hoses when they tried to douse the flames.

The Great Upheaval came in the middle of the Long Depression, one of the worst depressions the U.S. has ever faced. My novel, “Anywhere But Schuylkill,” (hopefully out by year’s end) takes place in the years leading up to the Great Strike and is Part I of “The Great Upheaval” trilogy. I am currently working on Book II: “Red Hot Summer in the Smoky City.”

Minneapolis General Strike

Today in Labor History July 20, 1934: Police shot at picketing strikers on Bloody Friday of the Minneapolis General Strike, killing two and wounding 67. The teamsters strike had begun in May. While the teamsters’ national leadership was conservative and opposed to strikes, Local 574, in Minneapolis, was affiliated with the Communist Party, and Local 544 was connected with the Trotskyist Communist League. They began organizing their members for a strike in spite of the national leadership. They effectively shut down nearly all transport in the city, except for food, which they permitted to prevent starvation.

The police, and vigilantes working for the bosses, routinely attacked strikers on the picket line. Consequently, workers in other industries joined them in solidarity, leading to a General Strike. On July 20, as the cops tried escort scabs onto a worksite, picketers with clubs tried to block them. The cops opened fire with shotguns. An eyewitness said he saw a man stepping on his own intestines and another carrying his own severed hand.

1950s-1970s

Today in Labor History July 20, 1955: The UAW (United Auto Workers) was indicted for illegal political contributions (not to be confused with the millions in legal contributions they have recently made, thus ensuring a government bailout that kept their bosses afloat, but resulted in lost jobs and lower wages for workers).

Today in Labor History July 20, 1971: The first labor contract in the history of the federal government was signed by postal unions and the Postal Service through the collective bargaining process.

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