Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.

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A Working-Class Hero

Bil Johnson
Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.


What we’re going to look at now is, a piece of American history that doesn’t always get examined. And that is the history of the labor movement, the history of working class people. One of things we have to recognize is that, particularly in the post civil war period, as monopolies rose and businesses grew, there was clearly a turn in the attitude of American public, that valued property and profit over people. And the working class people were the ones who suffered the most. They started to realize that, if they didn’t organize collectively, they really would be left behind.

What we’ve got in this period is the beginning of a movement, the Labor Movement. Working class people bending together to collectively organize, so that their voice can be heard. There is this tension in America, with his democratic impulse for rights which the workers wanted, and this conflict with property and profit. And so we get the beginning of an incredible movement, the labor movement and that’s what this episode’s about. And that’s what we’re going to be talking about for the next few minutes.

There was some labor unrest in Colonial times. People like hatters and rope workers occasionally walked out. But it wasn’t until after the Civil War, that working class people, laborers, people working in factories, on the rail roads, etcetera, realized that they may have to organize collectively to get what they want. When I say that to get what they want, well what was it that they wanted? It’s pretty simple, what labor historically has always asked about; wages, hours, working conditions.

So basically what you had, in the late 19th century was the beginning of workers saying we need a little bit of protection here in terms of what our wages are. How much money we make, how many hours we work and also what the working conditions are like.

It’s hard for us to imagine here in the early 21st century, work places that wouldn’t have fire extinguishers around, or sprinkler systems. Work places that would in fact actually lock you into your office, so if a fire broke out you couldn’t get away. These things actually happened and created, needless to say, a tremendous amount of distress for working people. So what we’ve got in the late 19th century, is the beginning of what becomes known as the labor movement and organized labor. And that’s what we’re going to take a look at now.

What I’ve said up here is not a comprehensive or definitive timeline of labor history. It’s almost like a little graders ticks list that I put together. You really are going to need to go to the bonus material, or actually do some research yourself, to get the real details. I left out some pretty big stuff, because I’ve picked out some things that I just want to point out that I think are concepts and ideas about the American labor movement, you should probably pay attention to.

First and foremost, we’ve got 1869, the creation of the Knights of labor. It starts out as kind of a fraternal organization and then people start to realize, we really need to be a little more serious about this. It’s not just about having meetings and being kind of hail fellows well met. We need to start to talk to management, talk to the bosses about what we need as labor.

In 1882, I just think this is great. The first Labor Day parade in New York City happens. And there’s and irony to that because labor is being treated miserably, but it does know enough to want to celebrate what they do. Working class people are proud of what they do, they go out and celebrate it.

The first Monday of September is Labor Day. And we still do celebrate that event. But you should think about that. You should think about these holidays and what they’re designed to commemorate. Because Labor Day really is about working class people.

In 1886, the Haymarket Square Riot is a violent event in which some people are killed, a bomb goes off. It’s the result of struggle between labor and management in Chicago. Again, I’m not going to go into the details, you can look that up. But it typifies and also brings the national focus on the fact that things are really not good between labor and management, and needs quite a bit of attention. This is where Samuel Gompers comes in. And I can almost guarantee you that this will be on the AP US History Test. The creation of the American Federation of Labor, the AFL, which is still the biggest strongest union in the United States, is organized by Samuel Gompers in 1886. And it’s the beginning of bringing together lots of trade unions, lots of laboring people under one banner.

The Pullman strike in 1894 is significant because again, it’s violent. The federal government ultimately intervenes. The Pullman company, which is a company that makes sleeping carts for rail roads which were very popular at the time, has been really treating its workers horribly. They’ve created this time, the management would create what they called little corporate towns. They would provide the housing for their workers, but then charge them ridiculous rent. They would run the company store and overcharge them for food. And so the workers ended up with pennies each week. So the workers struck and actually the management brought in Pinkertons at first, essentially a private police force, and the federal government had to intervene to calm things down.

What we see there is a precursor for the 1901 to 1908. Really 1909, administration of Teddy Roosevelt, and the beginning of the Progressive era. Where we start to get minimum wage law, maximum hour law, the eight hour a day, minimum wage, safety in the workplace, no child labor. So we get an array of progressive laws to protect labor, to protect children from being in the labor market. That really sustains labor over a long period of time.

In the 1930s under Franklin Roosevelt, we get the Fair Labor standards which sets up the 40-hour work week. We’re starting to see a lot of what we recognize in our world, really emerge in the early 20th century. After World War II, the Taft Hartley Act, really provides for some federal oversight of what’s going on between labor and management. In this case, it kind of lends itself toward favoring management. It’s an interesting twist but there’s been some corruption in the union. So it’s some interesting stuff. Again I recommend you search it. You go find out, have some fun with history doing that.

I’m going to jump to the mid 60s for a really significant event that is, Cesar Chavez organizing United Farm Workers. This happened in California, but it becomes a national movement. It’s still an incredibly important union that’s out there. That Chavez, who’s a Mexican American, almost single handedly, brought this issue to the four in the early 1960s. And by 1965, he organizes what has become a very powerful union of farm workers, and that’s a big one.

And then probably the most significant event in the last 30 years is, Ronald Reagan essentially breaking a union. The air traffic controllers in 1981 go on strike shortly after Reagan takes office.

And Reagan because they’re a federal union, he refuses to negotiate with them and in fact, fires everyone. Now back in the progressive era, that would have been considered union busting. Now we get a president who says unions are in the way of business, they’re in the way of making profits. Unions are demanding too, their wages are too high, their working hours are too low. Business shouldn’t have to put up with that. And so we’ve seen a huge shift since 1981. It's kind of a wave from really protecting working class interest and moving toward more of a business oriented, management oriented economy.

That’s a broad overview. It’s selective, you really need to look in more depth. There is a lot of stuff in between here that you may want to find out about. But some of this stuff I would say, Gompers and the AFL, Cesar Chaves and United Farm workers are two major events. Teddy Roosevelt’s progressives almost guaranteed are going to be in the AP US History exam. But go and do some research yourself. Have some fun doing that. History is a lot of fun. We’re dealing with these issues everyday, whether you realize it or not. When you go to get a job, what are you going to make? What’s the minimum wage in your state? There is a federal level, but very often a state has a different level.

A lot of these ideas that we’re talking about historically, do apply to you everyday. It’s one reason why studying history is important, and it’s another reason why we should have some fun with history.

Let’s put some of these ideas into action about labor. What I would challenge you to do is, when you’re reading the news on the net, or newspaper, wherever you happened to get it, from, TV. Do you see stories about labor? Are there issues going on around labor that connect to this history? Particularly the world that we’re heading into, which is a very hi-tech world.

What’s labor about in a high technology society? You might also live in a community where, certainly one of the great controversies and the labor issue right now is about illegal workers, or guest workers. You may live in a community that has to deal with that issue, very controversial. But it’s a labor issue ultimately. It’s not just about illegal citizens. Those citizens are here because it's got to do with work. Another issue that may have affected your community, it may have affected your household, is outsourcing. What we’ve seen is a number of US businesses have started to send their work, their labor overseas. It’s cost a lot of jobs in the United States. Finding out what that means to the US economy, but also the US labor force. That’s really the bottom line here.

We really as citizens, need to pay attention to what’s going one. We can’t divorce our economy and our history and our politics. They’re really interwoven. That’s why studying history is important. And it's why even in preparing for a test, learning the history is really the bottom line of what’s important here. The challenges I would say, as we wrap up this episode about labor, are for you to think about what’s labor going to be like in a hi-tech society in the future? Where do you stand and what do you think about this whole notion of illegal workers or guest workers? Certainly a big controversy, that’s going to be on the scene for probably quite a while. And also this whole notion of outsourcing, how does that affect labor and unions? And what do you really know about the unions that are existing in the United States and do they help? Do they hinder our economy?

So we’ve seen that there have been genuine ups and downs in our labor history, since the Civil War. Where are we now?

Certainly since the air traffic controllers strike and breaking that union, labor seems to be a little on the down swing. With outsourcing that may be compounded. But is there a new horizon, a bright horizon? That’s for you to find out, and for you to check out, and really to look at what you think by doing some research. So that’s your challenge. I want you to put those ideas into action. And then the last thing I’ll leave you with is a way to prepare for our next episode.

Next episode is going to look at the history of women in US history. And once again, I’ll challenge you to number one predict what you think is going to be in that episode, write down names, events, things that you think you know about women’s history in the United States. And then, take those notes. Before you do your research, before you do you reading, just brainstorm. Get that stuff down and go through the next episode about women’s history, and see how much you actually knew before hand, and what new stuff you learn. Because I think that’s really one of the best ways we have to learn some stuff that we’ll need to know, especially for the AP US history Test, but also to have some fun with history.

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