7 Union Heroes To Remember This Labor Day

ThinkProgress Staff

ThinkProgress Staff

This Labor Day, while you’re enjoying the three-day-weekend, take a moment to celebrate the heroes of the union movement. These noteworthy people left behind a legacy that we enjoy today, from the end of child labor to the more humane treatment of farm workers.

1. The Haymarket Martyrs, eight Chicago anarchists, May 4, 1886

What began as a rally for workers who went on strike for the 8-hour workday ended when someone threw a bomb, triggering open gunfire between the police and civilians. Seven people died and many more were injured.

Eight Anarchists were convicted of conspiracy. Some were later freed amid questions about the lack of physical evidence, while others lived out their days in prison.

At the time numerous rank-and-file workers believed that the Pinkertons — a notorious anti-union security agency who were used by factory owners to break labor unions by bringing in scabs, spying on organizers, and utilizing violence — were to blame for the bomb-throwing incident.

The aftermath of the Haymarket incident would be the first red-scare in U.S. history, with the government clamping down on organized labor.

2. Lucy Parsons, radical, anarchist, socialist


Lucy Parsons was charged in the Haymarket Affair leading to some of the largest May Day rallies in the United States, a labor holiday celebrated by the left around the world today. Outside of the United States, it is an international celebration of workplace power and unity, often seeing the largest strikes and protests.

In 1905, Parsons was one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union which can claim credit for many of the early 20th century organizing victories that we enjoy today. Its legacy includes the 1930s sit-down strikes and founding of unions, such as the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

3. Mary Harris Jones a.k.a. ‘Mother Jones,’ activist, socialist, and radical


CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

Mary Harris Jones was an activist and radical who helped win the end to child labor in America. In 1897, Jones addressed a union convention where the workers began to affectionately call her “Mother Jones.”

Called the “Children’s Crusade,” Jones lead children on a march to Teddy Roosevelt’s hometown to show the millionaires in New York the faces of child labor. Their banner said “we want to go to school, not mines!” This march paved the way to the end of child labor.

4. Cesar Chavez, Farm Workers of America, civil rights activist and labor leader


CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

Cesar Chavez helped build a campaign that won better working conditions for Californian grape pickers by leading an international boycott of grapes that were picked in some of the harshest conditions in the U.S. The California grape pickers’ strike led to a successful campaign to win recognition by the two largest growers of grapes in the Delano Area.

Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association and built solidarity that prevented grapes from being shipped to Europe, and ultimately showed the power of organized labor for even the most vulnerable people in the United States.

Chavez helped popularize Dolores Huerta’s slogan, “Sí, se puede,” which translates to “Yes, we can.”

5. Howard Wallace, LGBT and union activist


CREDIT: HappeningHere.blogspot.com

According to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, “[Howard Wallace] was forced to drop out of college when his father saw some United World Federalist literature he’d brought home and told him to drop out of ‘commie’ politics.”

“He put a couple of checks on the dining-room table — the checks for next year’s tuition — and said, ‘Get out [of activism] and you can have those checks.’ I tore them up in his face, and that was the end of my college education,” the article noted.

A few blue collar jobs later, Wallace came to organized labor.

Coors in the 1960s notoriously refused to hire black, Latino, LGBT people, and women workers; after breaking up their unionized staff. At that time, inspired by the success of the international boycott lead by the Farm Workers of America, Wallace labor unions and the LGBT community to boycott the beer. Howard Wallace, along with LGBT activist and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, enlisted the Teamsters to promote hiring openly gay truck drivers, allowing the boycott of Coors to go national.

6. Maida Springer‐Kemp, civil rights activist and union organizer


CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

A women born in Panama, Maida Springer-Kemp struggled in the sweatshop conditions of the garment industry. Maida Springer-Kemp became one of the first black women to be sent around the world to build international solidarity for the AFL-CIO.

7. Woody Guthrie, musician and radical

Famous for writing “This Land is Your Land, This Land Is My Land” and numerous other radical songs, Guthrie’s songs captured the history of the movement.

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