Labor History

3 Films That Explore American Actions, Beliefs, And Hypocrisy

Understanding the American experience, for me, means listening to a ever-widening set of voices. I recently sat down and watch three very different approaches of telling stories about the American way. I highly recommend all three films, they are all 5 out of 5 stars in my opinion — but be advised that the last one, a comedy routine, does have content and language some may find offensive.

The Brainwashing of My Dad

In this independent film shot by Jen Senko, Senko seeks to understand what transformed her mostly apolitical ‘Kennedy Democrat’ father into an angry, Right-Wing radical. What she uncovers along the way are the people and movements behind more than a 40 year effort to move the country further to the Right. Although it could fall under a ‘kooky conspiracy’ theory-type film, the skill of Senko is she is not interested in some conspiracy theory, but rather is seeking to understand her father’s transformation. This means she interviews experts that understand how the media — whether liberal or conservative — works.

The movie does focus a lot of attention on Fox News and talk radio celebrities like Rush Limbaugh because those were two heavy influences in her father’s transformation. She even includes a clip where Limbaugh poses the question as guest on a TV show: Do I believe what I say — you decide. The scene reminds me of David Letterman telling Bill O’Reilly that O’Reilly, Limbaugh and Glenn Beck were all too smart to believe what they said.

If you are interested in how America became so angry, Brainwashing’ is a great place to begin.

Brothers on the Line

Large swaths of American Labor history go relatively unknown by the public at large and such is the case with the Reuther brothers, three men, largely forgotten despite their huge impact on the lives of millions of American workers. in this documentary, narrated by Martin Sheen, the story of Walter, Roy and Victor Reuther tells how the trio organized, united and improve the quality of life for many Americans through their work with the United Auto Workers union. In their lifetime they helped make it one of the most powerful unions of all times.

But as the film reveals it did not come without a high price. Two of the brothers were victims of violence as unknown assailants attempted to murder them. The violence, though, only seemed to strength their resolve. Their story is one of perseverance, conviction, hard work and the belief that every American deserves a fair shake. The film is available on Netflix, Amazon and other online sites.

David Cross: Making America Great Again!

Actor David Cross, probably best known for his role as Tobias Fünke in the sitcom Arrested Development, filmed a stand-up comedy routine at a Texas venue which was released on Netflix. As the title implies, the set is political and he discusses many of the asinine comments and beliefs that have besieged America in this presidential election cycle. His cerebral approach to the country’s failures on gun violence, racism, and the political process will not appeal to everyone. In fact, many will be offended when he theorizes why God allows our children to be murdered in mass shootings, but what he repeatedly and effectively does is shine a bright light on our collective hypocrisy.

For more recommended films click here.

Categories: American History, American Workplace, Labor History, movies

Depression-Era Strike Violence Long Forgotten

A part of American history that seems to have been lost are the conflicts that arose during the Great Depression. It seems the history many Americans know about that time is limited to FDR and the New Deal which, of course, was significant, but it is only one piece of that era’s rich, controversial and sometimes violent history.

One of those controversial moments was captured on film in 1937.

It was May 30, a hot, humid and miserable day in Chicago, but the real concern wasn’t the weather but rather the tension in the air between strikers and Republic Steel. Republic Steel’s CEO Tom Girdler made no bones about the fact that he was not interested in negotiating with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) a branch of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union.

Girdler and other members of ‘Little Steel’ were expected to follow the lead of U.S. Steel — i.e. “Big Steel.” Two months earlier U.S. Steel signed a contract with the CIO guaranteeing workers benefits like an eight-hour workday, time-and-a-half overtime pay, 40-hour work week and one week vacation for five years of service.

But it was not to happen.

The incident

It has been called a riot by some and a massacre by others, regardless of which side you fall on the May 30, 1937 incident at Republic Steel in Chicago left 10 people dead with as many as 100 wounded. Cementing the event into American history were film crews and photographers who captured bits and pieces of the event on tape and film.

Earlier that day, members of SWOC met at Sam’s Place just blocks from Republic Steel in support of a nationwide strike being conducted against the Little Steel companies. Once the meeting and speeches ended, the union sympathizers began walking to the Republic Steel. When they were about halfway there the group of about 1,000, were met by a line of 200 to 400 police officers (reports vary).

Viewpoints differ on what happened next — as in who initiated the conflict — but within 10 minutes five at the scene were shot dead and five more would later die of gunshot wounds.

What was at stake

About two months before the incident, U.S. Steel — i.e. “Big Steel” — signed a contract with the CIO guaranteeing its workers benefits like:

  • an eight-hour workday
  • time-and-a-half overtime pay
  • 40-hour work week and,
  • one week vacation for five years of service.

It was expected that other steel companies would follow suit including those known as Little Steel. (the term is a misnomer because they were not small — only small in comparison to U.S. Steel.) This group of like-minded businesses led by headed by Girdler espoused an open-shop concept and refused to recognized any union.

Formal testimony

Due to the backlash of the brutality, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set up a committee to investigate the event. The committee, informally known as the La Follette Committee listened to testimony of those at the event, including testimony from the 4’11” 97-pound Lupe Marshall, a housewife and volunteer social worker in South Chicago. She was among those beaten by police. In this excerpt she describe what she witnessed happening to a man who had been beaten and who was on the ground.

…this individual dragged himself a bit and tried to get up, when the policeman clubbed him again. He did that four times. While he was trying to get up. Every time he tried to get up the policeman’s club came down on him. Then he took him by the foot and turned him over. When the man finally fell so he could not move, the policeman took him by the foot and turned him on his back, and started dragging him…

Newpaper coverage

One of the somewhat surprising facts about the story is despite cameras rolling and taping much of the melee, the film footage was not released in the U.S. (although it was being seen in Britain). The local paper, the Chicago Tribune, even opined, that the incident (which they called a riot) was caused by “a murderous mob … inflamed by the speeches of CIO organizers.”

Of the 40 people with gunshot wounds — four were shot in the front of their body, nine were wounded in the side while the majority — 27 people — were shot in the back. Despite this evidence suggesting the victims were running away, officers were not investigated for excessive use of force — and the coroner stated the “killings were justifiable.”

Who won?

Little Steel successfully broke the strike, but the CIO changed it methods due, in part, to the strike. The union began using legal maneuvers instead of picket lines to garner more positive results for its members. Utilizing this method, by 1943 nearly every fabric steel company in the U.S. was unionized.

Categories: American History, Labor History

Guns turned on families of American workers in 1913 debacle

History is written by the victorsWinston Churchill

Cover of the June, 1914 issue of The Masses by John French Sloan, depicting the Ludlow Massacre.

Cover of the June, 1914 issue of The Masses by John French Sloan, depicting the Ludlow Massacre.

It is amazing what is minimalized or deleted from American history books. For example, we read about the Trail of Tears, but fail to learn that a significant number of Cherokee had already assimiliated into western society — adopting the clothing styles, building schools and farming European style — before they were uprooted from their homes and driven west by the Andrew Jackson administration.

History books tend to show the Native Americans in a more ‘savage’ manner with the ‘Great White Father’ Andrew Jackson needing to guide, counsel and control them.

Textbooks have also sanitized or omitted the Labor issues that plagued America between 1880-1920. Workers often are villified as violent agitators unthankful for America’s great bounty.

This is especially true in a strike that occured in 1913 at the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation mine. The violence would claim the life of up to 200 people (according to a Rockefeller-financed investigation — the state report pegged it at 69) before it ended — and would show that justice favors the powerful.

Just the Facts

On September 23, 1913 miners went on strike for the following reasons:

  • Wages — they earned $1.68 per day. When paid, they received scrip instead of U.S. currency.
  • Unsafe working conditions. The mine fatality rate was twice the national average due, in large part, unenforced state safety laws.
  • Brutality against union organizers. The murder of a union organizer prompted the strike.

The company responded by:

  • Evicting miners and their families from company-owned homes.
  • Hiring strikebreakers and replacement workers
  • Petitioning the state of Colorado for National Guard assistance

Move and Countermove

Once the strikers were evicted from their homes, with the assistance of the United Mine Workers of America, miners created  ‘tent towns’ (for workers and their families) by renting land near canyon entrances, so they would be visible to replacement workers and prevent their jobs from being taken. Miners also presented this list of demands to the company:

  • Recognition of the United Mineworkers of America as the miners’ union
  • A fair, effective checkweighmen system of checkweighmen
  • Pay for digging coal at a ton-rate based on 2,000 pounds
  • Wages paid twice a month in U.S. currency
  • Abolition of scrip and the truck system
  • End to discrimination against union members
  • Strict enforcement of state safety laws by supplying miners with timbers, rails, and other required materials

The demands outraged Rockefeller who launched a campaign to destroy the strike.

Resistance meets Brute Force

Rockefeller hired armed guards to harass and intimidate the strikers. One of the agencies hired by Rockefeller built an aptly named Death Special — an armored vehicle with a machine mounted on top.  Less than a month after the strike began, on October 17, the vehicle was used in an attack on the Forbes tent colony resulting in the death of one miner and two wounded children. A boy’s legs were riddled with machine gun fire while a girl suffered a gun shot wound to the face.

The union fought back — and the back and forth loss of life continued through March. It escalated to the breaking point when, on March 10 the body of a strikebreaker was found near railroad tracks at the Forbes tent colony. When this occured National Guard’s General John Chase ordered families in the tent colonies evicted.

The Battlefield

Karl Linderfelt, center, accused in death of miner Louis Tikas.

Karl Linderfelt, center, accused in death of miner Louis Tikas.

Ludlow was the largest of the tent colonies and on April 20 (the day after Easter), troops fired into the civilian-occupied colony. Anyone moving was fair game and a 14-hour gun battle ensued. During the battle, the tent colonies main organizer 30-year-old Louis Tikas met with National Guard Lieutenant Karl Linderfelt (the officer in charge of the assault on the Ludlow camp) to arrange a truce. But instead of working out a cease-fire, Linderfelt struck Tikas with the butt of his rifle and National Guard soldiers fired multiple times into Tikas’ back as he lay on the ground — killing him.

After dark, with Tikas dead, Guardsmen enter the camp and set fire to the tents killing two women and 11 children in addition to the estimated 40 people killed during the gun battle.


In the aftermath, sympathy strikes occured across the country in support of the miners. However, none of the miners’ demands were met.

Louis Tikas killed by Colorado National Guard during conflict at Ludlow mines.

Louis Tikas killed by Colorado National Guard during conflict at Ludlow mines.

In 1918 a monument was erected with the following names and ages:

Louis Tikas, 30
James Fyler, 43
John Bartolotti, 45
Charlie Costa, 31
Fedelina Costas, 27
Onafrio Costa, 4
Frank Rubino, 23
Patria Valdez, 37
Eulala Valdez, 8
Mary Valdez, 7
Elvira Valdez, 3 months
Joe Petrucci, 4 ½
Lucy Petrucci, 2 ½
Frank Petrucci, 4 months
William Snyder Jr, 11
Rodgerlo Pedregone, 6
Cloriva Pedregone, 4

Categories: American History, Labor History | Tags: ,