By Jack Jodell, April 14, 2011
In keeping alive the spirit of the Wisconsin Service Employees International Union workers (whose right to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions was recently stripped away by the uncaring arch-conservative Republican Governor Scott Walker), I present this fourth installment of a series devoted to great leaders in the American labor union movement who DID care about the economic well-being of their fellow man.
Nellie Stone Johnson (1905-2002) was an African-American radical fighter for workers’ and civil rights long before our civil rights movement came into prominence during the 1950s and 1960s. This firebrand began a 70+ year career of activism while on her way to and from school, handing out leaflets for her farmer father in Lakeville, MN. Her father was a member of the radical rural Non-Partisan League, and that’s how she became pressed into a lifetime of service. After graduation from high school, she became one of the first blacks to attend the University of Minnesota. There, with youthful ardor and zeal, she promptly joined the Young Communists League, the Young Socialists, and the Socialist Worker’s Party. She recalled in 1988, “They were the only ones talking economic sense. They were talking about jobs and employment. Here, I thought, were some platforms and groups you could get together and do something for equality, which was something the two major parties were not addressing at all. The Democratic Party at that time was pretty hidebound, and the Republicans didn’t care what happened as long as they made some money.” Hmmm—sounds like the situation she faced back in the 1920s was a LOT like what we face today!
In the 1930s, Nellie began work as an elevator operator in the posh, all-male Minneapolis Athletic Club. As was common practice during those Depression years, her wages were soon cut from $15 per week to $12.50. Unfazed, she immediately began secretly organizing the workers into a union. The well-to-do patrons soon found they were being serviced by union labor with a guaranteed contract. During that same decade she also switched to the now-revitalized and activist New Deal Democratic Party, and became the first woman vice-president of the Minneapolis Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, as well as the first woman to serve on a national contract committee to negotiate equal pay for women. In 1934 she joined the NAACP.
By 1941, she was mentoring future Minneapolis mayor and eventual Minnesota Senator and U.S. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey on issues of civil rights, and 3 years later, as a delegate to the Farmer-Laborer Party convention, worked with him to merge it with the state Democratic Party. The result was the creation of the DFL, a new majority party which has dominated Minnesota politics ever since. In 1945, this remarkable woman became the first black ever elected to a citywide office when she was elected to the Minneapolis Library Board. 2 years later, she lobbied and got endorsements for the Minneapolis Fair Employment Practices Act, the first law of its kind in the entire nation, which made job discrimination in the city illegal.
In the complacent 1950s, her activism continued. She worked through the NAACP to end racial discrimination in the military and lobbied to end job discrimination in her state. In 1963, she opened her own shop, Nellie’s Alterations, which she successfully operated for the next 30 years. Later in the 1960s, she organized the first campaign of a black Minneapolis City Council member.
In the 1980s, she served two terms as a Democratic National Committee member, and in 1995 she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from St. Cloud State University. That same year, at the age of 95, she said, “I’m not going to quit. There is still too much to do. People need jobs, equality, education. We still need to organize to learn how the economics and politics drive everything in life. Can’t stop now!” She added, “I’ve always believed that if people had a fair shake at a job, they’d be able to survive and keep building…a person with a decent job will seek a little more education, will push for the children to get an education. My issues are feeding people and jobs.”
Less than a year before she died, when recallung her lifetime of struggle and accomplishment, the 95 year old Nellie Stone Johnson reflected, “I thought there would be so much more progress by now. If you look at my age and what has happened in the past 25 years, then look 25 years down the pike from now, it’s discouraging. If it takes as long as it has to accomplish what little has been accomplished, that’s very bad. It seems kind of hopeless. Except I’m not going to let it be.”
Ms. Johnson, I regret never having had the opportunity to meet or speak with you, even though you resided in my own city. Your irrepressible spirit serves as an inspiration to us all to keep on fighting, no matter how overwhelming the odds may seem. I thank you for your beautiful example!
Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926) was an early union leader who actually ran for President of the United States five times as a Socialist. He was the founder of the International Labor Union and the Industrial Workers of the World, and helped found the country’s first industrial union, the American Railway Union (ARU).
The son of French immigrants, Debs was born in Terre Haute, IN. He quit school at age 14 to become a paint scraper in railroad yards. After a year, he became a boilerman and began attending a local business school at night. In 1874, he started work as a grocery clerk, and the next year became a founding member and secretary of a new lodge, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. Here, he rose quickly in its ranks, He edited their magazine, and, by 1880, had become their Grand Secretary. In 1884, he was elected to and served one term in the Indiana General Assembly as a Democrat. Due to the more conservative nature of his union at the time, he stepped down from it in 1893 to organize a more confrontational one, the aforementioned ARU. This new union successfully struck the Great Northern Railway in 1894, winning most of its demands. Later that year, Debs and his union became involved in the Pullman Strike.
Due to falling revenue caused by the Panic of 1893, the Pullman Co. had cut its workers’ wages by a whopping 28%. The workers, many of whom were ARU members, called for the union to help them combat this drastic cut. Debs was worried. Due to the relative weakness of his new union, hostility from both the railways and the federal government, and his belief that other unions may ignore an ARU call for a strike against the powerful Pullman Co. he advised against calling a strike. But his membership voted against his wishes, calling for a strike against Pullman. They refused to handle Pullman cars and those of any other carrier attached to them, including those carrying the U.S. Mail. As demand for the strike grew among the rank and file, spreading to now include more than 80,000 workers, Debs decided to throw his support in favor of the strike. He was immediately castigated by the press. The New York Times called Debs “a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the people.” (See how anti-labor the press was in those days)? The strike became known as Debs’ Rebellion. At this point, since a threat to the U.S. mail was perceived, the federal government issued an injunction against the strike. Democratic President Grover Cleveland, conservative that he was, sent in the U.S. Army to enforce the injunction and break the strike. All told, 13 workers were killed; thousands of others were blacklisted, and an estimated $80 MILLION in property was destroyed. Debs was found guilty of contempt of cort for violating the injunction and was sent to prison. His initial hunch about the strike had proven correct.
While in prison, Debs began to intensively study socialism. Upon his release from prison in 1895, he called for all his union members to join him in forming the Social Democracy of America political party. In his 1900 first run for President, he received only 0.6% of the popular vote and o electoral votes. He would run again in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. He never did gain a single electoral vote, although his 1920 total of 913,693 popular votes remains the all-time high for an American Socialist candidate.
On June 27, 1905, Debs and other influential union leaders of the time held what they called the “Continental Congress of the Working Class” in Chicago.
This convergence with the Socialist Party eventually splintered the union into opposing factions and eventually diminished its impact and influence. Debs, though, with his fiery, almost evangelistic oratorial style, continued to grow in popularity. During World War I, he grew increasingly critical of the Wilson administration. President Wilson even referred to him as being “a traitor to his country.” In June of 1918, Debs made a speech urging resistance to the military draft. For this, he was arrested and charged with 10 counts of sedition. In the trial, he called no eyewitnesses but instead asked to address the court himself. His request was granted, and he spoke for 2 hours. He was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in a federal prison. Two days later at his sentencing, he again addressed the court and delivered a true classic. He said, among other things,
Your honor, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never more fully comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom. I can see the dawn of a better day of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own.
When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the Southern Cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches the Southern Cross begins to bend, and the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of Time upon the dial of the universe; and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the look-out knows that the midnight is passing – that relief and rest are close at hand.
Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.”
Eugene Debs conducted his last and most successful Presidential campaign from prison in 1920. The following year, his sentence was commuted by President Warren G. Harding, and he left prison for good. His return home to Terre Haute was a grand event: a crowd of 50,000 plus a marching band were on hand to welcome him back. He died in a sanatorium a few years later, at the age of 70.
Both Nellie Stone Johnson and Eugene Debs were relentlessly persistent in pursuit of their goals, and neither took no for an answer. They both overcame inertia to see to it that their workers were adequately represented and were able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. They stood up to and conquered injustice and prejudice. They, too, had small-minded Scott Walkers and Koch Brother-types to contend with in their day, but, through dogged determination, they overcame them. And so must it be with ourselves today!