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Significant People and Groups

Samuel Gompers (1850-1924) and the AFL

In 1881 Samuel Gompers helped to establish the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions; in 1881 the union reorganized. Gompers became the first president of the new organization, the American Federation of Labor; he would continue in this role (with the exception of 1895) until his death in 1924. Gompers was instrumental in establishing the AFL as the largest labor union in the world. His viewed the proper role of unions differently than “one big union” approach of the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World; he instead favored locals that would be specific to individual trades or crafts. Additional, Gompers believed the best role of unions was to advocate for economic reforms (such as higher wages and shorter hours), and was wary of legislative reforms.

Samuel Gompers Papers

This comprehensive University of Maryland resource includes annotated documents for easier reading.

Clara Lemlich (1886 – 1982)

Clara Lemlich was a Jewish Ukrainian woman, who fled to New York City to escape persecution. Lemlich worked in a garment factory and used her courage and charisma to organize fellow women workers. At a 1909 union meeting on the Lower East Side to discuss a general strike in the shirtwaist industry, Lemlich grew frustrated with the cautious speeches of male leaders, and spoke at the podium despite broken ribs incurred while picketing on behalf of striking workers. She immediately called for a general strike which would later be known as the Uprising of 20,000. Over the next two days, 20,000 of 32,000 workers in the industry walked out in protest of the low wages and poor conditions in the factories, including locked exits in high-rise buildings which contributed to the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Lemlich worked for progressive causes for the rest of her life. During her last years in a home for the elderly, she convinced the management to join the United Farm Workers' boycott of grapes and lettuce, and she encouraged the local staff to form a union. 

A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979) and the Pullman Car Porters

A. Philip Randolph was a civil rights activist and union leader. In 1917 he organized a small union of elevator operators in New York City. In 1919 he became president of the largest African American union at the time, the National Brotherhood of Workers in America (NBWA). The NBWA was a strong proponent of black and white workers joining together to achieve better working conditions for all Americans.

In 1925, against the strong resistance of the Pullman Company, he formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The union represented the all-black service staff of the Pullman Sleeping cars. However, the Pullman Company refused to recognize, or negotiate with, the union. In 1927, the union requested the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) investigate the wages and working conditions of the Pullman Company; however the ICC ruled it did not have the jurisdiction to do so.

In 1934 the Railroad Labor Act was amended and in 1935 the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) was passed. This led to increased legal protections for union organizing. On June 1, 1935, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was certified as representative of the Pullman Porters and began to negotiate with the Pullman Company. That same year, the Brotherhood became the first black union to be recognized by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In 1937 the union and management agreed to a collective bargaining agreement for higher pay, fewer hours, and increased pay for overtime. 

Women of the Pawtucket textile mills (1924)

The first strike to include American female workers occurred in textile mills in 1924 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, after management extended the workday for all workers but cut wages only to young women weavers. The Pawtucket Textile Strike, during which the women held separate meetings, closed all the mills in the village and was supported by community members, who took to the streets in a rowdy fashion. Eventually the owners offered a compromise settlement. 

Emma Tenayuca (1916-1999)

After being arrested for labor activism before even graduating high school, Emma Tenayuca worked to organize and advocate for Mexican-American workers in Texas throughout the 1930s. She was the original strike leader in a 1938 strike at the Southern Pecan Shelling Factory in San Antonio where 12,000 shellers, mostly Hispanic women, walked out to protest a wage cut and poorly lit, unsanitary factories. She worked to organize and represent the repressed for the rest of her life. In her eulogy, writer Carmen Tafolla said "La Pasionaria, we called her, because she was our passion, because she was our heart -- defendiendo a los pobres, speaking out at a time when neither Mexicans nor women were expected to speak at all." 

History of the ACLU in Texas, describing Tenayuca's role in its formation.

Document Based Question — The 1938 San Antonio Pecan Shellers Strike

The State University of New York at Binghamton’s Center for the Historical Study of Women and Gender has a 10 document DBQ about the strike.

Dolores Huerta (1930-present) & César Chávez (1927 – 1993)

Dolores Huerta grew up in a California farming community and became active in the 1950s organizing migrant workers. In 1960, she founded the heavily Filipino Agricultural Workers Association in 1960.

César Estrada Chávez was born on March 31, 1927. During the Great Depression, his family was forced to give up their farm, and at only 10 years old, Chávez became a migrant farmer. He attended 38 different schools before quitting at the end of eighth grade to support his family full time. In the late 1940s, Chávez was introduced to Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings of nonviolence and was inspired to use Gandhi’s techniques to improve the lives of migrant farmers in the United States. Chávez joined the Community Service Organization (CSO), a group dedicated to helping immigrants gain citizenship and voting rights, and quickly developed as a leader and an organizer; it was not long before Chávez was made president of the CSO.

In 1962, Chavez left the CSO to start the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with Huerta. They spent three years recruiting members and in 1965 joined a mostly Filipino union called the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) in a strike against the Delano, Calif. grape growers for better wages. With Chávez and Huerta’s leadership, the NFWA and the AWOC merged to form what would eventually become the United Farm Workers (UFW), AFL-CIO. Insisting on the use of nonviolent techniques during the strike, Chávez fasted for 25 days in 1968 to inspire and rededicate his members. In the process, Chávez gained the support of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and was propelled onto the national political scene. Finally, after five long years of struggle, the Delano grape growers were forced to sign collective bargaining contracts with the union that covered over 10,000 of the country’s lowest paid migrant workers, a historic victory in the U.S. labor movement.

The UFW went on to fight and win many more labor battles. According to a nationwide Louis Harris poll, during the early 1970s, César Chávez and the UFW inspired as many as 17 million Americans to boycott grapes. By the early 1980s, thanks to a number of election victories and successful contract negotiations, the UFW had grown to protect nearly 45,000 members. Chávez and Huerta broadened the UFW’s cause by turning attention toward the use of pesticides and its effect on the health of both farm workers and the public consuming the produce.

On April 23, 1993, at the age of 66, Chávez died in his sleep near his birthplace in Yuma, Ariz. One year later, President Clinton posthumously awarded Chávez the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of our nation’s highest honors. Huerta She remains politically active, lobbying on behalf of agricultural workers, the Hispanic community, and women.

United Farm Workers

This site includes a thorough history, speeches and photos of the UFW and its leaders including Cesar Chavez.

The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Struggle

This site provides biographical timeline, quotes and more on Cesar Chavez and his efforts to improve conditions for farmworkers.

Timeline, photos, and video about Dolores Huerta.