Significant Events in Oklahoma Labor History

Significant events in Oklahoma Labor History
By Gregory Guthrie

The national Knights of Labor sponsored the first union in Indian Territory when they organized coal miners in 1882. That year, 200 men were killed in an explosion in Krebs, OK. As leader of the coal miners’ union in Indian Territory and early Oklahoma, Peter Hanraty stressed negotiation as the means for resolving most labor conflicts, but he recognized that strikes were often necessary. He led a strike of 100 men from the Lehigh and Coalgate coal mines in March 1894.

1907 – Adoption of the Oklahoma State Motto

Labor Omnia Vincit was incorporated into the design of the Grand Seal of the Territory of Oklahoma during the second session of the Territorial Legislative Assembly held in Guthrie, January 1893. This is shown, magnified, to the right on the territorial seal.

1912 – Woody Guthrie born July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. Labor’s Troubadour.
Woody’s daughter, Nora, wrote a book entitled “My Name is New York – Ramblin’ around Woody Guthrie’s town. Woody Guthrie first arrived in New York City on February 16, 1940. Although he continued to ramble, for 27 years— from 1940 until his death in 1967—New York was the city he called home and always returned to. By: Nora Guthrie and The Woody Guthrie Archives
A pocket-sized guide to 19 locations in New York City where Woody Guthrie lived and wrote.

Initiated on December 22, 1938, the strike at Mid-Continent Refinery was one of Oklahoma’s most lengthy and violent. It produced controversy and divided the Tulsa community. This coincided with internal disputes within the Oil Workers’ International Union (OWIU), squabbling within the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), feuding between the CIO and the American Federation of Labor (AFL), nationwide attacks on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a Supreme Court ruling on wiretapping, and the beginning of a European war, which had an impact on the recently slumping oil market. In concert, these processes gave the strike a life of its own.

1930’s Lead and Zinc mining in the Tri-State area (Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas).
Mickey Mantle, the New York Yankees slugger, was born in Spavinaw, OK and grew up in Commerce. His father, Mutt Mantle worked in the zinc mines in this area.
Lead mines in the tri-state area of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri
produced ore for many years – from the early 1900’s, and on through both
World War I and II. The industry was at its peak in the 1930’s. Huge
operations were extracting lead ore in mammoth proportions near the town
of Pitcher, Oklahoma. Many attempts were made to organize unions of
the mineworkers, and these attempts were often met with violent
resistance by the mine owners. On various occasions, the National Guards
of Oklahoma and Kansas were activated to put down striking
mineworkers. Today the mines are nearly all gone, played out, leaving
behind huge piles of “chat” (gravel) and acid drainage that has poisoned
the ground and the inhabitants. Many children in the area have
abnormally high levels of lead in their blood.5 The earth under the town of
Pitcher subsiding to the point that politicians have proposed moving,
actually relocating, the entire town to more stable ground. It was the
subject of an ABC ‘Nightline’ News special on March 1, 2002. The U.S.
Government through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has
designated Tar Creek a Superfund site, and has spent millions of taxpayer
dollars trying to clean up the acid drainage that has poisoned the creek.
One wonders if this situation, an industrial boom post-mortem, could have
been avoided or lessened, had the mine owners cooperated with the unions
back when the mines were producing.

“Left behind were the towering chat piles, the concrete
pillars of old mills, the rusting machinery, and the wornout
men and women, stark reminders of a vigorous
industrial past that consumed the energies and lives of
thousands of workers and their families. Left behind,
too, was a mind-boggling environmental time bomb for
future generations to defuse. In November, 1981, the
Environmental Protection Agency placed the Tar Creek
area of the district among the ten “most serious hazards”
sites in the United States because of the industrial
pollution resulting from past mining and milling.
Whether a powerful union movement could have helped
to ease the inevitable decline and to enhance the quality
of life for all Tri-Staters, then and now, must remain an
unanswered question.”
Suggs, George G., Union Busting in the Tri-State – The
Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri Metal Workers’ Strike of 1935.
University of Oklahoma Press. Norman. 1986, p. 299.
This mining led to Pitcher Cave ins and Tar Creek Superfund Site.
Greg Guthrie thesis – Georgetown – 2002;

1962 – Wal-Mart’s first store
Sam Walton, the Anti-Union Billionaire, was born on March 29, 1918, in Kingfisher, Oklahoma. Walton opened the first Wal-Mart in 1962, after years in the retail management business.

1974 – Karen Silkwood dies in mysterious car crash – 1974
Driving to meet with reps of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. Killed in a ‘one car accident’ on a deserted stretch of road.
Anthony Mazzocchi (June 13, 1926 – October 5, 2002) was an American labor leader. He was a high elected official of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW), serving as vice president from 1977 to 1988, and as secretary-treasurer from 1988 to 1991.[1] He was credited by President Richard Nixon as being the primary force behind enactment of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, was a mentor to Karen Silkwood, a union activist in Oklahoma; and a co-founder of the Labor Party.

Anthony Mazzocchi was born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York, on June 13, 1926, to Joseph and Angelina (Lamardo) Mazzocchi. His father was a garment worker and union member.

1982- Defeat of the Proposed construction of the Black Fox Nuclear Power Plant
This is significant not as a Labor issue, per se. Rather, it showed what solidarity can do. Carrie Dickerson, a nursing home operator from Claremore, next town to Inola, fought from 1973 to 1982 to defeat the building of this nuclear power plant. Groups such as the Sunbelt Alliance from Oklahoma State University, and CASE (Citizens Action for Safe Energy) banded together to fight PSO(Public Service of Oklahoma), and won.

2000 – Defeat of State Senator Lewis Long
Paved the way for Right to Work in Oklahoma
State Senator Lewis Long, Jr. , D. Glenpool, lost his bid for reelection to District 37 by a slim margin, 265 votes to be exact. 12,641 to 12,376. Long was the leading voice for organized labor in Oklahoma and the leading obstacle to Right to Work. The Oklahoma Christian Coalition, or as one reader of the Tulsa World coined it “Unchristian Coalition” in its 2000 Christian Coalition Voter Guide mistakenly stated that Sen. Long “supported legalization of sodomy and bestiality”. The voter guide was distributed on Sunday prior to the election. Long lost the election, and he filed a libel suit against the Oklahoma Christian Coalition, but as the World’s editorial staff ‘s editorial headline stated it was “Too Late”. The Coalition issued an apology to Long, but the damage was done, and the apology as the World stated “rang hollow”.
Commenting on the general results of the elections, Gov. Frank Keating said,” “The principal opponent of Right to Work in the Senate was defeated – that was State Senator Lewis Long”
Greg Guthrie – Thesis – Georgetown 2002

In September 2001, Oklahoma voters made that state the nation’s twenty-second “right-to-work” (RTW) state.

Oklahoma became a Right to Work state in 2001. The General Motors plant in Oklahoma City closed in 2005. The Bridgestone tire plant in Oklahoma City closed in 2006.

An advertising chart telling voters why they should vote for ‘Right to Work’ found online website of the Christian Coalition is attached.

Such anti-union propaganda was plentiful, especially in the form of ½ and full page ads in the Tulsa World and Daily Oklahoman newspapers.

2004 – Guthrie portrait dedicated at state capitol

July 23, 2004
OKLAHOMA CITY – (AP) Entertainer Arlo Guthrie and other family members led the singing at the Oklahoma State Capitol July 15 to celebrate the unveiling of a portrait of his father, legendary folk artist Woody Guthrie.

The painting by Charles Banks Wilson is titled, “This Land Was Made for You And Me,” a refrain from “This Land Is Your Land,” the folk anthem that is among an estimated 1,000 songs Guthrie is credited with writing.

“This is totally cool,” said Arlo of the honor for his father, who in the past was sometimes shunned in conservative Oklahoma because of the reputation he earned in the 1930s when his songs promoted unionism and reviled banks and other institutions.

Important because Woody now becomes a ‘native son’ instead of a scoundrel. Vindication.

Demolition of Our Lady of Sorrows Convent – Broken Arrow Oklahoma. July 2015
This has a great impact on the Labor Movement because the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother in Broken Arrow signed on to a letter to the CEO of WalMart in 1999 – a formal protest of their business practices.…/1999-iccr-letter-to-walmart-15-apr-1999.doc

In summary, the struggle of workers in Oklahoma to better their lives through the Labor movement, has been just that – a struggle.
Although the victories have been few – they have been momentous. Woody Guthrie left Oklahoma physically, but sang of the plight of the working man and woman in Oklahoma, on the streets of New York City. In so doing he lifted the entire country up. Karen Silkwood, was killed in a suspicious one car accident on November 13, 1974, while on her way to meet with an Atomic Energy Commission official and a New York Times reporter. When my Aunt, Sr. Mary Bernadette Janning, SSM. signed the ICCR letter to Wal-mart back in 1999, she was paving the way for future socially-conscious citizens to help better the lives of working Americans.
Let us carry on their work. If not us, who? If not now, when?

PDF_20140321112754Right to WorkRight to Work


About oklahomafed

Greg Guthrie has held positions at the US Department of Commerce, Library of Congress and the World Bank, taught the course ‘Environmental Issues in the Mediterranean” at Georgetown University where he wrote his thesis: “Labor Unions: Champions of Social Justice”, which has been cited, among others, in Labor Law Journal, and in the book ‘ American Labor: A Documentary Collection’ Ed. by Melvyn Dubofsky and Joseph A. McCartin. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Currently, he is with the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) of the US Department of Commerce. He has been a guest on the radio program, Georgetown University Forum, where he has spoken on the virtues of Organized Labor. He is a native Oklahoman.
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