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At Illinois Labor History Society’s “Salute to Labor’s Historic Heroes from the History Makers of Today” conference, Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, aptly described how past generations of labor leaders believed that they had no choice but to resolve disputes with violence. Lewis drew a few chuckles from the crowd when she discussed beheading the rich as the preferred agency of change for labor leaders from a different era.
“At this very moment I still believe there is one party in this country – that is, the party of money, with two branches,” Lewis said.
Lewis then continued:
Do not think for a minute that the wealthy are ever going to allow you to legislate their riches away from them. Please understand that. However, we are in a moment where the wealth disparity in this country is very reminiscent of the robber baron ages. The labor leaders of that time, though, were ready to k*ll. They were. They were just – off with their heads. They were seriously talking about that.
“I don’t think we’re at that point,” Lewis added.
“The key is that they think nothing of killing us,” Lewis added. “They think nothing about putting us in harm’s way. They think nothing about lethal working conditions.”
Lewis is certainly correct in how she depicts labor activists of years gone by. Bill Haywood, known as “Big Bill” Haywood, founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World, was never one to run from a violent altercation. He was even put on trial for murder in 1907, a crime for which he was acquitted. Back then, labor activists were willing to put their lives on the line for fair wages and descent treatment from employers.