Farmers vs. Wage Earners: Organized Labor in Kansas, 1860-1960

Farmers vs. Wage Earners: Organized Labor in Kansas, 1860-1960

Farmers vs. Wage Earners: Organized Labor in Kansas, 1860-1960

Farmers vs. Wage Earners: Organized Labor in Kansas, 1860-1960

Synopsis

While predominantly agrarian, Kansas has a surprisingly rich heritage of labor history and played an active role in the major labor strife of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Farmers vs. Wage Earners is a survey of the organized labor movement in the Sunflower State, which reflected in a microcosm the evolution of attitudes toward labor in the United States. R. Alton Lee emphasizes the social and political developments of labor in Kansas and what it was like to work in the mines, the oil fields, and the factories that created the modern industrial world. He vividly describes the stories of working people: how they and their families lived and worked, their dreams and aspirations, their reasons for joining a union and how it served their interests, how they fought to achieve their goals through the political process, and how employment changed over the decades in terms of race, gender, and working conditions. The general public supported labor after the Civil War, but increasing urbanization and the farmer-dominated legislatures helped quell this sympathy, and new ire was eventually directed at the workingman. By examining the progress of industrial labor in an agrarian state, Lee shows how Kansans, like many Americans, could eagerly accept the federal largesse of the New Deal but at the same time bitterly denounce its philosophy and goals in the wake of the Great Depression.

Excerpt

The labor wars, which lasted over six decades from the Great Upheaval in 1877 to the sit-down strikes during the New Deal, “secured for the workingman a right which he had been previously denied, totally or partially, the right to collective action.” Once this obviously reasonable milestone was achieved, workers gained the power to secure great improvements in the protection of women and children in the workplace, workmen’s compensation insurance, unemployment compensation, a living wage, Social Security, Medicare, and a host of similar reforms. Kansas laborers participated directly in these wars and made contributions to the cause of labor, although they fought a losing battle for decades thereafter. Current and future generations owe much to these hardy common folk who were imbued with the American spirit to fight and to sacrifice to obtain their rights. All who now enjoy Social Security, Medicare, a decent wage, a forty-hour week, and overtime pay must celebrate the battles organized labor fought for all Americans, and we also must always guard these precious privileges.

On Labor Day 1999, I began the formidable task of studying the history of organized labor in Kansas. Several motives prompted me: First, I am a native Kansan, born and reared on a farm and in a small agricultural community where I spent the weekends and summers of my youth employed by my father and other farmers. Here I first learned of the evils of child labor and, to paraphrase Harry Truman, encountered the problem of minimum wages. In addition, during my undergraduate collegiate career, I was exposed to a number of different job experiences, including helping to rebuild the Katy Railroad following the disastrous flood of 1951, working in a supermarket in Kansas City, and working as an assembly-line inspector for Beech Aircraft in its Herington Air Base plant during the Korean War. Consequently, I have belonged to several national labor unions, including the Brotherhood of Railway Workers, the Hodcarriers, the Retail Clerks, and the National Education Association during my stint as a public-school teacher. I believe I can discuss workers and their problems with some understanding and certainly with empathy.

One personal experience with unions should be noted. While working . . .

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