Darrow lectured on ‘labor question’ in St. Paul 100 years ago

Clarence Darrow was an attorney in transition when he traveled to St. Paul 100 years ago to give a lecture arranged by St. Paul labor leaders.

Although known nationally as a labor lawyer, Darrow had by October 1913 fallen out of favor with many of the country’s unions. Bribery charges, incurred while defending a pair of brothers accused of bombing the Los Angeles Times building three years earlier, had blemished Darrow’s reputation. He had taken the case at the behest of the American Federation of Labor, and though Darrow was not convicted of bribing jurors, he did agree never to practice law in California again.

Against that backdrop, St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly President John P. Walsh introduced Darrow to a crowd of thousands gathered inside a St. Paul auditorium, a scene depicted in great detail on Page 1 of The Union Advocate’s Oct. 3, 1913 edition.

Darrow, Walsh said, had “won all his triumphs in defense of the working people” and had shared “in the bitter persecution of which they are so frequently the victims.” As working people ask only for the opportunity to work for fair wages in decent conditions, Walsh added, Darrow “asks only a square deal in the great court of public opinion, and the magnificent audience that has assembled to hear him tonight shows he can depend on getting that in St. Paul.”

Darrow’s speech addressed the “labor question,” and according to The Advocate, it reinforced his reputation as “one of the greatest forensic and platform orators of our time and country.”

Darrow touched on topics ranging from the closed shop – “the tenet of unionism most bitterly opposed by the employers because it is the one most hurtful to their selfish purposes” – to legal protections for workers’ right to strike.

“The laborer strikes not for himself, but in sympathy with other toilers, fellow workers whom he does not know. This the lawyers and judges call crime. If the strike is selfish they deem it right, but if it is generous and in response to the sentiment of brotherhood, it is criminal.”

“Could anything,” Darrow asked, “but the smoked-glass conscience of lawyers and judges see it in that light?”

Despite the warm reception in St. Paul, Darrow would turn his attention away from labor law and toward criminal law and civil liberties in the coming years. He is most famous for the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial,” the 1925 case in which he defended a man charged with illegally teaching the theory of evolution in a Tennessee public school.

[The Union Advocate’s “This Month in the Archives” feature offers a look back at what the newspaper was reporting from 5 to 100 years ago. Our digital archives are online, searchable and free to anyone. Click here for access.]

Linda Kingman (left) and Amy Zimmerman made sure they were heard during an Oct. 30, 2003 demonstration outside the University of Minnesota’s Morrill Hall. Kingman was a striking AFSCME Local 3800 worker from the dentistry school; Zimmerman was a third-year student.

Linda Kingman (left) and Amy Zimmerman made sure they were heard during an Oct. 30, 2003 demonstration outside the University of Minnesota’s Morrill Hall. Kingman was a striking AFSCME Local 3800 worker from the dentistry school; Zimmerman was a third-year student.

10 Years Ago: U of M clerical workers strike

Clerical workers at University of Minnesota campuses in the Twin Cities, Duluth, Crookston and Moorhead went on strike Oct. 21, 2003, after rejecting a contract that would have increased their health-care costs, eliminated step pay raises and gutted protections for job security.

The strike, which lasted 15 days, affected more than 2,000 workers represented by AFSCME Locals 3800 and 3801.

“Striking workers called the university’s proposal a union-busting tactic that demonstrates the well-being of workers and their families is a lower priority to university officials than new stadiums; new buildings for corporate, biotech and agribusiness needs; and new gardens and flowers,” The Advocate reported.

The tentative agreement reached with the university to end the strike did not budge the university from its health-insurance plan, but union leaders claimed significant language victories, including a guarantee that laid-off clerical workers won’t take pay cuts when rehired. Step increases, which the university wanted to eliminate, were left mostly intact. And the union won lump-sum payments each year to help workers offset higher health costs.

25 Years Ago: Jackson stumped for Dukakis, Humphrey

Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke at labor event in St. Paul in 1988.

Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke at labor event in St. Paul in 1988.

After losing his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Rev. Jesse Jackson hit the campaign trail in support of Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis in October 1988. Jackson’s tour included an Oct. 19 stop in Minneapolis, where he “gave a much-needed boost to Dukakis forces in Minnesota, who have been disheartened in recent weeks by news stories and numerous polls that say Bush has the election wrapped up,” The Union Advocate reported.

Then-Vice President George Bush was campaigning to continue the policies of the Reagan administration – policies, Jackson warned, that would take the country backward by continuing to dismantle protections for workers’ rights, civil rights and women’s rights.

“The current administration has done nothing on the critical issues of poverty, healthcare and programs for children and, most of all, it continues to lie about the economy,” The Advocate reported.

“Yes, more people are working eight years later” (after Reagan’s election), Jackson said. “But there are more working poor people eight years later.”

Jackson also took the opportunity to stump for then-Attorney General Skip Humphrey, who lost his bid to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger.

“As Hubert Humphrey stood for us in 1948 – the acorn does not fall far from the tree – we should support Skip Humphrey in 1988,” Jackson said.

50 Years Ago: Battery strike ended

A nationwide strike at Gould National Batteries ended in October 1938, and 261 St. Paul-based members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers went back to work after four months on the picket line.

About 1,600 IBEW members across the U.S. voted to approve a new 30-month contract with Gould and end the strike – as well as a consumer boycott of the company and more than two dozen other corporations selling products made with Gould batteries.

The new contract, according to the Advocate, called for “substantial wage increases and increased fringe benefits.” Gould employees at the company’s two St. Paul plants voted 133 to 11 in favor of accepting the new pact.

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