Today in Labor History – August 15th

Will Rogers
Will Rogers

The Panama Canal opened after 33 years of construction and an estimated 22,000 worker deaths, mostly caused by malaria and yellow fever. The 51-mile canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. France began work on the canal in 1881 but stopped due to engineering problems and a high worker mortality rate. The United States took over the project in 1904 and opened the canal on August 15, 1914. One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, the Panama Canal shortcut greatly reduced the time for ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, enabling them to avoid the lengthy, hazardous Cape Horn route around the southernmost tip of South America. – 1914

Populist social commentator Will Rogers died on this day. Known as “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son” Rogers was born to a prominent Cherokee Nation family in Indian Territory (now part of Oklahoma). He traveled around the world three times, made 71 movies (50 silent films and 21 “talkies”), and wrote more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns. By the mid-1930s, the American people adored Rogers. He was the leading political wit of his time and was the highest paid Hollywood movie star. One of his many classic lines: “I don’t make jokes, I just watch the government and report the facts”.  Rogers died with aviator Wiley Post when their small airplane crashed in northern Alaska. – 1935

President Richard M. Nixon announced a 90-day freeze on wages, prices, and rents in an attempt to combat inflation. – 1971

Gerry Horgan, chief steward of the Communications Workers of America Local 1103 and NYNEX striker in Valhalla, New York, was struck on the picket line by a car driven by the daughter of a plant manager and died the following day. What was to become a 4-month strike over health care benefits was in its second week. – 1989

Eight automotive department employees at a Walmart near Ottawa won an arbitrator-imposed contract after voting for United Food & Commercial Worker union representation, becoming the giant retailer’s only location in North America with a collective bargaining agreement. Two months later the company closed the department. Three years earlier Wal-Mart had closed an entire store on the same day the government announced an arbitrator would impose a contract agreement there. – 2008

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