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Key People in Labor History

The workplace rights and protections we enjoy today were won for us by generations of America's working heroes. Get inspired by these brief biographies to continue the fight.

Biographies are based on background information supplied by Dorothy Sue Cobble, professor of History and Labor Studies at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and Michael Merrill, director of the George Meany Memorial Archives and editor of Labor's Heritage.

César Estrada Chávez
Folk hero and symbol of hope who organized a union of farmworkers.

Nelson Hale Cruikshank
Helped create Social Security and Medicare.

Eugene Victor Debs
Apostle of industrial unionism.

Thomas Reilly Donahue
Champion of labor renewal and former AFL-CIO president.

Arthur Joseph Goldberg
Legal strategist for the union movement and former Secretary of Labor.

Samuel Gompers
First and longest-serving president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

William Green
Former AFL president, moved the federation toward "social reform unionism."

Joe Hill
Songwriter, itinerant laborer, union organizer—and martyr.

Sidney Hillman
Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America founder invented trade unionism as we know it today.

Mother Jones
"The most dangerous woman in America."

Lane Kirkland
Former AFL-CIO president had a profound effect on world affairs.

John L. Lewis
President of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and founding president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Lucy Randolph Mason
Social reformer dedicated to workers' rights and racial justice.

Peter J. McGuire
The "father" of Labor Day and of May Day championed the need for a national labor federation.

George Meany
The builder of the modern AFL-CIO.

Philip Murray
CIO president who helped transform industrial union movement into a stable and powerful organization.

Frances Perkins
Committed labor secretary and first woman in a presidential cabinet position.

Esther Eggersten Peterson
Eloquent and effective advocate for the rights of workers, women and consumers.

A. Philip Randolph
Organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and fought discrimination in national defense.

Walter Reuther
Long-time president of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) considered the model of a reform-minded, liberal trade unionist.

Bayard Rustin
Brilliant theorist, tactician and organizer and first head of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

 

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