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This Week in People’s History, Nov. 14–20

Dictators on the Skids (in 1973), Dockworkers Say No to Japan (1938), Free Speech Is the Future (1928), Not Only a Crook, but a Liar Too (1973), Three Cheers for Yellow Fever (1803), Crime Doesn't Pay (1873), Measuring Time Pays Off (1888)

Striking students protesting the right-wing Greek government
"Down with the junta!",

Student Strike Puts Dictators on the Skids
50 years ago, on November 14, 1973,
hundreds of students at the prestigious Athens Polytechnic University went on strike and began an occupation of their campus to protest the repressive policies of the right-wing military junta that had ruled Greece for more than six years. The strike and the brutal way the Army suppressed it were crucial developments in the growth of the movement that brought the military regime to an end nine months later. 

The day after the students took the campus over, they set up a powerful radio transmitter, over which they repeatedly urged all Greek citizens to help bring an end to the junta. On November 17, the Army used battle tanks to break into the campus, shut the transmitter down, and put an end to the strike. In the course of retaking the campus, the Army killed at least 24 protesters; the number of the dead was undoubtedly greater, but the Army made it impossible for anyone to learn what the true number was. The junta had been widely unpopular ever since it toppled a democratically elected government in 1967, but the student strikers and their short-lived radio station galvanized the opposition, which never let up until it achieved success on July 24, 1974.…

Dockworkers' Strike Against Japan's War Machine
85 years ago, on November 15, 1938,
Australian dockworkers and their union took the bold and potentially illegal step of going on strike and thereby preventing a large shipment of pig iron (an essential raw material for making steel) from being loaded onto a freighter that was bound for the Japan Steel Works in Kobe. The workers' action was inspired by news reports of horrific war crimes committed by the Japanese Army in China, and also by the growing realization that Japan was likely to declare war on Australia before long. The strike action, which continued for more than 10 weeks, had the support from almost all sections of the Australian population, which sent large quantities of food and other supplies to the incomeless strikers. Almost the only opposition to the strike came from the right-wing Australian government, which accused the union of usurping the government's responsibility to dictate foreign policy, and threatened to prosecute the strikers for violating federal law.…;

Free Speech Is the Future
95 years ago, on November 16, 1928,
Fiorello LaGuardia,who was then a member of Congress, delivered a spirited attack on the backwardness of U.S.  labor law at a meeting of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. What he said then closely anticipated federal legislation that he would co-sponsor in 1932, known as the Norris-LaGuardia Act (the bill's other sponsor was Senator George Norris of Nebraska). The main target of LaGuardia's speech was the federal court system, which, until passage of the Norris-LaGuardia act demonstrated its hostility to organized labor by abusing the power of injunction to prevent unions from exercising the basic right of free speech in connection with job actions. As LaGuardia put in his speech, "If the future of our Republic depends on the suppression of free speech, there is no future. The right to criticize public officials is not only wholesome, but necessary in a republic. It is possible by brute force to suppress opinion, but such forces cannot survive. Nowhere has Government succeeded when brute force is used against the right of free speech." Less than four years later, Congress passed and President Hoover signed the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which established the legal principle that federal courts did not have the power to issue injunctions against union activities or speech in non-violent strikes. 

Not Only a Crook, but a Liar Too
50 years ago, on November 17, 1973,
Richard Nixon -- the only U.S. president so crooked that he stayed out of jail only because his hand-picked Vice-President pardoned him upon becoming President -- stood before 400 newspaper editors and declared, "I am not a crook." Less than nine months later, Nixon's lies caught up to him and he became the only U.S. President to resign.…

[This item was revised on 11-18-23 with the addition of new information]
Haitian Revolutionaries, With the Help of Mosquitoes, Change the Course of U.S. History
220 years ago, on November 18, 1803, an invisible obstacle forced Napoleon to abandon his secret plan to establish a major French colonial presence in both the Caribbean and in the middle of North America. If, on November 18, 1803, the battle's outcome had been different, odds are that the history of the United States (and the world) would have been way different.

The first stage of Napoleon's plan had progressed successfully for more than a year, with the result that France had landed 40,000 troops on Haitian soil and anchored hundreds of battleships offshore. The troops and ships were poised to transform Haiti into a base of operations from which, according to Napoleon's plan, France would use the largest and best-equipped military machine in the western hemisphere to take over the valley of the Mississippi River. 

Thousands of French troops and hundreds of ships would have had an excellent chance of completing the plan's first stage by establishing a Haitian military base, if not for the fierce and brilliant resistance of the Haitian people. But the Haitian resistance had a crucial and invisible ally, the yellow-fever virus. Some 23,000 French soldiers and sailors, more than half of the French expeditionary force, had been killed by the virus, to which the Haitian defenders were largely immune, having been born and lived their entire lives in its presence. 

On this day, at the Battle of Vertières, in northern Haiti, the yellow-fever-depleted French army was forced to surrender to the Haitian defenders and give up the effort to return control of revolutionary Haiti to France. France's attempt to create a military base in Haiti was shattered, which meant that  Napoleon's firm intention to begin a Mississippi River campaign with 70,000 troops (30,000 of whom were ready to take ship in the Netherlands) had been destroyed by the bravery of the Haitian people and by a virus, an enemy that would remain completely mysterious for nearly a century more.

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Had Napoleon's plan not been turned awry by Haiti's brave and healthy soldiers, his large and well-equipped army and navy would almost certainly have taken firm control of the Mississippi River valley. Given the small size of the U.S. Army at the time and the fact that almost all its forces were hundreds of miles from Napoleon's objective, the chances were excellent that the infant U.S. government would have faced a dire situation, hemmed in by as tens of thousands  of French troops to the west and south many thousands of British troops to the north and east. Had it not been for the yellow-fever mosquito, the history of both Haiti and the U.S. might well have been enormously different. 

Another Political Crook Faces Justice 
150 years ago, on November 19, 1873,
corrupt political "Boss" William Tweed's 15-year career of running one of the most crooked imaginable political machines was scotched when he was convicted by a New York jury of stealing as much as $200 million of taxpayer dollars, an amount that would be the equivalent of $5 billion today. 

Measuring Time Pays Off
135 years ago, on November 20, 1888,
the first time-clock was patented. Employers loved it. Most workers, not so much. The oddly-named time-clock (what is a clock that is NOT a time-clock?) automated the process of recording a worker's time of arrival, and departure, from work.  Before the time-clock's invention, an employer had to pay someone to keep track of the same information. The time-clock eliminated the need for a timekeeper, which is an excellent example of what automation does. Time-clocks were in such demand that the first company to produce them was an enormous success. So successful that it eventually morphed into IBM.