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Posts Tagged ‘American labor history’

Our Forgotten Labor Revolution

After the Civil War, workers struggled to make wage labor go the way of chattel slavery.

Slaves shown working in the sweet potato fields on the Hopkinson plantation, located on Edisto Island, SC.

Slaves shown working in the sweet potato fields on the Hopkinson plantation, located on Edisto Island, SC

The new issue of Jacobin, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Union victory and emancipation, is out now.

The Founding, the Civil War, the New Deal. The holy trinity of the American political tradition.

In the beginning was the word, the sacred text celebrating the end of arbitrary colonial government and the creation of a constitutional republic. Then there was the redemptive war, a punishment for the original sin of slavery and whose reward was the Union reborn. The new United States declared the primacy of the national state, declared free labor the foundation of its economy, and established national citizenship. Finally, the third deed put a human face on the capitalism that the Civil War unleashed.

This, anyhow, is how the standard undergraduate syllabus is arranged. It is how publishing houses organize their books; it is how the typical historical survey punctuates the American story. To be sure, other moments, like the Civil Rights Movement and the Reagan revolution get honorable mentions.

But they receive their meaning primarily as decorative fabric stretched across the tripartite scaffolding: the Founding, the Civil War, the New Deal. We are supposed to believe that there is nothing to remember in those historical voids. If we go looking, all that we will discover is a series of errors, like Jim Crow, that we have since corrected.

How then to think about the fall of 1887, when a small group of labor organizers connected to the Knights of Labor, started agitating among sugar cane workers deep in the Louisiana bayou?

In August, the Knights started talking to the mostly black cane-cutters who were now working for their former slave masters. They promised higher wages, an end to payment in “scrip” rather than money, and even the hope of running a plantation “on the co-operative plan” instead of under the thumb of a boss. By September thousands had joined the Knights, by October they were ready to stop working if the local planters refused to raise wages, by the first of November they were on strike.

Three weeks later they were slaughtered. With the aid of a judge and state militia leader, white vigilantes disarmed the strikers, corralled them into the town of Thibodaux, Louisiana and unleashed a three-day orgy of violence. “No credible official count of the victims of the Thibodaux massacre was ever made,” writes historian Rebecca Scott, but “bodies continued to turn up in shallow graves outside of town for weeks to come.”

Precise body counts were beside the point. The question of who ruled town and country, plantation and courthouse, had been answered. As a mother of two white vigilantes put it, “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule, the nigger or the white man? For the next fifty years. . . .”

Where does an event like this fit in our national history? Who were the Knights? What was their vision of society? What was the threat they posed?

These are questions we cannot answer by reference to the “holy trinity” narrative. That is because between Reconstruction and Jim Crow was a forgotten time in which the emancipation of slaves inspired a further movement to emancipate workers from the domination of the labor market. It was a moment of promise and of danger — the promise of freedom, the danger of challenges to class power.

If we want to understand our history, rather than just congratulate ourselves about it, we have to abandon the prevailing, comforting narrative of progress that carefully extrudes those moments that do not fit with America’s national image as a self-correcting liberal democracy.

Looking back at forgotten labor struggles is therefore not just an exercise in setting the record straight, it is an exercise in emancipating our own thinking from attempts to discipline and control it.Reconstruction and its aftermath is an especially fertile period because it is when the language of liberty began to take new form, but had not yet been thinned out into the libertarian discourses that we know today.

Union soldiers of the First Massachusetts Cavalry posed in front of plantation house on Edisto Island, South Carolina.

Union soldiers of the First Massachusetts Cavalry posed in front of plantation house on Edisto Island, South Carolina.

The Promise of Reconstruction

The Civil War saw the largest, uncompensated expropriation of property in American history: the abolition of slavery. Nullifying slave owners’ property in persons meant returning personhood to the slaves. It also extinguished roughly half the value of all Southern assets, which in today’s prices amounts to roughly $3 trillion.

This expropriation was followed by “Recon­struction,” a period of constitutional dictatorship maintained by the North’s military occupation of the South. The purpose of occupation was not only to ensure orderly return of the South to the Union, nor just to secure passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, but also to coercively guarantee the freedom of former slaves against those who would resist it.

There was no extending of economic, civil, and political rights to former slaves without a period of coercion against the ancien regime. When communists today propose such measures it is denounced as the most horrible violation of the democratic spirit and personal liberty. But here, at the heart of our own history, is forced expropriation of one class to emancipate another.

And there is more. Reconstruction inaugurated a struggle over how to define the freedom in whose name the North fought. Abolition was just the beginning. What followed was the question of emancipation.

This might sound odd: didn’t the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments abolish slavery, establish due process, and guarantee national citizenship? That would have been news to former slaves. They had been famously promised, as a part of their emancipation, “forty acres and a mule.” And not just them. In fact, in the Morrill Land Grant and Homestead Acts of 1862, the state had affirmed the idea that a fully free citizen was someone who had access to a piece of land — some share of the means of production — so that they did not have to be dependent on another.

Lincoln himself had declared, prior to the war, that free labor was not the same as wage labor: “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while . . . [This] is free labor.” The promise of American freedom was that everyone might enjoy this full independence.

More to the point, former slaves had learned that their emancipation was not something done to them but something they seized for themselves — they no longer had to ask for permission from a master. The connection between emancipation, independence, and self-assertion was found in the organization of black militias for the protection of civil rights, their seizure of land, and the working of this land individually or in self-directed labor companies.

Consider, for instance, these words from former slaves on Edisto Island, South Carolina, who occupied abandoned plantations and then were commanded, by a Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner, to return the land to former masters:

General we want Homestead’s; we were promised Homestead’s by the government . . . [without them] we are left in a more unpleasant condition than our former . . . we are at the mercy of those who are combined to prevent us from getting land enough to lay our Fathers bones upon.

Without land they were forced to work for former masters, or some other masters, for a pittance. To be formally free but possess no land was to find oneself “in a more unpleasant condition,” since in principle one might even find oneself homeless, in even more abject dependence on an employer. The promise of land, whether worked individually or collectively, was that one would no longer work under the arbitrary command of another.

Here was a possible meaning of Reconstruction: all forms of economic dependence are incompatible with free citizenship. In the name of freedom, being without property and dependent on employers was a condition that also had to be abolished. Free people had a right to some share of the means of production — be it land or some other productive property. They even had a right to take it from those who opposed this equal freedom.

One expropriation would follow another and, as those same former slaves put it, each should enjoy the protection of the state. What made such ideas so dangerous was that they were not exclusive to the South. Northerners who fought in the name of this freedom or who supported the Northern cause also believed they had a right to property, to a full and equal freedom.

It is not hard to see how such ideas could unify workers in the North and the South and turn Reconstruction into a radical project of reform, one wholly consistent with, even motivated by, American ideals of freedom. That is just what happened, but what did it look like? Here is where the Knights of Labor, who preserved the free labor ideals of Reconstruction well past its official conclusion, matter so much.

The Red Banditti

The Knights of Labor first formed in 1869 and grew, by the 1880s, into the first national labor association ever to organize unskilled black workers together with whites on a mass basis — an effort not meaningfully duplicated in the United States for another fifty years. Their founding documents said they had come together “for the purpose of organizing and directing the power of the industrial masses.”

Casting their concerns in a familiar, post–Civil War idiom, they asked, “Is there a workshop where obedience is not demanded — not to the difficulties or qualities of the labor to be performed — but to the caprice of he who pays the wages of his servants?” They called the new wage labor “wage slavery” and they wanted “to abolish as rapidly as possible, the wage system, substituting co-operation therefore.”

To advance their mission, the Knights established assemblies everywhere from the male-dominated mines of rural Pennsylvania to the mostly women-employing garment factories of New York to the railroads of Denver.

The Knights’ expansion into the American South began in 1886 at their general assembly meeting in Richmond, Virginia. In a conspicuous show of racial solidarity, a black worker named Frank Ferrell took the stage to introduce the Knights’ leader, Terence V. Powderly, before Powderly’s opening address. To defend his controversial decision to have a black Knight introduce him, Powderly wrote “in the field of labor and American citizenship we recognize no line of race, creed, politics or color.”

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After the general assembly the Knights spread throughout Southern states like South Carolina, Virginia, and Louisiana, setting up cooperatives, organizing local assemblies, and agitating for a new political order.

They enjoyed initial success in Louisiana. One district assembly in the Bayou region claimed 5,000 black members, more than forty local assemblies were spread across planter country, and the membership included some of the most influential local leaders from the headier days of Reconstruction. These were some of the same leaders who had served in politics, drilled self-defense militias, and organized labor companies in the 1870s, prior to the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.

A spirit of self-assertion not seen for over a decade blew through the cane fields. The plantocracy knew it. The Thibodaux Sentinel, a racist local paper hostile to the Knights’ organizing efforts, warned “against black self-organization by trying to remind whites and blacks of what happened a generation earlier, in the days of black militias, and white vigilantism” and evoked “the old demons of violence and arson by ‘black banditti’.”

But the Knights brushed aside these warnings. Just four hundred miles away, near Birmingham, Alabama, the Knights had already founded cooperative settlements, including a collectively managed iron foundry and cigar works. They hoped to reproduce such efforts in Louisiana, starting in the cane fields. If planters would not raise wages and pay in proper currency rather than useless scrip, the Knights were ready to call a strike. The planters refused and the workers struck.

But it was not to be. First the Louisiana state militia showed up, sporting the same Gatling guns that had, only a few decades before, been used for the first time in the North’s fight against the South. The militia broke the strike and forced thousands of defenseless strikers and their families into the town of Thibodaux, where a state district judge promptly placed them all under martial law. A group of white citizen-vigilantes called the “Peace and Order Committee,” organized by the same judge that had declared martial law, then took over and went on their three-day killing spree.

The Knights’ influence was broken. Farming a plantation “on the co-operative plan” was not even a dream deferred — it was easy to forget it had ever been possible for cane cutters.

The officially sanctioned mob violence at Thibodaux was one of many such instances over the course of Southern history. In each instance, a challenge to race-based class rule was met with vigilante justice in the name of white supremacy.

In this case, however, it is worth recalling that the Knights articulated their challenge in a specific, usually overlooked, language of freedom. This was that same conception of liberty that led former slaves during Reconstruction to refuse to work for former masters, even when offered a formal labor contract and wages. It was the same idea of emancipation that motivated them to seize land and work it in “labor companies,” to organize their own militias, to vote as they wished, to hold local and national office. This radical moment of Reconstruction was momentarily suppressed and its end appeared to spell the defeat of any but the narrowest interpretation of what emancipation would mean.

When the Knights of Labor swept into Louisiana speaking the language of freedom, they not only revived old hopes for self-organization and economic independence, but also integrated these regional aspirations of former slaves into a recast national ideology of republican freedom.

Former slaves were now modern workers and the Knights trumpeted the same emancipatory language throughout the nation, heralding “co-operation” as a solution to the problems facing wage laborers everywhere. They sought a reconstruction not just of the South but of the entire country.

This program of liberation through cooperative self-organization, articulated in the trans-racial language of making all workers into their own bosses, scared Northern industrialists just as much as Southern planters. Indeed, if we see the Thibodaux massacre only as a story of Southern racism, we run the risk of unintentionally and retrospectively ceding too much to the planter class and its attempts to control labor relations by transforming economic conflicts into questions of racial superiority.

After all, wherever the Knights went and wherever their message of cooperation and independence took hold they were met with a violence not all that different from that of Louisiana’s “Peace and Order Committee.” Throughout the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s, the Knights faced violence from employers and their hired guns, most notoriously the Pinkertons. The Pinkertons operated in legal grey zones, sometimes with outright legal sanction from the courts, and often in cooperation with the police, state militia, and federal troops.

Indeed, on occasion it was the public violence of the state that was responsible for spectacular acts of legally sanctioned murder and coercion. Perhaps the most famous was the Haymarket incident in Chicago, in May 1886, when workers and police died during marches for an eight-hour working day.

But even before Haymarket, in Chicago no less than the bayou, capitalist overlords had been baying for blood. “Load Your Guns, They Will Be Needed Tomorrow to Shoot Communists,” read oneChicago Times headline from 1875, responding to a possible demonstration of socialists and reformers against the city’s half-hearted efforts to address poverty. Republican Chicago was a hotbed of bourgeois financing of labor repression. In 1877, a business group called the Citizens Association responded to strike riots by raising $28,000, which they used to buy rifles, cannons, cavalry equipment, and a Gatling gun.

In 1886, after the famous Haymarket incident, an organization of Chicago’s wealthiest businessmen raised $300,000 in private donations to buy land and equipment for a fort and an armory located near the city. In Haymarket, and numerous other strikes, capital got what it paid for.

Labor reformers labeled this unholy alliance of the state with capital, its private guards, spies and “provocative agents,” a kind of “Bonapartism in America,” threatening to turn “the free and independent Republic of the United States of America” into the “worm-eaten Empire of Napoleon the Third.” Just as in Thibodaux, the lines between vigilante violence and legal coercion blurred into a haze.

What, then, was the idea of freedom that triggered such extreme responses? It was nothing less than the promise of the Civil War itself. Or, put more precisely, it was a particular interpretation of the ideal of republican liberty that free-labor abolitionists so frequently invoked before and during the Civil War. It was the ideal that all citizens should live in an economy in which they determine their fate rather than find themselves subject to the arbitrary will of another.

The language the Knights used was shot through with the antislavery ideal. William H. Seward’s famous abolitionist line that there is an “irrepressible conflict” between Northern freedom and Southern slavery was echoed in the Knights’ own slogan that “there is an inevitable and irresistible conflict between the wage-system of labor and the republican system of government.” Whether Southern agricultural worker, Northern shoemaker, or Western switchman, wage-laborers were propertyless and therefore dependent, seeking the same kind of freedom as the freed slaves of Edisto Island.

Here was the source of their “co-operative plan,” which they found equally applicable to the cane fields of Louisiana or the shoe factories of Massachusetts. The Knights wrote the cooperative program into their official constitution, the Declaration of Principles of the Knights of Labor, and, at their peak, organized thousands of cooperatives across the country. This ideal threatened Southern planters, Northern industrialists, and Western railroad owners alike because it struck at the dominant industrial relations between employer and employee.

Affording all workers shared ownership and management of an enterprise, whether a sugar plantation, newspaper press, or garment factory, was, according to the Knights, the only way to secure to everyone their social and economic independence.

While these ideas had been around well before the Civil War, it was only the abolition of chattel slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism that allowed the republican critique of wage labor to come forward as a unifying, national cause — one that had its roots deep in the critique of slavery itself. As Ira Steward, a child of abolitionists and prominent postwar labor republican, wrote in 1873, “something of slavery still remains . . . something of freedom is yet to come.”

Freedmen’s School. Edisto Island, South Carolina.

Freedmen’s School. Edisto Island, SC.

The Revolution Betrayed

Northern Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction of the South when the industrialists, merchants, and financiers that made up the heart of the party started to fear that workers were taking the promise of emancipation too seriously. A few of the most radical Republicans were won over to elements of labor reform, perhaps most famously Wendell Phillips. But by 1877, the bourgeois heart of the Republican Party was beating a different pulse.

Violent railroad strikes in 1873–74 foreshadowed the Great Strike of 1877, which not only paralyzed the country but briefly witnessed workers taking over St. Louis and running the railroads themselves — cooperatively, without bosses. They were quickly brought to heel by a mixture of armed guards, local police, and the newly reformed National Guard. Indeed, the National Guard was created out of the compromise of 1877, in which federal troops would no longer be allowed to enforce domestic law — as they did during Reconstruction — but with an exemption written in for cases of “insurrection,” namely, strikes.

Republicans had lost the heart for Reconstruction of the South because they were losing control of its meaning. The constitutional dictatorship that Northern leaders had imposed on the South had lost its charm, especially as freed slaves demanded redistribution of property, or, as in cases like Edisto Island, just seized that property themselves. Employers worried they now needed armed forces back home, to control workers, rather than bringing the former Confederacy to heel. Strikebreaking looked like a much better use for federal troops and state militia than helping redistribute property in the name of emancipation.

It was time to proclaim former slaves free, close up shop, and turn to making money.

Those former slave-owning planters now looked like less threatening, even useful, allies in the project of disciplining labor. And, in any case, for the Northern investors in US wartime debt, it was time to get freed blacks back onto plantations, picking cotton, so that it could be sold on international markets. After all, an influx of foreign exchange was needed to help put the dollar back on the gold standard, stabilize the currency, and allow them to cash in.

It was well and good to have freed the slaves but enough was enough. The limits of bourgeois universalism had been reached. It was time for Northern capitalists to make a deal, end Reconstruction, and get back to the business of making money.

Work Left Unfinished

Official Reconstruction might have been bargained away in the halls of Congress but, as the Knights of Labor reminds us, the ideals of Reconstruction had not been put to rest. Rather they had been nationalized and radicalized.

In fact, the Knights were not even the most dangerous of those who sought to extend the new freedom into the industrial economy. After all, they rejected revolutionary violence. Yet even their vision of an alternative future had to be suppressed. Their demand for an egalitarian economy, of nationalized public utilities like telegraphs and railroads, and built around producers’ cooperatives was still considered far too dangerous to the emerging capitalist order.

The radicalization of the promise of freedom was not only why Reconstruction had to be ended but why a certain memory of that period has had to endure.

Emancipation had to be understood as abolition, abolition had to be understood as the end of just slavery, and Reconstruction had to be told as a purely Southern question. These days, the dominant story about the Civil War and Reconstruction is so powerful that some dismiss the very idea of freedom as conservative, or at least “bourgeois.” But it is worth remembering that Reconstruction ended not because freedom had been achieved but because it started to become dangerous.

The quest for independence had transcended the abolition of slavery and become a call for self-organization and the redistribution of property. One expropriation threatened to follow another. A proper reconstruction of America meant that the majority should seize its freedom, through its own efforts, by turning the economy into a reflection of the democratic ideal. That is not just an ideal worth remembering but one worth recovering.

Reconstruction matters because it is dangerous.

Alex Gourevitch is an assistant professor of political science at Brown University and the author of From Slavery To the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century.

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‘The Age of Acquiescence,’ by Steve Fraser

Naomi Klein

The New York Times  March 16, 2015

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Nishant Choksi

For two years running, Oxfam International has traveled to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to make a request: Could the superrich kindly cease devouring the world’s wealth? And while they’re at it, could they quit using “their financial might to influence public policies that favor the rich at the expense of everyone else”?

In 2014, when Oxfam arrived in Davos, it came bearing the (then) shocking news that just 85 individuals controlled as much wealth as half of the world’s population combined. This January, that number went down to 80 individuals.

Dropping this news in Davos is a great publicity stunt, but as a political strategy, it’s somewhat baffling. Why would the victors of a class war choose to surrender simply because the news is out that they have well and truly won? Oxfam’s answer is that the rich must battle inequality or they will find themselves in a stagnant economy with no one to buy their products. (Davos thought bubble: “Isn’t that what cheap credit is for?”)

Still, even if some of the elite hand-wringing about inequality is genuine, are reports really the most powerful weapons out there to fight for a more just distribution of wealth? Where are the sit-down strikes? The mass boycotts? The calls for expropriation? Where, in short, are the angry masses?

Oxfam’s Davos guilt trip doesn’t appear in Steve Fraser’s “The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power,” but these are the questions at the heart of this fascinating if at times meandering book. Fraser, a labor historian, argues that deepening economic hardship for the many, combined with “insatiable lust for excess” for the few, qualifies our era as a second Gilded Age. But while contemporary wealth stratification shares much with the age of the robber barons, the popular response does not.

As Fraser forcefully shows, during the first Gilded Age — which he defines loosely as the years between the end of the Civil War and the market crash of 1929 — American elites were threatened with more than embarrassing statistics. Rather, a “broad and multifaceted resistance” fought for and won substantially higher wages, better workplace conditions, progressive taxation and, ultimately, the modern welfare state (even as they dreamed of much more).

To solve the mystery of why sustained resistance to wealth inequality has gone missing in the United States, Fraser devotes the first half of the book to documenting the cut and thrust of the first Gilded Age: the mass strikes that shut down cities and enjoyed the support of much of the population; the Eight Hour Leagues that dramatically cut the length of the workday, fighting for the universal right to leisure and time “for what we will”; the vision of a “ ‘cooperative commonwealth’ in place of the Hobbesian nightmare that Progress had become.”

He reminds readers that although “class war” is considered un-American today, bracing populist rhetoric was once the lingua franca of the nation. American presidents bashed “moneycrats” and “economic royalists,” and immigrant garment workers demanded not just “bread and roses” but threatened “bread or blood.” Among many such arresting anecdotes is one featuring the railway tycoon George Pullman. When he died in 1897, Fraser writes, “his family was so afraid that his corpse would be desecrated by enraged workers, they had it buried at night . . . in a pit eight feet deep, encased in floors and walls of steel-reinforced concrete in a lead-lined casket covered in layers of asphalt and steel rails.”

652c3bb7622f54e59746d4bd7b5e8431Fraser offers several explanations for the boldness of the post-Civil War wave of labor resistance, including, interestingly, the intellectual legacy of the abolition movement. The fight against slavery had loosened the tongues of capitalism’s critics, forging a radical critique of the market’s capacity for barbarism. With bonded labor now illegal, the target pivoted to factory “wage slavery.” This comparison sounds strange to contemporary ears, but as Fraser reminds us, for European peasants and artisans, as well as American homesteaders, the idea of selling one’s labor for money was profoundly alien.

This is key to Fraser’s thesis. What ­fueled the resistance to the first Gilded Age, he argues, was the fact that many Americans had a recent memory of a different kind of economic system, whether in America or back in Europe. Many at the forefront of the resistance were actively fighting to protect a way of life, whether it was the family farm that was being lost to predatory creditors or small-scale artisanal businesses being wiped out by industrial capitalism. Having known something different from their grim present, they were capable of imagining — and fighting for — a radically better future.

It is this imaginative capacity that is missing from our second Gilded Age, a theme to which Fraser returns again and again in the latter half of the book. The latest inequality chasm has opened up at a time when there is no popular memory — in the United States, at least — of another kind of economic system. Whereas the activists and agitators of the first Gilded Age straddled two worlds, we find ourselves fully within capitalism’s matrix. So while we can demand slight improvements to our current conditions, we have a great deal of trouble believing in something else entirely.

Fraser devotes several chapters to outlining the key “fables” which, he argues, have served as particularly effective ­resistance-avoidance tools. These range from the billionaire as rebel to the supposedly democratizing impact of mass stock ownership to the idea that contract work is a form of liberation. He also explores various forces that have a “self-­policing” impact — from mass indebtedness to mass incarceration; from the fear of having your job deported to the fear of having yourself deported.

With scarce use of story or development of characters, this catalog of disempowerment often feels more like an overlong list than an argument. And after reading hundreds of pages detailing depressing facts, Fraser’s concluding note — that “a new era of rebellion and transformation” might yet be possible — rings distinctly hollow.

This need not have been the case. Fraser spares only a few short paragraphs for those movements that are attempting to overcome the obstacles he documents — student-debt resisters, fast-food and Walmart workers fighting for a living wage, regional campaigns to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour or the various creative attempts to organize vulnerable immigrant workers. We hear absolutely nothing directly from the leaders of these contemporary movements, all of whom are struggling daily with the questions at the heart of this book.

That’s too bad. Because if hope is to be credible, we need to hear not just from yesterday’s dreamers but from today’s as well.

THE AGE OF ACQUIESCENCE

The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power

By Steve Fraser

470 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $28.

Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist, and author. 

Steve Fraser is Visiting Associate Professor of Economic History  at New York University.

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The Ludlow Massacre Still Matters 

Ben Mauk

The New Yorker  May 19, 2014

 

 

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On April 20, 1914, members of the Colorado National Guard opened fire on a group of armed coal miners and set fire to a makeshift settlement in Ludlow, Colorado, where more than a thousand striking workers and their families were camped out. Today, the Ludlow massacre, which Caleb Crain wrote about in The New Yorker in 2009, remains one of the bloodiest episodes in the history of American industrial enterprise; at least sixty-six men, women, and children were killed in the attack and the days of rioting that followed, according to most historical accounts. Although it is less well-remembered today than other dark episodes in American labor history, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that claimed a hundred and forty-six lives, the Ludlow massacre—which Wallace Stegner once called “one of the bleakest and blackest episodes of American labor history”—changed the nation’s attitude toward labor and capital for the next several decades. Its memory continues to reverberate in contemporary political discourse.

In the summer of 1913, United Mine Workers began to organize the eleven thousand coal miners employed by the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Company. Most of the workers were first-generation immigrants from Italy, Greece, and Serbia; many had been hired, a decade prior, to replace workers who had gone on strike. In August, the union extended invitations to company representatives to meet about their grievances—including low pay, long and unregulated hours, and management practices they felt were corrupt—but they were rebuffed. A month later, eight thousand Colorado mine workers went on strike. Among their demands were a ten-per-cent pay raise, the enforcement of an eight-hour working day, and the right to live and trade outside the company-owned town. Many of the rights they sought were required by Colorado law but remained unenforced.

After getting evicted from their company-owned homes, the workers based their operations in makeshift tent cities surrounding the mines, the largest of which was the Ludlow camp. The Rockefellers responded by hiring a detective agency—comprised of “Texas desperadoes and thugs,” according to “Legacy of the Ludlow Massacre,” a sharply researched 1988 book by Howard M. Gitelman—who would periodically raid the camps, firing rifles and shotguns. In November, the state governor called in the Colorado National Guard at the company’s behest; the Guard’s wages were supplied by the Rockefeller family, and they helped to form militias whose members carried out sporadic raids and shootings in the tent cities.

The strike stretched on for months, and in April, 1914, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., appeared before Congress, where he framed the standoff as “a national issue, whether workers shall be allowed to work under such conditions as they may choose.” He balked at the possibility of allowing “outside people”—meaning union organizers—“to come in and interfere with employees who are thoroughly satisfied with their labor conditions.” The committee chairman asked Rockefeller whether he would stand by his anti-union principles even “if it costs all your property and kills all your employees.” Rockefeller replied, “It is a great principle.”

On April 20th, a day after Orthodox Easter, four militiamen brandished a machine gun at some of the striking miners. At some point, shots were fired—the accounts are predictably inconsistent as to who fired first—and a day-long gunfight ensued.

That evening, the National Guardsmen set fire to the Ludlow colony. Thirteen residents who tried to flee were shot and killed as the camp burned to the ground, and many more burned to death. Discovered among the ruins the following morning was a women’s infirmary, where four women and eleven children had sought to escape the fighting by hiding in a cellar-like pit. All the children and two of the women died. One survivor, Mary Petrucci, lost three of her own children in the infirmary. Years later, she recalled, “I came out of the hole. There was light and lots of smoke. I wandered among the ashes until a priest found me. I couldn’t feel anything. I was cold.”

News of the attack—and especially of the deaths under the infirmary tent—pulled the nation’s attention from the United States’ potential involvement in the Mexican Revolution. To many Americans, the massacre exposed the consequences of unchecked corporate might, and it roused the conscience of a country that had previously demonstrated impassive ambivalence toward organized labor. (Decades later, a song by Woody Guthrie captured the common sentiment of the event’s immediate aftermath: “We took some cement and walled the cave up where you killed these thirteen children inside / I said ‘God bless the Mine Workers Union,’ then I hung my head and cried.”)

Two days later, Congress convened to discuss the events at Ludlow, and to consider how the government might check martial power wielded by private industrialists. One senator, Iowa’s “radical Republican,” William Kenyon, decried the government’s ties to the violence, noting that “the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, or the company controlling it, has certain of its bonds on deposit with the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation, with which the Department of Agriculture of our Government seems to have been in partnership for some little time.” Another senator expressed a broader concern: “I fear that unless society can in some manner reconcile these troubled conditions as between capital and labor, Mexico is not the only country that will be torn by internecine strife.”

Rockefeller, for his part, released a memorandum in June, months after federal troops had been ordered to Colorado to quell the days of violent rioting that had followed the events of April 20th. “There was no Ludlow massacre,” he wrote. “The engagement started as a desperate fight for life by two small squads of militia … against the entire tent colony, which attacked them with over three hundred armed men.” He also offered a lengthy technical explanation of why the deaths in the infirmary were the result of inadequate ventilation and overcrowding, not of actions taken by “the defenders of law and property, who were in no slightest way responsible for it.”

Despite Rockefeller’s arguments, after Ludlow the Wild West era of company towns began to wane, and stricter labor laws began to appear on the books—and were even enforced. Support for unions reached an all-time high in the nineteen-thirties, as described by James Surowiecki in a 2011 article for the magazine. Yet, as Surowiecki also noted, the influence of trade unions, which supplanted company unions following the 1935 Wagner Act, has been declining for decades, as part of a general rightward shift in American politics which began in the sixties. Since the 2008 recession, there has been growing resentment for union members among non-unionized workers; in 2010, support for unions reached a historic low, according to a Pew poll.

Yet the struggle that Ludlow embodied—and that, historically, unions have taken up—is a contemporary one, even if unions are no longer playing as public a role. Today, some of the fiercest workers’-rights battles take place over government regulations that protect low-income workers’ access to Medicaid and other social services, and that buoy the federal minimum wage, which is currently far below its 1968 peak value. In her recently published autobiography, Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote that “Big corporations hire armies of lobbyists to get billion-dollar loopholes into the tax system and persuade their friends in Congress to support laws that keep the playing field tilted in their favor.” In this, she sounds almost exactly like the Republican senators who, in the days after Ludlow, worried about Colorado Iron & Fuel’s deep government influence.

What was at stake at Ludlow remains pertinent even within the modern coal industry. Last week, the Center for Public Integrity won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigative report on efforts to deny benefits to coal miners with black-lung disease. The seriesdescribes how industry-compensated lawyers have frequently withheld evidence from judges in order to defeat the medical claims of miners suffering from the resurgent ailment, which today affects about six per cent of miners in central Appalachia, according to government statistics reported in the series.

A different kind of violence is visited upon today’s miners. There are no overt, bloody showdowns between striking workers and armed National Guardsmen whose paychecks come from corporate barons. But industry money—in the form of fees paid by mine companies for consultant work—still appears to influence the diagnoses of doctors and radiologists, according to copious research compiled by the Center. And the coal industry’s go-to law firm withheld dissenting medical evidence that supported miners’ claims in eleven of the fifteen cases featured in the report. As a result, ailing and dying miners are denied the support they are owed.

There are eighty-five thousand coal miners left in the United States, but, while many are union members, the influence of the United Mine Workers was already waning by the early eighties, according to the Center for Public Integrity report. Today the union represents about twenty thousand active miners, according to the Wall Street Journal. Instead of union pressure, it was more likely the Center’s investigation that prompted the Department of Labor to announce, in February, a series of reforms that will make it easier for miners with black-lung disease to collect their medical benefits. A hundred years ago, it took a great and deadly injustice to spur lasting government reform. Here’s hoping we learn from it.

Photograph: Fotosearch/Getty

Ben Mauk is a writer from Baltimore, Maryland.He is a regular online contributor to The New Yorker, and his essays and stories appear in The Sun magazine, The American Reader, The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.

From 2007 to 2009, he was an editor at Dana Press in Washington, D.C. and New York City. He is a graduate of Cornell University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the recipient of a 2014-15 U.S. Fulbright Award for Young Journalists.

He lives in Iowa City, where he teaches at the University of Iowa. 

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