Trade Unions in the USA: Mark Rathbone Considers Why American Trade Unionism Was So Violent for Much of 1865-1980 but So Much More Peaceful by the Mid-Twentieth Century
Rathbone, Mark, History Review
The history of trade unions in the USA is littered with examples of appalling violence. The first truly nationwide strike, the railroad strike of 1877, set the pattern for labour-related violence, leaving 26 dead in Pittsburgh alone. Sometimes it was union members who were responsible for bloodshed, as in the Herrin Massacre in Williamson County, Illinois, in 1922, when striking miners killed 19 non-union workers. On other occasions, such as the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, which saw the murder of 20 people, many of them women and children, strikers were the victims of violence initiated by employers. As late as 1937, ten striking steelworkers were killed by South Chicago police in the Memorial Day massacre.
Why is labour history in the United States so characterised by bloody confrontation, to a much greater extent than, for example, that of Britain? And why, by the mid-twentieth century, did such violence give way to a more peaceful and cooperative pattern of labour relations?
Trade Union Violence
First, what degree of responsibility do American trade unions themselves bear? Some trade unionists had extreme political views and saw labour violence as a means of bringing about the collapse of capitalism. In Chicago in the 1880s, for example, some unions were infiltrated by anarchists, who encouraged the organisation of a general strike in the city on 1 May 1886. The subsequent meeting at Haymarket Square three days later culminated, it was alleged, in a political extremist throwing a bomb at the police, who responded by firing into the crowd. Ten people died and at least 50 were wounded. Four anarchists were hanged the following year for conspiracy to commit murder. The evidence against them was, however, of doubtful authenticity and many saw the executions as judicial murder.
There were undoubtedly some trade unionists who were prepared to use violence as a deliberate tactic in furtherance of their aims. The classic example is the so-called 'Molly Maguires', who were blamed for widespread intimidation, beatings and murders in Pennsylvania in the 1870s. The movement was infiltrated by Pinkerton detectives, which resulted in the conviction of 24 and the execution of ten of the leaders for murder and conspiracy.
In the early years of the twentieth century, radical trade unionists were involved in a series of terrorist incidents, of which the most notorious were the assassination in 1905 of Frank Steunenberg and the dynamiting in 1910 of the offices of the Los Angeles Times. Three leaders of the Western Federation of Miners were charged with the murder of Steunenberg, a former Governor of Idaho with strong anti-union views. The accused included William 'Big Bill' Haywood, founder of the Industrial Workers of the World (the 'Wobblies'), a radical syndicalist trade union organisation. All three were acquitted, but two members of the Iron Workers' Union (IWU), J. J. and J. B. McNamara, confessed to the Los Angeles Times bombing and subsequently 38 officials of the IWU were arrested and found guilty of conspiracy to transport dynamite and explosives, including Frank Ryan, the IWU's President.
Even when calculated terrorism was not used as a deliberate tactic, the tension and anger of a labour dispute could easily spill over into ugly violence, especially when non-union men were employed as strikebreakers. The 1922 Herrin massacre in Williamson County, Illinois, to which reference has already been made, was a notorious example of this. When violence did break out, it was not always clear who fired the first shot, but when a labour dispute culminated in a gun-battle it was obvious that some individuals on both sides had equipped themselves with loaded firearms with the intention of using them. A sit-down strike in 1892 by members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers at the Homestead plant of the Carnegie Steel Company ended in a gun-battle between strikers and security guards employed by the company to remove them. Seven guards and nine strikers were killed.
It would be unjust to lay the blame for violence entirely at the door of the trade unions. The tactics adopted by employers sometimes bore heavy responsibility for bloodshed. The widespread use of non-union labour to try to break strikes was often provocative, inflaming anger and conflict as trade unionists saw 'blacklegs' as driving them out of their livelihoods. It would be unjust to blame the union alone for the gun-battle which ended the Homestead Strike of 1892: Andrew Carnegie and his plant manager, Henry Clay Frick, were determined to seize the opportunity to break the power of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers, using a dispute over wages and work rules as an opportunity for a lockout, preparatory to reopening the plant with non-union workers. The widespread use of 'Yellow Dog' contracts, which forced employees to sign declarations that they would not join a union, was another tactic which caused resentment and was understandably seen as provocative.
But even more reprehensible was the use of armed private security forces. It was the deployment of 300 Pinkerton guards which led to the bloody denouement of the Homestead Strike. The Ludlow Massacre of 1914 was an even more blatant example of extreme violence by employers. At Ludlow, Colorado, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company employed a private security force to break up a strike called by the United Mine Workers. When the company evicted strikers and their families from their homes, they set up camps outside the entrances to the mines. The stand-off came to a bloody conclusion when security guards from the Baldwin-Felts agency, equipped with a makeshift armoured car they appropriately called the 'Death Special', killed 20 men, women, and children by shooting randomly and setting fire to the tents. There were at least 46 further deaths in the continuing violence which lasted several months.
The use of private security forces, again from the Baldwin-Felts Agency, to evict the families of striking miners from company housing and tent colonies near Matewan in West Virginia led to a shoot-out on May 19 1920 in the town's main street between the Baldwin-Felts gunmen and the local police chief, Sid Hatfield, assisted by armed miners. The Mayor of Matewan, Cable C. Testerman, seven security men (including Albert and Lee Felts) and two miners were killed. The 'Matewan Massacre', the subject of a 1987 feature film written and directed by John Sayles, was the first incident in the West Virginia Coal Mine Wars, which continued for the rest of 1920 and most of 1921. The Baldwin-Felts Agency got their revenge when they assassinated Sid Hatfield outside a courthouse in McDowell County in August 1921.
The response of the authorities, both state and federal, must also bear some responsibility for the violence. The government, at local, state and federal levels, generally saw unions as anti-capitalist and un-American and frequently deployed the powers of the state against them, often with no real justification. For example, the mass arrests of union officials at the behest of Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer in the Red Scare of 1919-20 showed the connection in the minds of government between trade unionists and radical politics. McCarthyism contributed to the Taft-Hartley Act, enacted by Congress over President Truman's veto in 1947, which removed or weakened many of the legal rights accorded to trade unions by the Wagner Act of 12 years earlier.
Another, even clearer, symptom of the anti-union attitude of government, was the readiness of authorities at state and federal levels to back employers in industrial disputes by sending in troops, a move which often led directly to bloodshed. President Hayes sent in federal troops armed with machine guns to end the Railroad Strike of 1877. The strike collapsed in the face of overwhelming state and federal force. Similarly in 1894, President Cleveland, against opposition from Governor John P. Altgeld of Illinois, sent in federal troops to end the Pullman Strike, an action which led to the deaths of 34 people in the railroad yards of Chicago. At times, US governments used laws in a blatantly anti-union way: the prosecution of unions under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act from the 1890s onwards was an opportunistic abuse of a law which had been intended to limit the power of business monopolies.
In the West Virginia Coal Mine Wars, referred to above, more than 2,000 federal troops were sent, assisted in September 1921 by 17 De Havilland DH-4B bombers, equipped with front- and rear-mounted machine guns and carrying tear gas and fragmentation bombs. More by luck than judgement, the aircraft were used only for reconnaissance purposes, rather than to bring their formidable armaments to bear against striking miners.
Until the 1930s, the Supreme Court also showed little inclination to side with unions against employers. The Slaughterhouse Case of 1873 set a pattern by rejecting the plea of butchers in New Orleans that a monopoly granted by the state of Louisiana to a slaughtering company violated their rights, privileges and immunities. The Court ruled that it could not intervene in such private business matters. In the 1908 'Danbury Hatters' case, the Supreme Court upheld the use of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to ban secondary boycotts. In 1921, the Court ruled, in Truax v. Corrigan, that lower courts could issue injunctions against union members, prohibiting them from striking or picketing. 'Yellow dog' contracts were also judged constitutional. These measures did much damage to trade unions, membership falling from 5 million in 1920 to under 3 million by the end of the decade, only ten per cent of the nation's industrial workforce.
Another factor which undoubtedly contributed to the violent nature of labour disputes was the ready availability of guns in the USA. The frontier tradition made, and still makes, the right to bear firearms a jealously-guarded badge of citizenship. (Such is the power of the gun lobby in the USA that in 2004 President George W. Bush, despite the increased terrorist threat, refused to renew a law banning semi-automatic assault rifles, imposed during the Clinton presidency after the Columbine High School massacre.) The fact that firearms were freely and legally available to both employers and union members helps to explain why so many labour disputes ended in multiple deaths.
If unions, employers and institutions of government alike bore some responsibility for the violent nature of labour relations in the USA, why, by around 1950, did such violence give way to a more peaceful and cooperative pattern of labour relations? Essentially it changed because the attitudes of unions, employers and authorities all began to change.
The Supreme Court led the way in adopting a less anti-union attitude. One of the earliest cases which showed that the rights of unions could be upheld by the Supreme Court was the 1930 case, Texas v. Brotherhood of Railway Clerks. The Supreme Court upheld the Railway Labor Act's prohibition of employer interference in the choice of bargaining representatives. The 1937 case, National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, declared the Wagner Act constitutional. In 1940, in Apex Hosiery Co. v. Leader, the Supreme Court ruled that a sit-down strike was not an illegal restraint of trade under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, provided that there was no intention on the part of the union to control trade. This effectively put an end to the misuse of the Sherman Act against trade unions, which had been going on for almost half a century.
Presidents and Congress also played a major part in this softening of attitudes towards trade unions. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was far less anti-union than previous holders of the office. The National Industry Recovery Act 1933 promoted the negotiation of codes of practice for each industry, while the National Labor Relations Act (or Wagner Act) of 1935 established the right of workers to belong to unions and the right to be represented by unions in negotiations. John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, turned FDR's positive attitude to unions into a recruiting slogan, often declaring in speeches and radio addresses, 'The president wants you to join a union'. Further pro-union Acts passed by congress during Roosevelt's presidency included the 1936 Anti-Strikebreaker Act (Byrnes Act), which made it illegal to transport or aid strikebreakers in interstate or foreign trade, the 1936 Public Contracts Act (Walsh-Healey Act), which established minimum wages, overtime pay and safety standards on all federal contracts, and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which created a 25-cent minimum wage and overtime payments for hours over 40 per week.
Roosevelt's successor, President Harry Truman, was less active in promoting union rights, and was infuriated by a wave of strikes in 1946, but he did use his veto to block the anti-union 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, though Congress overrode this. Furthermore, in 1952 Truman temporarily took control of the steel industry when companies rejected the Wage Stabilization Board's recommendations. An eight week strike followed when the Supreme Court found the president's action unconstitutional.
For their part, many unions and employers responded positively to the changed presidential and congressional climate. There was a gradual realisation by the unions that a more responsible attitude, involving negotiating and cooperating with employers, could reap dividends. Employers also came to appreciate that negotiating with unions could bring benefits in terms of fewer strikes and a more contented workforce.
1936-37 was a significant milestone in this process. In 1936, the United Rubber Workers, in one of the first large sit-down strikes, won recognition at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. Other unions were quick to exploit the potential of this tactic: the following year, after months of sitdown strikes by the United Auto Workers at General Motors plants in Flint, Michigan, the company agreed to recognise the union as the bargaining agents for auto workers and not discriminate against union members. The same year, US Steel recognised the Steel Workers Organizing Committee as the official bargaining agent of its employees, as well as agreeing to a ten per cent wage increase and a 40-hour week.
These were hard-fought disputes, but they were not notably violent and they ended with agreements which helped to pave the way for better industrial relations in the future. Yet there were still exceptions, which indicate that the change from violent confrontation to negotiation and compromise in labour relations was a gradual transition, rather than an overnight transformation. Other steel companies, such as Republic Steel and Inland Steel, did not immediately follow the example of US Steel. The result was violence: when an unarmed crowd supporting the Steel Workers Organizing Committee's strike against Republic Steel were assaulted by Chicago police, ten people were killed and 80 wounded in the Memorial Day Massacre. The strike at Inland Steel came to an end after five weeks when employees went back to work without union recognition or other gains.
Nevertheless the tide had turned and the United Auto Workers (UAW) continued to be at the forefront of the new approach, signing in 1948 with General Motors the first major contract with an escalator clause, providing for wage increases based on the Consumer Price Index. Two years later the UAW and General Motors signed a five year contract granting pensions and automatic cost of living wage adjustments. By the early 1960s over half of major trade union contracts included guaranteed cost-of-living agreements.
The 1950s became a period of unprecedented co-operation between employers and unions, as employers increasingly realised that it was worth making concessions to unions to ensure continuity of production. Even the Ford Motor Company, once seen as the most anti-union of the big car companies, signed a deal with the UAW in 1955 which included a supplementary unemployment compensation plan financed by company contributions. This was typical of labour contracts in large industries during the 1950s: they gave workers an increasing number of benefits, such as life insurance, health insurance, paid holidays and pensions. Underpinning these improvements was an economic boom which saw the gross national product of the United States expand by 37.0 per cent in the 1950s and 48.1 per cent in the 1960s.
Another turning point came in December 1955 when the American Federation of Labor and the more militant Congress of Industrial Organizations merged to form a new trade union federation, imaginatively named the AFL-CIO, with George Meany as President and Walter Reuther of the UAW heading the industrial union department. The AFLCIO had a combined membership of 16 million, representing 85 per cent of all union members.
All this did not mean that there were no further problems for the trade union movement. In 1957, for example, the Teamsters Union was expelled from the AFL-CIO for corrupt practices, and this led Congress to pass the 1959 Landgrum-Griffin Act (Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act) which acted to curb abuses by trade union officers and tightened restrictions on picketing and secondary boycotts. In 1981, most of the nation's air traffic controllers were sacked by President Reagan who then de-certified their union in response to an illegal strike. But these were different kinds of problem, and violent and bloody labour disputes had happily become a thing of the past.
Issues to Debate
* How violent were strikes in the USA from 1865 to 1980?
* How much responsibility for the violence should be assigned to trade unionists, employers and the government?
* Why did more peaceful labour relations become the norm in the 20th century?
David Paterson, Doug and Susan Willoughby, Civil Rights in the USA, 1863-1980 (Heinemann, 2001)
James T Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States 1945-1974 (Oxford, 1996)
Doug and Susan Willoughby, The USA 1917-45 (Heinemann, 2000)
Chicago Historical Society's website has an interesting section on the Pullman Strike of 1894: http://www.chicagohs.org/history/pull man/
Denver University's website has a section on the Ludlow Massacre, including some excellent period photographs: http://www.du.edu/anthro/ludlow/
Clayton D. Laurie, 'The United States Army and the Return to Normalcy in Labor Dispute Interventions: The Case of the West Virginia Coal Mine Wars, 1920-1921': www.wvculture.org/history/journal_w vh/wvh50-1.html
Labor History on the Web is a section of the AFL-CIO website devoted to the history of the US trade union movement: www.aflcio.org/gallery_hist/history_li nks.htm
Mark Rathbone is Head of History at Canford School, Wimborne, Dorset. He is the author of numerous articles on British, European and American History, and on contemporary British Politics, which have been published in History Review, Hindsight, The Historian, The Journal of Liberal History and Talking Politics.
Timeline 1876 10 'Molly Maguires' hanged for murder and conspiracy. 1877 Great Railroad Strike: 26 dead in Pittsburgh alone. 1886 Haymarket Riot: 10 die as police open fire on crowd in Chicago. 1892 Homestead Strike: 16 killed in gun battle. 1894 Pullman Strike: federal troops kill 34 in Chicago. 1905 Assassination of Frank Steunenberg: 3 union leaders acquitted of murder. 1908 Supreme Court upholds use of Sherman Anti-Trust Act to ban secondary boycotts. 1910 Los Angeles Times bombing: 40 members of the Iron Workers' Union found guilty. 1914 Ludlow Massacre: 20 killed as employers' security men open fire on strikers' camp. 1920 Palmer Raids: mass arrests of union officials during the Red Scare. 1920 Matewan Massacre: 10 killed in gunfight during West Virginia miners' strike. 1921 West Virginia Coal Mine Wars: 2,000 federal troops sent to restore order. 1921 Truax v. Corrigan: Supreme Court allows injunctions prohibiting strikes or picketing. 1922 Herrin Massacre: striking miners kill 19 non-union workers. 1930 Texas v. BRC: Supreme Court bans employer interference in union choice of representatives. 1933 National Industry Recovery Act. 1935 Wagner Act establishes right of workers to belong to unions. 1936 Byrnes Act bans transport of or aid to strikebreakers in interstate or foreign trade. 1936 Walsh-Healey Act sets minimum wages and safety standards on federal contracts. 1936 United Rubber Workers win recognition at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. 1937 United Auto Workers win recognition at General Motors. 1937 US Steel recognises the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. 1937 Memorial Day Massacre: 10 striking steelworkers killed by police in Chicago. 1937 NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin: Supreme Court declares the Wagner Act constitutional. 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act creates 25-cent minimum wage. 1940 Apex v. Leader: Supreme Court rules sit-down strike is not illegal restraint of trade. 1947 Taft-Hartley Act removes or weakens many legal rights accorded to trade unions. 1950 UAW & General Motors sign 5-year contract granting pensions and cost of living wage increases. 1955 Ford & UAW sign deal including supplementary unemployment compensation plan. 1955 AFL and CIO merge. 1957 Teamsters Union expelled from the AFL-CIO for corrupt practices. 1959 Landgrum-Griffin Act curbs union corruption and tightens restrictions on picketing and secondary boycotts.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Trade Unions in the USA: Mark Rathbone Considers Why American Trade Unionism Was So Violent for Much of 1865-1980 but So Much More Peaceful by the Mid-Twentieth Century. Contributors: Rathbone, Mark - Author. Journal title: History Review. Issue: 53 Publication date: December 2005. Page number: 1+. © 1999 History Today Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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