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

By Rathbone, Mark | History Review, December 2005 | Go to article overview

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.

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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
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