Workers and State Power: A Reply to Jeremy Brecher

By Best, Norman | Monthly Review, September 1984 | Go to article overview

Workers and State Power: A Reply to Jeremy Brecher


Best, Norman, Monthly Review


In the March issue of MR Jeremy Brecher details many changes in corporate America that present problems to today's unions. In spite of these changes that make unions and people-oriented work more difficult, it is not the form of industrial unions that has crippled the pwoer of today's unions.

From a historical view of pattern-setting strikes in industry, I would argue that the most devastating problems facing the industrial unions of the 1980s can be seen when you compare the political power of the workers over the capitalist state during the 1930s, with the devastating power of the capitalists to use the state against the workers during the Truman, McCarthy, Taft-Hartley era.

From my own experience and a reading of labor history, I would like to illustrate the power of the U.S. state to destroy unions except when this power has been neutralized to the extent of not being available to industry to break a pattern-setting strike.

The history of industrial strikes usually begins with the great Railroad Strike of 1877. It followed four years of depression, during which time wages were cut again and again, until they got so low that bare subsistence was threatened. Under those conditions the railroads announced another cut of 10 percent. When the workers protested against this last 10 percent cut, their committees were summarily discharged. With wages already around or below subsistence level, this last wage cut was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. The workers struck, and their communities supported them fully. When the state militia was called out to crush the strike, even the militia fraternized with the strikers. In the face of all this worker, community, and state militia support, the railroads were able to call on the president of the United States, who ordered the federal troops out. They broke the strike with the firepower of rifles and Gatling guns.

In 1894 a similar strike took place as railroad workers spontaneously stopped work in sympathy with the Pullman Company workers. The workers meticulously avoided violence so the government would not have any excuse for sending in the troops. The government responded by jailing the strike leaders. This was done by using the Sherman Anti-Trust Law, which was passed by farmers and small business to stop monopolistic price-fixing by the railroads.

These historic examples show that there were no limits to the employers' resistance to industrial unions, which are the first step toward industrial democracy. They also illustrate how the government used its full legal, police, and military power against the workers. This old history was also a forerunner of the way the companies and the government treated the I.W.W. in the northwest in the post-First World War era. It looked plain to me from these studies and my own experience in northern Idaho during the 1920s and 1930s that companies did not have to negotiate with their workers or recognize their committees so long as they could call on the government's courts, police, jails, and troops to overpower the workers and their unions.

This situation did not change until the Great Depression of the 1930s changed the perceptions and the mood of the people. As U.S. industry closed down and failed to provide jobs and services, people had to do things for themselves, so they lost their ideological dependency on the capitalist system. From this independence, a wave of people-oriented production-for-use concepts spread across the land in newspapers such as Oscar Ameringer's. In the political arena, new voices were heard as people-oriented representatives took the place of company lawyers and spokes-people in state and federal offices.

A new wave of strikes took place in the mid-1930s. The issues were the same as in 1877 and 1894. Workers still wanted union recognition, but now conditions were different. This time the elected officials and the president did not send in the troops to break the massive pattern-setting strikes. …

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