Saturday, December 4, 2010

Of Labor

My twelve-page research paper for English 102.  The longest thing I've written to date.  It turned out alright, I think, if you can make yourself care about the source material. I could easily write an entire paper just on the Pinkertons, but I'll save that idea for another assignment.

Triumph and Failure: the Dichotomy of Labor in the East and West, 1870-1920

The mechanization of industry in the United States was a necessary step in the country's history. It allowed for us to achieve the economic dominance that has served our country so well, while also allowing us to avoid the overt belligerence that eventually proved to be the downfall of the British Empire. However, it was not without its costs: it exacerbated the already-inflamed labor disputes that had been brewing since the turn of the 19th century. It wasn't until the 1870s, however, that the labor disputes became routinely violent, as “the workers rose to protest violently against what they considered to be their ruthless exploitation by employers” (Dulles 108). For the next fifty years, the country was swept up in a class struggle that affected every worker from coast to coast, from factory worker to logger to coal miner and everyone in between. The 1920s were an era of relative calm, as a series of victories by the employers of the country had demoralized and weakened the unions, and the first great wave of American consumerism temporarily obfuscated the plight of the common laborer (Dulles 232-3). While the labor disputes from 1870 to 1920 in both the East and the West contributed to the eventual adoption of fair labor policies, the disputes in the West were fundamentally less successful than those in the East, due to more government intervention and stronger negative public opinion.

The economic depression of the 1870s touched off the first national labor disputes: “The depression of the 1870s ushered in one of the most confused periods in American labor history” (Dulles 108). It was during this period that employers first started to actively combat the efforts of the labor unions. Up until this point, employers had been mostly reactive, crushing or starving strikes as they arose and doing their best to block legislation mandating ten- or eight-hour workdays (as opposed to twelve-hour or longer workdays, which were the norm at the time). However, the founding and early rise of the first major nationwide labor union, the Knights of Labor, in 1869, convinced many businessmen that they needed to take a more proactive approach against the efforts of the workingmen (Dulles 122). This, combined with the recent legislation in many states that allowed railroads to employ their own police, and with the newly-famous Pinkerton National Detective agency ready to go to work for them, resulted in many violent strikes, uprisings, and riots (Churchill 11). The 1880s were more economically stable, but the Knights of Labor were at the height of their influence during this period and “...the future of American labor in the mid- 1880s appeared to lie with the Knights of Labor” (Dulles 120).

The 1880s were just as turbulent, if not more so, than the previous decade. Membership in the Knights waned toward the end of the 1880s, but this did not dull the fervor of the labor movement going into the new decade, as “labor disputes reached a peak involving even more workers...than the strikes in 1886” (Dulles 162). The depression of the 1890s served as an impetus to the movement; this same depression fell particularly hard on Washington State and would have serious and fatal ramifications in Everett 1916, and again in Centralia in 1919. The most important labor events of the 1890s, though, were the two “great strikes” of the era: first in Homestead, Pennsylvania, and the Pullman strike, the latter of which covered a large network of railroads primarily in the West (Dulles 157).

The turn of the century marked America's first real foray into Progressivism, with many Progressives achieving real political power, especially in the West. These were men and women with the goal of “...building a better society” (Anderson 250). This era lasted until 1917, with some entrenched progressive politicians staying in office through the Great Depression (Dulles 175). Western Progressives were mostly in favor of labor reform, but when strikes occurred, “middle- and upper-class Progressives refused to support them” (Anderson 264). Significant steps toward labor reform were made during the Progressive era, but public opinion in the West was slanted against the largest unions at the time, the American Federation of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World (colloquially called the Wobblies for reasons that are to this day unclear), and as a result, state government complicity in (or outright support of) violence against striking workers and union members became the norm. While the federal government for the most part recognized the importance of cooperating with the unions during World War I, a series of incredibly violent strikes and labor fights still rocked the nation between 1914 and 1919. The American press sensationalized these events and distorted them beyond recognition, blaming the Wobblies, foreigners, Communists and Socialists for instigating the fights, even when clear eyewitness accounts showed that the local governments or citizens were the aggressors (McClelland 88). Finally, in 1920, American business launched a concerted effort to break up the unions with an open shop movement; union membership declined and because Warren G. Harding's Presidential victory convinced most Progressives to abandon their efforts, the labor movement no longer had any friends in government (Anderson 282). The unions were forced onto the defensive, and spent the 1920s holding onto the advances they had achieved during the Progressive era. The movement had not ended, but for the first time in fifty years, it met welcome, if grudging, peace.

The Eye That Never Weeps

The late 1800s were a difficult time for law enforcement in the US; railroads made it easy for criminals to run from one state to the next, and, outside of the odd US Marshall, there were no federal police officers, as the FBI wouldn't be established until 1908. This was true across the country, but particularly so in the West, as it was only relatively recently that it had been settled. The railroad companies had had enough of their trains being robbed, and because the federal government both was the only body with the authority to enforce law over all of the land covered and had proven themselves inept at doing so, the railroads encouraged states to enact laws that would allow the railroads to hire their own police. These railroad police were given their power and authority by state governments, just as civil police, but were employed and directed by the railroads. Railroad police were mostly hired from private detective agencies; there were many of these agencies, but the true powerhouse of the market was the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The Pinkerton symbol of an unblinking eye and their motto “We Never Sleep” would be ubiquitous in America for many years to come. As the lawlessness in the West became less of an issue, and the railroad management “[sloughed] off of dependence on Pinkerton detectives”, Pinkertons were hired more and more to combat the strikers and unions (Morn 94). A Pinkerton detective, for instance, was single-handedly responsible for destroying the Molly Maguires, an Irish radical labor group (Morn 94). The Pinkertons were, from the 1870s to the 1920s, essentially a private army directed by the railroads and any other business that could afford them.

Because they operated nationally, the Pinkertons are uniquely positioned to offer insight into the difference between Eastern and Western labor movements. The Homestead strike in Pennsylvania, for example, was particularly violent; while it was not completely successful, it was noteworthy in that it was one of few cases where the Pinkertons engaged the strikers and lost. Homestead, Pennsylvania was the site of a Carnegie Steel plant, and in 1892 the local manager tried to cut the wages of its skilled workers. They chose to strike, and in response, Carnegie Steel sent in three hundred Pinkerton detectives to act as guards for the strikebreakers they planned to bring in. This was perceived as a direct challenge by the strikers, who waited by the river for the Pinkerton barge to arrive. When it did, the strikers fired upon the Pinkertons, who attempted to return fire but, realizing the hopelessness of the situation, they eventually surrendered with the agreement that they would be given safe passage out of town. However, “When the Pinkertons came ashore, they were again attacked and had to run the gauntlet of an infuriated mob of men and women armed with stones and clubs before they were safely entrained for Pittsburgh” (Dulles 159). It is no coincidence that this event was the first of its kind to be investigated by Congress – despite the eventual breaking of the strike, it could not be ignored that a mob of citizens had felt so strongly in favor of the union that they had attacked a group of armed mercenaries (Morn 102).

Conversely, the miner strike in Northern Idaho in 1892 was a complete failure on the part of the unions, ending in their dissolution and resulting in an irrelevance that would last for years to come. This region of Idaho, the Couer d'Alene river valley, was the site of many gold and silver mines, worked by about two thousand skilled and unskilled miners (Lukas 101). Years of small wages at long hours had encouraged the miners in this area to organize unions in 1887, and the thirteen mine owners themselves formed the Mine Owners Protective Association of the Couer d'Alenes (MOA) in 1891. That year, the MOA asked the Pinkertons to send them an agent to infiltrate the union (the separate unions had agreed to organize and essentially operate as one earlier that year). The Pinkertons sent Charles Siringo, a man who had proven himself as a cowboy detective in Colorado (Lukas 102). With no support, he infiltrated the miner's union in early 1891 and reported on them until he was discovered by a former acquaintance in July of 1892; later, his testimony would be integral in the conviction of thirteen union leaders for contempt of court and conspiracy (though a federal court would later overturn all of these charges). Siringo's discovery, though, triggered an uprising among the unions, who lashed back at the owners and used dynamite to set off explosions at several of the mines. Idaho's Governor, Norman B. Willey, declared martial law and ordered the Idaho National Guard into the county, and asked President Harrison for federal troops. These two forces then proceeded to escort non-union workers into the area and to arrest anyone suspected of being in the union, most of whom were released after months without being formally charged. These men were allowed to return to work if they swore off the union completely. This would not be the only time that both local and federal governments, along with the Pinkertons, would directly oppose the miners and their unions in this area.

In 1899, tensions between unions and mine owners in the Couer d'Alenes were again rising as the threat of a strike combined with a Democratic governor in office (and Populist politicians in most local positions) convinced most mine owners to raise wages. The only holdout was the Bunker Hill mine, which refused to raise wages in addition to illegally refusing to hire any unionized miners. Then “the WFM and/or Pinkerton provocateurs responded by dynamiting and burning Bunker Hill & Sullivan property” (Churchill 26). This prompted the new governor, Frank Steunenberg, to again send in the National Guard and ask for federal troops, repeating the series of events played out in 1892. The Guard once again arrested all suspected union members, incarcerated them illegally, and forced them to renounce their ties to the unions in order to return to work. It was a bitter denouement for the workers, whose faith in the Democrat Governor Steunenberg had been proven to be unfounded. The Pinkertons would continue to work with railroads and mine owners against the labor movement even after the formation of the FBI in 1908, until the Wagner Act of 1935 necessitated a change in their business focus. As for the unions themselves, “the repression of the strike broke the WFM in the [Couer d'Alenes], and unionism remained insignificant in the area for years” (Goldstein 71).

Blood in the Forest, Blood in the Sand

The Industrial Workers of the World, (or “Wobblies”, as they came to be called for no evident reason) never had a membership that was, taken by itself, large enough to suggest social significance; their membership at the peak of their influence was only one hundred thousand, compared to the Knights of Labor membership of over seven hundred thousand (Renshaw 1-2). However, their importance is more readily represented by their vocal radicalism; they were a populist, progressive union at a time when that was an incredibly dangerous position. They represented a direct and obvious challenge to the status quo, and the public response differed by region. Extreme violence against labor groups in the West was not limited to the Wobblies, however – the unions attacked in the Ludlow massacre of 1914 were strictly local organizations. No region, though, was as hostile as Washington State.

Washington was the site of two major attacks against the Wobblies; the so-called Everett Massacre of 1916 and the Centralia attacks in 1919. Historically, the two cities could not have been more different; Everett was founded by businessmen as a prospective West coast Boston equivalent and became a dismal failure, barely surviving the depression of the 1890's, whereas Centralia was more or less created by one man, who had the foresight to claim exactly the sort of area that people would want to settle in (McClelland 3). However, the press atmosphere in Washington as a whole was largely anti-labor during the first part of the twentieth century, with many newspapers accusing the Wobblies and other unions of communism and of getting their living without work (McClelland 2). The unstable economy and press bias catalyzed the public resentment toward any perceived threat to their hard-earned way of life and ultimately led to the violence in Everett and Centralia.

Everett in particular teetered on the edge of disincorporation throughout the depression of the 1890's. The cause was simple: a group of men, John D. Rockefeller among them, had decided to build a new city, then pulled out when their Eastern interests became troubled. The town was reduced to such poverty during this period that some citizens were forced to eat garbage thrown from restaurants (Clark 36). The vast majority of Everett citizens worked very hard simply to survive; they fished, they cut firewood, and grew whatever vegetables they could in the sandy, acidic soil of the area. Their salvation, as it were, came in the same form that brought their hardest times: a new group of investors. A new mill, new infrastructure and new money brought Everett from the brink of ruin. To these people, the success of capitalism erased its failure only a decade before. Their dependence on the businessmen of the area belied their dalliances with Progressive and Socialist politicians during the early 1910's. So, when the Wobblies became active in the area in 1916, the first response from the city government was to throw any and all of them in jail. Donald McRae, the Sheriff at the time, had an arrest-first-ask-questions-later approach to any Wobblies he found; his typical action was to arrest them, hold them overnight, and ship them out of the county in the morning. Tensions rose from July 16 when a Wobbly speaker was jailed and then deported for simply speaking on a street corner; the Summer and Autumn months were heavy with police brutality and speech suppression on the part of McRae, the odd labor riot, and a strike on the part of the shingle-weaver's union. The finale to all of this unrest took place on November 5th, 1916. Two boats full of roughly 250 Wobblies (and two confirmed Pinkerton detectives) departed Seattle for Everett; the first to arrive, the Verona, was confronted by McRae and several hundred of his deputies. After some words with the foremost men on the deck, shots were fired (there is still some debate over who shot first; it is certain that at least one of the casualties on the Sheriff's side was from friendly fire). There were two casualties on the side of the deputies, five on the Wobblies, and over fifty wounded. Now, such an event would no doubt be a shock; then, after twenty years of seesawing between prosperity and poverty, the massacre was swiftly forgotten, and similar events played out in Centralia three years later (Clark 232-3).

Centralia was celebrating Armistice Day in 1919 with a Legionnaire parade when tragedy struck. Much like the events in Everett leading up to that city's own massacre, Centralia was, as the newspapers of the time might have put it, plagued with Wobblies, and their gadfly-esque demands for basic constitutional rights prompted a group of Centralia Legionnaires to raid the Wobbly hall as they marched in the parade. Unlike the Everett Massacre, witness reports are quite clear and unconflicting in regard to who fired first: it was undoubtedly the Wobblies. Because raids on Wobbly buildings had been commonplace in the state in the years up until 1919 (raids in which the aggressors “took everything that could be lifted and burned or smashed it”, according to McClelland), the Wobblies in Centralia had taken to setting armed guards in their building, so when they saw armed Legionnaires marching to their building who had publicly discussed a raid on the Wobblies only days before, they acted in defense of their property (66). Legionnaires attempted to break into the Wobbly hall and several were killed as soon as the shooting started; the rest flooded into the hall and began to overpower the men inside. One Wobbly, Wesley Everest, ran out of the back of the building, but ultimately failed to escape while killing at least three men. All of the Wobblies, Everest included, were rounded up and arrested. During the night, Everest was pulled out of the city jail by an angry mob, then beaten, castrated, and lynched. The coroner's report listed the cause of death as “suicide”. No effort was made on the part of local law enforcement to identify and prosecute those who took part in the lynching. Newspapers were unflinchingly on the side of the Legionnaires and the lynchers, with one paper in particular remarking that the lynchers displayed “commendable reserve” in not murdering more of “the assassins” (qtd. in McClelland 86). What is truly telling about the public's venom against the Wobblies is that not only did it take place after the massacre in Everett, it also took place after the massacre in Ludlow, Colorado, an event which achieved national notoriety, and convinced even John D. Rockefeller, Jr. that something had to be done to address the “labor question” (Gitelman 16).

Rockefeller owned Colorado Fuel & Iron, which operated, appropriately enough, in Colorado. Rising disputes between the operators and the miners were based on these complaints, listed succinctly by Zinn:

...that they were robbed of from 400-800 pounds on each ton of coal, that they were paid in scrip worth ninety cents on the dollar...that the eight-hour law was not observed, that the law allowing miners to elect checkweighmen of their own choice was completely ignored, that their wages could only be spent in company stores and saloons, that they were forced to vote according to the wishes of the mine superintendent, that they were beaten and discharged for voicing complaints, that the armed mine guards conducted a reign of terror which kept the miners in subjection to the company...casualty rates were twice as high in Colorado as in other mining states. (Zinn 188)

The mine operators ignored any requests for mediation. Perhaps inevitably, the miners struck, and a series of brutal attacks by mine guards and, later, National Guardsmen culminated in an attack on the Ludlow tent colony where the miners were living with their families. For roughly twelve hours, the Guardsmen (who at this point were mine guards drawing mine salaries but wearing Guard uniforms) fired a hail of bullets into the tent colony, then set it on fire. At least nineteen people were killed, most of whom were unarmed women and children. The press reaction was national but neutral; the New York Times held the strike leaders just as responsible for the deaths as the men who ordered the attack on the tent colony: “Strike organizers cannot escape full measure of blame for the labor war” (qtd. in Zinn 200). It is perhaps not altogether unsurprising, then, that in a social climate where the murder of over a dozen women and children is blamed equally upon their attackers and defenders, the same conditions in an idealistically similar setting would reap the same results.

The Relevance of the Worker's Plight

The results of all of this conflict were indeed far-reaching. Rockefeller Jr. himself recognized the importance of proper labor relations after the Ludlow debacle. Public opinion in the East had been slowly creeping toward the side of worker's rights since the dawn of the progressive era; however, it was in the West that unions found the most resistance to their efforts. It was during this time period that the West was acutely susceptible to economic depression; Eastern investors would cancel their Western ventures at the first sign of depression in the East. Risk was simply unacceptable to them when the economy dipped. This business skittishness, combined with the structures that were used for the repression itself and the public's dependence on capitalists made for an environment that was intrinsically hostile to the efforts of the labor unions. It is truly unfortunate that a region so abundant with natural resources was also built in such a way that the people who extracted those resources were also the most oppressed in the region. Geoff Mann says that “The particularity of work and workers in the U.S. West is not merely a product of geography and history; western geography and history are themselves a reflection of these workers, their work, and the way they politicized the wage relations that constituted it” (167). It is of utmost importance to understand and acknowledge this – the very history of the West was forged through these conflicts, and the truth of the matter is that they were caused by some of the things that America holds most dear: nationwide business, autonomous state governments, and capitalism.

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