History of America’s Labor Movement

In contrast to most other industrialised nations, the US has never accepted the concept of labor unions, which were always denigrated in the media as a kind of dangerous socialism that would exploit workers. But it was always true that it was capitalism that exploited workers and socialism that attempted to protect them. Thanks to the media, most Americans today still have this understanding backwards from reality. Neither the US government nor its corporations have ever held workers or employees in much regard. There was a brief period after the Second World War during which enlightened corporate self-interest driven by fear produced a rather benign labor landscape, but that illusion was dispelled by the 1980s when the numbers of industrial private-sector workers with any kind of union fell by about 70%, largely through the harsh capitalist and legislative climate. The majority of American workers still wanted labor unions, but the anti-union conspiracy was too powerful.

The FBI infiltrated labor unions and installed corrupt officials in attempts to destroy them from the inside. When those attempts failed and labor organisers showed signs of being successful, they were either simply murdered or framed and convicted of crimes, and often executed. The US government has for all of its history acted with absolute disregard for the law, whenever the law became inconvenient to the purpose at hand. One of these purposes was the crushing of labor, where the government frequently not only fabricated criminal charges against union organisers but convicted them under laws that had never existed. In one famous case, labor organisers trying to create a mine workers union in Pennsylvania were charged by the state with murder and conspiracy. When these charges failed to hold, the organisers and about a dozen union members were hanged for “obstinacy”.

In February of 2015, Sam Mitriani wrote an informative article titled “The True History of the Origins of Police: Protecting and Serving the Masters of Society”, that reflected accurately the origins and applications of the American justice system. Here is a brief edited summary of his comments.

“This liberal way of viewing the problem rests on a misunderstanding of the origins of the police and what they were created to do. The police were not created to protect and serve the population. They were not created to stop crime, at least not as most people understand it. And they were certainly not created to promote justice. They were created to protect the new form of wage-labor capitalism that emerged in the mid- to late-19th century from the threat posed by that system’s offspring, the working class. Before the 19th century, there were no police forces that we would recognize as such anywhere in the world. Then, as Northern cities grew and filled with mostly immigrant wage workers who were physically and socially separated from the ruling class, the wealthy elite who ran the various municipal governments hired hundreds and then thousands of armed men to impose order on the new working-class neighborhoods.

Class conflict roiled late-19th century American cities like Chicago, which experienced major strikes and riots in 1867, 1877, 1886 and 1894. In each of these upheavals, the police attacked strikers with extreme violence. In the aftermath of these movements, the police increasingly presented themselves as a thin blue line protecting civilization, by which they meant the bourgeois elite portion of civilization, from the disorder of the working class. This ideology has been reproduced ever since, and is still the foundation of American law and justice today, which is one reason corporate executives are virtually immune from prosecution for even the most egregious of crimes while the lower classes will suffer five years in a prison for a minor theft or smoking marijuana.

There was a never a time when the big city police neutrally enforced “the law” – nor, for that matter, a time when the law itself was neutral. Throughout the 19th century in the North, the police mostly arrested people for the vaguely defined “crimes” of disorderly conduct and vagrancy, which meant that they could target anyone they saw as a threat to “order.” In the post-bellum South, they enforced white supremacy and largely arrested black people on trumped-up charges in order to feed them into convict labor systems. The violence the police carried out and their moral separation from those they patrolled were not the consequences of the brutality of individual officers, but of policies carefully designed to mold the police into a force that could use violence to deal with the social problems that accompanied the development of a wage-labor economy. The police were created to use violence to reconcile electoral democracy with industrial capitalism. Today, they are just one part of the “criminal justice” system that plays the same role. Their basic job is to enforce order among those with the most reason to resent the system.”

Mitriani told the story of the Auto Workers’ Walter Reuther, “whose socialist views were anathema to the owners of General Motors and other automakers”, and he was several times severely beaten and eventually killed. Once, during a time of heated labor negotiations Reuther was shot and seriously wounded in his home, that event followed by two more assassination attempts and the suspicious crash of a private plane in which he was travelling. Reuther survived those, but was finally killed in a second equally suspicious private plane crash, and the FBI still refuses to release the files on his death. Aside from the deliberate killings and frame-ups, the US government, unique among nations, has a long and sordid history of using its military to suppress and brutalise its own citizens whenever they came in conflict with the capitalists who have always controlled the Congress and White House. It has also accumulated a history of equally sordid legislation designed to protect and enhance the profits of its corporate elite at the expense of the people of the nation.

These attitudes toward the lower classes had been embedded in American capitalist and government DNA since the first days of the Republic. Prior to the late 1800s most people were either engaged in farming, owned a small shop or perhaps plied a trade like carpentry, blacksmithing or tailoring, the remainder eking a living from odd jobs and temporary employment. During this time a massive social change resulted from industrialisation, with large numbers of people migrating to the cities in search of employment, and therefore shifting from small farms or micro-businesses to being dependent full-time laborers. But it was true that for both capitalists and the government, these workers and their desire for livable wages were seen as enemies of progress. Workers were universally decrying their virtual wage slavery and lack of work safety while the government was equally universally and very callously employing the military to ensure the profits of capitalism.

A 1934 Labor Day parade in Gastonia, North Carolina, composed of ten-thousand labor strikers.

From the late 1800s, the US military was one of the main tools of worker suppression. In Chicago in 1894 US troops put an end to a strike by railway workers, by opening fire and killing dozens of workers. Mining in the US was an extremely hazardous occupation and strikes by mine workers were common. In 1914, US troops opened fire on a group of striking mine workers in Colorado, again ending the strike by killing the strikers. A bit later, individuals trying to organise a labor union in a coal mine in Pennsylvania were shot and killed by the company management who were acquitted in a brief trial. Even the police were not immune; in 1919 a police strike in Boston was ended when the military was called in to violently end the strike, and many police officers were killed. In the same year, a labor organiser in Washington was captured, tortured, castrated and then lynched.

By the 1920s, US capitalists and the government had already developed nationwide plans to control workers and their wage demands, creating task forces to sabotage all union organisers and critics of capitalism and government. Many were imprisoned without charge and without access to legal counsel. The military on many occasions used bombers to attack striking workers. In one large miners’ strike in West Virginia in 1921, several thousand soldiers launched a massive shooting war with about 5,000 striking miners, then added a chemical warfare unit and both bombers and fighter aircraft. When the strikers surrendered, the survivors were charged with treason and imprisoned. In 1930, hundreds of farm workers were beaten and arrested in California for attempting to form unions, and convicted of “criminal socialism”. There are many dozens of examples spanning many decades, of the US military brutally and violently terminating labor strikes by killing the strikers.

The military weren’t immune, either. In 1932, as the Great Depression became severe, almost 50,000 veterans from World War I, marched to Washington to ask the government to pay the $625 bonuses they had been promised. The soldiers, most with their families, camped on some flat land near the Capital to raise sympathy for their plight, but sympathy was not forthcoming. Instead, then-President Hoover sent in the police, a move that resulted in brutality, violence, and quite a few deaths. When that failed, Hoover sent in the active military to disperse the ‘dissidents’. General Douglas MacArthur, then-Major Dwight Eisenhower, and George Patton, launched an assault on the encampment, flooding the camp with tear gas, then opening fire on their own veterans, injuring many thousands and killing many more, including the women and children.

It wasn’t only the US military that was engaged in these atrocities. Many large corporations formed permanent armies of their own to be used against striking workers, John Rockefeller being one of the worst, but by no means the only example. In 1927, his private army massacred all the striking workers at one of his mines in Colorado with machine guns. A few years later, more groups of striking textile workers were murdered in North Carolina. In the early 1930s, more than 500,000 mill workers went on strike in South Carolina, a strike so violently suppressed by both US military forces and private armies that no one dared try to form a union for another twenty years. In 1935, striking electrical workers at a plant in Toledo, Ohio were attacked and all killed by machine guns in the hands of thousands of US troops. At the same time, police in San Francisco shot and killed several hundred peaceful dock workers during a strike, the outrage provoking a widespread strike in the entire San Francisco-Oakland region. The media supported the outrage by claiming that “communist agitators had seized control of the city”.

One particularly infamous event known as the Ludlow Massacre, one of the most brutal attacks on workers in North American labor history, involved a strike by coal miners against Rockefeller’s inhumanity. The miners had been forced to work in extraordinarily harsh and dangerous conditions where fatality rates were very high and wages low. Further, they were paid with paper scrip which could be spent only in the company-owned store that carried very high prices. The mine workers succeeded in organising a labor union that then attempted to institute safety regulations and have increased wages paid in real money. A widespread general strike erupted when the mine managers killed a union organiser. Rockefeller responded by immediately evicting the miners from their company-owned houses, leaving them and their families homeless in a wilderness area in the middle of a harsh winter, beginning a seven month siege of the miners.

Rockefellers, like all industrialists in those days, took an astonishingly aggressive stance against the striking workers, hiring hundreds of armed thugs to harass, beat and kill. His army drove armored cars with machine guns through the tent areas where the miners were camped, strafing all the tents with gunfire, killing many workers and their wives and children. When his private army proved insufficient, Rockefeller arranged for the government to send in the National Guard, ordered to empty the miners’ camps, which they did by entering the camps with massive firepower and machine-gunning the encampment in a battle that lasted for almost 14 hours. They set fire to the tents, burning alive many women and children, and shooting dead those trying to escape. As news of this inhumane massacre spread, workers all across the US went on a national strike, but the vicious brutality of the US government succeeded.

Rockefeller wasn’t the only elite capitalist to have his own private army for dealing with his workers. Cyrus Eaton, who owned the Republic Steel Company, deserves special notice, even in a nation dominated by ruthless criminal capitalists, for his tendency to shoot and kill anyone attempting to form a labor union. His company maintained an armory of weapons that included military-grade firepower and chemical weapons. During one strike, when police proved unable to disperse the strikers with multiple arrests, Eaton’s army moved in with guns, tear gas and clubs, leaving most workers dead or injured, many having been shot in the back. In one case, Walter Reuther and his staff were severely beaten by the Ford auto company’s private military. The Carnegies and other rich American elite industrial families all fit this same mold.

Repression in the US has always had a different flavor than in other nations. In America, any large corporation count on the assistance of the US military to support their predatory human practices, but they could also form their own private military that would operate with almost total immunity when dealing with the working poor. For those companies without an army, there was a third option, this infamous source of brutality toward unhappy workers being the Pinkerton Detective Agency which, at the height of its power was the largest privately-owned law enforcement agency in the world and employed more men than the US military. Corporations would hire the Pinkerton agency to infiltrate unions, intimidate workers and confront strikers with military-style violence. This firm was bitterly hated by almost everyone who wasn’t a major industrialist, the mayor of one US city described Pinkertons as “They are a horde of cut-throats, thieves, and murderers and are in the employ of unscrupulous capital for the oppression of honest labor.”

The problems with low wages, inadequate or non-existent worker safety, long working hours, the lack of medical care especially for work-related injuries, continued to build until 1945. During the Second World War, wages in the US were frozen while corporate profits reached extremely high levels, creating intense bitterness and resentment among industrial workers. During this 5-year period – when strikes were banned because of the war effort – the US experienced more than 14,000 strikes involving almost seven million workers, mostly in the mining, steel and auto industries. In almost every case, President Roosevelt called in the military to forcibly put down these insurrections.

These labor problems increased after the war, when the wartime wage freezes and bans on strikes were removed. The first six months of 1946 was a period the US Labor Department now calls “the most concentrated period of labor-management strife in the country’s history”, when virtually the nation’s entire workforce finally rebelled against decades of brutality and injustice. As one author put it, “American workers en masse and in totality, filled with rage and frustration at their system-induced misery, finally reached the point where they were defiantly unwilling to slave in dangerous and low-paid occupations while the corporations and their elites celebrated unprecedented and stratospheric profits.” In January of that year, 200,000 electrical workers called a strike, followed by 100,000 meatpackers and a few days later almost a million steelworkers staged the largest strike in US history. This was quickly followed by several hundred thousand coal miners striking and disrupting the electricity supply for much of the nation, immediately followed by many hundreds of thousands of railway and oil industry workers. The US government, true to its roots, used the military to take control of all these industry locations and President Truman threatened publicly to hang these striking workers whom he called traitors, and for whom he proposed severe criminal penalties. It was in this environment of unprecedented social unrest that Walter Reuther finally met his end.

Then, and almost suddenly, the climate changed, due primarily to the very real fear among the elite of a second American revolution. These circumstances of resentment and revolt were so widespread as to have rapidly created a society so unstable it had become ungovernable, with the nation in anarchy and facing an imminent economic collapse and very possibly a popular revolution. It was this that forced a revision of the social contract with new norms that included a minimum wage and regular workweek along with regular and increasing wages and the expectation of steady and perhaps permanent employment. Holidays, health care and other benefits were eventually added. It was this new social contract of labor stability, increasing real wages and narrowing income disparity that produced the superior economic performance the US experienced for almost forty years. The vast improvement in wages, working conditions and social equity permitted American factory workers for the first time in history to own their own homes, to drive cars, and to take vacations. Perhaps even more importantly, this huge adjustment in the social contract, and the increased wages, produced for the first time in American history a widespread access to higher education for children of the middle and even lower the class, since American families could afford to abandon the meager income from child labor and leave their children in school.

It was these children born during and after the Second World War, the first generation of Americans who grew up in an atmosphere of hope. For the first time in American history, citizens reported hope for the future and expected their childrens’ lives to be better than their own, none of these sentiments having existed prior to this. It was only the universal and almost uncontrollable labor revolt and genuine fear of a widespread and total public uprising that produced these massive social changes that resulted in the creation of the American middle class. All this was the result of America’s brief transformation from a brutal free market capitalist society to a socialist democracy, producing a period unprecedented economic growth. But it wasn’t to last.

In typical American style, having been forced to abandon their sins, the elites not only took credit for their new excess of Judeo-Christian virtue but began to propagandise yet another historical myth with America suddenly being redefined as the land of opportunity, and thus was born the American Dream. It was all propaganda. American workers went in short order from being some of the most abused and brutalised laborers on the planet to those for whom life suddenly contained more than hopelessness and drudgery, and the propaganda machine, led by Hollywood, went immediately into high gear to convince Americans that things had always been this way – good, and improving. And they didn’t stop there. The Dream expanded by the year, rapidly leaving behind thoughts of valuable but boring regular jobs to be replaced with dreams of riches and success that were possible in no other nation. And of course, the elite capitalists were busy plotting to relieve this new middle class of all its money by promoting consumerism and a ‘standard of living’, firmly entrenching the consumer society as a way of life. It was all a hoax generated by a massive propaganda campaign perpetrated on a gullible public to replace revolutionary resentment against the elites with false hope for a fictitious future.

This ‘golden era of labor’, the new social contract and the attendant propaganda were not only a hoax and a myth but merely a temporary diversion while the elites regrouped. The industrialists and bankers, and their secret government, were never pleased with the financial sacrifices they had made in sharing money with the peasants of America, and the situation could never have lasted. Many authors and historians today agree that an operative plan exists to eviscerate the US middle class. Their conclusion is correct but many miss the essential flavor which is that the top 1% are not stealing money from today’s middle class; rather, they are reclaiming what had always been theirs. Their generosity in sharing wealth with the peasantry, and thereby creating America’s middle class, was an anomaly forcibly thrust upon them which they are now reversing by recovering that wealth residing in the middle and lower classes. In simple terms, they want their money back. Plans to bring to an end all that peasant hopefulness and confidence in the future, and to loot all those middle-class bank accounts, had already been made during the 1970s and were enacted with a vengeance when the US FED engineered the vicious recession in the early 1980s. And that was the beginning of the end. The 2008 financial crisis, also engineered by the FED, was the middle of the process. The end is still to come, with yet another FED-induced calamity in the planning.

James Petras categorises the late 1970s and early 1980s as The Great Transformation, when the US government, the FED, the bankers and multinationals took their alarming ideological turn to the extreme right. This was when labor became disposable and the social contract between employer and employee was terminally severed along with all pretensions of loyalty, but this trashing of the social contract was not a result of the recession. Instead, it was the purpose of Volcker’s deliberately-engineered recession to facilitate the unilateral unwinding of the social contract that had existed for forty years, and to redraw the financial and corporate landscape. At that time, one of Canada’s major telecom companies, Telus, fired around 30% of their workforce in one quarter. Many were rehired the following quarter, but only as contract personnel at lower wages and without benefits of any kind. That was the plan followed by hundreds of corporations in North America, a coordinated frontal attack on the middle class.

The plans for destroying the post-war social contract and reconfiguring the economic landscape were being made and put into effect almost immediately after the contract was first written. The economist Edwin Dickens examined records of the meetings of the FED’s Open Market Committee from the 1950s to the present, with his analysis proving the FED’s actions were consistently intended primarily to benefit the top 1% by creating conditions to make workers more insecure and therefore more compliant in terms of wages and working conditions. He identified repeated occasions where the FED deliberately contracted the money supply and credit immediately prior to the expiry of major union contracts, intending this to drive down wages and benefits during the impending negotiations. John Maynard Keynes was warning the world about the FED and other private central banks when he wrote “the object of credit restriction is to withdraw from employers the financial means to employ labour at the existing level of wages and prices … intensifying unemployment without limit, until the workers are ready to accept the necessary reduction of money wages under the pressure of hard facts.” In other words, class warfare. Contrary to propaganda and popular belief, the US FED’s policies have never been a matter of monetary discipline, but of class discipline through control of labor. “The Federal Reserve serves the needs of the powerful. Its role is to protect capital against the interests of labor. In order to maintain labor discipline, the Federal Reserve Board is entrusted with the task of maintaining a level of unemployment high enough to keep workers fearful of losing their jobs.”

Volcker literally launched a class war on the working lower and middle classes of America, his pronouncements about fighting inflation being only propaganda meant to keep the masses ignorant of the vicious assault he was planning against them. His first act was to tighten the money supply to such an extreme that he immediately plunged the country into the worst economic downturn since 1929, and let up only when the entire US financial system was itself threatened. During all of this blood-letting, Volcker’s only interest appeared to be the terms of labor contract demands and settlements, stating repeatedly that “The standard of living of the average American has to decline”. Business Week inadvertently identified the class-war nature of Volcker’s actions when it stated in an editorial, “Some people will have to do with less. Yet it will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow – the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more”. And that was the entire story. By the time Volcker was finished, millions of manufacturing jobs had disappeared, wages had dropped by 30% or more, and the industrial Midwest never recovered. Adding to the human devastation was Reagan’s program of systematic deregulation, intended to further lower wages and break the back of US labor.

Until the late 1970s, American family incomes had doubled or tripled since the ‘labor revolution’ of 1946. Then, thanks to the US FED and its friends and owners, the party was over. Wages fell, household incomes dropped, prosperity slowly evaporated, and both the American middle class and the American Dream were on their way to extinction. Few realised at the time that Volcker’s recession was not a temporary anomaly as other recessions had appeared to be; this one was a permanent and on-going assault. Since then, productivity has risen markedly while wages remained stagnant and even falling. Good jobs have increasingly disappeared to be replaced by low-wage and part-time employment, primarily in home care, fast food, and Wal-Mart. Benefits have been drastically cut or eliminated by the use of contract workers, and employment has become increasingly insecure. It began with the destruction of labor and deregulation, continued with globalisation and outsourcing, and progressed to financialisation and what we call “Wal-Martisation” and the Task Rabbit economy – the replacement of well-paying full-time employment with part-time poverty. By the early 1980s, the Treaty of Detroit had been unilaterally repealed and the golden age of labor was at an end.

This is only one small part of a very large story that includes globalisation, infrastructure privatisation, population reduction, mass immigration and the destruction of national ethnic and cultural identities, and the eventual disappearance of national sovereignty itself. The human race is being subjugated. I do not know if this rolling snowball can be reversed. Many days, I fear it cannot.

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Articles by: Larry Romanoff

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