Page Two: Workingman's Blues

The real history of labor and union organizing is ignored and largely unknown

Page Two
If only oppressed groups were somehow made nobler by their oppression – nobler and better than those oppressing them. In reality, the only consistent characteristic of oppressed groups is that they are oppressed. Often they look better than the groups oppressing them, but history is filled with flip-flops that find the once-subjugated group no nobler (though perhaps different) when they are on top. In such situations, it is not uncommon for atrocities committed by the oppressed to be cited as though they justify the group's original oppression – or at least negate its claim to equality and justice.

History is open to interpretation, but there is a difference between revisionist history and complete fabrication or willing ignorance. Now, with the near-collapse of the "big three" U.S. auto companies, many have tried to misappropriate the largest portion of the blame to the unions. At least one goal of the strategy behind the reluctance of Republican senators to support the bailout is to destroy, or at least neuter, unions.

In conjunction with, as well as independent of, this discussion, there has been an assault on unions in general: questions of whether they are still needed or were ever needed; accusations that, by serving their members, they do a disservice to the economy; and charges that they are all corrupt.

One can have serious questions about the role of labor unions in modern business without having to question the historical importance of unions: why and how they came into existence and what they've accomplished. The notion that we've gotten to the point where labor no longer has to organize in order to get a fair deal from management is questionable at best. On the other hand, unions are designed to serve their members and not the industries and businesses that employ them. Obviously, a too-greedy or unreasonable union can cause damage to employers. It should be kept in mind that management is often just as unreasonable and often rejects sensible offers as completely outrageous.

Fair compensation and benefits in nonunion businesses are often cited as proof unions are obsolete. Divorcing the existence and accomplishments of unions from that equation, as though this generosity were entirely due to the benevolence of owners, is just plain wrong. In many cases, employees are treated better than they might be otherwise – specifically so they won't unionize.

If one accepts the argument that autoworkers' hourly wages are too high (which I don't), it does not explain away all the industry's problems. As I wrote last week: "Even those who are the most strongly pro-union must realize that some of the unions' negotiating victories over the years have had substantial if unintended negative consequences. This is especially true when it comes to the benefits to which retired workers are entitled. Not only are people living longer, but health-care expenses also continue to rise beyond all reason. One can be pro-union and still acknowledge that there are troubling issues that need to be confronted." Left out of that statement is that in some cases, paying laid-off workers full salaries, though an inherently decent idea, may well be unreasonably costly. All these factors together may affect the cost of American automobiles, making them too expensive according to some considerations.

Still, arguing that any of the failures of American automobile businesses in terms of innovation, quality, market savvy, durability, and design are due to the unions is just silly. Management has successfully deployed lobbyists and urged its congressional representatives to keep Congress from legislating greater fuel efficiency in cars. It has neglected the tight and careful controls on the production end that once assured quality. There seems to have been a lack of long-range planning that took into account changing fuel, climatic, and consumer concerns; instead, in considering the future, company leaders have been tightly tied to the limits of mostly just considering the last year's car sales. While resisting change and lacking any vision for the future, they have more than amply rewarded themselves financially.

This is not a claim that unions are blame-free in this current crisis – but most of the blame and concern has to be with management.

One can believe in the need for unions without arguing that management is made up of ogres or that unions are without flaw. But to argue that labor needs no protection is to go too far. It is important to keep in mind situations like the one at American Airlines a few years back, when the entire labor force accepted cuts and cutbacks. As soon as things began to improve, there were no givebacks to those who had accepted cuts; instead, members of management granted themselves bonuses.

Unfortunately, in considering labor, we have to deal with the general perception as shaped by the culture; film, television, and books have provided the framing. Consider how in Walt Disney's animated shorts – and especially features – wild animals are anthropomorphized into cute, cuddly, and domesticated free spirits. Three or four generations, if not more, assimilated these misleading images until all too often the perception has replaced the reality, to the point where animals are thought of as noble, loyal, sweet, and friendly. Deer are noble, loving creatures rather than large annoying squirrels; bunnies have tender feelings; and chipmunks are just so damned cute. There is an enormous disconnect here that doesn't serve nature and wildlife well at all.

The situation with labor and unions is somewhat different in that, as often as not, Hollywood has produced precious few studio narrative films about these topics. There have been pro-labor and -union movies, though they were usually independently produced – films such as Our Daily Bread (1934), Salt of the Earth (1954) – made by blacklisted Hollywood talents – and two John Sayles films, Matewan (1987) and Eight Men Out (1988). Hollywood has no trouble portraying industries as corrupt and individuals as noble – along the lines of Silkwood (1983) – but the movies that do so are not about union organizing. Warner Bros. once specialized in pro-labor films, such as Black Fury (1935), and there are films that are pro-union, such as Norma Rae (1979), and pro-labor films such as 9 to 5 (1980).

Seemingly the most influential and generally accepted portrayals of unions show either how they became corrupted or simply address that corruption. Hollywood as often as not depicts the history of unions by using the same now widely accepted template: In the first act, the oppression of workers that leads to the creation of the union is shown; the next two acts deal with how corrupt and mob-affiliated the unions become – witness F.I.S.T. (1978) and Hoffa (1992). When not dealing directly with their history, regardless of the time period, films often simply present unions as corrupt, as in On the Waterfront (1954), Blue Collar (1978), and The Molly Maguires (1970). Though most often labor and unions are simply not depicted in Hollywood films, when they are included (apart from the above examples), it is most often in mob and gangster movies, where they are presented in negative ways.

There is a media history of unions that has so influenced popular imagination. Unfortunately, as with too many controversial areas, the real history of labor and union organizing is ignored and largely unknown. Over the years, both management and labor have committed abuses and were responsible for atrocities. Until FDR came to power, however, the power of the state in terms of legislatures, national guard, state police, and governors' offices has been overwhelmingly and often violently on the side of management.

Unions were not pure and innocent, without fault. Still, as often as not, union outrages were limited and specific. The Industrial Workers of the World was a crucial labor organization around the turn of the last century. In many cases, they were militantly anti-management, with some members engaging in acts of sabotage as a tactic. Labor also was involved in bombings, assassinations, and the beating of strikebreakers. The misdeeds of labor, however, were those of the powerless against the powerful. This does not forgive unions at all. Still, the scale of their renegade activities paled before anti-union abuses. Management was made up, of course, of members of the economic, social, and political upper/ruling classes and usually backed by national and state governments. Organizing labor, in contrast, was a near-outlaw and often fatal activity.

What follows is a very abridged chronology of some of the more outrageous incidents during the first half of this century, which occurred as labor tried to organize. It is heavy on management misdeeds. Information about any missing incidents of unions' outrages are welcome, but their scale was usually very limited. Many may already know some or much of this; others may not, but to argue against unionism, divorced from its historical context, has more to do with fantasy fiction than relevant current events.

1911: March 25 – New York City: When the Triangle Shirtwaist Co., an overcrowded sweatshop with almost all female workers occupying the top floors of its building, caught on fire, 147 people died. About 50 died by jumping out of windows, the rest because they couldn't get out or trampled one another because all stairway exits were kept locked to prevent unauthorized breaks. The company's owners were indicted for manslaughter.

1912: Feb. 24 – Lawrence, Mass.: Women and children were beaten by police during a textile strike. April 18 – West Virginia: The National Guard was called out against striking coal miners. June 11 – New Orleans: Police shot three maritime workers (one of whom was killed) striking against the United Fruit Co.

1914: April 20 – Ludlow, Colo.: During a strike against the area's mines, company men hired by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the other mine owners attacked a union tent camp with machine guns, then set it afire. Five men, two women, and 12 children died. Nov. 13 – Butte, Mont.: A Western Federation of Miners strike was crushed by state militia.

1915: Jan. 19 – Salt Lake City: Famous labor leader Joe Hill was arrested, convicted, and executed on charges that were very likely trumped-up. His dying statement was "Don't mourn; organize!" Jan. 19 – Roosevelt, N.J.: Twenty rioting strikers were shot by factory guards. Jan. 25: The Supreme Court upholds "yellow dog" contracts, which forbid membership in labor unions.

1916: July 22 – San Francisco: A bomb set off during a parade killed 10 and injured 40 more. A labor organizer and a worker were convicted, but both were pardoned in 1939. Aug. 19 – Everett, Wash.: Strikebreakers attacked and beat picketing strikers. The police refused to intervene. When picketers struck back against strikebreakers, the police intervened. Oct. 30: Vigilantes forced IWW speakers to run a gantlet while whipping, tripping, and kicking them. Many became impaled against a spiked cattle guard at the end of the gantlet. Nov. 5: At a meeting organized by the IWW in response, the crowd was fired on; seven people were killed and 50 were wounded.

During this whole period, the beating of strikebreakers by strikers became common.

1917: July 12 – Bisbee, Ariz.: Thousands of armed vigilantes forced 1,185 men into manure-laden boxcars, abandoning them in the New Mexico desert. They were copper miners involved in an unsuccessful strike for better safety and working conditions, ending the unequal treatment of foreign and minority workers, and the institution of a fair wage.

1918: Feb. 3: The 1916 federal Child Labor Law was declared unconstitutional. (On Feb. 24, 1919, a new law was enacted but also was declared unconstitutional on May 15, 1922.)

1919: Sept. 19 – Boston: Looting, rioting, and sporadic violence broke out when 1,117 Boston policemen declared a work stoppage due to their thwarted attempts to unionize. Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge put down the strike by calling out the entire state militia. Sept. 22: A strike against the steel industry began; eventually, 350,000 steel workers would join in an unsuccessful attempt to get union recognition. Nov. 11 – Centralia, Wash.: American Legion members tried to force their way into an IWW hall. Four legionnaires were shot dead by members of the IWW. Later, an IWW organizer was lynched by a mob. Dec. 22: During the course of a strike against the steel industry, approximately 250 strikers were deported to Russia for being radicals.

This marked the beginning of the 1920s Red Scare and the Palmer Raids, named after the attorney general who organized them.

1920: January: The FBI became involved in the nationwide Palmer Raids. Federal agents seized labor leaders and literature in the hopes of discouraging labor activity. A number of those arrested were turned over to state officials for prosecution under various anti-anarchy statutes.

1920 and 1921: West Virginia: Army troops were used to intervene against striking mine workers.

1922: June 22 – Herrin, Ill.: Violence erupted during a coal-mine strike. Thirty-six were killed, 21 of them nonunion miners.

1924: June 2: A child-labor amendment to the U.S. Constitution was proposed; only 28 of the necessary 36 states ever ratified it.

1925: May 25 – Wheeling, W.V.: Two company houses occupied by nonunion coal miners were blown up and destroyed by labor during a strike.

1926: Passaic, N.J.: After a fight with police, textile workers went on strike for a year.

1927: Nov. 21 – Columbine, Colo.: Picketing miners were massacred.

1930: April 14 – Imperial Valley, Calif.: More than 100 farmworkers were arrested for their unionizing activities, with eight subsequently convicted.

1931: May 4 – Harlan County, Ky.: Vigilantes carrying guns attacked striking miners.

1932: March 7 – Dearborn, Mich.: Police killed striking workers at a Ford plant.

1933: Oct. 10 – Pixley, Calif.: Eighteen thousand cotton workers struck for higher wages. Four were killed before they finally won.

1934: Toledo, Ohio: Two strikers were killed and more than 200 wounded by 1,300 National Guardsmen, including eight rifle companies and three machine-gun companies.

1937: Feb. 11: General Motors recognized the United Auto Workers union following a sit-down strike. May 30 – Chicago, Ill.: Police killed 10 and wounded 30 during a strike at the Republic Steel plant. (This is usually considered as the last major act of violence during a strike.)

1938: June 25: The Wages and Hours (later Fair Labor Standards) Act was passed, banning child labor and standardizing the 40-hour work week.

1939: Feb. 27: The Supreme Court ruled that sit-down strikes are illegal.

1941: June 20: Henry Ford recognized the UAW. Dec. 15: The AFL pledged that there would be no strikes in defense-related industry plants for the duration of the war.

1946: April 1: A strike by 400,000 mine workers in the U.S. began. U.S. troops seized railroads and coal mines the following month. Oct. 4: The U.S. Navy seized oil refineries to break a 20-state, postwar strike.

1947: June 20: The Taft-Hartley Labor Act, curbing strikes, was vetoed by President Truman. Congress overrode the veto.

1950: Aug. 27: President Truman ordered the U.S. Army to seize all the nation's railroads to prevent a general strike. The railroads were returned to their owners two years later.

1952: April 8: President Truman ordered the U.S. Army to seize the nation's steel mills to avert a strike. The Supreme Court ruled that this was illegal.

1955: Dec. 5: The two largest labor organizations in the U.S. merged to form the AFL-CIO (membership of about 15 million).

One does not have to unquestioningly champion labor unions or ignore some unions' tainted history and obvious modern problems. This chronology does not include the corrupt, corrupting, or violent activities of some unions after they came to power. The history of the Teamsters is often not a proud one, and the coal-mining unions have often engaged in internal, violent conflicts. Understanding the history, need, and achievements of unions, one can still quite legitimately make an argument against their contemporary value. Even if one is pro-management and anti-labor, this history has to be known and considered, because denying that there has been an inherent and ongoing conflict between labor and management is so far beyond reality that it even blows past mere self-serving fiction.  

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