Consider this quote from an essay by Leon Fink, a labor historian:*
[Andrew] Carnegie, of course, was the protagonist of the Homestead Strike of 1892, a fateful standoff between one of the biggest corporations and the most powerful union of the Gilded Age. When the Amalgamated Association of Iroon and Steel Workers (AAISW) together with an aroused local citizenry proved unable to withstand a combination of lockout, importation of Pinkertons to protect strikebreakers, and ultimate application of state militia, unionism took a toll beyond the immediate causalities of nine dead and eleven wounded. In the steel industry, declining wages and yellow-dog contracts requiring a binding non-union pledge subsequently became the norm. Overvaluing its remaining resources, the Amalgamated made a final, fateful decision to confront the newly formed U.S. Steel monolith [the successor to Carnegie’s concerns, which he sold to J. P. Morgan] in 1901, a decision ending in crushing defeat. Once the last steel lodge in the country dissolved, Big Steel inoculated itself from trade unionism for the next thirty-four years. [citations omitted]
The “importation of Pinkertons,” which were private security guards, and “the application of state militia” reflect something one sees often in narratives about Gilded Age (c. 1877-c.1920) labor disputes. The idea is that unions could have had more success if it weren’t for violent interference from the state. “Success,” at least when counterposed to the above-mentioned use of Pinkertons and the militia, meant that the strikers would be permitted to harm or threaten strikebreakers, to use violence to prevent strikebreakers from taking jobs that “belonged” to union members.
Before I go too far in decrying “union violence” in the Gilded Age there are two counterpoints. First, in the example of Homestead and many other examples, introducing strikebreakers was a provocative move, an invitation to the very violence that often followed. To be clear, blame for any violence rests with those who actually commit the violence. But if someone introduces a situation they know will lead to violence that person also bears some of the blame for the results.
Second, if you look at the history of labor activism, one finds violence directed against strikers or union supporters either without provocation or with flimsy justifications. The examples are many: Henry Ford’s hiring thugs to beat up union organizers, the Republic Steel Massacre, the Ludlow Massacre, the deportations and bull-pen imprisonments during the “Colorado Labor Wars” of 1902-1905. I wouldn’t be surprised if such violence counts for a majority of the instances of “labor violence” during the Gilded Age.
So why pick on anti-strikebreaker violence, especially at a time when unions in most sectors seem to be so poorly represented and when most union supporters (I imagine) today disavow violence and do so sincerely?
One reason is a preachy one. I want to point out that such violence is illiberal. If “liberal society” means anything, it means that a person has the right to pursue a lawful calling for which someone else is willing to lawfully hire them. Maybe other norms ought to override at least sometimes this liberal presumption–such as “community interest,” a notion that jobs are “owned” by the jobholder, a commitment to class solidarity, or a shared opposition to an allegedly monopolistic octopus. And perhaps those norms deserve consideration.
Another reason is, the issue of violence is a more extreme version of the issue of when and whether and how employment relations can be said to be voluntary or coercive. And as one of my interests is labor policy and labor history, I’d like to put the issue of violence out there.
For union supporters, I’d like to ask when, if ever, is it acceptable to use violence and to deter strikebreakers? other forms of coercion to impose or establish a union contract? and what counts as violence and “other forms of coercion”? For opponents of unions, I’d like to ask if anything overrides what I call the “liberal presumption” that each person has a right to pursue a lawful calling? and when and by how much is that presumption overridden?
These are questions that bother me as I try to consider my stance on, for example, the repeal of Taft-Hartley, curtailing public employee unions, anti-union shop (aka “right to work) laws, card check votes, or such workplace related policies like Montana’s “for cause” employment law or raising the minimum wage.
*From Leon Fink, “Great Strikes Revisited,” in The Long Gilded Age: American Capitalism and Lessons of a New World Order (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), page 38.
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