American History III
Chapter 11: Robber Barons and Rebels
The first transcontinental railroad was built with blood, sweat, politics, and thievery, out of the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads. The Central Pacific started on the west coast going east, spending $200,000 in Washington on bribes to get 9 million acres of free land and $24 million in government bonds. The construction was done by 3,000 Irish and 10,000 Chinese laborers working for $1 or $2 a day over a period of four years. The Union Pacific started in Nebraska going west. It had been given 12 million acres of free land and $27 million in government bonds, and used 20,000 workers – war veterans and Irish immigrants – who laid 5 miles of track a day and died by the hundreds in the heat, cold, and battles with Indians. In 1869, the two lines met in Utah.
By the 1890s, most of the country’s railroads were concentrated in six huge systems, four of them completely or partially controlled by the House of Morgan and two by the bankers Kuhn, Loeb, and Company. In 1889, Morgan helped institute a secret “combination” of the railroads. In the same year, 22,000 railroad workers were killed or injured.
In 1895 the gold reserve of the United States was depleted, at the same time that 26 New York City banks had $129 million in gold in their vaults. A syndicate of bankers headed by J.P. Morgan and others offered to give the government gold in exchange for bonds. When President Grover Cleveland agreed, the bankers immediately resold the bonds at higher prices, making $18 million in profit.
Morgan linked railroads to one another, then tied them to banks, and tied the banks to insurance companies. By 1900, he controlled half the country’s railroad mileage, and three insurance companies dominated by the Morgan group had a billion dollars in assets and $50 million a year to invest – “controlling the people through the people’s own money,” as Louis Brandeis wrote in Other People’s Money before becoming a Supreme Court justice.
John D. Rockefeller started as a bookkeeper in Cleveland and became a merchant. He bought his first oil refinery in 1862, and in 1870 set up the Standard Oil Company of Ohio, agreeing to ship oil with certain railroads if they gave him discounted prices. In this way, he drove competitors out of business. By 1899, Standard Oil was a holding company controlling the stock of many other companies. Its capital was $110 million, its profit $45 million a year, and John D.’s fortune was estimated at $200 million. Before long, he would move into iron, copper, coal, shipping, and banking. Profits would be $81 million a year, and the Rockefeller fortune would total $2 billion.
Starting as a telegraph clerk, Andrew Carnegie became secretary to the head of the Pennsylvania Railroad, then a Wall Street broker selling railroad bonds for huge commissions. Soon he was a millionaire. After seeing the new Bessemer method of producing steel in London in 1872, he returned to the United States to build a million-dollar steel plant. Foreign competition was kept out by a high tariff, and by 1880 Carnegie was producing 10,000 tons of steel a month and making $1.5 million a year in profit. By 1900, when he sold his steel company to J.P. Morgan for $492 million, he was making $40 million a year. Morgan then formed the U.S. Steel Corporation, combining Carnegie’s company with others. By closing off competition and working 200,000 men twelve hours a day for wages that barely kept their families alive, he was able to pay dividends to stockholders even though he’d sold more stocks and bonds than the company was worth (he also took a fee of $500 million for arranging the consolidation).
And so it went in industry after industry – shrewd, efficient businessmen building empires, choking out competition, maintaining high prices, keeping wages low, and using government subsidies. By the turn of the century, American Telephone and Telegraph had a monopoly of the nation’s telephone system, International Harvester made 85% of all farm machinery, and in every other industry resources were concentrated and controlled. The banks had enough interests in these monopolies to create an interlocking network of power via corporation directors, each of whom sat on the boards of many other corporations. According to a Senate report of the early 20th century, Morgan at his peak sat on the boards of 48 corporations, Rockefeller 37.
The purpose of the state – whichever party was in power – was to settle upper-class disputes, control lower-class rebellion, and adopt policies that would further the long-range stability of the system. When Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, ran for president in 1884, the general impression in the country was that he opposed the power of monopolies and corporations, and that the Republican party, whose candidate was James Blaine, stood for the wealthy. But one of Cleveland’s chief advisors was William Whitney, a millionaire and corporation lawyer, who married into the Standard Oil fortune and was appointed Secretary of the Navy. He immediately set about creating a “steel navy,” buying the steel for it at artificially high prices from Carnegie’s plants.
In 1887, with a huge surplus in the treasury, Cleveland vetoed a bill appropriating $100,000 to help Texas farmers buy seed grain during a drought. But that same year he paid off wealthy bondholders at $28 above the $100 worth of each bond, a gift of $45 million.
Zinn writes that the chief reform of the Cleveland administration reveals “the secret of reform legislation in America.” The Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 was supposed to regulate the railroads on behalf of consumers. But Richard Olney, a lawyer for the Boston & Maine and other railroads, and soon to be Cleveland’s attorney general, reassured railroad officials that it would be enforced only as much as necessary to reassure the public.
Republican Benjamin Harrison, who succeeded Cleveland as president from 1889 to 1893, had served the railroad corporations as both an attorney, prosecuting the strikers of 1877 in the federal courts, and as a soldier, organizing and commanding a company of soldiers during the strike. His term also saw a gesture of reform: the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, passed in 1890, which described itself as “an act to protect trade and commerce against unlawful restraints.” Senator John Sherman, the act’s author, explained the need to conciliate the “socialist” and “communist” critics of monopoly.
Cleveland, elected president again in 1892 and facing the agitation in the country caused by the panic and depression of 1893, used troops to break up “Coxey’s Army,” a demonstration of unemployed men who had come to Washington, and again to break up the national strike on the railroads the following year.
In 1895 the Supreme Court took the teeth out of the Sherman Act (in U.S. v. E.C. Knight Co.) by saying that a sugar refining monopoly was a monopoly of manufacturing, not commerce. The Court also said that the act could be used against interstate strikers (the railway strike of 1894) and declared unconstitutional an attempt by Congress to tax high incomes more heavily (Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Company). In later years it would refuse to break up the Standard Oil and American Tobacco monopolies, saying the Sherman Act barred only “unreasonable” combinations in restraint of trade.
Soon after the Fourteenth Amendment became law, the Supreme Court began to demolish it as a protection for blacks and develop it as a protection for corporations. Of the Fourteenth Amendment cases brought before the Court between 1890 and 1910, 19 dealt with the Negro and 288 dealt with corporations.
During this period, the rich donated money to colleges, universities, and libraries. These institutions didn’t encourage dissent; they trained the middlemen in the American system – the teachers, doctors, lawyers, administrators, engineers, technicians, and politicians who were what Zinn calls “loyal buffers against trouble.” In the meantime, the spread of public education enabled a whole generation of workers to learn the 3 Rs and obedience to authority. As Joel Spring says in his book Education and the Rise of the Corporate State: “The development of a factory-like system in the 19th century schoolroom wasn’t accidental.” High schools developed as aids to the industrial system, and history was used to foster patriotism.
In the 1880s and ‘90s, immigrants were pouring in from Europe at a faster rate than before, many from southern and eastern Europe. There was a lot of conflict between different ethnic groups and older and newer immigrants, much of it caused by economic competition. The Chinese in California, numbering 75,000 by 1880 – almost one-tenth of the state’s population – became the objects of continuous violence. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, in the summer of 1885, whites attacked 500 Chinese miners, massacring 28 of them in cold blood.
There were 5½ million immigrants in the 1880s and 4 million in the 1890s, creating a labor surplus that kept wages down. Immigrant children often worked, too, intensifying the problem of an oversized labor force and joblessness; in 1880 one out of six, or 1,118,000, children under the age of 16 worked in the United States.
The Socialist Labor party, formed in 1877, was tiny and torn by internal arguments, but it had some influence in organizing unions among foreign workers. In New York City, Jewish socialists organized and put out a newspaper. In Chicago, German revolutionaries, along with native-born radicals, formed Social Revolutionary clubs. An anarchist congress took place in Pittsburgh in 1883, and in Chicago the new International Working People’s Association had 5,000 members, published newspapers in 5 languages, organized mass demonstrations and parades, and through its leadership in strikes was a powerful influence in the 22 unions that made up the Central Labor Union of the city.
In early 1886, the Texas & Pacific Railroad fired a leader of the district assembly of the Knights of Labor, leading to a strike that spread throughout the southwest, tying up traffic as far away as St. Louis and Kansas City. In April, in East St. Louis, there was a battle between strikers and police in which 7 workers were killed. Workers then burned the freight depot of the Louisville & Nashville, inspiring the governor to declare martial law and send in 700 National Guardsmen. With mass arrests, violent attacks by sheriffs and deputies, and no support from the skilled, better-paid workers of the Railway Brotherhoods, the strikers couldn’t hold out.
By the spring of 1886, the movement for an 8-hour day had grown. On May 1st, the 5-year-old American Federation of Labor called for nationwide strikes wherever it was refused. Knights of Labor rank and file and railroad workers supported the movement, despite the disagreement of their leaders. 350,000 workers in 11,562 establishments all over the country went out on strike. In Detroit, 11,000 workers marched in an 18-hour parade. In New York City, 25,000 formed a torchlight procession along Broadway. In Chicago, 40,000 struck, and 45,000 were granted a shorter working day to prevent them from striking. Every railroad in Chicago stopped running, and most of the city’s industries, including the stockyards, were paralyzed.
A “Citizens’ Committee” of businessmen met daily to strategize. The state militia had been called out, the police were ready, and Albert Parsons and August Spies, the anarchist leaders of the International Working People’s Association, were under surveillance. In the fall of 1885, the Central Labor Union, under Parsons’ and Spies’ leadership, had adopted a resolution urging the “wage-earning class to arm itself” in order to oppose “their exploiters.”
On May 3rd, in front of the McCormick Harvester Works, where strikers and sympathizers fought scabs, the police fired into a crowd of strikers running from the scene, wounding many of them and killing four. Spies, enraged, went to a print shop and printed a circular in both English and German calling his comrades “to arms.” A meeting was called for Haymarket Square on the evening of May 4th, and about 3,000 people assembled. It was a quiet meeting, and as storm clouds gathered and the hour grew late, the crowd dwindled to a few hundred. A detachment of 180 policemen showed up, advanced on the speakers’ platform, and ordered the crowd to disperse. The speaker said the meeting was almost over. A bomb then exploded in the midst of the police, wounding 66 of them, 7 of whom later died. The police fired into the crowd, killing several people and wounding 200.
The police arrested eight anarchist leaders, only one of whom had actually been at Haymarket. Illinois law said anyone inciting a murder was guilty of it, and a jury found the men guilty. When they were sentenced to death and their appeals denied, there were international protests – one in London was sponsored by George Bernard Shaw, William Morris, and Peter Kropotkin, among others.
A year after the trial, four of the convicted anarchists – Albert Parsons, a printer; August Spies, an upholsterer; Adolph Fischer; and George Engel – were hanged. Louis Lingg, a 21-year-old carpenter, blew himself up in his cell by exploding a dynamite tube in his mouth. Three remained in prison. The executions aroused people all over the country. There was a funeral march of 25,000 in Chicago. Some evidence came out that a man named Rudolph Schnaubelt, supposedly an anarchist, but actually a police agent, may have been hired to throw the bomb and enable the arrest of Chicago’s revolutionary leadership.
In response to 60,000 signed petitions, the new governor investigated the facts, denounced what had happened, and pardoned the three remaining prisoners. Year after year, all over the country, memorial meetings for the Haymarket martyrs were held; it’s impossible to know the number of individuals whose political awakening – as with Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, revolutionary stalwarts of the next generation – came from the Haymarket Affair. In 1968, a group of young radicals blew up the monument erected to the memory of the police who died in the explosion.
Class conflict and violence continued, with strikes, lockouts, blacklisting, the use of Pinkerton detectives and police to break strikes with force, and courts to break them by law. From 1881 to 1885, strikes had averaged about 500 a year, involving perhaps 150,000 workers annually. In 1886 there were over 1,400 strikes, involving 500,000 workers. John Commons wrote in his History of the Labor Movement in the United States that “the movement bore in every way the aspect of a social war. A frenzied hatred of labor for capital was shown in every important strike.”
There were sporadic rebellions even among southern blacks. In the cotton fields, blacks were dispersed in their work, but in the sugar fields work was done in gangs, so there was opportunity for organized action. In 1880 cane cutters in Louisiana struck to get a dollar a day instead of 75 cents. Strikers were arrested and jailed, but when released walked the roads beside the sugar fields, carrying banners that read “a dollar a day, or Kansas.” They were arrested repeatedly for trespassing, and the strike was broken. By 1886, however, the Knights of Labor were organizing in the sugar fields. The following year, in the fall, close to 10,000 sugar laborers went on strike, 90% of them Negroes and members of the Knights. The militia arrived, and gun battles began. Violence erupted in the town of Thibodaux, which had become a refugee village where hundreds of strikers, evicted from their plantation shacks, gathered, penniless and ragged. Martial law was declared, and two brothers, Henry and George Cox, were arrested, locked up, then taken from their cells, and never heard from again. On the night of November 22nd, shooting broke out, and by noon the next day 30 Negroes were dead or dying, and hundreds wounded.
Poor southern whites, not doing well either, began to oppose the convict labor system by means of which mostly black prisoners were used to depress wages and break strikes. In 1891, miners of the Tennessee Coal Mine Company refused to sign a contract pledging no strikes, agreeing to get paid in scrip, and giving up the right to check the weight of the coal they mined (they were paid by weight). Refusing to sign, they were evicted from their houses, and convicts brought in to replace them. On the night of October 1, 1891, a thousand armed miners took control of the mine area, set 500 convicts free, and burned down the stockades in which the convicts were kept. The company surrendered, agreeing not to use convicts in the future and not to require the miners to sign the contract.
In New Orleans in 1892, 42 union locals with over 20,000 members, mostly white, called a general strike involving half the population of the city. After three days, with strikebreakers brought in, martial law, and the threat of militia, the strike ended with a compromise, gaining hours and wages but without recognition of the unions as bargaining agents,
The year 1892 saw strike struggles all over the country. Besides the general strike in New Orleans and the coal miners’ strike in Tennessee, there was a railroad switchman’s strike in Buffalo, New York and a copper miners’ strike in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The Coeur d’Alene strike was marked by gun battles between strikers and strikebreakers that caused many deaths. The National Guard, brought in by the governor, was reinforced by federal troops, and 600 miners were imprisoned in bullpens, the union leaders fired, and the strike broken.
In early 1892, at the Carnegie Steel plant at Homestead, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh, Henry Clay Frick, managing the plant while Carnegie was in Europe, decided to reduce the workers’ wages and break their union. He had a fence three miles long and 12 feet high built around the steelworks and topped it with barbed wire, adding peepholes for rifles. When the workers refused to accept Frick’s pay cut, he laid them off and hired the Pinkerton detective agency to protect strikebreakers. A strike committee took over the town, and the sheriff was unable to raise a local posse against them. On the night of July 5, 1892, hundreds of Pinkerton guards boarded barges 5 miles down the river from Homestead and moved toward the plant, where 10,000 strikers and sympathizers waited. The crowd warned the Pinkertons not to step off the barge. A striker lay down on the gangplank, and when a Pinkerton man tried to shove him aside, he fired, wounding the detective in the thigh. In the gunfire that followed on both sides, 7 workers were killed.
The Pinkertons had to retreat onto the barges. They were attacked from all sides, and when they surrendered were beaten by the enraged crowd. For the next several days the strikers were in command of the area, but the governor brought in the militia, armed with the latest rifles and Gatling guns, to protect new strikebreakers.
The strike leaders were charged with murder and 160 strikers were charged with other crimes, but all were acquitted by friendly juries. The same thing happened when the strike committee was arrested for treason against the state. The strike held for four months, but the plant was producing steel with strikebreakers, often brought in on locked trains not knowing that a strike was on. Finally, the strikers, with no resources left, agreed to return to work, their leaders blacklisted.
In the midst of the Homestead strike, Alexander Berkman, a young anarchist from New York, came to Pittsburgh and entered the office of Henry Clay Frick, determined to kill him. Berkman’s aim was poor; he wounded Frick and was arrested and tried for attempted murder. He served 14 years in the state penitentiary.
After several decades of wild industrial growth, financial manipulation, and uncontrolled speculation and profiteering, the economy collapsed in 1893 – 642 banks failed and 16,000 businesses closed down. Out of the labor force of 15 million, 3 million were unemployed. No state government voted relief, but mass demonstrations all over the country forced city governments to set up soup kitchens and give people work on streets or in parks. Anarchist Emma Goldman addressed a huge meeting of unemployed in New York’s Union Square and urged those whose children needed food to go into stores and take it. She was arrested for “inciting to riot” and sentenced to two years in prison.
The depression lasted for years and brought a wave of strikes throughout the country. The largest of these was the nationwide strike of railroad workers in 1894 that began at the Pullman Company just outside of Chicago. Annual wages of the railroad workers, according to the report of the commissioner of labor in 1890, were $957 for engineers, $575 for conductors, $212 for brakemen, and $124 for laborers. Railroad work was one of the most dangerous jobs in America, with over 2,000 workers killed and 30,000 injured each year. The railroad companies called these accidents “acts of God” or the result of “carelessness” on the part of workers, but often they were caused by fatigued men being forced to work double shifts because railroad managers had reduced their labor force.
The depression of 1893 propelled Eugene Debs into a lifetime of union and socialist action. The son of a shopkeeper, Debs worked on the railroads for four years, leaving at 19 when a friend was killed after falling under a locomotive. Later he joined the Railroad Brotherhood as a billing clerk. In the midst of the economic crisis of 1893, a small group of railroad workers, including Debs, formed the American Railway Union, to unite all railway workers. Debs wanted to include everyone, but blacks were kept out by an 1894 convention vote of 112 to 100. Later, Debs thought this might have had a crucial effect on the outcome of the Pullman strike, when black workers failed to cooperate with strikers.
In June 1894, with a lot of support from other unions and Chicago civic organizations, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike. The American Railway Union responded to an appeal from the strikers by asking its members all over the country not to handle Pullman cars, stopping traffic all over the country. The U.S. Attorney General, a former railroad lawyer, got a court injunction against blocking trains on the grounds that the mails were being interfered with. When the strikers ignored the injunction, President Cleveland ordered federal troops to Chicago. On July 7th, the state militia moved in, killing and wounding an unknown number of rioters. A crowd of 5,000 gathered, rocks were thrown at the militia, and the command was given to fire. Bayonets were also used, and the police followed with their clubs. Thirteen people were killed, 53 seriously wounded, and 700 arrested. After police, militia, and federal troops had crushed the strike, 34 were dead. Debs was arrested for contempt of court for violating an injunction not to do or say anything that would inspire the strikers to hold out.
During his 6 months in prison, Debs studied socialism and talked to socialist prisoners. Two years later, he wrote in Railway Times, “The issue is socialism versus capitalism. I’m for socialism because I’m for humanity. We’ve been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis for civilization. The time has come to regenerate society – we’re on the verge of a universal change.”
At the same time, northern and southern farmers were creating the greatest movement of agrarian rebellion the country had yet seen. The Farmers Alliance was the core of the great movement of the 1880s and ‘90s later known as the Populist Movement.
Farming had become mechanized, and land and machines cost money, so farmers had to borrow, hoping the prices for their harvests would stay high, so they could pay the bank for the loan, the railroad for transportation, the grain merchant for handling their grain, and the storage elevator for storing it. But, as Zinn says, “they found the prices for their produce going down, and the prices of transportation and loans going up, because the individual farmer couldn’t control the price of his grain, while the monopolist railroad and the monopolist banker could charge what they liked.” By 1880, 25% of all farms were rented by tenants, and the number kept rising. Many, without the money to rent, became farm laborers – by 1900 there were 4½ million farm laborers in the country.
The government played its part in helping the bankers and hurting the farmers by keeping the amount of money – based on the gold supply – steady, while the population rose, so there was less and less money in circulation. The farmer had to pay his debt in dollars that were harder to get, and the bankers were getting back dollars worth more than when they loaned them out – a kind of interest on top of interest. The farmers’ movements wanted more money put in circulation by printing greenbacks (paper money not backed by gold) or by making silver a basis for issuing money.
It was in the South that the crop-lien system (a mortgage on a farmer’s crop, often at 25% interest) was most brutal – a modified form of slavery for millions of southerners, white and black. The farmer would owe more money every year, until finally his farm was taken away and he became a tenant.
At the height of the 1877 depression, a group of white farmers gathered together on a farm in Texas and formed the first “Farmers Alliance.” In a few years, the movement had spread across the state, and by 1882, there were 120 sub-alliances in 12 counties. By 1886, 100,000 farmers had joined in 2,000 sub-alliances. The alliance system enabled farmers to form cooperatives, selling their cotton cooperatively and buying things together to get lower prices. The essentially conservative Grange movement, which had managed to get laws passed to help farmers, started to lose members to this new form of organization. Another new element was that the Farmers Alliance showed sympathy with the growing labor movement from the beginning.
In the summer of 1886, in the town of Cleburne, near Dallas, the Alliance gathered and drew up what came to be known as the “Cleburne Demands” – the first document of the Populist movement. It called for an national conference of all labor organizations “to discuss such measures as may be of interest to the laboring classes,” and proposed regulation of railroad rates, heavy taxation of land held only for speculative purposes, and an increase in the money supply.
By early 1887, the Alliance had 200,000 members in 3,000 sub-alliances, and by 1892 farmer lecturers had gone into 43 states and reached 2 million farm families in what Lawrence Goodwyn (in his study of the Populist movement, The Democratic Promise) calls “the most massive organizing drive by any citizen institution of 19th century America.” It was a drive based on the idea of cooperation, of farmers creating their own culture and their own political parties, gaining a respect not given them heretofore by the nation’s industrial and political leaders.
By 1889, there were 400,000 members in the Alliance nationwide, as the conditions spurring it on grew worse. Corn, which had brought 45 cents a bushel in 1870, brought 10 cents a bushel in 1889, and prices for equipment, freight, and grain elevators had risen. The situation in the South was the worst – 90% of the farmers there lived on credit. To meet this situation, the Texas Alliance formed a statewide cooperative, the Texas Exchange, which handled the selling of its members’ cotton in one transaction. The Exchange needed loans to advance credit to its members, however, and the banks refused. $80,000 in contributions from farmers wasn’t enough, persuading the Alliances that monetary reform was crucial.
Charles Macune, a movement leader in Texas, came forward with a plan that was to become central to the Populist platform – the sub-Treasury plan by which the government would have its own warehouses where farmers could store produce and get certificates (greenbacks) for it. Since neither of the two major parties were interested in the idea, a third party had to be organized. In 1890, 38 Alliance people were elected to Congress, and the Alliance elected governors in Georgia and Texas. It took over the Democratic Party in Georgia and won three-fourths of the seats in the Georgia legislature and 6 of 10 congressional seats.
The People’s (or Populist) Party had its first convention in 1890 in Topeka, Kansas. Mary Ellen Lease, the great Populist orator from that state told an enthusiastic crowd: “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. Our laws are the output of a system which clothes rascals in robes and honesty in rags. The politicians say we suffer from overproduction when 10,000 little children starve to death every year and 100,000 shop girls in New York are forced to sell their virtue for bread. There are 30 men in the United States whose aggregate wealth is over one and one-half billion dollars, while a half a million look for work. We want money, land, and transportation. We want the abolition of the national banks, and we want loans direct from the government. We want the accursed foreclosure system wiped out. We will stand by our homes and stay by our firesides by force if necessary, and we will not pay our debts to the loan-shark companies until the government pays its debts to us.”
At the People’s Party national convention in 1892 in St. Louis, a platform was drawn up. The preamble was written by, and read to the assemblage by another of the great orators of the movement, Ignatius Donnelly: “We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized. Newspapers are subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, our homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. Urban workers are denied the right of organization for self-protection; imported, pauperized labor brings down their wages; a hired standing army has been established to shoot them down. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build colossal fortunes. From the prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two classes – paupers and millionaires.”
A People’s Party nominating convention in Omaha in July 1892 nominated James Weaver, an Iowa Populist and former general in the Union army, for president. Weaver got over a million votes in the election, but won only 22 electoral votes to Democrat Grover Cleveland’s 277 and the incumbent Republican Benjamin Harrison’s 145. These votes came from Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, and Oklahoma.
The Colored Farmers National Alliance had perhaps a million members, but it was organized and led by whites. The few black organizers had difficulty persuading black farmers that if economic reforms were won, blacks would have equal access to them. Blacks had tied themselves to the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln and civil rights laws vs. the Democrats, party of slavery and segregation. As Lawrence Goodwyn puts it, “in an era of transcendent white prejudice, the curbing of ‘vicious corporate monopoly’ didn’t carry for black farmers the ring of salvation it had for white agrarians.” Also, blacks were mostly field hands and hired laborers, while most white Alliance members were farm owners. When the Colored Alliance declared a strike in the cotton fields in 1891 for a dollar a day wages for cotton pickers, Leonidas Polk, head of the white Alliance, denounced it as hurting the Alliance farmer who would have to pay the wage. In Arkansas, a 30-year-old black cotton picker named Ben Patterson led the strike, traveling from plantation to plantation to get support and engaging in gun battles with a white posse. A plantation manager was killed and a cotton gin burned. Patterson and his group were caught, and 15 of them were shot to death. Race hatred intensified when white tenants who had failed in the crop-lien system were evicted from their land and replaced by blacks.
The interracial and radical Texas People’s Party founded in Dallas in the summer of 1891 elected two blacks to the state executive committee of the party. There was also some black-white unity at the ballot box, resulting in a few blacks being elected to local office in North Carolina.
The political leaders of the South knew that the laws that took the vote away from blacks – poll taxes, literacy tests, and property qualifications – also kept many poor whites from voting. In Georgia after 1891 the Alliance-controlled legislature passed the largest number of anti-black bills enacted in a single year in the state. In 1896, however, the Georgia state platform of the People’s Party denounced lynch law and terrorism and asked for the abolition of the convict-lease system.
The Populist inability to unite blacks and whites and city workers and country farmers, together with the party’s decision to support Democrat William Jennings Bryan for president in 1896 destroyed the Populist movement. The pressure for electoral victory led to deals with the major parties in city after city. If the Democrats won, the party was absorbed; if they lost, it disintegrated. There were radical Populists who saw that fusion with the Democrats to try to “win” would cost them their independent political movement, and that the much ballyhooed free silver wouldn’t change anything fundamental in the capitalist system.
In the election, Bryan, the Democratic candidate was defeated by William McKinley, for whom the corporations and the press mobilized in the first massive use of money in an election campaign. “The state stood ready to crush labor strikes – by the law if possible, by force if necessary,” Zinn concludes. “And where a threatening mass movement developed, the two-party system stood ready to send out one of its columns to surround it and drain it of vitality. And always, as a way of drowning class resentment in a flood of slogans for national unity, there was patriotism.
The supreme act of patriotism was war. Two years after McKinley was elected, the United States declared war on Spain.”
Chapter 12: The Empire and the People
1890 was the year of the last “battle” between U.S. soldiers and Indians: the massacre of 300 largely unarmed Lakota by the 7th Cavalry at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Ironically, it was also the year the Bureau of the Census declared the internal frontier closed. The capitalist profit system, always needing to expand, had already begun looking overseas. The severe depression that began in 1893 strengthened the developing conviction among the political and financial elite of the country that overseas markets for American goods would prevent economic crises by relieving the problem of underconsumption at home. A “foreign adventure” could also be used to defuse class conflict.
Expansion overseas wasn’t a new idea. Even before the war against Mexico, the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 attempted to gain political and economic control of Latin America. Not long after, there were forays into Hawaii, Japan, and China. Between 1798 and 1895, there were 103 military interventions in other countries. A sampling:
- Argentina (1852-53), Nicaragua (1852-53), and Uruguay (1855): Marines protected American interests during revolutions.
- Ryukyu and the Bonin Islands (1853-54): Before going to Japan and while awaiting a reply to his ultimatum to Japan, Commodore Perry landed marines twice and secured a coaling station on Okinawa. He also mounted a naval demonstration in the Bonin Islands to secure facilities for commerce.
- Shanghai, China (1859): protecting American interests.
- Angola (Portuguese West Africa, 1860): protecting American lives and property at Kissembo when the “natives” became “troublesome.”
- Hawaii (1893): ostensibly protecting American lives and property; actually supporting the takeover of the Hawaiian monarchy and supporting a new government under Sanford B. Dole.
By the 1890s, Americans had had much experience in attempting to control events overseas, and the ideology of expansion was widespread in the upper circle of government, business, and the military. Even some of the leaders of farmers’ movements thought foreign markets would help them. Captain A.T. Mahan of the U.S. Navy, a popular propagandist for expansion, greatly influenced Theodore Roosevelt and other American leaders, and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts wrote in a magazine article: “In the interests of our commerce we should build the Nicaragua canal, and for the protection of our commercial supremacy in the Pacific we should control the Hawaiian islands and maintain our influence in Samoa. When the Nicaraguan canal is built, the island of Cuba will also become a necessity. The great nations are rapidly absorbing for their future expansion and their present defense all the waste places of the earth. It is a movement which makes for civilization and the advancement of the race. As one of the great nations of the world, the United States must not fall out of the line of march.” A Washington Post editorial on the eve of the Spanish-American war crowed, “the taste of Empire is in the mouths of the people.” Theodore Roosevelt was contemptuous of races and nations he considered inferior. He also believed that war was “the ideal condition of human society, for the manly strenuousness which it involves.”
In 1898, 90% of American products were sold at home, but the 10% sold abroad amounted to a billion dollars. In The New Empire, Walter Lafeber wrote that “by 1893, American trade exceeded that of every other country in the world except England. Farm products, of course, especially in the key tobacco, cotton, and wheat areas, had long depended heavily on international markets for their prosperity.” Oil became a big export in the 1880s and ‘90s, and by 1891, the Rockefeller family’s Standard Oil Company accounted for 90% of American exports of kerosene and controlled 70% of the world market. Oil was now second to cotton as the leading product sent overseas.
By 1898 it was possible to create a national mood for intervention in Cuba, ostensibly to help the rebels who’d been fighting for independence from Spain for three years. Some feared that if the rebels won on their own, they’d close the door to commerce or create a multiracial government. As Winston Churchill, a young and eloquent imperialist, wrote, “Two-fifths of the insurgents are negroes, who would, in the event of success, demand a predominant share in the government, the result being another black republic.” The first black republic, of course, was Haiti, which had gained independence from France in 1803.
In February 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine, in Havana harbor as a symbol of American interest in Cuban events, exploded and sank with the loss of 268 men. No evidence was produced as to the cause of the explosion, but excitement grew, and McKinley began to move toward war. A “belligerent spirit” had infected the Navy Department, encouraged by contractors for projectiles, ordnance, ammunition, and other supplies, who’d “thronged the department” since the destruction of the Maine.
McKinley presented an ultimatum to Spain, demanding an armistice. Since he said nothing about independence for Cuba, a New York spokesman for the rebels interpreted this to mean that the U.S. wanted to replace Spain. He said an American intervention would be regarded as “a declaration of war against the Cuban revolutionists.” When McKinley asked Congress for war on April 11th, he didn’t recognize the rebels as belligerents or ask for Cuban independence. Nine days later, Congress gave him the power to intervene.
Many histories of the Spanish-American war have said that public opinion in the United States led McKinley to declare war on Spain and send forces to Cuba. True, certain newspapers had been pushing hard, even hysterically. And many Americans, seeing the aim of intervention as Cuban independence, supported the idea. “But,” says Zinn, “McKinley wouldn’t have moved without the support of the business community.” Several years after the war, the chief of the Bureau of Foreign Commerce at the Department of Commerce wrote that “the Spanish-American War was but an incident of general movement which had its roots in the changed environment of an industrial capacity far beyond our domestic powers of consumption. It was seen to be necessary for us not only to find foreign purchasers for our goods, but to provide the means of making access to foreign markets easy, economical, and safe.”
American labor unions had sympathy for the Cuban rebels, and opposed American expansionism. The monthly journal of the Association of Machinists agreed that the explosion of the Maine had been a terrible disaster, but noted that the deaths of workers in industrial accidents or strikes drew no such national clamor. Some unions, like the United Mine Workers, called for U.S. intervention after the sinking of the Maine, but most were against war. The treasurer of the American Longshoremen’s Union, Bolton Hall, wrote “A Peace Appeal to Labor” which was widely circulated: “If there is a war, you will furnish the corpses and the taxes, and others will get the glory. Speculators will make money out of it – that is, out of you. Men will get high prices for inferior supplies, and you will have to pay the bill, and the only satisfaction you will get is the privilege of hating your Spanish fellow-workmen, who are really your brothers and who have had as little to do with the wrongs of Cuba as you have.” Most Socialists opposed the war. The newspaper of the Socialist Labor Party called the issue of Cuban freedom “a pretext” and said the government wanted the war to “distract the attention of the workers from their real interests.”
After war was declared, however, the majority of the trade unions succumbed to war fever. The war brought more employment and higher wages, but also higher prices. Samuel Gompers, publicly for the war, pointed out that it had led to a 20% reduction in the purchasing power of workers’ wages.
On May Day, 1898, the Socialist Labor party organized an antiwar parade in New York City, but the authorities wouldn’t allow it to take place, while a May Day parade organized by the Daily Forward, urging Jewish workers to support the war, was permitted.
Of the more than 274,000 soldiers who served in the army during the war and the period of demobilization, 5,462 died. Only 379 of these deaths were battle casualties, the remainder being attributed to disease and other causes. One of these causes was the canned meat sold to the army. In May 1898, Armour and Company, the big meatpacking company of Chicago, sold the army 550,000 pounds of beef which had been sent to Liverpool a year earlier and been returned. Two months later, an army inspector tested the meat and found that 751 cases of it was rotten.
The Spanish forces were defeated in three months, in what John Hay, the American Secretary of State, later called a “splendid little war.” When they surrendered, no Cuban was present, no armed rebels were allowed to enter the capital city of Santiago, and the old Spanish civil authorities were put in charge of the city’s municipal offices.
Along with the American army came American capital – merchants, real estate agents, stock speculators, reckless adventurers, and promoters of all kinds of get-rich schemes flocked to Cuba by the thousands. Seven syndicates battled each other for control of the franchises for the Havana Street Railway. Americans took over railroads, mines, and sugar plantations, and in a few years $30 million of American capital had been invested. United Fruit moved into the Cuban sugar industry, buying 1,900,000 acres of land for 20 cents an acre. The American Tobacco Company arrived, too, and by the end of the occupation in 1901, 80% of the export of Cuba’s minerals was in American hands.
In September 1899, thousands of workers in Havana launched a general strike for an 8-hour day. General William Ludlow ordered the mayor to arrest 11 strike leaders, and U.S. troops occupied railroad stations and docks. Police moved through the city breaking up meetings. But economic activity had come to a halt, as tobacco workers, printers, and bakers struck, too. Hundreds of strikers were arrested, and some of the imprisoned leaders were intimidated into calling for an end to the strike.
The United States didn’t annex Cuba, but a Cuban constitutional convention was told that the army wouldn’t leave until the Pratt Amendment, passed by Congress in February 1901, was incorporated in the new constitution. This amendment gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuba and establish coaling and naval stations there. A torchlight procession of 15,000 Cubans marched on the convention, urging their representatives to reject the amendment. They did, but within the next three months the U.S. refusal to allow the Cubans to set up their own government until they acquiesced had its effect – the convention finally adopted the amendment, thereby giving up the independence the rebels had fought for.
The Spanish-American war led to the annexation of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, and Hawaii was annexed by joint resolution of Congress in July of 1898. McKinley told a group of ministers visiting the White House that he had received divine guidance regarding the Philippines: that Filipinos couldn’t be “left to themselves – they were unfit for self-government,” needing to be “educated, uplifted, civilized, and Christianized.”
The Filipinos didn’t get the same message. In February 1899, they rose in revolt against American rule. It took the U.S. three years to crush the rebellion, using 70,000 troops – four times as many as were landed in Cuba. It was a harsh war, often compared to the later Vietnam War. On January 9, 1900, Senator Albert Beveridge spoke for the dominant economic and political interests in the U.S., noting the Philippines’ many resources and closeness to China. He concluded his speech by saying: “It has been charged that our conduct of the war has been cruel. Senators, it has been the reverse. We must remember that we are not dealing with Americans or Europeans. We are dealing with Orientals.”
The Anti-Imperialist League, formed in 1898, carried on a long campaign to educate the American public about the horrors of the Philippine war and the evils of imperialism. It was an odd group, including anti-labor aristocrats, scholars, and working-class people – united in a common moral outrage. The League published the letters of American soldiers in the Philippines. A captain from Kansas wrote: “Caloocan was supposed to contain 17,000 inhabitants. The 20th Kansas swept through it, and now Caloocan contains not one living native.” A private from the same outfit said he had “with my own hand set fire to over 50 houses of Filipinos after the victory at Caloocan. Women and children were wounded by our fire.”
The campaign against the ratification of the treaty for the annexation of the Philippines – up for debate in Congress in early 1899 – was a powerful one, and when the Senate did ratify it, it was by one vote.
Four black regiments served in the Philippines, and many of the black soldiers established rapport with the brown-skinned natives and were angered by the term “nigger” used by white troops to describe them. A large number of black troops deserted, some of them joining the rebels. The most famous of these was David Fagen of the 24th Infantry, who became a successful guerrilla leader. His capture became an obsession to the U.S. military and American public, and a substantial reward was offered. According to Wikipedia, someone claimed the reward for killing Fagen; others say he lived to an old age in the mountains with his Filipina wife.
Chapter 13: The Socialist Challenge
Well-known writers of the early 20th century whose books criticized the capitalist system included Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris.
Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, published in 1906, brought conditions in the meatpacking plants of Chicago to the shocked attention of the country, stimulating demand for regulation. The Jungle also spoke of socialism, and how beautiful life might be if people worked cooperatively and shared the riches of the earth,
One of the influences on Upton Sinclair’s thinking was The People of the Abyss by Jack London, a member of the Socialist Party. London had come out of the slums of San Francisco, the child of an unwed mother. He’d been a newsboy, a cannery worker, a sailor, and a fisherman. He’d hoboed the railroads to the east coast, been clubbed by a policeman on the streets of New York, and arrested for vagrancy in Niagara Falls. He’d watched men beaten and tortured in jail, read the Communist Manifesto, preached socialism in the Alaskan gold camps, and become a world-famous writer of adventure books. In 1906, London wrote his novel The Iron Heel, with its warning of a fascist America and its ideal of a socialist brotherhood of man. He wrote, “In the face of the facts that modern man lives more wretchedly than the cave-man, and that his producing power is a thousand times greater than that of the cave-man, no other conclusion is possible than that the capitalist class has criminally and selfishly mismanaged. Let us not destroy those wonderful machines that produce efficiently and cheaply. Let us run them for ourselves. That, gentlemen, is socialism…”
“Muckrakers” contributed to the atmosphere of dissent, with some of the new mass-circulation magazines printing articles like Ida Tarbell’s exposé of the Standard Oil Company and Lincoln Steffens’s stories of corruption in major American cities.
In 1907, there was a panic and financial collapse. The biggest businesses weren’t hurt, but profits afterward weren’t as high as capitalists wanted, business wasn’t expanding as fast as it might, and industrialists began to look for ways to cut costs. One way was Taylorism – making workers interchangeable – a system well-fitted for the new auto industry. In New York City, new immigrants – including children – went to work in sweatshops, often with no day off. At the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in the winter of 1909, women organized and decided to strike. A mass meeting was called of workers in other shops, and Clara Lemlich, a teenager still bearing signs of a recent beating on the picket line, stood up, saying: “I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now!” The meeting went wild, and the women voted to strike. Thousands left the factories, walking toward Union Square. The union had hoped 3,000 would join the strike – 20,000 walked out. Every day a thousand new members joined the union, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The strike went on through the winter against police, scabs, arrests, and prison. In more than 300 shops, workers won their demands, and women became officials in the union.
Conditions didn’t change much, however, and on the afternoon of March 25, 1911, a fire that began in a rag bin at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company swept through the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors, too high for the fire ladders to reach. The law said the doors couldn’t be locked during working hours, but at the Triangle Company they usually were. Trapped, the young women burned to death at their worktables or jammed against the locked exit door. Some leaped to their deaths out the windows. 146 workers were burned or crushed to death. 100,000 marched in a memorial parade down Broadway.
There were more fires, accidents, and sickness. In 1904, 27,000 workers were killed on the job in manufacturing, transportation, and agriculture. In one year 50,000 accidents took place in New York factories alone. Hat and cap makers were getting respiratory diseases, quarrymen were inhaling deadly chemicals, and lithographic printers were getting arsenic poisoning. There was no compensation for death or injury from employers.
Shortly after the turn of the century, there were 2 million members of labor unions (one in 14 workers), 80% of them in the American Federation of Labor. The AFL was almost all male, almost all white, almost all skilled workers. Although the number of women workers doubled from 4 million in 1890 to 8 million in 1910, and women were one-fifth of the labor force, only one in a hundred belonged to a union.
Black workers made one-third the earnings of white workers, and were kept out of the union movement. The AFL, headed by Samuel Gompers, was based on the philosophy of “business unionism,” trying to match the monopoly of production by the employer with a monopoly of workers by the union. This won better conditions for some workers, but left most of them out. AFL officials drew large salaries, hobnobbed with employers, and moved in high society. They were protected from criticism by tightly controlled meetings and “goon” squads – hired toughs originally used to intimidate strikebreakers.
In June 1905, a convention of 200 socialists, anarchists, and radical trade unionists from all over the U.S. met in Chicago to form the Industrial Workers of the World. Big Bill Haywood, a leader of the Western Federation of Miners, opened the convention by saying: “Fellow workers, we are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class from the bondage of capitalism. The aims and objects of this organization shall be to put the working class in possession of the means of life, in control of the machinery of production and distribution, without regard to the capitalist masters.” On the speakers’ platform with Haywood were Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party, and Mother Mary Jones, a 75-year-old organizer for the United Mine Workers of America.
The IWW, or “Wobblies,” aimed at organizing all workers into “One Big Union,” undivided by sex, race, or skills. They argued against making contracts with employers, and spoke of “direct action” and “industrial democracy.” The Wobblies didn’t believe in initiating violence, but they fought back when attacked. In 1909 in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, they led a strike of 6,000 workers against an affiliate of the U.S. Steel Company, battled with state troopers (four strikers and three troopers were killed in one gun battle), and managed to keep picketing the factories until the strike was won.
But the IWW saw beyond strikes, which they believed were just preparation for the final general strike which would complete the expropriation of the employers. This form of anarcho-syndicalism, strong in Italy and France, was expressed by IWW organizer Joseph Ettor when he said, “If the workers of the world want to win, all they have to do is recognize their own solidarity. They have nothing to do but fold their arms and the world will stop. The workers are more powerful with their hands in their pockets than all the property of the capitalists.”
The IWW never had more than a hundred thousand members at one time or another, but their energy, persistence, and inspiration to others, and their ability to mobilize thousands made them an influence in the country far beyond their numbers. They traveled everywhere (many were unemployed or migrant workers), organizing, writing, and speaking.
They were attacked with all the weapons the system could put together: the newspapers, the courts, the police, the army, and mob violence. Local authorities passed laws to keep them from speaking, and the IWW defied them. In Missoula, Montana, a lumber and mining area, hundreds of Wobblies arrived by boxcar after one of their number had been prevented from speaking. They were arrested one after another until they clogged the jails and the courts, and finally forced the town to repeal its anti-speech ordinance. In 1909 in Spokane, Washington, an ordinance was passed to stop street meetings, and an IWW organizer who insisted on speaking was arrested. Thousands of Wobblies marched into the center of town to speak, getting arrested one by one until 600 were in jail. Jail conditions were brutal, and several men died in their cells, but the IWW won the right to speak. Similar campaigns were mounted in Fresno, California and Aberdeen, Washington in 1911.
Jack White, a Wobbly arrested in a free-speech fight in San Francisco in 1912, was sentenced to six months in the county jail on a diet of bread and water. When he was asked if he had anything to say to the court, he said: “The prosecuting attorney, in his plea to the jury, accused me of saying on a public platform at a public meeting, ‘To hell with the courts, we know what justice is.’ He told a great truth when he lied, for if he had searched the innermost recesses of my mind he could have found that thought, never expressed by me before, but which I express now: ‘To hell with your courts, I know what justice is,’ for I have sat in your courtroom day after day and seen members of my class pass before this, the so-called bar of justice. I have seen you, Judge Sloane, and others of your kind, send them to prison because they dared to infringe upon the sacred rights of property. You have become blind and deaf to the rights of man to pursue life and happiness, and you have crushed those rights so that the sacred right of property shall be preserved. Then you tell me to respect the law. I do not. I did violate the law, as I will violate every one of your laws and still come before you and say ‘To hell with the courts.’ The prosecutor lied, but I will accept his lie as a truth and say again so that you, Judge Sloane, may not be mistaken as to my attitude, ‘To hell with your courts, I know what justice is.'”
Five Wobblies were killed and 31 wounded in 1916 in Everett, Washington when a boatload of Wobblies was fired on by 200 armed vigilantes gathered by the sheriff. Two of the vigilantes were killed, and 19 wounded. The following year, vigilantes in Montana seized organizer Frank Little and tortured and hanged him from a railroad trestle.
In November 1915, Joe Hill, an IWW organizer, was accused of killing a grocer in a Salt Lake City robbery. When a jury found him guilty on little evidence, ten thousand letters were sent to the governor in protest, but with machine guns guarding the entrance to the prison, Hill was executed by a firing squad. Just before his death, he had written Bill Haywood: “Don’t waste time mourning. Organize.”
In 1912, the IWW became involved in a set of dramatic events in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where the American Woolen Company owned four mills. The work force consisted of immigrant families – Portuguese, French-Canadian, English, Irish, Russian, Italian, Syrian, Lithuanian, German, Polish, and Belgian – who lived in crowded, flammable wooden tenements. The average wage was $8.76 a week. A woman physician in Lawrence wrote: “A considerable number of the children die within the first two or three years after beginning work, and 36 out of every 100 of all the men and women who work in the mill die before they are 25 years of age.”
When pay envelopes distributed to Polish women weavers at one of the mills showed that their already low wages had been reduced, they stopped their looms and walked out. The next day, 5,000 workers at another mill quit work, marched to another mill, rushed the gates, shut off power to the looms, and called on workers to strike. Soon 10,000 workers were on strike. Less than a thousand of the millworkers belonged to the IWW, but a telegram was sent to Joseph Ettor, a 26-year-old Italian IWW leader in New York, asking that he come to Lawrence to help. A committee representing every nationality among the workers was set up to make decisions. The strikers organized mass meetings and parades and supplied food and fuel for 50,000 people. Trade unions, IWW locals, socialist groups, and individuals all over the country sent money to help.
The mayor called out the local militia, and the governor called out the state police. A parade of strikers was attacked by police a few weeks after the strike began, leading to rioting all day. In the evening, a striker, Anna LoPizzo, was shot and killed. Witnesses said a policeman did it, but the authorities arrested Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovanitti, another IWW organizer who had come to Lawrence, saying that they had incited the murderer. Bill Bill Haywood was called in to replace Ettor, and other IWW organizers, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, came as well. With 22 companies of militia and two troops of cavalry in the city, martial law was declared, and citizens were forbidden to talk on the street. 36 strikers were arrested and sentenced to a year in prison. On January 30th, a young Syrian striker, John Ramy, was bayoneted to death. But the strikers were still out, and the mills weren’t running.
In February, the strikers began mass picketing – seven to ten thousand pickets in an endless chain, marching through the mill districts wearing white armbands on which were written “Don’t be a scab.” But their food was running out and the children were hungry. It was proposed by the New York Call, a Socialist newspaper, that the children be sent to sympathetic families in other cities while the strike lasted, and in three days the Call got 400 letters offering to take them. The IWW and the Socialist party began to organize the children’s departure, arranging medical exams, and taking applications from foster families. On February 10th, over 100 children, aged four to fourteen, left Lawrence for New York City. They were greeted at Grand Central Station by 5,000 Italian Socialists singing the “Marseillaise” and the “Internationale.” The following week, another hundred children came to New York, and 35 were sent to Barre, Vermont. Then city officials in Lawrence, citing a statute on child neglect, said no more children would be permitted to leave. Despite the city edict, a group of 40 children assembled at the railroad station on February 24th to go to Philadelphia. Police threatened them and their parents with clubs, “beating right and left,” and dragged them to a military truck. A week after that, women returning from a meeting were surrounded by police and clubbed; one pregnant woman was carried unconscious to a hospital and gave birth to a dead child.
Still, the strikers held out. Finally, the American Woolen Company decided to give in. It offered raises of 5 to 11% (the strikers had insisted that the largest increases go to the lowest-paid), time and a quarter for overtime, and no discrimination against those who had struck. On March 14th, 10,000 strikers gathered on the Lawrence common and, with Bill Haywood presiding, voted to end the strike. Ettor and Giovannitti went on trial and were found not guilty, and that afternoon 10,000 people assembled in Lawrence to celebrate.
The IWW took its slogan “One Big Union” seriously. Women, foreigners, blacks, and the lowliest and most unskilled workers were included when a factory or mine was organized. When the Brotherhood of Timber Workers organized in Louisiana and invited Bill Haywood to speak to them in 1912, he expressed surprise that no Negroes were at the meeting. He was told that it was against the law to have interracial meetings in Louisiana. Haywood told the convention: “You work in the same mills together. Sometimes a black man and a white man chop down the same tree together. You are meeting now to discuss the conditions under which you labor. If calling Negroes into the convention is against the law, the law should be broken.” Negroes were invited into the convention, which then voted to affiliate with the IWW.
Strike struggles were multiplying at the turn of the century. In the 1890s there had been about a thousand strikes a year; by 1904 there were 4,000 strikes a year, and hundreds of thousands of Americans began to think of becoming socialists. Debs wrote in 1904, three years after the formation of the Socialist Party: “The ‘pure and simple’ trades union of the past does not answer the requirements of today. The attempt of each trade to maintain its own independence separately and apart from the others results in increasing jurisdictional entanglements, fruitful of dissension, strife, and ultimate disruption. The members of a trades union should be taught that the labor movement means infinitely more than a paltry increase in wages and the strike necessary to secure it; that while it engages to do all that possibly can be done to better the working conditions of its members, the higher object is to overthrow the capitalist system of private ownership of the tools of labor, abolish wage-slavery, and achieve the freedom of the whole working class and, in fact, of all mankind.”
As noted above, Eugene Debs had become a socialist while in jail during the Pullman strike. Now he was the spokesman of a party that made him its presidential candidate five times. At its height, the party had 100,000 members, and 1,200 office holders in 340 municipalities. Its main newspaper, Appeal to Reason, for which Debs wrote, had half a million subscribers, and there were many other socialist newspapers around the country, so that altogether perhaps a million people read the socialist press. Socialism had moved out of the small circles of city immigrants – German and Jewish socialists speaking their own languages – and become American. The strongest Socialist Party state organization was in Oklahoma, which in 1914 had 12,000 dues-paying members (more than New York state), and elected over 100 Socialists to local office, including six to the Oklahoma state legislature. There were 55 weekly socialist newspapers in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, and summer encampments that drew thousands of people.
James Green describes these southwestern radicals in his book Grassroots Socialism as “indebted homesteaders, migratory tenant farmers, coal miners, railroad workers, lumberjacks, preachers, schoolteachers, village artisans, and atheists…the unknown people who created the strongest regional socialist movement in United States history…The Socialist movement was painstakingly organized by scores of former Populists, militant miners, and blacklisted railroad workers, who were assisted by a remarkable cadre of professional agitators and educators and inspired by occasional visits from national figures like Eugene Debs and Mother Jones.”
As the Socialists became more successful at the polls (Debs got 90,000 votes in the election of 1912, double what he had in 1908), and more and more concerned with increasing that appeal, they became critical of IWW tactics of “sabotage” and “violence.” In 1913 they removed Bill Haywood from the Socialist Party Executive Committee, claiming he advocated violence, even though, according to Zinn, “some of Debs’s writings were far more inflammatory.”
There were Negroes in the Socialist Party, but the party didn’t go much out of its way to act on the race question, so blacks began to organize on their own. The National Afro-American Council formed in 1903 to protest against lynching, peonage, discrimination, and disenfranchisement, and the National Association of Colored Women, formed around the same time, condemned segregation and lynchings. W.E.B. DuBois, teaching in Atlanta, Georgia in 1905, sent out a letter to Negro leaders throughout the country, calling them to a conference just across the Canadian border from Buffalo, near Niagara Falls – the start of the “Niagara Movement.”
A race riot in Springfield, Illinois prompted the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1910. Whites dominated the leadership of the new organization; DuBois was its only black officer. He was also the first editor of the NAACP periodical The Crisis. The NAACP concentrated on legal action and education.
One thing Zinn doesn’t include in his history that James W. Loewen does in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995) is that “during the Wilson and Harding administrations, 100 race riots took place, more than in any other period since Reconstruction. Some, like the 1919 Chicago riot, are well-known. Others, like the 1921 riot in Tulsa, in which whites dropped dynamite from an airplane onto a black ghetto, killing more than 75 people and destroying more than 1,1000 homes, have completely vanished from our history books. Mass attacks by whites wiped out or terrorized black communities in the Florida Keys, in Springfield, Illinois, and in the Arkansas Delta, and were an implicit, ever-present threat to every black neighborhood in the nation.”
This period of American history is called the “Progressive Period” because of the regulatory laws that were passed. Under Theodore Roosevelt, there was the Meat Inspection Act, the Hepburn Act to regulate railroads and pipelines, and a Pure Food and Drug Act. Under Taft, the Mann-Elkins Act put telephone and telegraph systems under the regulation of the Interstate Commerce Commission. During Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, the Federal Trade Commission was introduced to control the growth of monopolies, and the Federal Reserve Act regulated the country’s money and banking system. The Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, allowing a graduated income tax, and the Seventeenth Amendment, providing for the election of senators by direct popular vote, were proposed under Taft. Also at this time, a number of states passed laws regulating wages and hours and providing for safety inspections at factories and compensation for injured workers. By 1920, 42 states had workmen’s compensation laws.
It was a time of public investigations aimed at soothing protest. Many historians agree that it was a time of powerful business interests agreeing with politicians that the system needed to be tweaked a bit to give it more middle-class support.
Theodore Roosevelt, a Progressive, made a reputation for himself as a “trust-buster,” though his “conservative” successor, Taft, actually launched more antitrust suits. By 1904, 318 trusts, with capital of more than $7 billion, controlled 40% of U.S. manufacturing. The panic of 1907, as well as the growing strength of the Socialists, the Wobblies, and the trade unions, speeded the process of reform.
During this period, cities also put through reforms, many of them giving power to city councils instead of mayors, or hiring city managers. The goals of more efficiency and stability resulted in more control of city government by the business class.
The Progressive movement, whether led by honest reformers like Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin or disguised conservatives like Roosevelt, seemed to understand it was fending off socialism. Still, the Socialist Party continued to grow. In 1910, Victor Berger became the first member of the party elected to Congress, and in 1911, 73 Socialist mayors were elected, along with 1,200 lesser officials in 340 cities and towns.
The IWW also continued to agitate. Shortly after Woodrow Wilson took office, one of the most bitter and violent struggles between workers and corporate capital in the history of the country began in Colorado – the Colorado coal strike beginning in September 1913 and culminating in the Ludlow Massacre of April 1914. Eleven thousand miners in southern Colorado, mostly Greeks, Italians, and Serbs, worked for the Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation, owned by the Rockefeller family. Aroused by the murder of one of their organizers, they went on strike against low pay, dangerous conditions, and the feudal domination of their lives in towns controlled by the mining companies.
When the strike began, the miners were evicted from their shacks. Aided by the United Mine Workers Union, they set up tents in the nearby hills and continued picketing, even though gunmen hired by the Rockefeller interests raided their encampments, using Gatling guns and rifles. The death list of miners grew, but they hung on, driving back an armored train in a gun battle and fighting to keep out strikebreakers. The Colorado governor called out the National Guard, with the Rockefellers supplying the Guard’s wages. The Guard brought strikebreakers in under cover of night, not telling them there was a strike. Guardsmen also beat miners, arrested them by the hundreds, and used their horses to ride down parades of women in the streets of Trinidad.
In April 1914, two National Guard companies were stationed in the hills overlooking the largest tent colony of strikers, the one at Ludlow, housing a thousand men, women, and children. On the morning of April 20th, a machine gun attack began on the tents. The miners fired back. Their leader, a Greek named Lou Tikas, was lured up into the hills to discuss a truce, and shot to death. The women and children dug pits beneath the tents to escape the gunfire. At dusk, the Guard moved down from the hills with torches, set fire to the tents, and the families fled into the hills. Thirteen people were killed by gunfire. The following day, a telephone linesman going through the ruins of the Ludlow tent colony lifted an iron cot covering a pit in one of the tents and found the charred, twisted bodies of 11 children and two women.
In Denver, the United Mine Workers issued a call to arms: “Gather together for defensive purposes all arms and ammunition legally available.” Three hundred armed strikers marched from other tent colonies into the Ludlow area, cut telephone and telegraph wires, and prepared for battle. Railroad workers refused to take soldiers from Trinidad to Ludlow. At Colorado Springs, 300 miners walked off their jobs and headed for Trinidad, carrying revolvers, rifles, and shotguns.
In Trinidad, miners attended a funeral service for the 26 dead at Ludlow, then walked to a nearby building, where arms were stacked for them. They picked up rifles and moved into the hills, exploding mine shafts and killing mine guards. In Denver, 82 soldiers on a troop train headed for Trinidad refused to go, declaring that they would not engage in the shooting of women and children. Five thousand people demonstrated in front of the state capital asking that the National Guard officers at Ludlow be tried for murder and denouncing the governor as an accessory. The Denver Cigar Makers Union voted to send 500 armed men to Ludlow and Trinidad, and women in the United Garment Workers Union announced that 400 of their members had volunteered as nurses to help the strikers. All over the country there were meetings and demonstrations. Pickets marched in front of the Rockefeller office in New York City.
The governor of Colorado asked for federal troops to restore order, and Woodrow Wilson complied. This accomplished, the strike petered out. The union hadn’t won recognition, 66 men, women, and children had been killed, and not one militiaman or mine guard had been indicted.
Chapter 14: “War Is the Health of the State” (Randolph Bourne during WWI)
Ten million died on the battlefield during World War I, and 20 million from hunger and disease related to the war. The rhetoric of the socialists, that it was an “imperialist war,” now seems moderate and hardly arguable. The advanced capitalist countries of Europe were fighting over boundaries, colonies, and spheres of influence, competing for territory in Alsace-Lorraine, the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East.
The killing was on a large scale from the beginning – in the first three months of the war, almost the entire original British army was wiped out. Then for three years the battle lines remained virtually stationary in France, while the corpses piled up. French, German, and British civilians weren’t informed of the extent of the casualties, but when the United States entered the war in the spring of 1917, mutinies were beginning to occur in the French army.
President Woodrow Wilson had promised that the United States would stay neutral, but in April 1917, the Germans announced that their submarines sink any ship bringing supplies to their enemies. Wilson said he had to defend the right of Americans to travel on merchant ships in the war zone. The United States had already shipped vast amounts of war materials to Germany’s enemies. In early 1915, the British liner Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine, killing 1,198 people, including 124 Americans. The U.S. claimed the Lusitania carried an innocent cargo, and that the torpedoing was a monstrous atrocity. Actually, the ship carried 1,248 cases of shells, 4,927 boxes of cartridges, and 2,000 more cases of small-arms ammunition. Her manifests were falsified to hide this fact, and the British and American governments lied about the cargo.
In 1914 a serious recession had begun in the United States, but by 1915, war orders for the Allies had stimulated the economy, and by April 1917 more than $2 billion worth of goods had been shipped overseas. The country’s leaders believed prosperity depended on foreign markets. In 1897, American private foreign investments amounted to $700 million, but by 1914 they’d increased to $3½ billion.
J.P. Morgan and Company acted as agents for the Allies. After Wilson lifted the ban on private bank loans to the Allies in 1915, Morgan could begin lending money in great amounts, tying American finance closely to the interests of a British victory.
When the United States entered the war, the rich took even more control of the economy. Financier Bernard Baruch headed the War Industries Board, the most powerful of the wartime government agencies, dominated by bankers, railroad men, and industrialists.
W.E.B. DuBois wrote an insightful article in the Atlantic Monthly in May 1915 in which he said, “The white workingman has been asked to share the spoil of exploiting ‘chinks and niggers.’” The average citizen of England, France, Germany, and the United States had a higher standard of living than before, he noted. But “whence comes this new wealth? It comes primarily from the darker nations of the world – Asia and Africa, South and Central America, the West Indies, and the islands of the South Seas.”
There is no persuasive evidence that the American public wanted war – the government had to work hard to create that consensus, using such strong measures as a draft of young men, an elaborate propaganda campaign throughout the country, and harsh punishment for dissenters. Despite Wilson’s rousing words – a war “to end all wars” and to “make the world safe for democracy,” Americans didn’t rush to enlist. A million men were needed, but in the first six weeks after the declaration of war only 73,000 volunteered. Congress voted overwhelmingly for a draft.
George Creel, a veteran newspaperman, became the government’s official propagandist for the war, setting up a Committee on Public Information to persuade Americans that going to war was the right thing to do. It sponsored 75,000 speakers, who gave 750,000 four-minute speeches in 5,000 American cities and towns – a massive effort to excite a reluctant public.
The day after Congress declared war, the Socialist Party met in emergency convention in St. Louis and called the declaration “a crime against the people of the United States.” In the summer of 1917, Socialist antiwar meetings in Minnesota drew large crowds – five thousand, ten thousand, twenty thousand farmers – protesting the war, the draft, and profiteering. Thousands assembled to hear Socialist speakers in places where ordinarily a few hundred was considered a large crowd. In the municipal elections of 1917, the Socialists made remarkable gains. Their candidate for mayor of New York City got 22% of the vote, five times the normal Socialist vote there, and ten Socialists were elected to the New York state legislature. In Chicago, the party vote went from 3.6% in 1915 to 34.7% in 1917.
George Creel and the government were behind the formation of the American Alliance for Labor and Democracy, whose president was Samuel Gompers and whose aim was to “unify sentiment in the nation” for the war. There were branches in 164 cities, and many labor leaders cooperated with it, though rank-and-file support for the war remained lukewarm. In June 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which contained a clause providing penalties of up to 20 years in prison for “whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the U.S.”
Two months after the law was passed, a Socialist named Charles Schenk was arrested in Philadelphia for printing and distributing 15,000 leaflets that denounced the draft law and the war and declared that the Conscription Act violated the “involuntary servitude” provision of the Thirteenth Amendment. When Schenk was found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail for violating the Espionage Act, he appealed, arguing that the act violated the First Amendment. The unanimous Supreme Court decision was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said Schenk’s leaflet was intended to “obstruct” the carrying out of the draft law. Holmes said “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” Zechariah Chafee, a Harvard law school professor wrote later in Free Speech in the United States that a more apt analogy for Schenk was someone declaring that a theater didn’t have enough fire exits, or – even better – someone shouting, not falsely, but truly, to people about to buy tickets and enter a theater, that there was a fire raging inside. Zinn agrees, asking “Wasn’t the war itself a “clear and present danger,” indeed more clear and more dangerous to life than any argument against it?” Didn’t citizens have a right to object to dangerous policies, including war?
In June 1918, Eugene Debs visited three Socialists who were in prison for opposing the draft, and then spoke, across the street from the jail, to an audience he kept enthralled for two hours. He said, “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.” Debs was arrested for violating the Espionage Act, because there were draft-age youths in his audience. He refused to take the stand at his trial, call a witness in his defense, or deny what he had said. Before the jury began its deliberations, he told them: “I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. I abhor war. I would oppose war if I stood alone. I have sympathy with suffering, struggling people everywhere. It doesn’t make any difference under what flag they were born, or where they live.” The jury found him guilty, and Debs addressed the judge before sentencing: “Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” The judge denounced those “who would strike the sword from the hand of this nation while she is engaged in defending herself against a foreign and brutal power.” He sentenced Debs to ten years in prison.
Debs’s appeal wasn’t heard by the Supreme Court until 1919, after the war was over. Oliver Wendell Holmes, for a unanimous court, affirmed Debs’s guilt. Debs was locked up in the West Virginia state penitentiary, and then in the Atlanta federal penitentiary, where he spent 32 months until in 1921, at the age of 66, he was released by President Harding.
Nine hundred people went to prison under the Espionage Act. Opposition went underground, while the visible national mood was represented by military bands, flag waving, the mass buying of war bonds, and acquiescence to the draft and the war.
Intimidation helped. In the summer of 1917, the New York Herald reported: “More than 100 men enrolled yesterday in the American Vigilante Patrol at the offices of the American Defense Society. The Patrol was formed to put an end to seditious street oratory.” The Department of Justice also sponsored an American Protective League, which by June 1917 had units in 600 cities and towns, and a membership of nearly 100,000. Violating the privacy of the mails and people’s homes and offices, the League claimed to have found 3 million cases of disloyalty.
The states also organized vigilante groups. The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety, set up by state law, closed saloons and movie theaters, scrutinized land owned by aliens, boosted Liberty bonds, and tested people for loyalty. The Minneapolis Journal carried an appeal by the Commission “for all patriots to join in the suppression of anti-draft and seditious acts and sentiment.”
The national press cooperated with the government. In the summer of 1917, a New York Times editorial said, “It’s the duty of every citizen to communicate to the proper authorities any evidence of sedition that comes to his notice.” The Literary Digest asked its readers “to clip and send to us any editorial utterances they encounter which seem to them seditious or treasonable.” Creel’s Committee on Public Information advertised that people should “report the man who spreads pessimistic stories to the Department of Justice.”
Why these huge efforts? On August 1, 1917, the New York Herald reported that 90 of the first 100 draftees in the city had claimed exemption. In Minnesota, headlines in the Minneapolis Journal of August 6th and 7th read: “DRAFT OPPOSITION FAST SPREADING IN STATE,” and “CONSCRIPTS GIVE FALSE ADDRESSES.” Senator Thomas Hardwick of Georgia said “there was undoubtedly general and widespread opposition on the part of many thousands to the enactment of the draft law. Numerous and largely attended mass meetings held in every part of the state protested against it.” Ultimately, over 330,000 men were classified as draft evaders.
In Oklahoma, the Socialist party and the IWW had been active among tenant farmers and sharecroppers who formed a “Working Class Union.” At a mass meeting of the Union, plans were made to destroy a railroad bridge and cut telegraph wires in order to block military enlistments. A march on Washington was planned for draft objectors. But before the Union could carry out its plans, its members were rounded up and arrested, and soon 450 individuals accused of rebellion were in the state penitentiary. Leaders were given three to ten years in jail, others 60 days to two years.
On July 1, 1917, radicals organized a parade in Boston against the war with banners reading “If this is a popular war, why conscription?” and “We demand peace.” The New York Call said 8,000 people marched. The parade was attacked by soldiers and sailors, on orders from their officers.
The Post Office began taking away the mailing privileges of newspapers and magazines that printed antiwar articles. In Los Angeles, a film called The Spirit of ‘76 was shown that showed the British committing atrocities against American colonists during the American Revolution. The man who made the film was prosecuted under the Espionage Act and sentenced to ten years in prison, because, the judge said, the film “questioned the good faith of our ally, Great Britain.”
In a small town in South Dakota, a farmer and socialist named Fred Fairchild, during an argument about the war, said, according to his accusers: “If I were of conscription age and had no dependents and were drafted, I would refuse to serve. They could shoot me, but they couldn’t make me fight.” He was tried under the Espionage Act and sentenced to a year and a day at Leavenworth penitentiary. And so it went, multiplied 2,000 times (the number of prosecutions under the Espionage Act).
About 65,000 men declared themselves conscientious objectors and asked for noncombatant service. At the army bases where they worked, they were often treated with what Zinn calls “sadistic brutality.”
In Congress, a few voices spoke out against the war. The first woman in the House of Representatives, Jeannette Rankin, didn’t respond when her name was called in the roll call on the declaration of war. One of the veteran politicians of the House, a supporter of the war, went up to her and whispered, “Little woman, you cannot afford not to vote. You represent the womanhood of the country.” On the next roll call she stood up, and said, “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote No.”
Emma Goldman and her fellow anarchist Alexander Berkman, who had served time in prison on other charges, were sentenced to prison again for opposing the draft. Goodman said to the jury, “As poor as we are in democracy, how can we give of it to the world?”
The war gave the government an opportunity to destroy the IWW. The IWW newspaper, the Industrial Worker, just before the declaration of war, wrote, “Capitalists of America, we will fight against you, not for you! There isn’t a power in the world that can make the working class fight if they refuse.” Philip Foner, in his history of the IWW, says that the Wobblies weren’t as active against the war as the Socialists, perhaps because they saw the war as inevitable – they believed that only victory in class struggle, revolutionary change, could end war. Still, this was the issue that allowed the government to destroy the Wobbly movement.
In early September 1917, Department of Justice agents made simultaneous raids on 48 IWW meeting halls across the country, seizing correspondence and literature that would become courtroom evidence. Later that month, 165 IWW leaders were arrested for conspiracy to hinder the draft, encourage desertion, and intimidate others in connection with labor disputes. One hundred and one went on trial in April 1918. The trial went on for five months, becoming the longest criminal trial in American history up to that time. The jury found all of the accused guilty. The judge sentenced Bill Haywood and fourteen others to 20 years in prison; 33 were given ten years, and the rest shorter sentences. They were fined a total of $2,500,000. The IWW was shattered. Haywood jumped bail and fled to revolutionary Russia, where he remained until his death 10 years later.
According to Wikipedia, Haywood became a labor advisor to Lenin’s Bolshevik government, but lost this role in 1923 when Stalin rose to power. Visitors to his small Moscow apartment in later years said he was lonely and depressed, and expressed a desire to return to the United States. Haywood died in a Moscow hospital from a stroke brought on by alcoholism and diabetes. Half of his ashes were buried in the Kremlin wall; an urn containing the other half of his ashes was sent to Chicago and buried near the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument.
The war ended in November 1918. Fifty thousand American soldiers had died, and it didn’t take long for bitterness and disillusionment to spread through the country, feelings reflected in postwar novels by John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Dalton Trumbo, and Ford Madox Ford.
In the summer of 1919, a bomb exploded in front of the home of Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer. Six months later, Palmer carried out the first of his mass raids on aliens. A law passed by Congress near the end of the war provided for the deportation of aliens who opposed organized government or advocated the destruction of property. On December 21, 1919, Palmer’s men picked up 249 aliens of Russian birth, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, and deported them to Russia.
In January 1920, 4,000 people were rounded up all over the country, held in seclusion for long periods of time, brought into secret hearings, and ordered deported. A troubled federal judge in Boston, where 600 were arrested by Department of Justice agents and local police in the early hours of the morning, wrote that “the arrested aliens, in most instances perfectly quiet and harmless working people, many of them not long ago Russian peasants, were handcuffed in pairs, and then, for the purposes of transfer on trains and through the streets of Boston, chained together.”
In the spring of 1920, a typesetter and anarchist named Andrea Salsedo was arrested in New York City by FBI agents and held incommunicado for 8 weeks in the FBI offices on the 14th floor of the Park Row Building. When his crushed body was found on the pavement below the building, the FBI said he’d committed suicide by jumping from the 14th floor window.
Two friends of Salsedo, anarchists and workingmen in the Boston area, began carrying guns after hearing of his death. They were arrested on a streetcar in Brockton, Massachusetts, and charged with a holdup and murder that had taken place two weeks before at a shoe factory. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti went on trial, were found guilty, and spent seven years in jail while appeals went on, and while people all over the country and the world became involved in their case. In August 1927, as police broke up marches and picket lines with arrests and beatings, and troops surrounded the prison, they were electrocuted.
The lyrics to Charlie King’s “Two Good Arms” tell the story: “Who will remember the hand upon the switch, that took the lives of two good men in the service of the rich? Who will remember the one who gave the nod, or the chaplain standing near at hand, to invoke the name of God?” I first heard the song, sung movingly by Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert on the CD “Lifeline.” The chorus goes: “All who know these two good arms know I never had to rob or kill. I can live by my own two hands, and live well. And all my life I have struggled to rid the earth of all such crimes.” The last verse is: “We will remember this good shoemaker; we will remember this poor fish peddler. We will remember all the strong arms and hands that never once found justice in the hands that rule this land.” And the last chorus: “And all who knew these two good men knew they never had to rob or kill. Each had lived by his own two hands, and lived well. And all their lives they had struggled to rid the earth of all such crimes. And all our lives we must struggle to rid the earth of all such crimes.”
Chapter 15: Self-help in Hard Times
In February 1919, with the IWW leadership in jail, the idea of a general strike became a reality for five days in Seattle, Washington, when a walkout of 100,000 working people brought the city to a halt. It began with 35,000 shipyard workers striking for a wage increase. They appealed for support to the Seattle Central Labor Council, which recommended a city-wide strike, and in two weeks 110 locals voted to strike. Sixty thousand union members joined the strike, and 40,000 other workers joined in sympathy.
The city stopped functioning, except for activities organized by the strikers to provide essential needs. Firemen agreed to stay on the job, laundry workers handled hospital laundry, and vehicles authorized to move carried strike signs. Every day 30,000 meals were prepared in large kitchens and transported to halls all over the city. A Labor War Veteran’s Guard was organized to keep the peace – not with weapons, but by persuasion. Crime decreased.
The mayor swore in 2,400 special deputies, many of them students at the University of Washington, and almost 1,000 sailors and marines were brought into the city by the federal government. The general strike ended after five days because of pressure from the international officers of the various unions, as well as the difficulties of living in a shut-down city. The strike had been peaceful, but when it was over, there were raids and arrests, and 39 members of the IWW were jailed as “ring-leaders of anarchy.”
In Centralia, Washington, where the IWW had been organizing lumber workers, the lumber interests made plans to get rid of it. On November 11, 1919, Armistice Day, the Legion paraded through town with rubber hoses and gas pipes, and the IWW prepared for an attack. When the Legion passed the IWW hall, shots were fired by someone. The Legion stormed the hall, there was more firing, and three Legion men were killed.
Wesley Everest, a lumberjack and IWW member serving in the army, was one of the shooters. He emptied his pistol into the crowd and ran for the woods, followed by a mob. He shot one of his pursuers. The mob dragged him back to town and locked him in jail. That night, he was dragged out, taken to a bridge, and hanged. No one was ever arrested for Everest’s murder, but 11 Wobblies were put on trial for killing an American Legion leader, and six of them spent 10 to 16 years in prison.
Though there were many strikes in 1919, when the twenties began the country seemed to be under control. The IWW was destroyed, and the Socialist party falling apart. The strikes were beaten down by force, and the economy was doing just well enough for just enough people to prevent mass rebellion.
During the ’20s, Congress put an end to the flood of immigrants (14 million between 1900 and 1920) by passing laws setting immigration quotas that favored Anglo-Saxons, kept out black and yellow people, and severely limited numbers of Latins, Slavs, and Jews. No African country could send more than 100 people; 100 was also the limit for China, Bulgaria, and Palestine. 34,007 could come from England or Northern Ireland, 28,667 from the Irish Free State, and 51,227 from Germany, but only 3,845 from Italy, 124 from Lithuania, and 2,248 from Russia.
A revived Ku Klux Klan spread into the North, with 4½ million members by 1924.
Unemployment was down, from 4,270,000 in 1921 to a little over 2 million in 1927, and the general level of wages for workers rose. Some farmers made a lot of money. The 40% of all families who made over $2,000 a year could buy new cars, radios, and refrigerators. But 6 million families (42% of the total) made less than $1,000 a year, and every year 25,000 workers were killed on the job and 100,000 permanently disabled.
Women won the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, but, like men, voted along class lines.
With the Socialist Party weakened, a Communist party was organized, and Communists became involved in union organizing, especially in the South, to which mill owners had fled to escape unions.
After the stock market crash of 1929, 5,000 banks and huge numbers of businesses closed. Those that continued laid off employees and cut the wages of those who remained again and again. Industrial production fell by 50%, and by 1933, 15 million – one-fourth or one-third of the labor force – were out of work. The Ford Motor Company, which in the spring of 1929 had employed 128,000 workers, was down to 37,000 by August of 1931. By the end of 1930, almost half the 280,000 textile mill workers in New England were out of work. Thousands of small farmers in the Midwest were put off their land.
Yip Harburg, a songwriter, wrote “Brother Can You Spare a Dime”: “Once in khaki suits,/Gee, we looked swell,/Full of that Yankee Doodle-de-dum./Half a million boots went sloggin’ through Hell,/I was the kid with the drum./Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al – /It was Al all the time./Say, don’t you remember I’m your pal – /Brother, can you spare a dime?”
The anger of the veteran of the First World War, now without work, his family hungry, led to the march of the Bonus Army to Washington in the spring and summer of 1932. War veterans, holding government bonus certificates due years in the future, demanded that Congress pay off on them now, when the money was desperately needed. They began to move to Washington from all over the country, some with their wives and children. More than 20,000 came in broken-down old cars, hopping freight trains, or via hitchhiking. Most camped across the Potomac River from the Capitol on Anacostia Flats. The bill to pay off the bonus passed in the House, but was defeated in the Senate, and some veterans left. Most stayed, and President Hoover ordered the army to evict them.
Four troops of cavalry, four companies of infantry, a machine gun squadron, and six tanks assembled near the White House under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. Major Dwight Eisenhower was MacArthur’s aide, and George S. Patton another officer. MacArthur led his troops down Pennsylvania Avenue, used tear gas to clear the veterans out of the old buildings, and set them on fire. Then the army moved across the bridge to Anacostia, thousands of veterans and their wives and children running as the tear gas spread. The soldiers set fire to some of the huts and soon the whole encampment was ablaze. When it was over, two veterans had been shot to death, an eleven-week-old baby had died, an eight-year-old boy was partially blinded by gas, two policemen had fractured skulls, and a thousand veterans were injured by gas.
In the presidential election of November 1932, Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt overwhelmingly defeated the Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover. He took office in the spring of 1933, and began a program of reform legislation. The National Recovery Act (NRA) was designed to take control of the economy through a series of codes agreed on by management, labor, and the government, fixing prices and wages, and limiting competition. “From the first,” Zinn says, “the NRA was dominated by big businesses and served their interests…Where organized labor was strong, Roosevelt made some concessions to working people, but where it was weak he allowed industrial spokesmen to control the NRA codes.” The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), also passed in the first months of the new administration, was an attempt to organize agriculture that favored the larger farmers as the NRA favored big business.
When Roosevelt took office, desperate people weren’t waiting for the government to help them – they were taking direct action to help themselves. All over the country, people organized spontaneously to stop evictions. In New York, Chicago, and other cities, when word spread that someone was being evicted, a crowd would gather; the police would remove the furniture from the house, put it out in the street, and the crowd would bring it back. The Communist Party also organized Workers Alliance groups in the cities that helped reconnect the home’s gas and water. In Seattle, members of the fishermen’s union exchanged fish with people who cut wood or picked fruits and vegetables. There were 22 locals, each with a commissary where food and firewood were exchanged for other goods and services.
Perhaps the most remarkable example of self-help took place in the coal district of Pennsylvania, where teams of unemployed miners dug small mines on company property, mined coal, trucked it to cities, and sold it below the commercial rate. By 1934, 5 million tons of this “bootleg” coal had been produced by 20,000 men using 4,000 vehicles.
Marxist writer Paul Mattick believes these kinds of actions – ordinary people taking necessities without regard to property “rights” and producing for themselves – have revolutionary possibilities if done on a broad scale. “The bootleg miners,” he says, “showed that the much bewailed absence of socialist ideology on the part of the workers doesn’t prevent them from acting anti-capitalistically, in accordance with their needs. The miners’ action is at the same time a manifestation of the most important part of class consciousness – that the problems of the workers can be solved only by themselves.”
A million and a half workers in different industries went on strike in 1934, starting in the spring and summer when West coast longshoremen protesting the shape-up (an early morning “slave market” where work gangs were chosen for the day) tied up trade with the cooperation of teamsters and maritime workers. When the police moved in to open the piers, the strikers resisted en masse, and two were killed by police gunfire. A mass funeral procession for the strikers brought together tens of thousands of supporters, followed by a general strike in San Francisco that immobilized the city. Five hundred special police were sworn in and 4,500 National Guardsmen assembled, with infantry, machine gun, tank, and artillery units. The AFL also pushed to end the strike, and the longshoremen accepted a compromise settlement.
Also that summer, a teamster strike in Minneapolis was supported by other working people, and soon nothing was moving in the city but milk, ice, and coal trucks given exemptions by the strikers. Farmers drove their products into town and sold them directly. When the police attacked and two people were killed, 50,000 people attended their funeral. There was an enormous protest meeting and a march on City Hall. After a month, the employers gave in to the teamsters’ demands.
The largest strike of all – 325,000 textile workers in the South – came that fall. As in the other cases, the impetus came from the rank and file pushing a reluctant union leadership. Again, the machinery of the state was set in motion, with deputies and armed strikebreakers firing on pickets, killing seven and wounding 20 in South Carolina. The strike spread to New England, as 2,500 textile workers rioted in Lowell, Massachusetts. In Saylesville, Rhode Island, a crowd of 5,000 defied state troopers armed with machine guns and shut down a textile mill. A mill was also closed in Woonsocket, Rhode Island by 2,000 people, angry because someone had been shot and killed by the National Guard. On September 18th, with 421,000 textile workers on strike throughout the country, mass arrests, organizers being beaten, and thirteen dead, Roosevelt set up a board of mediation and the union called off the strike.
Communists stimulated labor organizing among poor southern tenant farmers and black laborers. The Southern Tenant Farmers Union started in Arkansas, with black and white sharecroppers, and spread to other areas. The AAA wasn’t helping the poorest farmers; in fact, by encouraging farmers to plant less, it forced tenants and sharecroppers off the land. By 1935, 2,800,000 farmers out of 6,800,000 were tenants, and the average income of a sharecropper was $312 a year. Migrant farm laborers earned even less. Many black farmers, the worst off, joined the Sharecroppers Union.
In 1934 and 1935, hundreds of thousands of workers, left out of the AFL, began organizing in the auto, rubber, and packinghouse industries. A new tactic – the sit-down strike, in which the strikers stayed in the plant instead of walking out – began among rubber workers in Akron, Ohio in the early thirties. The idea spread, and in December 1936 the longest sit-down strike of all began at Fisher Body plant #1 in Flint, Michigan. It lasted until February 1937. A restaurant owner across the street prepared three meals a day for 2,000 strikers, and there were classes in parliamentary procedure, public speaking, journalism, creative writing, and the history of the labor movement. By the time the governor called out the National Guard, the strike had spread to other General Motors plants. Finally, there was a settlement, a six-month contract that left many questions unsettled but recognized the union as a bargaining unit.
In 1936 there were 48 sit-down strikes. In 1937 there were 477: electrical workers in St. Louis; shirt workers in Pulaski, Tennessee; broom makers in Pueblo, Colorado; trash collectors in Bridgeport, Connecticut; gravediggers in New Jersey; and even 30 members of a National Guard Company who had served against the Fisher Body sit-down, and now sat down themselves because they hadn’t been paid. The sit-downs were especially dangerous to the system, because they weren’t controlled by the regular union leadership.
In Poor People’s Movements, Richard Cloward and Frances Piven show that labor won more during these years of spontaneous uprisings than later after the unions were recognized and well organized.
Union membership rose dramatically during the 1940s – the AFL/CIO had over 6 million members by 1945 – but gains kept getting whittled down. The government National Labor Relations Board was unsympathetic to labor, the Supreme Court declared sit-downs illegal, and state governments passed laws to hamper strikes, picketing, and boycotts. The coming of World War II also weakened the old labor militancy of the ‘30s, because the war economy created millions of new jobs at higher wages.
The New Deal had only reduced unemployment from 13 million to 9 million – it was the war that put almost everyone to work, and patriotism – the push for unity against overseas enemies – made it harder to mobilize anger against the corporations. During the war, the AFL/CIO pledged to call no strikes. With wages being controlled better than prices, however, workers engage in many wildcat strikes, and there were more strikes in 1944 than in any previous year in American history.
The minimum wage of 1938, which established the 40-hour week and outlawed child labor, left many people out of its provisions and set a very low rate (25 cents an hour the first year), but it was enough to dull the edge of resentment. The Social Security Act gave retirement benefits and unemployment insurance and matched state funds for mothers and dependent children, but excluded farmers, domestic workers, and old people, and there was no health insurance. “Capitalism remained intact – the wasteful, inequitable system concerned with profit for a few rather than the human needs of the many that had brought the Depression in the first place.” (Zinn)
Most blacks were ignored by New Deal programs. Careful not to offend the southern white politicians whose support he needed, Roosevelt didn’t push a bill against lynching, and segregation continued in the armed forces. Black workers were the last hired and first fired. When A. Philip Randolph, head of the Sleeping-Car Porters Union, threatened a massive march on Washington in 1941, Roosevelt agreed to sign an executive order establishing a Fair Employment Practices Commission, but it had no enforcement powers and changed little.