A Modest History of American Labor

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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I grew up in a union household. And truth be told, the benefits of the Steel Workers Union saw me through childhood, high school, and college, making possible my life’s work as an educator. With a combination of post-war prosperity, cheap hydro power from the Columbia River, and full industrial production at Kaiser Aluminum, my ambitions became possible.

Of course, at the time, I didn’t grasp the real cost paid by earlier generations for my opportunities. That is until I earned my degree in American History and began teaching. What I found in lesson preparation was a grim drama of determined people facing intimidation and violence. Eventually their valor made possible the emergence of America as a global economic power.

Labor strikes in the 19th Century were especially violent, frequently bathed in bloodshed, betrayal and cruelty. Functioning under the doctrine of “The Gospel of Wealth,” industrialists viewed workers as nothing more than a minor component in mass production. Government at all levels reliably sided with owners to quash any attempts labor made to realize better conditions.

Andrew Carnegie in particular detested unions, and to curb organizing dispersed immigrant workers of different tongues aside one another on the production lines. Language barriers minimized the threat of unionizing.

Another handy device, the Injunction, permitted state governors to legally use State or Federal troops in crushing workers efforts. A governor could claim interstate commerce was impeded, meaning rail carriers couldn’t get mail or goods transported. Once troops were deployed, guns blazing, strikers stood no chance.

One memorable use of the injunction concerned the Pullman Strike of 1894. Employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company endured lives dominated by the company’s powerful owner, George Pullman.

Workers lived in the company town of Pullman, Illinois. All utilities, rents, and other fees were set by the the powerful industrialist, George Pullman himself. Following the onset of the Panic of 1893, Mr. Pullman cut hourly wages, but held the line on municipal fees. Supported by the American Railway Union, (the ARU) workers voted to strike, demanding fairness during the economic downturn.

Strike leaders knew that they must, at all costs, avoid a federal injunction. To bypass any possibility of inviting trouble, the strikers took care that trains continued to move through the state. Rail workers aiding the Pullman strikers detached Pullman Cars, parked them on side tracks, and reconnected the trains.

George Pullman was not amused.

Soon enough the U.S. Attorney General issued the inevitable injunction, permitting federal troops to enter the fray. Some thirty strikers died at the hands of troopers, with many more wounded.

The Pullman Strike ended in government-sponsored violence, but this time the heavy-handed tactics used by Pullman left the general public uneasy. For a country that touted liberty and freedom, the authoritarian power flexed by the industrialist felt rather un-American.

Other labor disputes followed the same pattern; The Haymarket Riot in 1886, the Homestead Strike of 1892, all broken up by militias, soldiers, the police, or hired guns. In 1914 the Ludlow Massacre witnessed the Colorado militia using machine guns to mow down striking miners, women, and children.

Today unions remain controversial. However the role labor has played in America’s development is essential to remember. Labor Unions, in partnership with Capital, built the American middle class, and in return the middle class made the prosperity of this nation possible.

Have a thoughtful Labor Day

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle.

1924

 

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The runaway stole from the house while the father slept. He had a long walk to the train station, praying the old man wouldn’t bother to track him. Reaching town about daylight, Mont pulled open a peeling wood door, while his eyes scanned the depot. An empty waiting room greeted him, save one boy sitting low on a far bench. Mont stared closer and recognized him as a friend from school.
“Marshall” he gasped, smiling as he approached his friend. The schoolmate startled at the sound of his name, and Mont understood.
“Sorry Marsh, I’m worried about being dragged back too.”
“Hey, Mont. Where you off to?” he asked warily.
“Going to sea, Marsh, going east” was his response.
Marshall replied, “I’m going the other way, headed west, get hired by a coal company in Jenkinjones, West Virginia. I’m gonna make some real money.”
Sitting down next to his pal, Mont suddenly began to rethink his own plans. “West, Marsh?” The lure of the sea tugged hard, but having a friend along, not going it alone felt more comforting. “Jenkinjones, huh? Never heard of the place.” The two boys sat silently, cautiously glancing at the station door each time it opened. “Think they might hire me?” Mont finally asked. His friend smiled in response. And the two boys bought tickets for a west bound train headed toward the distant mountains. Destination: the Pocahontas Fuel Company.
Stepping onto the rail platform Mont and his companion silently and soberly blinked at the foreign landscape. The sky appeared decidedly grey, dead. All the erstwhile green foliage sealed in powdery black. Deep gouging and scarring disrupted the terrain. Marshall hailed a defeated looking passerby asking for directions to the coal company office. Without a word in reply the dilapidated man simply gestured up a hill to a large grey wooden building crisscrossed with weathered wooden stairs.
“Sure they’ll take us on?” Mont, with a sudden case of nerves wondered.
“I, I think so. Back home some older fellas said these companies want kids. We can work in spaces grown men can’t reach,” his high voice trembled as well, exposing his fear.

Mont promptly found that the reports were all too true. Not only were boys’ ideal workers, they proved much easier to bully and underpay. On his first day deep in a tunnel of darkness Mont faced his first test.

Standing on a narrow crevice, a veteran miner worked busting up coke with his pick ax. “Webster, hey, over here!” hollered the foreman from the inky dark. As the miner twisted around, the butt of the handle struck Mont hard behind his left temple. The boy’s head exploded in pain as Webster raged profanities in his throbbing ear. Kneeling in the dark, huffing sooty air the boy questioned why he had come to this place. His ear bled for days after.

Mont’s body ached, his fingers bled, painfully stiff and blistered–his knuckles grated raw. Black caked around each nostril, his facial pores embedded with coal dust. Digging around his small suitcase late one night, Mont caught his reflection in the bag’s tiny mirror. “Oh!” he gasped at his reflection, “I look like the rest of them!” In the morning, frightened and distraught, the boy hunted down his only friend. “I don’t like this place. Marsh, they look right through us. The company doesn’t care who comes out or vanishes in those shafts.” Tears sprouted suddenly in his friend’s eyes, Marshall’s wordless answer.

The company used every means to undermine demanding, tiresome union labor. The boy couldn’t help but hear men in the tunnels grumble about the strong arm tactics management used. Pocahontas hired informers, framed labor leaders and evaded safety improvements. Another strategy was importing cheap immigrant workers. The desperate from Europe toiled for less and accepted the dangers without complaint.

“Damn scabs” muttered a burly old timer. “Bosses trying to undo us . . . bring in Dagos, Pollock’s and other riff raff getting our jobs.” “They’re dumb, too” groused another grimy worker. “You tell ‘em something and they just stare.” The boy listened, sympathizing with the outrage, despite how much he hated the coal mines.

Mont studied one new miner, an import from Poland as he made his way into the blackness. Only in the country a couple of weeks, the foreigner headed into the tunnel carrying a short steel girder over his shoulder to use as structure support deeper in. Overhead, a raw electric wire was strung the length of the tunnel that powered coal carts carrying coke to the surface. The Virginia teen watched with interest as that girder just kissed the unprotected power line, knocking the hapless victim flat onto his backside. Mont quietly chuckled, he couldn’t stop himself. Then all the humor vanished, all the bigotry evaporated when the immigrant, attempting to regain some dignity, stood and brandishing the steel beam, deliberately attacked the line and instantly electrocuted himself. Miners rushed from all directions and crowded around the dead man, mouth slack and eyes glazed, sightless.

In a moment of clarity Mont understood that there were worse places to live than in Pulaski and made up his mind to go back to Virginia.

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