The Battle of Lawrence, 1912: Lessons for Today by Chris Mahin

The Battle of Lawrence, 1912:

Textile workers’ victory contains lessons for today

BY CHRIS MAHIN

“We want bread – and roses!”

“Bayonets cannot weave cloth!”

“Better to starve fighting than to starve working!”

More than a century ago, thousands of men, women, and children shouted those slogans – in many different languages – in the bitter cold of a Massachusetts winter.

On January 12, 1912, thousands of workers walked out of the textile mills of Lawrence, HT_020_004_min_wage_hb_160411_4x3_992Massachusetts and began a strike which lasted until March 24, 1912. At its height, the strike involved 23,000 workers.

Located in the Merrimack River Valley, about 30 miles north of Boston, Lawrence was a city of 86,000 people in 1912, and a great textile center. It outranked all other cities in the production of woolen and worsted goods. The woolen and cotton mills of the city employed over 40,000 workers – about one-half of Lawrence’s population over the age of 14.

Most of the Lawrence textile workers were unskilled. Within a one-mile radius of the mill district, there lived 25 different nationalities, speaking 50 languages. By 1912, Italians, Poles, Russians, Syrians, and Lithuanians had replaced native-born Americans and western Europeans as the predominant groups in the mills. The largest single ethnic group in the city was Italian.

At the time of the strike, 44.6 percent of the textile workers in Lawrence were women. More than 10 percent of the mill workers were under the age of 18.

Despite a heavy tariff protecting the woolen industry, the wages and living standards of textile workers had declined steadily since 1905. The introduction of a two-loom system in the woolen industry and a corresponding speed-up in the cotton industry led to lay-offs, unemployment, and wage reductions. A federal government report showed that for a week in late November 1911, some 22,000 textile employees, including foremen, supervisors, and office workers, averaged about $8.76 for a full week’s work. This wage was totally inadequate, despite the fact that the average work week was 56 hours, and 21.6 percent of the workers worked more hours than that.

To make things worse, the cost of living was higher in Lawrence than in the rest of New Lawrence-kids-1912England. The city was also one of the most congested in the United States, with many workers crowded into foul tenements.

The daily diet of most of the mill workers consisted of bread, molasses, and beans. Serving meat with a meal was very rare, often reserved for holidays. The inevitable result of all this was an unhealthy work force. Dr. Elizabeth Shapleigh, a Lawrence physician, wrote: “A considerable number of the boys and girls die within the first two or three years after beginning work. … [T]hirty-six out of every 100 of all the men and women who work in the mill die before or by the time they are 25.”

The immediate cause of the strike was a cut in pay for all workers which took place after a new state law went into effect on January 1, 1912. The law reduced the number of hours that women and children could work from 56 to 54. The mill owners simply sped up the machines to guarantee they would get the same amount of production as before, and then cut the workers’ hours and wages.

On Thursday, January 11, 1912, some 1,750 weavers left their looms in the Everett Cotton Mill when they learned that they had received less money. They were joined by 100 spinners from the Arlington Mills. When the Italian workers of the Washington Mill left their jobs on the morning of Friday, January 12, the Battle of Lawrence was in full swing. By Saturday night, January 13, some 20,000 textile workers had left their machines. By Monday night, January 15, Lawrence had been transformed into an armed camp, with the police and militia guarding the mills through the night.

The Lawrence strike began as a spontaneous outburst, but the strikers quickly realized that they needed to organize themselves. At a mass meeting held on the afternoon of the strike’s first day, they voted to send a telegram to Joe Ettor, a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World, asking him to come to Lawrence to aid the strike. Ettor arrived in 1912_Lawrence_Textile_Strike_2Lawrence the very next day, accompanied by his friend Arturo Giovannitti, the editor of “Il Proletario” and secretary of the Italian Socialist Federation.

Although only 27 years old, Joseph J. (“Smiling Joe”) Ettor was an experienced, militant leader of the IWW. He had worked with Western miners and migrant workers, and with the immigrant workers of the Eastern steel mills and shoe factories. Ettor could speak English, Italian, and Polish fluently, and could understand Hungarian and Yiddish.

Under Ettor’s leadership, the strikers set up a highly structured but democratic form of organization in which every nationality of worker involved in the strike was represented. This structure played a decisive role in guaranteeing the strike’s outcome. A general strike committee was organized and a network of soup kitchens and food distribution stations were set up. The strikers voted to demand a 15 percent increase in wages, a 54-hour week, double time for overtime, and the abolition of the premium and bonus systems.

Despite the fact that the city and state authorities imposed a virtual state of martial law on Lawrence, the strikers remained undaunted. They pioneered innovative tactics, such as moving picket lines (in which thousands of workers marched through the mill district in an endless chain with signs or armbands reading “Don’t be a scab!”); mass marches on sidewalks; and sending thousands of people to browse in stores without buying anything. They organized numerous parades to keep their own spirits up and keep their cause in the public eye.

The agents of the mill owners struck back. When the police and militia tried to halt a parade of about 1,000 strikers on January 29, a bystander, Annie LoPezzo, was shot dead. Ettor_and_G_postcard_001
Despite the fact that neither Ettor nor Giovannitti had been present at the demonstration, they were both arrested the next day. They were charged with being accessories before the fact to the murder because they had supposedly incited the “riot” which led to the shooting. That same day, an 18-year-old Syrian striker, John Ramy, was killed by a bayonet thrust into his back as he attempted to flee from advancing soldiers.

In early February, the strikers began sending their children out of the city to live temporarily with strike supporters. The city authorities vowed to stop this practice, and on February 24, a group of mothers and their children were clubbed and beaten at the train station by cops. This act horrified the country, and swung the general public over to the side of the strikers.

Concerned that the growing outrage over the conditions in Lawrence might lead to public support for lowering the woolen tariff, the mill owners began to look for a way to end the strike. First the largest employer, the American Woolen Company, came to an agreement. Then the others followed. The workers won most of their demands. By March 24, the strike was officially declared over and the general strike committee disbanded. It was a tremendous victory – but not the end of the battle.

On September 30, 1912, the murder trial of Ettor and Giovannitti began. It lasted 58 days. The defendants were kept in metal cages in the courtroom while the trial was in session. The prosecution accused Ettor and Giovannitti of inciting the strikers to violence and murder. Witnesses proved that the two were speaking to a meeting of workers several miles from the place where Annie LoPezzo was shot. Across the United States and the world, concerned people expressed outrage at the prosecution’s attempt to punish two leaders for their ideas.

Before the end of the trial, Ettor and Giovannitti asked for permission to address the court. Ettor challenged the jurors, declaring that if they were going to sentence Giovannitti and himself to death, the verdict should find them guilty of their real offense – their beliefs.

He said:

“What are my social views? I may be wrong but I contend that all the wealth in this country is the product of labor and that it belongs to labor. My views are the same as Giovannitti’s. We will give all that there is in us that the workers may organize and in due time emancipate themselves, that the mills and workshops may become their property and for their benefit. If we are set at liberty these shall be our views. If you believe that we should not go out, and that view will place the responsibility full upon us, I ask you one favor, that Ettor and Giovannitti because of their ideas became murderers, and that in your verdict you will say plainly, we shall die for it. … I neither offer apology nor ask for a favor. I ask for justice.”

Giovannitti made an impassioned speech to the jury, the first time he had ever spoken publicly in English. His eloquence drew tears from the most jaded reporters present.

On November 25, the jury found the defendants not guilty. Pandemonium broke loose in the courtroom.

There is something especially poignant about the Battle of Lawrence – and something especially important about learning its lessons. The Lawrence textile strike took place at a time when the mill owners lacked maneuvering room because they had to maintain public support for a high tariff on woolens. That was certainly a factor in the workers’ victory. So was the fact that the textile workers comprised such a large percentage of the population of Lawrence. But those factors do not change the reality that the victory at Lawrence was won by the bravery and intelligence of the workers themselves.

The victory at Lawrence disproved the vicious lie being circulated at the time by the leaders of the American Federation of Labor that immigrant workers could not be organized. It showed that immigrant workers and women workers would not only support strikes – if given the chance, they would gladly lead them, and lead them well. The strikers in Lawrence won their demands because they never let themselves be divided on ethnic or gender lines, because they were militant (and creative) in their tactics, and because they found a way to appeal to the conscience of the general public.

One other feature of the Battle of Lawrence made it especially significant. It’s summed up in the famous slogan of the strike – “We want bread – and roses!” The textile workers who braved the Massachusetts winter in 1912 wanted more than a wage increase. They were inspired by a vision of a new society, one where the workers themselves ruled. In this society, every human being would have “bread” – a decent standard of living. They would also have “roses” – the chance to learn, to have access to art, music, and culture; a society which would allow the flowering of everyone’s talents, the full development of every human being.

On this anniversary of the Lawrence textile strike, we should take courage from the bravery of the strikers, learn from their clever tactics, and dare to think as far ahead as they did. The Lawrence strikers believed deeply in the idea expressed so well in one of the verses in the labor song “Solidarity Forever.” That verse confidently proclaims, “We can build a new world from the ashes of the old.” Despite all the misery we see in the present, a new world is possible. The cynics of today are as wrong to deny the possibility of qualitative change as the AFL leaders in 1912 were to deny the possibility of organizing immigrant workers. If all of us act with as much foresight and courage as did those who fought so well in Lawrence in 1912, the vision of those strikers can become reality, and we can win a world with both bread and roses for everyone.

 

 

 

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The First National Hunger March confronts the U.S. Congress by Chris Mahin

 

The First National Hunger March confronts the U.S. Congress

In 1931, the unemployed sang “The Internationale”  on the steps of the U.S. Capitol

 

BY CHRIS MAHIN

They traveled in automobiles so dilapidated they were nicknamed “tin lizzies.” They had only gunny sacks and blankets to protect them from the extreme cold. There were 1,670 of them, but each was a delegate representing many others. They had come to confront

Hunger March Tin-Lizzy

Tin Lizzy

the U.S. Congress, to insist that it give aid, not charity, to the unemployed.

December marks the anniversary of the First National Hunger March, which arrived in Washington, D.C. on December 6, 1931, and marched to the U.S. Capitol and the White House the next day.

When the Great Depression began, there was no such thing as unemployment compensation or welfare. What little help the poor received, they obtained from private charities, mainly religious ones. Employers took advantage of workers’ desperation to slash wages – sometimes as much as 10-20 percent. A wave of evictions took place.

The call for the march demanded: (1) unemployment insurance; (2) the seven-hour workday with no cut in pay; (3) a federal work program paying union wages; (4) an end to racial discrimination, and an end to deportations of immigrant workers; (5) support
for the demands of the veterans and poor farmers; and (6) that all funds being built up for making war be used instead to help the unemployed – and be administered by the Unemployed Councils.

Hunger March Detroit

1923 Ford Hunger March Detroit

The National Hunger March was carefully organized. The first step was a series of actions at the state level. In April 1931, five columns of unemployed marchers started out from different points in Ohio. They met in Columbus. Despite a heavy rain, 3,000 people came out to greet them. During the last week in May, four columns of marchers started out from different parts of Michigan. As they marched, large gatherings of workers greeted the contingents in Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Pontiac, Wayland, and Detroit. Some 15,000 people were present when the columns met in Lansing, the state capital. These protests were followed by hunger marches in at least 40 other cities.

While the state-level marches were meticulously organized, the national march to Washington was planned with military precision. The caravan was not a mass procession of the jobless; it was strictly limited in size.

Here is how historian Franklin Folsom described the huge logistical challenge facing the march’s organizers:

“Plans called for the formation of four separate columns, all of which would meet in Hunger March National ManifestoWashington on December 6 to be on hand for the opening of Congress the next day. On December 1, Column 1 was to leave Boston and Column 2 would leave Buffalo. On November 30, Column 3 would leave Chicago and Column 4 would leave St. Louis. Delegates from the West Coast would leave cities there on November 23 and would join columns in either Chicago or St. Louis. …

“It was no simple matter to get 1,670 delegates transported, fed, clothed, and sheltered – all on a strict schedule. Each delegate wore an armband reading, ‘National Hunger March, December 7, 1931.’ Each truck, which typically carried ten delegates, elected a captain, and each column of trucks elected a guiding committee and a leader. In every truck there was a map telling exactly the route to be followed, and with each column went a scout car, sometimes pushing ahead to look for difficulties and sometimes following behind to watch for breakdowns. Each column also had a medical aid squad and a mechanic.”

En route, the National Hunger March had to deal with local authorities who were often very hostile, and had to respond to a media campaign designed to discredit the march. In Hammond, Indiana, the police tried to stop a rally called to support the march, but the crowd was so large and militant that the police gave up. The New York Times claimed that the marchers would be “furnished with rifles.” This was completely untrue, and even the Secret Service felt compelled to dispute the claim.

Hunger march in picturesWhen the marchers entered Washington, there were as many cops lining the streets as there were marchers. Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley had ordered all soldiers at nearby Fort Myer to be ready for active service. Two companies of Marines had been called up. Nearly 1,000 additional Marines were brought from Virginia to the Marine barracks in Washington. Four hundred police officers were also brought in from Eastern cities to bolster the Washington, D.C. police force.

On the morning of December 7, the marchers met at John Marshall Place. On their picket signs were slogans such as: “We demand unemployment insurance equal to full wages”; “Down with charity slop; we demand cash relief”; “Milk for our children”; “We American workers refuse to starve”; “Not a cent for war — All funds for the unemployed.”

At John Marshall Place, Washington’s commissioner of police, Pelham Glassford, sped around on a bicycle, dressed in civilian clothes and smoking a long-stemmed pipe. He had deliberately laid out the longest routes for the marchers to march, to tire them out.

Two rows of policemen — about 1,000 officers in all — stood along the line of march. More than 400 additional police officers were stationed at the Capitol. There, the marchers were forced to move into a roped-off area where they were a wide distance from the thousands of people who had come to watch them. Machine guns were pointed at the marchers. The police officers present were armed with sawed-off shotguns and tear-gas guns. (One journalist reported that there were also hand grenade launchers.) An ambulance stood by.

Vice President Charles Curtis had decreed that the marchers could not enter the Capitol grounds with signs that criticized the president or Congress or that were offensive. But since the authorities had not issued any regulations about music, the marchers’ band struck up the battle song of the world’s working class, “The Internationale.” On the steps of the U.S. Capitol, the anthem’s words rang out:

Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!

Arise, ye wretched of the earth,

For justice thunders condemnation,

A better world’s in birth. 

The march’s organizers had wanted to send committees of delegates on to the floor of the House of Representatives and the Senate to present their demands, but marchers were not admitted to either the Republican-controlled Senate or the Democratic House. (In fact, on the Senate side of the Capitol, the delegates had to present their demands to the sergeant at arms while they were standing at a basement door.)

From the Capitol, the demonstrators proceeded to the White House. The White House grounds were swarming with police officers. Ambulances and patrol wagons were stationed nearby. President Hoover was inside the White House when the delegates from the Hunger March called, but he refused to see the marchers.

Unable to secure meetings with members of Congress, the hunger marchers headed home. At each place along the return route that the caravan stopped, mass meetings were held, with marchers reporting on what had happened when they tried to speak to the president and the members of Congress. While some newspapers sneeringly described the marchers’ return to their original assembly points as a “retreat,” that term was not accurate; the marchers proceeded back to their starting points exactly as planned.

Determined, militant, and impressively organized, the National Hunger March of December 1931 re-asserted the right of the American people to go en masse to the capital city to petition for change. It showed unemployed workers that they could organize themselves. It forced Depression-era America to admit that the hunger stalking the land could not be ended simply with charity. It compelled the federal authorities to face the fact that to end the massive poverty in the country, the economy was going to have to be restructured in some way.

Within a year, another Hunger March had taken place. This time, the vice president and the speaker of the House of Representatives had no choice but to meet with marchers. Later, the first Unemployment Insurance Bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman Ernest Lundeen from Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party. Ultimately, the first system of federal Social Security, including a national unemployment compensation law, was enacted early in the New Deal administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The National Hunger March (and the preparatory marches which took place before the

Hunger Marach England

Hunger marches were an international phenomenon

main march to Washington occurred) had far-reaching effects. They helped spur on the fight not only of unemployed workers, but of employed workers as well. A state-level hunger march that took place in Pennsylvania before the national march helped inspire 40,000 miners in Pennsylvania to go on strike. Local hunger marches in Ohio stimulated efforts to organize steel workers into a union.

The Hunger March of 1931 helped pave the way for the establishment of a social contract in the United States. Today, that social contract has been torn to pieces by developments in the economy. But even as different as the world is today from what it was in 1931, there is still much to learn from the First Hunger March. The delegates and captains of that protest understood that nothing would change until people spoke up. They understood that pressure had to be put on Congress (even the part of it controlled by the Democrats). They deliberately timed their protest to coincide with the opening of a session of Congress.

The more news that comes out about Congress, the more timely the demands of the Hunger March of 1931 seem to be. That’s especially true of the demand to stop all deportations of immigrant workers, and the demand that all the money being set aside for war preparations be used instead to help the unemployed. Clearly, our predecessors in the fight against hunger were on to something!

 

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November 7 in American History — Two Articles by Chris Mahin

The legacy of Elijah Lovejoy:  Let truth ring out!

BY CHRIS MAHIN

The event shocked the conscience of American and led directly to the Civil War. Although it is barely mentioned in most schoolbooks, the murder of editor Elijah Lovejoy on November 7, 1837 is one of the most significant events in U.S. history. The life of this courageous opponent of slavery should be celebrated by all those who love freedom.

lovejoy_grangerpressElijah Lovejoy might have led an uneventful life if he had been born in a peaceful time, but his era was anything but peaceful. He lived in a moment of history marked by intense conflict between the legislative representatives of the slave states and free states. This battle for control of the Union was particularly bitter in the Midwest. In 1828, Lovejoy began to feel the effects of this “irrepressible conflict” when he moved from his native Maine, a free state, to St. Louis (located in the slave state of Missouri).

Lovejoy, the son of a minister, became a partner in a St. Louis newspaper. His early articles dealt with subjects like the evils of tobacco, whiskey, and breaking the Sabbath. However, Lovejoy’s priorities changed after he went to study for the ministry at Princeton University. There, he came under the influence of America’s leading opponent of slavery, the impassioned Boston minister William Lloyd Garrison.

Lovejoy returned to St. Louis in 1833 and became editor of the St. Louis Observer. His position was uncompromising: Slavery is a sin and should be abolished. When the newspaper’s office was destroyed by a mob, he was forced to flee across the Mississippi River to Alton, in the free state of Illinois.

When Lovejoy’s printing press arrived in Alton, the crate was tossed into the Mississippi elijah-lovejoyRiver by a mob. Although some of Lovejoy’s friends begged him to refrain from discussing slavery, he continued his agitation. Twice more, presses used to print his newspaper were destroyed. Then, on the evening of November 7, 1837, a drunken mob of 200 people attacked the office of the Alton Observer. Five slugs from a double-barreled shotgun killed Elijah Lovejoy as he tried to protect his printing press. Lovejoy’s assassins were freed by the local authorities.

The death of this 35-year-old editor and minister set off a chain of events which transformed America. Former President John Quincy Adams called Lovejoy America’s first martyr to freedom of the press. Lovejoy’s murder convinced John Brown that slavery would never be abolished by peaceful means; Brown began planning how to counter the violence of slavery with violence.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy was the kind of person who emerges when a society is in crisis. At such moments in history, individuals step forward who are capable of seeing further than the average person can. Fired with a sense of mission, these leaders are the first to feel deeply about the moral choices facing society. They sense the answer to a problem and fight to make others grasp it. They search for ways to shake the mass of people out of their complacency.

Such leaders have always seized the weapons of the printed page and the speaker’s platform and used them to win people to new ideas. Sometimes, these leaders pay a terrible price for their devotion, falling in the struggle as Elijah Lovejoy did. But their victory lies in the minds which ultimately get opened as a result of their relentless agitation. Lovejoy’s heroic death helped people understand that slavery was wrong and that it endangered the freedom not only of the slave, but also of the people of the North and West as well.

a996884e1b785944997737bc3292f9caThe abolitionists of the 19th century felt an obligation to protest the most horrific wrong of their generation. They understood that economic, social, and political issues ultimately express themselves as moral choices.

Today, this country once again finds itself in the midst of economic dislocation and social strife. Just as in the pre-Civil War era, these issues come down to moral choices.

In Lovejoy’s time, the 10,000 families that controlled the largest Southern plantations (and owned most of the slaves in the United States) completely dominated the political life of the country. That handful of people, a tiny percent of the 30 million human beings then residing in the United States, were prepared to do anything necessary to maintain their political control. (They certainly showed that by killing Lovejoy.)

Today, 1 percent of the population of the United States controls 42 percent of the wealth – and 445 billionaires own 45 percent of the world’s wealth. In the country where chattel slaves once picked cotton, welfare recipients in the “workfare” slave-labor program now pick up filthy debris from the city parks with their bare hands. As in Lovejoy’s time, the crying need of the present is for those who see further and feel deeper to step forward. Once again, it is time to shake people out of their complacency. It is time for words as uncompromising as those of Elijah Lovejoy and William Lloyd Garrison to ring out again from the speaker’s platform and leap off the pages of the revolutionary press.

History will never forget Lovejoy, the man who dared to challenge the political domination of the United States by 10,000 slaveholders. If we honor him for courageously speaking the truth that “slavery is sin” even in the slave state of Missouri, don’t we have an obligation to speak truth to power today, to challenge the political control of this society by a small class of millionaires?

This article originally appeared in the November 1997 edition of the People’s Tribune. For more information about the People’s Tribune, go to: http://www.peoplestribune.org 

 

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Deported past the Statue of Liberty:  The Palmer Raids

BY CHRIS MAHIN

We were led to a cabin. … Then came a violent lurch; we were on our way. I looked at my watch. It was 4:20 a.m. …

On the deck above us I could hear the men tramping up and down in the wintry blast. I felt dizzy, visioning a transport of politicals doomed to Siberia. … Russia of the past rose before me and I saw the revolutionary martyrs being driven into exile. But no, it was New York, it was America, the land of liberty! Through the port-hole I could see the great city receding into the distance, its sky-line of buildings traceable by their rearing heads. It was my beloved city, the metropolis of the New World. It was America , indeed America repeating the terrible scenes of tsarist Russia! I glanced up — the Statute of Liberty!

— Emma Goldman, Living My Life

It had been a year of upheavals — and of strikes.

Early in the year, a one-week general strike had swept Seattle, ignited by a strike of 35,000 shipbuilders who had begun a fight for higher wages, an 8-hour day, and a 44-hour week. That same month, in Patterson, New Jersey, 28,000 workers in the silk mills went on strike. In the fall, the police of Boston struck. In late September, 365,000 steelworkers walked off their jobs, a strike which began simultaneously in dozens of cities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and other states.

It was the year 1919 — and the rulers of this country were worried.

World War I had ended on November 11, 1918 and the result was turmoil across much of the globe. Large sections of western Europe lay in ashes. In the East, the Russian Revolution had taken place.

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A Mitchell Palmer

In 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson appointed a new attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer. Palmer was a Pennsylvania attorney with liberal credentials — including past support for workers’ rights and women’s suffrage — but he soon reversed his views. Alarmed at the militancy of workers around the world, Palmer came to believe that communism was “eating its way into the homes of the American workman.”

Palmer’s 24-year-old assistant J. Edgar Hoover was put in charge of a new division of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, the General Intelligence Division. By October 1919, Hoover’s department had collected 150,000 names in rapidly growing files.

On June 2, 1919, bombs went off in eight cities, including Washington, D.C. (where Palmer’s house was partially damaged). Responsibility for these attacks was never established, although it was alleged by some that anarchists were behind them.

palmer-raids-1918-1921-nThe bombings gave Palmer the excuse he needed. Palmer and Hoover orchestrated a series of showy and well-publicized raids against alleged radicals, using the provisions of the Espionage Act of 1919 and the Sedition Act of 1918.

Beginning on November 7, 1919, Palmer’s men smashed into union offices and the headquarters of radical organizations. In December, Palmer’s agents seized 248 resident aliens and forced them on board the Buford, a ship bound for the Soviet Union. The deportees included Emma Goldman — the union organizer, feminist, and anarchist. Among the exiled were young boys. One of them was on crutches. Another, suffering from an ulcerated stomach, had been carried from his bed in the immigration station hospital to the assembly point to board the Buford.

Later, in January 1920, Palmer and Hoover organized the largest mass arrests in U.S. history, rounding up as many as 10,000 suspected troublemakers.

It has now been 98 years since immigrant workers were forcibly ejected from the United States, imprisoned on a ship which literally sailed past the Statue of Liberty with its inscription “Give me your tired, your poor, your restless masses yearning to breathe free.” Much has changed in the years since the events which are now known as “The Palmer Raids,” but there are some eerie parallels between the “Red Scare” of 1919 and today.

In both 1919 and our time, acts of terrorism have been followed by grotesque violations of civil liberties and attacks on immigrant workers.

It’s important to remember, too, that the deportation of the passengers on the Buford buford_cartoontook place right in the midst of what was then the largest and most sustained effort to unionize the steel industry in American history — the Great Steel Strike of 1919. In 1919, half the steelworkers in the United States were immigrants — and organizing steel was the key to unionizing all of basic industry. The anti-immigrant and anti-radical campaign waged by the Wilson administration and the arrest of key union organizers by Palmer and Hoover’s flunkies were not the only reason for the failure of the 1919 steel strike — but they certainly contributed to its defeat. That loss meant that this country had to wait until the 1930s to see a successful attempt to unionize steel and organize viable industrial unions.

Given this, can anyone doubt that creating hysteria about “Reds,” “terrorists,” and immigrants hurts all of labor?

November 7, 2017 marks the 98th anniversary of the beginning of the Palmer Raids. Attached and below is an article that I wrote several years ago about the raids, updated slightly. (The article was written for a union website.) — Chris Mahin

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WHAT IS MAY DAY’S MEANING FOR TODAY? By Chris Mahin

[Published 20 years ago in the People’s Tribune, this article remains relevant as we celebrate the workers’ one universal holiday.]

WHAT IS MAY DAY’S MEANING FOR TODAY?
By Chris Mahin

Holidays are important. Whether joyous celebration or solemn remembrance, each one conveys some meaning or teaches some lesson.

When we celebrate a particular holiday — or decide not to — each of us says something haymarket-reenactment-april-30-2011
about who we are and what we believe.

For the downsized and the dispossessed, one holiday stands above all others. It is the only one observed by victims of capitalism the world over: International Labor Day, observed on May 1 — May Day.

May Day began in America. The story of how it began needs to told; it is a tale of how dramatic changes in the economy created a new class of people. It is the story of how men and women of different nationalities, born in different parts of the world, stepped forward to lead a new class of poor people and were willing to pay a terrible price for that decision. Above all else, May Day is about the absolute necessity of the unity of the poor — white and black, male and female, immigrant and native-born.

The story begins in Chicago. By the 1880s, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. Something new had been introduced into the economy — steam power. The introduction of this new productive force led to a gigantic expansion of industry and created a new class — the modern industrial working class. In Chicago, this new class included people from all over the world, as immigrants flooded into the city.

In the factories of that era, the pay was low, the hours were long and the conditions terribly unsafe.

On May 1, 1886, workers throughout the United States engaged in a massive strike to demand the eight-hour day. Chicago was the strike’s center. On May 4, a rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest a police attack on a group of strikers. As this peaceful rally was winding to a close, 176 cops moved in to forcibly disperse the crowd. Someone threw a bomb. It killed one police officer instantly and wounded many others. The police opened fire, killing many participants in the rally.

A wave of hysteria followed. Hundreds of workers were arrested. The police broke into meeting halls, newspaper offices and even private homes without warrants. Suspects were beaten and even tortured.

The extent of the hysteria can be measured by comments published in the respectable Albany Law Journal just 11 days after the Haymarket tragedy. The Journal called for “a check upon immigration, a power of deportation, a better equipment of the police, a prompter and severer dealing with disorder” and denounced Chicago’s union leaders as “a few long-haired, wild-eyed, bad-smelling, atheistic, reckless foreign wretches, who never did an honest hour’s work in their lives.” The Journal declared: “This state of things almost justifies the resort to the vigilance committee and lynch law. … It seems Eagle Columnsthat the penal law of Illinois would warrant treating all these godless fiends as murderers, and we hope they will be so treated and extirpated from the face of the earth.”

In June 1886, several leaders of the Chicago union movement were put on trial, charged with being accessories to murder at Haymarket Square and with a general conspiracy to murder.

Most of the defendants had not even been present when the Haymarket bomb was thrown, but that didn’t matter. They were revolutionary leaders and Chicago’s capitalists wanted their blood.

The trial opened on June 21, 1886, with only seven of the eight defendants in the courtroom. All seven had been born or raised outside the United States. Chicago’s newspapers had noted the foreign roots of most of the defendants and denounced them as “European assassins” and “foreign barbarians.” But just as jury selection began, the eighth defendant entered the courtroom. Albert Parsons was a native-born American. He had escaped the police roundup completely and had been living safely in Wisconsin, but bravely returned to stand trial with his innocent immigrant comrades.

Tried before a biased judge and jury, the defendants never had a chance. They were convicted; seven were sentenced to hang. (An eighth was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor.)

At that point, many people thought the case was closed, but they had not reckoned with Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, the wife of Albert Parsons and a leader of the Chicago labor movement in her own right. While the case was being unsuccessfully appealed, Lucy Parsons took her two small children and travelled across the United States, speaking to anyone she could about the case. In almost a year, she spoke to about 200,000 people in 16 states. Her heartfelt eloquence helped spark a movement to stop the executions.

Despite worldwide protests, four of the Haymarket defendants were hanged by the state of Illinois in November 1887. On the morning of the execution of her husband, Lucy Parsons was arrested and locked with her children in a cell for attempting to see her husband one last time.

On July 14, 1889, at the International Labor Congress in Paris, a delegate from the American Federation of Labor proposed that the Congress adopt May 1 as International Labor Day and a day to remember the “Martyrs of Chicago.” This was accepted. Ever since, May 1 has been a day for the workers of the entire world to march in unison.

Holidays do teach lessons; May Day teaches many. The Haymarket Affair shows that America’s tiny handful of rulers will throw away all pretense of democracy once the stability of their rule is challenged by vast changes in the economy. It shows that they will make scapegoats out of the immigrant workers. It shows they will do anything to hold on to their rule.

But Haymarket also shows us the weapon that a new class created by vast changes in the economy can wield against its rulers: unity. Perhaps the lesson of May Day can be summed up best in the words of Haymarket defendant Oscar Neebe. The last words of his autobiography read simply: “I call on all workingmen or working women of all nationalities and all countries to unite and down with your oppressors.”

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Haymarket Martyrs Monument, Waldheim Cemetery

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This article originated in the PEOPLE’S TRIBUNE (Online Edition), Vol. 24 No. 5/ May, 1997; P.O. Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654.  For the current issue and archives to past issues see http://www.peoplestribune.org.

Ali Hangan writes – The Canary in the Cage: Black Families and the White Working Class

The Canary in the Cage: Black Families and the White Working Class

by Ali Hangan

Folks,

The black population’s history is one of tragedy and triumph. On the one hand, the population has suffered over 400 years of slavery and entrenched segregation. On the other hand, the Civil Rights movement is considered an American success story. The Civil Rights movement opened up a renewed sense of optimism for the future of the black working class and other oppressed groups. But in the late 1970’s and 80’s, that spirit of optimism began to wane.

American industry confronted with increased competition from abroad, cut costs by outsourcing work and adopting automation. A large swath of black workers in the cities that were once employed became unemployed and ultimately became unemployable. Those families that could move left to the suburbs leaving the remaining population on urban islands with few economic opportunities.

The lack of economic opportunities in the urban black communities provided a fertile ground for a drug economy. Crack cocaine and the culture associated with the drug began to spread at epidemic levels throughout the nation. In the wake of the crack epidemic more intensified policing policies arose in response. The purpose of these policies was not to stop crack per se, but rather to prevent its spread among the more politically organized suburban communities. The tactics to carry out these new policies became the genesis of increased militarization of the police.

The enhanced police tactics entered into the national consciousness by black Hip Hop th-6artists. In 1985, Toddy Tee produced “Battleram” about the LAPD armored vehicle used to smash in crack houses. In 1988, the song “Fuck the Police” by NWA told the story of police intimidation of young black males. And in 1990, “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy called upon black communities to defend themselves against the police.

While these songs brought a consciousness to the Gestapo tactics being used to police black communities, it paradoxically renewed old stereotypes about urban black males. With the music industry’s new marketing of music through videos in the 1980’s, they streamed images of black males as gang members into households across the country. This perception of a “black Armageddon” on MTV shifted public opinion toward support of a more comprehensive strategy to police urban black communities.

The new strategy fell under the auspices of the Federal drug enforcement policy, which became known as the “War on Drugs.” The War on Drugs began during the Nixon Administration in 1971. It was a Federal campaign for the prohibition of drugs and enhanced military intervention, with the stated aim being to reduce the illegal drug trade. In 1982, Vice President George H. W. Bush led a push for the involvement of the CIA and U.S. military in drug interdiction efforts. In 1989, under now, President George H. W. Bush, he authorized the creation of a Federal Drug Czar to oversee the war on drugs. Later, raised to a cabinet-level position by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Currently, the Federal Government spends 51 billion annually on the war on drugs. [citation]

The War on drugs has had a devastating effect on the black population:

“The US Department of Justice (DOJ) reports 2.2 million people are in our nation’s jails and prisons and another 4.5 million people are on probation or parole in the US, totaling 6.8 million people, one of every 35 adults. We are far and away the world leader in putting our own people in jail. Most of the people inside are poor and Black.” —- 40 Reasons Our Jails and Prisons Are Full of Black and Poor People, Common Dreams, June 2nd, 2015

“The War on Drugs targets Black people. Drug arrests are a big source of bodies and business for the criminal legal system. Half the arrests these days are for drugs and half of those are for marijuana. Despite the fact that Black and white people use marijuana at the same rates, a Black person is 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than a white person. The ACLU found that in some states Black people were six war-on-drugs1times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites. For all drug arrests between 1980 and 2000 the U.S. Black drug arrest rate rose dramatically from 6.5 to 29.1 per 1,000 persons; during the same period, the white drug arrest rate barely increased from 3.5 to 4.6 per 1,000 persons. ” [Ibid]

The same process that I have attempted to describe amongst the black population is reaching into much broader sections of the working class. Since the economic crash of 2008, capitalism has transitioned into a new stage of development. The increased demands on American companies to compete in the “Just in time” global economy has compelled each to be more flexible adopting more advanced automation and robots. The results have been increased productivity but at the expense of middle-income and unionized jobs impacting many white workers.

The latest wave of economic restructuring has had strong parallels to the process that began in the urban black communities in the 1980’s. This process of decay amongst the white working class has manifested in two visible ways:

1) The surge in the use of meth among the white population.
2) The groundswell of support by the white working class of Donald Trump’s proposals to scale back protectionist policies.

The first two articles that follow focus on the black population but, should be viewed more broadly as a canary in the cage for the entire American working class. In other words, the declining social conditions of the black population provides us with a window into the future for the entire working class as a whole. The flip side is this: As more sections of the working class become equally impoverished it creates a practical basis to move beyond silly notions of race to unify workers politically around a broader class struggle for their common economic survival.

What do you think?

One love,

AH
Excerpt from The incredible crushing despair of the white working class:

“Carol Graham, a happiness researcher at the Brookings Institution, recently analyzed Gallup’s data on life satisfaction and found that when it comes to their outlook on the future, the most desperate groups are poor and near-poor whites.

Gallup asks people to rate their current lives on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is the worst possible life they could be living and 10 is the best. Crucially, they also ask people to imagine what their lives will look like five years in the future.

Among the poor, whites are the demographic group least likely to imagine a better future for themselves, Graham found. Poor Hispanics were about 30 percent more likely to imagine a better future than poor whites. The difference for poor blacks was even larger: They were nearly three times as likely to imagine a better future than poor whites.”

“Part of the optimism gap is indeed because of “a shrinking pie of good jobs for low-skill/blue collar workers,” Graham said in an email. “Whites used to have real advantages (some via discrimination) that they no longer have … they are looking at downward mobility or threats of it, while poor blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to parents who were worse off than they.”

And paradoxically, while some inequalities between races are shrinking, other inequalities within races are growing. Across all races, for instance, the wealthy are gobbling up an ever-growing share of the income pie and leaving less behind for everyone else.”

The Average Black Family Would Need 228 Years to Build the Wealth of a White Family Today
KPCC Airtalk with Larry Mantle: The Movement for Black Lives platform and politics

Half of US jobs could be taken by robots in the next 20 years — here’s how likely it is that yours will be one of them

The incredible crushing despair of the white working class
— “The heights by great men [and women] reached and kept were not attained in sudden flight but, they while their companions slept, they were toiling upwards in the night.” —- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Memorial Day Massacre by Christian Sullivan

[At this year’s commemoration of the Memorial Day Massacre, an annual event sponsored by steelworkers who help us remember the history of our working class, high school student Christian53851b99d6e88.preview-620 Sullivan read his award-winning, very perceptive essay. What I found particularly useful was the author’s consideration of what is different today. Things are indeed different, fundamentally different, and it is exciting to see young people grappling with what this change means.  — Lew Rosenbaum]  

Memorial Day Massacre  by Christian Sullivan

“On Memorial Day, May 30, 1937, police opened fire on a parade of striking steel workers and their families at the gate of the Republic Steel Company, in South Chicago. Fifty people were shot, of whom 10 later died; 100 others were beaten with clubs,” a quote by Dorothy Day from her book Selected Writings summarizing the events of the Memorial Day Massacre. There is no doubting that date was one of the worst tragedies in Chicago history, and nothing can justify the actions of the police officers, press, and steel companies involved during, and after, this horrific incident occurred. There were a number of causes and aftermaths of this event, and these valiant steelworkers should be an example to workers of the modern day of how important and powerful labor unions truly are.

To understand the causes of the Memorial Day Massacre, one must understand the way businesses think. When it comes to the production of a product, the profit of the company is based on how much money and resources are put into making said product versus the amount of money they bring back selling said product; the smaller the production fee, the larger the profits. One large production fee is the salary of every worker and employee who help in the making of the product. In the business world, the smaller their employees’ salaries are, the better the company’s profits. At the same time, as executives at higher pay, they don’t want to lower their own, regardless of how gross or unfair it may be. The only other way for them to increase profits would be to raise the prices of their goods and risk upsetting the consumer, which could potentially lead to lesser profits and loss of business to lower priced competition. With that being said, we can now better understand the cause of this massacre that took place outside of the Republic Steel Company.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), previously known as the Committee of Industrial Organization, was an organization that heavily encouraged and aided the unionization of workers in industrial jobs such as the steel industry. CIO was quickly succeeding in the creation of a steel workers union, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), even being recognized by one of the largest companies in the steel industry, U.S. Steel, which was notoriously anti-union beforehand. They signed a contract with SWOC, promoting the act of “collective bargaining,” the negotiation of terms and treatment between companies and employees. Many other large and small steel companies signed this same contract, recognizing the union and agreeing to negotiation; yet, six companies, known as “Little Steel” still refused to accept the unionization of steelworkers, one of these companies being Republic Steel.

In the business world, unionization equals less profit. If companies are to maximize profit, they must be in full control of wages and treatment of their workers, otherwise, they must sacrifice profit for the health, well-being, and fairness of their employees; therefore, collective bargaining was out of the question for any company looking to make the most money they possibly can. Allowing collective bargaining and unionization forces a company to recognize the power and say its workers have in its business, disallowing them to continue taking advantage of them.

As such, Republic Steel continued to refuse any dealings with SWOC, resulting in mass protest in order to hurt production to the point of forcing Republic Steels hand into union acceptance, as done with many other opposing steel companies before it. SWOC planned a march to the Republic Steel company and a peaceful picket; however, Republic Steel, already knowing about the picket, set up a police blockade outside of its company gates. When the march reached its destination, they were immediately confronted by the police. With the peaceful picketers refusing to give in, several officers drew their guns and began firing into the crowd, killing 10 innocent civilians and injuring 30 others whilst they were fleeing. Other police officers drew their clubs and brutally beat several other protesters, permanently disabling nine of them, and severely injuring another 28. That was the Memorial Day Massacre.

Press and media tended to be completely bias, supporting the police side. Any footage of

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The New York Times called the demonstrators a “mob.”

the massacre was held from the public in order to prevent “mass hysteria.” Not a single police officer was convicted of a crime and any evidence that could have shown the use of excess force was hidden from the public eye. The story was even morphed by police and media, claiming that the protesters carried weapons and were under the influence of drugs.

As aftermath, protest was completely changed for the future. As mass gatherings and pickets often lead to violence, injury, and sometimes death, it became a lesser focus of organized unions. Instead, unions began focusing a lot more on legal action and communication with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in order to make safer, more concrete change. After just five more persistent years, those who had given their lives that fateful day in front of the Republic Steel company no longer did so in vain. Legal actions with NLRB caught the attention of the Supreme Court, and all remaining steel companies included in Little Steel were forced by national law to unionize, showing that unions can succeed and can do so through the system. It showed that unions had the power to change things for the better, whether it be through protest in a field or plea in the courtroom.

As years went on, that feeling of power was reduced. The decline in labor unions in the past 50 years is in no way a natural one. Companies, as well as the government, have been purposely trying to decrease the popularity of labor unions. Companies have armies of lawyers looking for loopholes in contractual obligations, and government, mostly those of the Republican Party, have been doing what they can through congress to legally decrease the amount of power labor unions withhold. On top of all of this, companies who do not want to deal with the fair pay and treatment of union workers are simply outsourcing their jobs to other countries where unions have no power and displacing American citizens from jobs in the process. All of this is adding to a mental effect on American citizens that unions are no longer powerful enough to change anything. People no longer believe in unions’ abilities to protect them from the unfairness of large companies, some even blaming them solely for the loss of jobs in America. Even though our problems remain the same, the unions protecting us from those problems have grown weaker and less numerous.

Today, people are still facing the exact same problems the steel workers were back in 1937: unfair wages, unsafe working conditions, and unfair pensions; however, unlike back then, companies and government know what to do to get around labor unions. Labor unions game has not changed, but the companies’ has. At the same time, union support as fell so greatly, that even old tactics are not being implemented for change. No one believes they can make a difference, so they often do not try. Places where simple picketing and court actions would work are not even making the attempt. Taking a lesson from the steelworkers of the 1930s may not fix some of the more complex issues in bigger businesses nowadays, but it still has untapped power in some work places. People are just simply too disheartened to use them.

None of this means organized labor is beaten, defeated, dead, or gone; simply outdated.

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Roman Villarreal’s sculpture, a tribute to Chicago steelworkers, dedicated in 2015 in Steelworkers Park

Union power needs a revamp. They need to come up with new ways to picket, new ways to negotiate, and new ways to combat unfairness. As companies update their ways of avoiding union power, unions need to update their ways of checking companies. All of this is made even harder by the fact that sometimes even our own government is suppressing the unions and the public is losing faith in organized labor. Unions need to update their ways, show people they have the power to equalize employer/employee relations again, and show them that becoming an active union member can make a difference. All of this could be made much easier by having a government that will also support union power and push bills in their favor rather than against. None of this is possible overnight. This is a process that will take years to happen and, as with all things, will not happen at all without people taking action to make happen.

In all, the fact that unions have power at all is a thing to be thankful for, and we owe a great debt the CIO, SWOC, NLRB, and every group, union, and national association that keeps workers from unfair treatment and pay as best they can today. Sure, we may not ever be as successful as our predecessors who worked toward work force equality and fought and even died for us, not only in the Memorial Day Massacre, but in every protest, movement, or event. The Memorial Day Massacre was a tragic incident, and from it came one of the most important strength our generation need to make it in this country, a stronger, more active labor union. Now it is time to rejuvenate it and strengthen it just as they did. How? We will not know until we make the effort to figure it out as a whole, together, as a union.

 

 

Nelson Peery: Why Is African American History The Heart of American History?

Portrait of David

Illustration from The Future Is Up To Us, Portrait of David, painting  by Diana Berek

This is the beginning of Black History Month, February 1, 2016, and I think it’s appropriate to quote from Nelson Peery’s The Future Is Up To Us:

WHY IS AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY THE HEART OF AMERICAN HISTORY?

To suggest such an analysis is bound to make the majority of eyebrows arch upward. African Americans have always been looked upon and treated as if they were at best on the periphery of our coun- try’s history. Their being marginalized in the social and economic sense reinforces this outlook. Nevertheless any serious inquiry into history will show that the control, manipulation and exploitation of the African American was at the heart of every major and most of the minor decisions of state prior to the Civil War, and a good many of them afterwards.

Let’s start at the beginning. For a number of ideological and political reasons, the American colonies resisted African slavery, pre- ferring to populate the New World with European indentured ser- vants. In the Caribbean, the plantation and slave system was being fine-tuned. There, unheard-of fortunes were accumulated on the basis of the most reckless expenditure of human life known to history. A goodly portion of the colonies’ economic intercourse was servicing the slave system of the Caribbean. The colonies were never discon- nected from African slavery. It was not some inopportune landing of a Spanish ship carrying twenty African captives that inaugurated

African slavery in the colonies. As the capitalist system evolved from the slave trade and the Caribbean plantations, capitalism became firmly planted in the colonies and slavery was its inevitable result. Every colony had slavery, and none of the colonies, north or south, could have accumulated and economically moved forward without the brutal working to death of the slave.

Rudimentary capitalist agriculture—that is agriculture for the market, rather than consumption—never reckoned with ecology or preservation of the land. This is especially true of cotton culture. The solution was the constant westward motion for virgin land. I often laugh at these falsifiers of history who wave the flag and talk about the westward move of liberty. In fact, it was the westward move of slavery. Two examples that come to mind are the removal of the five

“civilized” (i.e., slave-holding) Indian tribes from their native lands to the Oklahoma Territory. The “Trail of Tears” is an indelible moral condemnation of U.S. state policy for the expansion of slavery. The Indians suffered terribly on that journey. Can you imagine the con- dition of their African slaves?

The other instance was the annexation of Texas and later the war against Mexico and the ripping-off of half her national territory. There was no other reason for this expansionism but the promulga- tion of slavery. The westward march of liberty is a joke.

Most people understand that the Civil War was fought over the African Americans’ condition as slaves. Few realize that Wilson probably would not have been elected if Blacks were able to vote. Certainly, Roosevelt would not have won his third term without a solid African American vote. This goes for Truman and a number of presidents who changed the political direction of the country.

Take a look at the body of law developed around the control of labor. Every single one of these oppressive laws had their foun- dation in the control of the African American. If we go beyond the written law it is easily seen that the control of a disjointed working class was achieved through uniting the white worker and capitalist to exclude the African American.

In the realm of culture, if it weren’t for the African Americans we would still be dancing the minuet. At the heart of American cul- ture beats the culture of the African American people. They would not have created this culture if not for the isolation, brutality and segregation that lies at the heart of the African Americans as a people. Eleanor Roosevelt put it quite well when she said that apart from the culture of the Indian, the culture of the African American is the only American culture. Clearly everything else was an ethnic culture brought over from the old world. The other aspect is, it is becom- ing a world culture. Every time I’ve gone abroad, I’ve been shocked by the breadth of the assimilation of this culture into French, British, Egyptian—what have you—popular culture.

So when we say that the African Americans are at the heart of American history, we don’t mean to imply that they were in control of that history. The sad fact is that up until the integration period, con- trolling and manipulating the Black ten percent was the way to con- trol the white majority. This is the only way we can make sense of a history that gives the world the most exalted visions along with the most brutal and callous exploitation and destruction of human life.