What They Don’t Teach in School About the US Labor Movement

 

Plutocracy IV: Gangsters for Capitalism

Directed by Scott Noble

Film Review

The fourth film in a series, Plutocracy IV essentially rewrites “mainstream” history about the birth of the US labor movement. In director Scott Noble’s depiction, what we see is virtual all out war between working people and corporate bosses and their government stooges.

Noble begins by tracing the downfall of the global anarchist movement, beginning with the violent crushing of the anarchist-driven 1871 Paris Commune.

Founded in 1901, the Socialist Party, would briefly replace anarchism as the main engine of worker organizing. Eugene Debs, a founding member of both International Workers of the World (see Plutocracy III: Class War ) and the Socialist Party, would run five times as a socialist candidate for president. In 1912 he won 6% of the vote, with  nearly a million votes.

In 1919, two-thirds of Socialist Party members voted to support the Bolshevik Revolution and were expelled by the party leadership, who favored democratic socialism. From that point on, the Communist Party (and fascism in Germany and Italy) drove most radical worker organizing.

Supreme Court Overturns Child Labor Laws

Noble describes 1921-1928 as extremely bleak for the labor movement – with most strikes being defeated during this period. Noble highlights the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, where striking West Virginia coal miners were attacked by federal troops and the 1923 St Pedro longshoremen strike (California), which was crushed by police and vigilante Ku Klux Klan members.*

It was also during this period that the Supreme Court overturned federal child labor and minimum wage laws.

Things got even worse for US workers during the Great Depression, with corporate bosses using the fear of unemployment to reduce wages by 20%. In 1932, Hoover ordered federal troops to mow down the Bonus Army, World War I veterans and their families, when they camped out in front of the Capitol demanding payment of the Bonus they had been promised  (see The Wall Street Elites Who Financed Hitler)

General Strikes Force Roosevelt to Create National Labor Relations Board

In 1933, Roosevelt passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, which theoretically gave workers the right to unionize (and strike). Although union membership increased substantially over the next several years, strikes continued to be brutally suppressed by armed corporate thugs, police and state National Guards. One example was the 1933 Ford Hunger Strike (aka the Ford Massacre) – in which 15,000 autoworkers when on strike when Henry Ford began to close factories. Despite being brutally attacked by armed guards and police (with four strikers killed and many injured), strikers persisted and won right to organize Ford Motor Company.

I was very surprised to learn there were four general strikes during 1934 in San Francisco, Minneapolis and Toledo. The San Francisco general strike was defeated by the union leadership (AFL) when Roosevelt condemned it. Workers were victorious in Toledo and Minneapolis, even though the Minnesota governor called out the National Guard in an effort to crush the city’s strike.

The fear that more general strikes would provoke generalized revolt (and/or revolution) led Roosevelt to create the National Labor Relations Board in 1935. His aim was to allow for a “peaceful” process of resolving strikes.


*In one vignette, Native American Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz describes how Woodrow Wilson and state and local officials supported the rise of the KKK in the north to crush strikes. Many members of the Portland police were KKK members during this period, and Colorado judges, police and elected officials belonged to the Klan in Colorado.

 

 

The Battle of Blair Mountain

storming heaven

Storming Heaven

by Denise Giardina

Ballantine Books (1987)

Book Review

Storming Heaven, a fictional account The Battle of Blair Mountain (featured in the recently released film Plutocracy), has to be one of my favorite novels of all time. The author, Denise Giardina, grew up in a coal camp.

The book concerns the unionizing drive (often employing skilled African American organizers) among West Virginia mine workers leading up to the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. This was one of the most shameful episodes of US history, in which the US Army attacked 10,000 striking pro-union miners with airplanes, bombs and poison gas.

Giardina strikes just the right note in juxtaposing the brutal corruption of the miners who stole the land deeds, homes and labor of the entire region – and the energy, excitement and pure romance of a union drive that organizes against immense odds to reclaim its members’ rights to a living wage and safe working conditions.

In her afterward, the author reveals that the leaders of the United Miners Association District 17 were arrested and tried for treason. Although they had strong popular support and were acquitted, it would be another twelve years before Roosevelt abolished the mine guard system that terrorized union organizers and awarded mine workers the freedom to form unions.

When she wrote the book in 1987, Giardina was president of her local coal union. In the late nineties she became active in the movement opposing mountain top removal. In 2000 she ran for governor of West Virginia.

Reclaiming Our History

plutocracy

Plutocracy: Political Repression in the United States

Scott Noble (2015)

Film Review

As German philosopher Walter Benjamin famously stated, “History is written by the victors.” In the US, most history books are written by and for the corporate oligarchs who run our government. Plutocracy is the first documentary to comprehensively examine early American history from the perspective of the working class. Part II (Solidarity Forever) will cover the late 19th Century to the early twenties. The filmmaker is currently seeking donations to complete the project. If you’d like to help, you can donate to their Patreon account.

The film can’t be embedded but can be viewed free at Plutocracy

Plutocracy starts with Shay’s Rebellion in 1786, the insurrection of Massachusetts farmers against the courts and banks that were fleecing them of their meager wealth and property. Similar rebellions in Rhode Island and Virginia would cause leading US bankers, merchants and plantation owners to organize a secret convention to create a central government and standing army. Each of the 13 original states, which in 1787 were still independent and sovereign, sent delegates to Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation.

Instead of revising the Articles, as authorized by their state legislatures, the delegates closed the meeting to the public and voted to replace them with a federal constitution. The latter substantially limited the freedom and power of state legislatures and ordinary Americans.

Plutocracy moves on to cover the massive Irish immigration of the mid-nineteenth century and the appalling squalor so-called “white Negroes” lived in. During the 19th century, 80% of babies born to Irish immigrants died in infancy.

The film touches only briefly on the Civil War, describing laws that enabled robber barons like John Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt to evade the Civil War draft by paying a poor person $300 to replace them.

It offers a detailed depiction of post-Civil War Reconstruction, which coincided with the 1871 Paris commune and saw blacks collaborating with poor whites to establish the South’s first public schools and hospitals. This was in addition to the election of numerous former slaves to judgeships and legislative positions.

Their eagerness to return Negroes to productive status on plantations led northern industrialists to pressure Congress to end Reconstruction by removing the federal troops protecting the rights of former slaves. It also led to their passive acceptance of unconstitutional Jim Crow laws and Ku Klux Klan terrorism. The chief aim of both was to prevent poor backs and whites from associating with one another.

The federal troops withdrawn from the South were redeployed in genocidal campaigns against Native Americans and Mexicans. By the end of the 19th century, not only had Mexico ceded half their territory to the US (including California, Texas, Utah, Nevada and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Montana – in the 1984 Treaty of Guadalupe), but US corporations enjoyed de facto control of all land remaining under sovereign Mexican control.

Stripping the Native Americans and Mexicans of their land in the West, readied the US for the rise of the robber barons of industry (Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie and Vanderbilt) and a corrupt system of federal and local government run entirely by bribery and patronage.

The corruption and squalid living conditions of the late 19th century would give rise to militant trade unionism, socialism, anarchism and populism. Plutocracy depicts the Pullman and similar strikes in which strikers were brutally beaten and killed by Pinkerton’s Detectives and other goons hired by industrial bosses, as well as national guardsmen and, on several occasions, federal troops.

The film opens with a poignant depiction of the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in US history. It’s the largest armed uprising since the Civil War, involving 10,000 coal miners. Denise Giardini memorializes the Battle of Blair Mountain in her 1987 novel Storming Heaven.


*Rockefeller and Morgan had a relative monopoly on the banks, Carnegie on steel and Vanderbilt on the railroads.