The War at Home – Rebellion
Scott Noble (2020)
Notorious for the world’s bloodiest labor history, the US government has a long history of declaring war against its own people. In the US, the direct result of industrialization and mass production was concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a handful of robber barons. This was only possible through brutal exploitation of the men, women and children who worked in America’s first factories, along with brutal suppression of strikes and labor organizing by both government and goon squads hired by wealthy tycoons.
Between 1886 and 1905 there were 35,000 strikes in the US, nearly all of them violently suppressed. The strikes weren’t simply for higher wages, but for safe working conditions and freedom from management goons and “industrial feudalism.”*
Noble’s history of US labor massacres starts with the infamous 1894 Pullman Railroad strike, in which 30 striking workers were brutally murdered. Another high point of the film is the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, which Noble describes as the largest post-Civil War armed insurrection in the US.**
My favorite part of the film concerns the formation of the International Workers of the World (IWW). The first union to represent unskilled workers, as well as women, Blacks and Mexicans, under the IWW (aka the Wobblies) US workers began to make some headway with their industrial action. The IWW organized the historic 1912 Lawrence textile workers strike (which successfully reversed a pay cut, as well as winning a pay hike and overtime pay). They also organized the five day Seattle general strike in 1919, in which strikers themselves took over essential services, such as milk delivery and health services.
1919 saw more strikes in the US than any other year, with 22 1/2 % of all US workers going on strike that year.
During the 1920s, severe repression under the 1917 Espionage Act (the law under which Assange and Snowden have been charged), the 1919 Sedition Act and the 1920 Red Scare and Palmer Raids would successfully suppress most union organizing.
This trend was reversed during the Great Depression with the formation of the Congress of Industrial Workers (CIO). Like the IWW, the CIO (unlike the American Federation of Labor) represented unskilled workers and was committed to racial equality.
*In coal and other mining industries, miners had no choice but to live in company-owned dwellings and buy food on credit from company-owned grocery stores. This meant any miner who joined a union did so at the risk of homelessness and starvation.
**During a 1921 coal strike in Blair Country West Virginia, 10,000 striking miners took up arms to protect themselves against the coal company’s paid militia. When President Harding sent in US troop to suppress the strike, most miners refused to fire on fellow soldiers they had served with in World War I. About 100 miners would be killed, with thousands experiencing disabling wounds.