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 Vietnam War in 1970: GIs Kill Their Own Officers While Government Slays Student Protestors

A Sea of Fire, Episode 8

The Vietnam War

Directed by Ken Burn and Lyn Novick

Film Review

This week Maori TV showed A Sea of Fire, Episode 8 of the Vietnam War series. It covers the period from April 4, 1969 to May 1970 and the massacre of four students at Kent State and two at Jackson State

By April 1969, there were 543,482 US troops fighting in Vietnam, with thousands more on nearby naval vessels and support bases. By that date, 40,794 GIs had died in Vietnam.

In October Nixon, who privately acknowledged the US couldn’t win, replaced a complicated draft deferment system with a more popular lottery based on draftees date of birth. In December, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced the “Vietnamization” of the war (eg a transfer of responsibility to to South Vietnamese troops) and began drawing down US troop numbers (10,000 by the end of 1970).

The move led many serving GIs to become deeply demoralized about being sent to die in an unwinnable war. Accordingly, 1970 would see a big increase in “fragging,” the deliberate murder of officers by men under them. It would also see a big increase in draftees seeking asylum in Canada (30,000 in total).

I was disappointed this episode failed to cover the role of the CIA and South Vietnamese army setting up a thriving trade selling heroin to US GIs. My former partner served in Vietnam from 1967-1969 and returned to the US addicted to it.

The years 1969-70 would also see a big surge in the US peace movement. The October 15th Vietnam Moratorium was actually a general strike, with hundreds of university campuses closing down and tens of thousands of Americans staying off work in cities around the country. It would be the largest mass protest in US history.

In November, independent journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story of the My Lai Massacre, the brutal murder of 400 South Vietnamese civilians, which had occurred 20 months earlier. It would be only one of many civilians massacres in Vietnam.

In 1970, the peace movement, which had died down in response to Nixon’s gradual troop withdrawal, was reignited following the April 30, 1970 invasion of Cambodia by 30,000 US troops. Four million American students protested the invasion, 448 campuses were shut down and 16 states called out the National Guard.

At Kent State, the National Guard fired 67 rounds into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, killing four, including an ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corp) scholarship student who was merely an onlooker.

On the same day, police shot two peaceful African American antiwar protestors at Jackson State University in Mississippi.