Forging the American working class

The Labor Wars:

From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs

Sometimes a film or a book is released at a moment when it has an impact far beyond the original intent of its creators. Last fall, Gus Van Sant’s film Milk, about the early, militant days of the gay liberation movement in San Francisco, opened soon after the passage of Proposition 8 in California and the explosion of protest across the United States. Milk fit perfectly with this moment of anger and hope. We can only hope that the republishing of Sidney Lens’s The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit- Downs will have a similar impact on some of today’s new radicals.

Lens first wrote The Labor Wars as an appeal to the generation of radicals produced by the 1960s mass movements against racism and the Vietnam War. He feared that the movement had “no strong attachment to the leftist movements or leftist leaders of yesteryear.

Few have heard of William Z. Foster or James P. Cannon, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn or Vincent St. John, Norman Thomas or A.J. Muste,” lamented Lens in his introduction. His goal was not nostalgia:

I have written this book on the labor wars in an effort to restore some of the lost sense of kinship between the protesters of today and those of yesteryear…What I have attempted is to put the labor wars in the context of the past and the future. It is my belief that unless and until the new protesters incorporate the story of the labor wars into their own tradition and values, their present protest will lack direction.

The Labor Wars is that and much more. It fits this new era—the greatest crisis of the capitalist system since the Great Depression of 1930s—and the search by a new generation of American radicals for political direction.

Lens’s book covers the period in U.S. history from the 1870s to the eve of the Second World War, when the struggle between labor and capital took on civil-war proportions. During this period the U.S. working class was made and remade by migration, both external and internal; unions were, for the most part, considered criminal organizations; and striking workers were gunned down in large numbers by hired thugs or the police, state militia, or the U.S. army for simply striving for a decent life. When a congressman asked fourteen-year-old Camella Teoli why she went out on strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, she said, “because I didn’t get enough to eat at home.”

Lens portrays “the idealism, dedication, and almost unbelievable sacrifices of three generations of working people who fought the good fight for human freedom.” This is not the history taught in most high school history classes. Lens writes:

The conflict between the privileged and the underprivileged has been a central feature of American life ever since Captain John Smith and a band of 120 men settled in Jamestown in 1607. The American heritage is full of rebellion, revolts, uprisings, and violent confrontations, between slaves and masters, tenants and landlords, hawks and doves, workers and bosses.

Though rebellion was present from the start, it wasn’t until the emergence of the U.S. as the premier industrial power during the era covered by Lens that a potentially powerful working class also was created. During this same period, radicals, socialists, communists, and revolutionary syndicalists had their greatest influence among workers. There’s no way to do justice to the great battles of the era by trying to summarize them—that’s why one reads a book—but if there is one chapter to read over and over again, it’s chapter ten, “Bread and Roses,” about the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Lawrence strike. Lens writes:

The outstanding and certainly the most publicized IWW strike…was that of the 23,000 textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. It was a local happening, rather than national, and it did not evoke as much violence as many other labor wars. But it was unique that an amalgam of foreign-born and unskilled workers, more than half of whom were women and children, could challenge great and inaccessible corporations—and win. It proved too that there was a deep vein of idealism in the underclasses that could be tapped under the right circumstances by a leadership with which they could identify.

It took six decades of struggle—sometimes with little connections between battles won and lost, decades apart—before the triumph of the Congress of Industrial Unions in the 1930s and 1940s, when American workers were finally able to establish powerful unions in the key sectors of the U.S economy and win a wide array of social reforms that made life qualitatively better for tens of millions of working people. These important gains, however, while lasting for several decades, began crumbling in the 1970s and collapsed in the decades since then. Lens ends The Labor Wars speculating about the future of the U.S. working class and whether labor wars are something of the past, superseded by other issues and movements. He seems to be of two minds about it:

The great unknown at this point [early 1970s] is the [economic] stability of this situation. Is it so stable and permanent that there will never be any labor wars again? Or assuming that it is unstable, will impending class struggles take the same form as those of 1875, 1877, 1886, 1892, 1894, 1903-04, 1912, 1919, and 1934-37? It is highly unlikely that they would…[but] to every action, as the physicists say, there is a reaction. The old type of labor wars were a reaction to one form of tyranny. The new ones, if they come, will be a reaction to another form. Only the balm of prosperity, equality, and justice can prevent them.

The last thirty years have witnessed, with few exceptions, a “one-sided” class war against U.S. workers and neoliberal policies that have destroyed much of what was won by them in previous decades. This new form of tyranny has come crashing down over the last year. The capitalist system doesn’t look like it can promise stability and prosperity anytime in the near future. The future looks more like the years that produced the great labor wars of Lens’s book.

When great events pass into history, they are given the cosmetic treatment. Violence…conflict are scrapped away to give the appearance of friendly, orderly progress. But it didn’t happen that way between labor and capital in America, it is well to remember that what was won was won by flouting both institutionalized conformity and one-sided legality.

So it shall be in the struggles to come. This is a great book. Everyone should read it.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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