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Time Travelers: Teaching American History in the Northwest, 2007 Regional Learning Project, University of Montana Time Travelers Jeff Wiltse Week 10 Organized Labor and Industrial Conflict in the NW I. Introduction A. This is Time Travelers Unit 2, Lecture 5 on industrial strife and the fate of organized labor in the NW during the early twentieth century. B. Organized Labor and Industrial Strife in U.S. history 1. The rise of organized labor and industrial strife are two of the most important features of U.S. history between 1877 and 1919. 2. In many ways they punctuate the era. a. The Great Labor Uprising of 1877 marks its beginning. b. The Homestead Strike of 1892 and the Pullman Strike of 1894—both of which were alarmingly violent—stand out as defining events of the 1890s. c. And, the violent strikes and repression of radical labor unions during and immediately following WWI marks the end of this period in U.S. history. 3. In short, class conflict is one of the central themes of U.S. history during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. 4. At the time, many Americans believed that a second civil war was imminent, this one not between the North and South but between labor and capital. C. Organized Labor and Industrial Conflict in the Northwest 1. The Northwest exemplifies the rise of labor unions and industrial strife during this period, but what is particularly noteworthy in the NW was the popularity and influence of radical labor unions, especially the Industrial Workers of the World, commonly known as the IWW and the Wobblies. 1 Time Travelers: Teaching American History in the Northwest, 2007 Regional Learning Project, University of Montana 2. Radical leftist labor unions operated throughout the country, but they had most of their success organizing workers in the West and particularly in the Northwest. 3. There are a couple explanations for this: a. Workers in the Northwest tended to be more transient than in other regions. ∙This made it easier for organizers for radical unions to remain anonymous as they moved from one area to another. ∙The high rate of turnover also meant that workers tended not to develop attachments or loyalties to employers. b. The most significant factor in workers’ receptiveness to radical unions was that a relatively high percentage of workers in the NW lived in “economic families” as opposed to “natural families.” ∙An economic family meant living with fellow workers, whether in a boardinghouse, a hotel, or in a construction, timber, or mining camp. ∙Nationally, only 3.4 percent of workers lived in economic families. ∙Percentages were much higher in the NW -15.3 percent in MT -13.8 percent in WA -7.4 percent in ID ∙This type of living arrangement contributed to labor militancy in several ways: -Workers could increase their frustration by griping to one another outside of work. -Organizers for radical unions could access workers more easily 2 Time Travelers: Teaching American History in the Northwest, 2007 Regional Learning Project, University of Montana -Workers did not have the moderating influence of home and family. 4. Anyway, the critical point is that radical unions gained considerable traction in the NW, and some of the most important confrontations between the IWW and employers and the IWW and the government occurred in the NW. D. For the rest of the lecture, I will talk about two examples that reveal much about industrial strife and the fate of organized labor during the early twentieth century. 1. Murder of Frank Little in Butte 2. Seattle General Strike of 1919 II. Murder of Frank Little A. Introduction 1. Frank Little was an Industrial Workers of the World organizer who was murdered in Butte on August 1, 1917. 2. The murder—which I will describe in a minute—was gruesome, but let me first explain how Little ended up in Butte, because it reveals much about the state of organized labor during the early twentieth century. B. Mine workers’ union in Butte 1. During the late nineteenth century, mine workers in Butte were some of the highest paid workers in the nation, and the local miners’ union had a constructive and mostly friendly relationship with the mine operators. a. Workers bargained collectively through the Butte Miners Union, which later became part of the Western Federation of Miners. b. They enjoyed a closed shop, meaning all workers had to have a union card to work in the mines. c. Workers rarely resorted to strikes because there were good lines of communication between them and management. 3 Time Travelers: Teaching American History in the Northwest, 2007 Regional Learning Project, University of Montana d. A couple of the reasons for this good worker-management relationship were: ∙Marcus Daly—the head of Anaconda Mining—was a former miner and was sympathetic to the interests of the company’s workershe closely identified with his workers. ∙During the War of the Copper Kings—which Harry lectured on in Unit 1—Daly and William A. Clark competed with one another for the votes of workers, so they both had a political incentive to treat their workers fairly. 2. The fate of unions in Butte changed around the turn of the 20 th century, when Marcus Daly died, the War of the Copper Kings ended, and Amalgamated Mining—an outside holding company— gained control of most mining operations in the city. a. Amalgamated was controlled by Standard Oil money and the majority owners were not nearly as sympathetic to the interests of miners as the local operators had been. b. Between 1903 and 1915, Amalgamated Mining, to quote one historian, “rendered Butte’s labor unions helpless.” ∙It forced workers to accept “open shops,” meaning that miners did not have to belong to the union. ∙Amalgamated introduced the “rustling card” system, which meant that miners had to have a card issued by the company permitting them to work in the mines. -This was one of the ways employers used to keep union organizers and other “troublemakers” from working in the mines. ∙Amalgamated refused to bargain collectively with its miners, bringing an end to collective bargaining. ∙As a result, the local miners’union collapsed. 4 Time Travelers: Teaching American History in the Northwest, 2007 Regional Learning Project, University of Montana -As one historian writes, “17,500 union miners became 16,000 unorganized workers.” c. And, not surprisingly, the relationship between miners and operators turned from one of trust and good will to mistrust and animosity. C. 1917 Butte Strike 1. The Speculator Mine Disaster a. As was often the case during this period, tragedy served as the spark to re-ignite the moribund labor movement in Butte. b. On June 8, 1917, a fire broke out in the Speculator Mine, which was owned by the Anaconda Company. ∙In violation of state law, the bulkheads were solid cement rather than iron doors which could be opened. ∙Rescue crews later found many dead bodies piled up against the cement bulkheads, with their fingers worn to the knuckles in an attempt to escape. ∙In total, 164 miners died. c. The disaster caused a spontaneous strike, in which miners demanded safer working conditions, better wages, and strict observance of state mining laws. d. The disaster also re-invigorated the local labor movement. ∙On June 13, less than a week after the Speculator fire, the Metal Mine Workers’ Union was founded. e. In sympathy with the miners, other workers in other trade unions walked off the job, including the machinists, boilermakers, and blacksmiths. ∙Important point to noteunions were divided along occupational lines. There was not one big union, but rather different unions for each different “trade.” 2. By the end of June, 15,000 workers were on strike, and mining on the Butte hill was virtually paralyzed. 5 Time Travelers: Teaching American History in the Northwest, 2007 Regional Learning Project, University of Montana a. The strike obviously had national and international significance because the U.S. was supplying war material to Great Britain and France and was preparing to enter the World War I itself. b. Copper was a critical raw material in the production of armaments, and therefore the mining of it was considered essential to the winning of the war. 3. After a couple weeks, the mine operators had gained the upper hand and the strike seemed about to collapse. a. They had successfully portrayed the striking workers as unpatriotic and even treasonous in the media. b. They had isolated the miners by convincing the other trade unionists to come back to work by offering them better contracts. c. And, some of the striking miners had come back to work as well. D. Frank Little and the IWW 1. It was at this point that Frank Little arrived in Butte. a. Little was 38 years old, small, frail, and had only one good eye. b. He was a well-known organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World ∙The IWW, better known as the Wobblies, was one of the most radical labor unions in the U.S. ∙It advocated industrial revolution, meaning: -An end to wage labor -And worker control over the means of the production ∙It also advocated political revolution: -Wobblies wanted to do away with nation states and bring about a world wide revolution of the working classes 6 Time Travelers: Teaching American History in the Northwest, 2007 Regional Learning Project, University of Montana -And, they considered the U.S. government to be a tool of capitalist interests. 2. Little’s activities in Butte a. Little gave two public speeches Butte and spoke before several closed-door meetings of the Metal Mine Workers’ Union. ∙Little reportedly encouraged the mine workers to “use any means necessary,” including violence and sabotage, to win the strike. ∙He also reportedly urged the mine workers to purposely hinder the war effort and start a class revolution in the U.S. ∙In one of his public speeches, on July 27, Little referred to the Constitution as “a mere scrap of paper which can be torn up,” described President Woodrow Wilson as a lying tyrant, and declared that the IWW was willing to “fight the Capitalists but not the German.” b. It is unclear how much support Little and the IWW had within the Metal Mine Workers’ Union. ∙Union leaders later testified that they believed that Little’s speeches hurt their cause and encouraged him to leave town. ∙And yet, Little was allowed to attend and speak at closed door union meetings, which suggests he had some support. c. Given that Little spoke these workds as the U.S. was preparing for war, many Montanans were outraged and demanded that he be arrested. ∙Local District Attorney Burton K. Wheeler investigated Little but could not find any basis for prosecuting him. 7 Time Travelers: Teaching American History in the Northwest, 2007 Regional Learning Project, University of Montana -Wheeler was quite liberally minded and did not believe that the government should restrict political speech, even during wartime. E. The Murder of Frank Little 1. Five days after the speech in which he advocated tearing up the Constitution and encouraged workers to fight the capitalists and not the Germans, Frank Little was murdered. 2. The Murder a. At three o’clock in the morning of August 1, five men kicked in the door of Room 32 at the Steele Block boardinghouse. b. They pulled Little from bed and dragged him outside to a waiting car. ∙Dressed only in his underwear. c. After driving a short distance, they tied him to the bumper and dragged his body through the empty streets of Butte. ∙They must have dragged him a considerable distance because his kneecaps were later found to have been scraped off. d. Little was then taken to the Milwaukee Bridge, where he was severely beaten and then hanged from a railroad trestle. e. A note was pinned to the body which read: “Others take notice, first and last warning, 3-7-77.” ∙The numbers were an insignia used by vigilantes during Montana’s early territorial days. 3. Most public commentators condemned the murder but added that Little had it coming to him. 4. No one was ever arrested for the murder and it is still not known who the killers were. a. Some claimed it was agents of the Anaconda Company. b. Some claimed it was soldiers stationed in Butte, who Little had called “uniformed scabs.” 8 Time Travelers: Teaching American History in the Northwest, 2007 Regional Learning Project, University of Montana c. Others claimed that Little was murdered by rival union men. d. Still others claimed that superpatriotic members of the Montana Council for Defense murdered him. F. Who committed the murder, however, is not as significant as what happened after it. 1. Fearing further violence and a shutdown of the mine, the federal government quickly sent troops into Butte. a. The presence of federal troops effectively ended the strike by pressuring the remaining striking miners to return to work. b. The failure of the strike rendered unions in Butte largely impotent and certainly increased the power of the Anaconda Company vis-à-vis its workers. 2. More generally, Little’s speeches and his spectacular murder inflamed wartime emotions and contributed to the frantic search for traitors and subversives in Montana. 3. In particular, the Little affair led to the passage of Montana’s Sedition law, which made it illegal to criticize the federal government, the armed forces, or the state government in wartime. a. The law read: ∙[A]ny persons who shall utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, violent, scurrilous, contemptuous, slurring or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the constitution of the United States, or the soldiers or sailors of the United States, or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the army or navy . . . or shall utter, print, write or publish any language calculated to incite or inflame resistance to any duly constituted Federal or State authority in connection with the prosecution of the War . . . shall be guilty of the crime of sedition. 9 Time Travelers: Teaching American History in the Northwest, 2007 Regional Learning Project, University of Montana b. Ironically, some proponents of the law justified it by claiming that it could have saved Frank Little’s life. ∙If it had been on the books before, Wheeler could have had Little arrested and the lynching would not have been necessary. c. In total, 47 people were prosecuted and imprisoned under the terms of the Sedition Act, some with sentences of 20 years or more. d. And, the Montana Sedition Act became the model for the infamous Federal Sedition Law, which was enacted in May of 1918. e. Both the state and federal laws were used to stifle criticism of the war and to punish and silence people who publicly expressed unpopular points of view. ∙In particular, the laws were used to crush left-wing labor unions, especially the IWW. ∙After the WWI era, the Wobblies would never again be a significance presence in the United States. G. One final note about the Frank Little murder: there is a documentary film on the murder titled “An Injury to One.” 1. I have not seen it, but I have read some positive reviews. 2. Much like I have tried to do in the lecture, the film places the murder in the larger context of the labor movement at the time. III. The Seattle General Strike of 1919 A. Introduction 1. I have spent a lot of time talking about organized labor in Butte and the Frank Little murder, so I will speak very briefly about the Seattle General Strike of 1919. ∙I will only have time to introduce it to you and attach a little significance to it. 10 Time Travelers: Teaching American History in the Northwest, 2007 Regional Learning Project, University of Montana 2. There is a very good web resources on the strike, which include background information, photographs, print documents, a video clip, and other source materials. a. It is the Seattle General Strike Project put together by a professor at the University of Washington. ∙So, the information has been vetted by a reputable scholar. ∙There is a particularly interesting article on the role of women during the strike, especially b. The web site is: http://faculty.washington.edu/gregoryj/strike c. You could use the web site to develop a really good lesson plan on organized labor and industrial strife. 3. Brief background on the labor movement in the U.S. a. Back in the 1870s and 1880s, the largest and most important labor union in the U.S. was the Knights of Labor. ∙The Knights organized workers in all trades and occupations, organized workers of all skill levels, and organized men and women, blacks and whites, native born and immigrants. ∙The only people excluded were liqueur dealers, land speculators, gamblers, and people of Chinese ancestry. ∙The key point is that the Knights brought together almost all workers into one big union. b. During the late 1880s and the early 1890s, the American Federation of Labor replaced the Knights of Labor as the largest and most powerful labor organization in the U.S. ∙Unlike the Knights, the AFL organized workers into separate unions based on their particular trade. -And so, rather than one big union, there were dozens and dozens of unions based on the type of work someone did. 11 Time Travelers: Teaching American History in the Northwest, 2007 Regional Learning Project, University of Montana ∙Furthermore, the AFL did not actively organize women, black Americans, or unskilled workers. ∙By dividing workers into many separate unions, the labor unions of the time limited the scope of a strike. -If railroad brakemen, for example, decided to go out on strike, it did not mean that the engineers or others who worked the trains would necessarily join them. -And it certainly did not mean that workers in other industries would go out on strike as well. -As a result, there were not “general” strikes during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 4. This background is necessary because it sets up the historical significance of the Seattle strike of 1919. a. The Seattle strike was a general strike, meaning that workers throughout the city in many different industries and occupations went out on strike. b. The strike was a test case of whether diverse workers could act in concert with one another and maintain a united front. B. The Seattle General Strike of 1919 in a Nutshell 1. The strike began as a shipyard strike on January 21, 1919. a. On that day, 35,000 union members, most of them affiliated with the Metal Trades Council, walked off the job. b. Shortly thereafter, workers in other unions voted to join the shipyard workers on strike. c. The date for the general strike was set for February 6. d. At the date approached, fear gripped the city, in part, because the strike occurred during the midst of the post- WWI red scare. ∙Many Seattleites viewed the general strike as the entering wedge of an attempted communist revolution. 12 Time Travelers: Teaching American History in the Northwest, 2007 Regional Learning Project, University of Montana ∙Locals stockpiled guns and ammunition and barricaded themselves within their homes. ∙Some feared that the long anticipated class-based civil war was about to begin, and it was going to begin in Seattle, Washington. 2. The General Strike a. Despite the dire predictions of violence, the strike began peacefully and left the city in an eerie state of inactivity. ∙Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson described it this way: “Streetcar gongs ceased their clamor; newsboys cast their unsold papers into the street; from the doors of mill and factory, sotre and workshop, streamed 65,000 workingmen. School children with fear in their hearts hurried homeward. The life stream of a great city stopped.” b. During the strike ∙During the strike, the strike committee ensured that essential city services continued and unions set up food stations to feed striking workers and the general public. ∙The government dispatched army troops from nearby Fort Lewis to maintain order in the city. ∙Somewhat amusingly, Mayor Hanson deputized 2,400 students from the University of Washington who belonged to fraternities and other student organizations. -They carried clubs and in some cases guns. ∙More seriously, Hanson took a hardline with the strikers, publicly warning that “death will be their portion is they start anything.” c. In the end, the strike was a total failure 13 Time Travelers: Teaching American History in the Northwest, 2007 Regional Learning Project, University of Montana ∙Shortly after it began, Hanson issued an ultimatum that the General Strike must end by 8 am Saturday, February 8, or he would declare martial law. -This was another example of his hardline approach. ∙The general strike lasted for only five days. -By February 11, only the original shipyard workers remained off the job and they soon returned to work as well. 3. Significance a. Clearly, the strike did not amount to much, which raises the question of why we should study. ∙Like the Frank Little murder, it had several important consequences. b. For one, the strike crippled labor unions in Seattle for over a decade. ∙Ole Hanson, employers, and newspapers successfully portrayed the unions un-American and subversive. -Whatever support unions and workers may have had among the middle-class public largely evaporated. ∙After the failed strike, many employers successfully instituted “open shop” rules, which meant that workers did not have to belong to a union to work in their businesses. ∙Overall union membership plummeted and continued to decline throughout the 1920s. c. Furthermore, Mayor Hanson’s actions during the strike served as an object lesson for employers and other public officials faced with striking workers. ∙Do not give in to demands and portray union organizers as communists and strikes can be soundly defeated. 14 Time Travelers: Teaching American History in the Northwest, 2007 Regional Learning Project, University of Montana ∙This hardline approach began standard during the 1920s and crippled the labor movement throughout the nation. ∙Organized labor in America did not recover until the mid- 1930s. d. Finally, the rapid breakup of the General Strike exemplified the persistent divisions among American workers. ∙For a brief moment workers of different skill levels in different industries were capable of concerted action, but it was how brief that moment was that really stands out. ∙Workers in different industries, with different levels of skill, and of different social backgrounds simply could not maintain a united front. IV. Conclusion A. These two examples raise several important questions that may be worthwhile talking about with your class: 1. Should there be limits placed on freedom of speech? What about during times of war? What should have happened to Frank Little? 2. Should workers be guaranteed the right to organize into unions? Why might workers choose to join unions and why might they choose not to? 3. Why is there not a strong socialist political movement in America as there is in almost every western European nation? B. These are interesting questions that I have found students enjoy thinking and talking about. 15
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