By Brandon Weber

Haymarket Books. 157 pages. £16.99. ISBN 978-1-60846-847-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Union membership in America is at an all-time low. It currently stands at 6.4% in the private sector and 34.4% in the public sector (figures from Brandon Weber’s book). The situation in Britain is somewhat better, with 13.5% in the private sector and 51.5% in the public sector (gov.uk statistics for 2017). Neither country can be said to be in a healthy position. And Weber, looking at what he sees around him, is pessimistic: “we’re in danger of losing labour unions from our landscape. With them go good wages, benefits, health care, pensions, control over work life, dignity, and so much more”.

There may be a variety of reasons for the decline in union membership, among them the disappearance or reduction in size of large, labour-intensive industries. Steel, docks, mining, automobile manufacturing, and others, have been affected by automation and competition from countries in the Far East and elsewhere. Many people in the private sector are now employed in call centres, pubs, clubs, supermarkets, restaurants, on-line shopping distribution centres, and the like, and are difficult to organise into unions. They’re often on part-time, temporary, or zero-hours contracts, and don’t stay long in one particular job. And, I suspect, the larger, established unions are reluctant to spend too much time and resources on trying to organise among workers who have no tradition of unionisation and can see little or no benefit in belonging to a union.

Brandon Weber’s collection of short, briskly written pieces looks at a series of strikes and related activities that are part of the history of labour struggles in the United States. He doesn’t claim to be providing a complete chronicle of such matters, and in fact some readers might want to question the inclusion of items on the Christmas Day 1914 spontaneous truce between opposing troops on the Western Front, the Stonewall riots when gays fought back against police harassment, and the events at Attica prison which resulted in what was called a massacre of prisoners and hostages when police and National Guardsmen went in to supress the rebellion. Others may think that they do come within the definition of “class war”.

Weber doesn’t offer a chronological account and kicks off with the 1915 execution of the legendary Joe Hill, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) activist and songwriter, who had been accused of murdering a Salt Lake City shopkeeper and his son. One of the men who stormed into the shop had been wounded, and Hill had suffered a gunshot wound on the same night. He claimed to have been shot during a dispute over a woman, though he refused to say who she was. Weber says that in 1949 Hilda Erickson stated that she was the woman in question, and that her former fiancé, Otto Applequist, had wounded Hill. This does raise the question of why neither of them came forward at the time to help save Hill from being falsely convicted of murder, and Weber doesn’t comment on it. It was possibly true that the evidence against him wasn’t sufficient to warrant a conviction, and that he was the victim of prejudice because of his background, IWW involvements, and the need to hold someone responsible for the death of the shopkeeper, who happened to be an ex-policeman. A 1971 film, Joe Hill, by the Swedish director Bo Widerberg gave a somewhat-romanticised version of the story. 

The cotton mills of Lowell, Massachusetts were the site of what Weber says was “America’s very first union of working women” as, in the 1830s and 1840s, they organised to oppose wage cuts and improve working conditions. And another body of exploited workers, this time Afro-Americans, attempted to form a union to push for higher pay and shorter hours while working as porters on Pullman train cars, as they were called. Faced with opposition from management which involved spying on and firing union organisers and sympathisers, it took many years before they were successful. Weber also highlights a little-known episode in Atlanta in 1881 when the washerwomen, 98% of whom were Afro-American, went on strike. There were attempts to quell the strike by arresting people and threatening to impose a licensing system on the washerwomen, but the authorities eventually backed down on that idea. Weber doesn’t really clarify what improvements in pay and conditions the strikers gained.

The Pullman organisation reared its head again when, in 1894, Eugene V. Debs began to organise in the company’s factories and led a boycott of  trains which had a Pullman car of any kind (sleeper, restaurant, etc.) attached. Weber says that, “at its peak, the boycott involved  250,000 in twenty-seven states , some on strike, some who participated in halting rail traffic, and some who rioted”. Debs tried to act as a calming influence, but at Blue Island in Illinois a mob set fire to buildings and derailed a train carrying mail. The government stepped in and state militia and federal troops were sent to restore calm. Debs was held responsible for the disorder, arrested, and spent six months in prison.

Violence was often a hallmark of American strikes, as witness events at Cripple Creek, Colorado, in 1894, when the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) took the miners out on strike. Management came to an agreement with the local sheriff to hire and arm over one hundred deputies to terrorise the strikers. It didn’t quite work out that way as the miners armed themselves and fought back. They also dynamited one mine whose owner hid been particularly intransigent in dealing with the WFM. Things only settled down when the state militia were drafted into the area. 

The mines were always flashpoints and trouble erupted in 1913 at Ludlow, Colorado, where organisers for the United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) were active. A strike caused miners and their families to be evicted from company homes and forced to live in tents. Two women and eleven children died when mine guards and members of the National Guard fired on the strikers and set many of the tents on fire. The miners retaliated and ten days of fighting led to a final death toll of sixty-six for both sides. Woody Guthrie later wrote a song, “1913 Massacre” which commemorated the tragedy.

There was more trouble in mining areas in 1920 when strikers led by the local sheriff, Sid Hatfield, confronted a group of Baldwin-Felts private detectives who had been sent to evict families from company property in Matewan, West Virginia. In the ensuing gun battle seven of the detectives, the local mayor, and two miners died. Hatfield and a companion were later gunned down by Baldwin-Felts agents, and the whole area erupted into near-insurrection when thousands of armed miners were confronted by a large number of deputies led by Sheriff Chafin at Blair Mountain. The situation appeared to be so serious that Federal troops were sent to separate the opposing sides and disarm the miners. Weber gives the casualty figures as well over one hundred killed with hundreds more wounded, though an accurate count could never be established. The John Sayles film, Matewan, focused on what happened up to and including the shoot-out in the town.

Weber provides information about the infamous Triangle Shirt Waist fire of 1912, when 145 people, mostly young Jewish and Italian women, died in a New York sweat shop that had locked doors, no sprinkler system, four lifts only one of which worked and it was faulty, and other inadequate safety precautions. It’s a fairly well-known story, but what about the 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when a thriving black community was destroyed? It’s doubtful if many people will have heard of this. It was another situation where the number of dead was never finally arrived at. Weber says it was between fifty-five and three hundred, with hundreds injured. It might not qualify as an example of a “workers struggle”, and it’s more than likely true that white workers were involved in the killing and burning, but it’s a shocking story.

The 1930s saw a sharp rise in union membership as the Congress of Industrial Organisation (CIO)  was established in opposition to the conservative American Federation of Labour (AFL), and a union recruiting drive got underway in the car factories. It wasn’t all plain sailing, and the Ford River Rouge  factory at Dearborn, Michigan, proved a particularly difficult location to get into. There are photos in the book which show union organisers being assaulted by company security guards.

In 1934 there was a major strike in Minneapolis when truck drivers closed down the city as they fought to become members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) under the guidance of Farrell Dobbs, Carl Skoglund, and three brothers, Grant, Miles, and Vince Dunn. Trotskyists played a large role in the strike, and were faced with hostile police and the Citizens Alliance which was made up of large-scale property owners and “politically right-wing individuals”. The Citizens Alliance was staunchly anti-union and prepared to hire thugs and use violence against union members.   

It isn’t all looking at a distant past, and Weber has a chapter on Cesar Chavéz, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers union. There was a strike in the canneries at Watsonville, California, by workers belonging to the IBT union. When the union negotiated a deal they didn’t agree with, they carried on, despite “attacks from the companies, the police, and sometimes their own union representatives”, and eventually won. Postal workers walked off the job in 1970, despite wildcat strikes being illegal. And the private United Parcel Service (UPS) experienced strike action by its employees, members of the IBT, when it attempted to change employment conditions to the detriment of union members. As Weber points out, solidarity is what counted and led to success.

Class War, USA does not pretend to do more than provide brief accounts of some of the difficulties experienced by American workers while attempting to organise and fight for better pay and conditions. He could have included many more examples of strikes and their consequences, such as the Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago in 1937 when police killed ten unarmed strikers. Most of them were shot in the back or the side, indicating that they had been attempting to get away from the police when fired on. Going back further, the IWW-led strike of Lawrence mill employees in 1912 might have been mentioned. That was the strike when some of the girls carried a banner reading, “We want bread and roses too”.

There is much more that could be said. The great steel strike of 1919, something I thought about when I was in Pittsburgh many years ago. Or the Seattle General Strike of the same year. And San Francisco in the 1930s and Harry Bridges and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Or I might even add the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and its many struggles in the New York rag trade. And Fred Beal and the mill workers of Gastonia in 1929. American labour history is rich in accounts of colourful characters, hard-fought strikes and other union activities. 

I could go on but it would be unfair to Weber to do so, and it might suggest that I’m criticising him for not including the material I’ve referred to. I’m not. His book is a brave attempt to focus attention on a subject, the need for strong unions, at a time when too many people appear to be dissatisfied with their situations, but don’t want to commit themselves to organisations which could help to resolve their problems.