Labor Peace is a Crazy Liberal Idea

Guest post by Dr. William Turner. 

Everyone’s favorite new, “libertarian” United States Senator, Rand Paul, has taken to distributing a petition in support of his “Right to Work Act,” stating, inter alia, that “This forced unionism breeds violent strikes.”  With this statement, Paul demonstrates nothing but his profound ignorance of U.S. history.

Our nation undoubtedly does have a sorry history of violent strikes, often involving private “security” forces that owners hired to beat up their own striking workers.  Have you ever heard of such an event?  Of course not.  The reason is simple: no such violent strike has occurred in the United States during the lifetime of any living person.

But such incidents were not infrequent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and environs were famous both as a major center of manufacturing, and as a major center of labor battles in this period.  Famously, labor unrest began with the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which engulfed the entire nation and produced general strikes in some major cities.  Events leading up to the strike started with a bank panic in 1873 (sound familiar?).  By 1877, the unemployment rate was as high as 27%, and those workers who still had jobs were making do with significantly reduced wages.

Remember, this was before all those crazy, liberal reforms of the Progressive Era and New Deal of the early twentieth century, like unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation and minimum wage and overtime pay requirements.

Many people worked six or seven days per week, often in highly dangerous work environments and for one dollar per day of pay or less.

Railroads were the core of America’s growing industrial might and prosperity.  Building railroad engines and cars was big business, as was building the rail lines the trains ran on, and the trains were essential to farmers across the land for getting their crops to market.  Thus, a major railroad strike could bring the whole nation to a standstill.  And, in 1877, it did.  Conservatives worried that revolution was in the offing.  Pitched battles occurred between striking workers and militia, with federal troops standing in for local police and state troops where the state and local forces sided with the workers.

This national strike started a long debate among workers over which strategy to use in their organizing.  They had an array of models to choose from, with the reformist Knights of Labor at one end, attempting to organize industrial workers with farmers into one large union, and the International Workers of the World, commonly known as wobblies, at the other end, advocating overthrow of the existing government in favor of industrial socialism.

Socialism, by the way, was a perfectly respectable political position in this period, and remained so until just after World War I, when, during the First Red Scare, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer deported large numbers of foreign born socialist activists.

Workers largely settled this debate in 1937, with the sit-down strike against General Motors, which helped to cement the affiliation of the reformist, bureaucratic American Federation of Labor (AFL) with the relatively militant Congress of Industrial Organizations.  Although remnants of the Wobblies and the American Communist Party were involved in the General Motors strike and the subsequent organization of the United Auto Workers (UAW), in the long run, the alliance of the AFL with the CIO led to a long period of relative labor peace in the United States.  Of course, major pro-labor legislation, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act and the creation of the National Labor Relations Board to supervise union elections and enforce federal statutes enabling unions helped mightily as well.

So it was that the “forced unionism” that Rand Paul deplores actually helped end the violent strikes that had plagued the United States for some sixty years before the advent of the federally supervised labor peace of the AFL-CIO and federal labor regulations.

©2011 Dr. William Turner. Visit his web site

Click here to see our series of posters about the crazy liberal ideas that have made America what it is today


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