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GRIID Class on US Social Movements – Part III: The 19th Century US Labor Movement

February 13, 2021

Over the next 8 weeks, we will be posting a summary of the class we are facilitating on US Social Movements. These posts will include a summary of the discussion, the questions we presented to frame each social movement that is discussed, a timeline and additional books that are relevant to each movement.

In the 3rd week of the class on US social movements, we looked at the 19th Century US Labor Movement, by reading chapter chapter 11 from Zinn’s book, entitled, Robber Barons and Rebels. 

The chapter begins by framing the massive wealth gap that existed in the US, particularly after the Civil War. Zinn discusses how the Capitalist Class amassed wealth, through fraud, through exploitation of workers and by collaborating with politicians to pass laws that would benefit their interests. One example, was the legal system’s interpretation of the 14th Amendment to give corporations personhood, even though it was originally written to provide equal protection under the law for Black people after chattel slavery was abolished.

The rest of the chapter primarily addresses what organized labor was doing to confront the Robber Barons and the evolving system of Capitalism in the US. 

Like we have done in pervious posts, we used our 8 framing questions for discussion during the 3rd class. 

  1. What are the systems of power and oppression that existed during the period of history being discussed, and more importantly, what were the systems of power and oppression that the social movement was confronting, challenging or seeking to dismantle? People clearly identified the system of Capitalism as being the primarily system of oppression against workers, but they also talked about human rights and made clear that many of the unions excluded Black people from joining unions, which was a reflection of how deeply embedded White Supremacy was in the US Labor movement.
  2. What else was happening in the country or around the world that may have influenced how both the systems of power/oppression and the social movement responded? The group discussed how the US push to further Settler Colonial expansion was taking place, the construction of the railroads, immigration policy, specifically towards the Chinese and how US imperialist expansion in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines impacted working class people.
  3. In what way(s) did the social movement organize itself. Centralized, decentralized, autonomous, etc. Unions tended to be more centralized in their style of organizing, particularly with craft unions, although there were groups like the IWW who were more autonomous in their organizing approach, where anyone who wasn’t a boss or part of the Capitalist Class could join.
  4. What were the goal(s), strategies and tactics of the social movement? Unions inherently want to create more democracy in the work place, around wages, working conditions, etc. Only a few unions had the goal to dismantle Capitalism, specifically the IWW or unions that had a more socialist or anarchist critique. The tactics that were used involved strikes, boycott, the creation of worker centered media, attempts to create a worker-centered political party, plus the creation of cooperatives and co-op structures. The group also talked about how unions did not have a problem with the use of force and that the US Labor Movement had a fairly bloody history, particularly because of the types of repression that the Capitalist Class used. The group also talked a bit about the Haymarket Uprising and how it impacted worker organizing, particularly away from business unionism to a socialist or anarchist critique of Capitalism. 
  5. How did the system of power/oppression push back against the demands and gains made by the social movement? The Capitalist Class always tried to undermine or suppress union organizing, sometimes by hiring armed thugs like the Pinkertons or getting politicians to bring in the military to suppress worker uprisings. Industrialists also tried to break strikes by using scab labor, thus pitting workers against each other. It was also mentioned that the Capitalist Class was able to utilize the dominant newspapers to defend the Capitalist Class, especially since most larger newspapers were owned by members of that class.
  6. Were their intersectional aspects of the struggle the social movement was engaged in? As was mentioned earlier, there were only a few unions who had a more intersectional approach to labor organizing, like the IWW. Too many unions, like the American Federal of Labor were business unions, which were very accommodating to the Capitalist Class.
  7. How did the social movement impact other existing or future social movements? The US Labor Movement did demonstrate the potential power that organized workers can have, particularly those that had a more socialist or anarchist orientation. We discussed how an organizer like Eugene Debs had evolved during his lifetime, away from craft unionism to a strong critique of Capitalism.
  8. How was the social movement compromised or co-opted, and by which external forces were they compromised or co-opted? Here we discussed how the worker-centered political parties were often co-opted by the Democrats, how business unions were inherently coopted by the Capitalist Class and how the exclusion of Black people and women in most of the unions at that time worked in favor of those in power.

Here are some addition resources to further explore the US Labor Movement:

100 Years of Labor in the USA, by Daniel Guerin

The History of the Standard Oil Company, by Ida M. Tarbell

The Taming of the American Crowd: From the Stamp Riots to Shopping Sprees, by Al Sandine

From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the US, by Priscilla Mural & A.B. Chitty

Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland and the Tragedy of American Labor, by Paul Buhle

The Fall of the House of Labor, by David Montgomery

Class War USA: Dispatches from Workers Struggles in American History, by Brandon Weber

For All People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America, by John Curl

Strike! How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids, by Jeffrey Kleiman

Capitalism: A Structural Genocide, by Garry Leech

The 1937 Woolworth’s Sit-Down: Women Strikers Occupy Chain Store, Win Big, by Dana Frank

Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World, edited by Paul Buhle & Nicole Schulman

Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built America, by Premilla Nadasen

Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism 1945 – 1960, by Elizabeth Fones-Wolf

Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South, by Paul Finkelman

A History of America in Ten Strikes, by Eric Loomis

A History of the Labor Movement in the US, by Philip Foner

Haymarket Scrapbook, Edited by Franklin Rosemont & David Roediger

The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, by David Roediger

Corporations Are Not People, by Jeffrey Clements

The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph Over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class 1900 – 1970, by Sam Pizzigati

The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth, by Steve Fraser

A People’s History of Poverty in America, by Stephen Pimpare

All Labor Has Dignity: Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Michael Honey

Strike! By Jeremy Bretcher

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