Historical legacy of the working class -- History Demonstrates the Power of Workers’ Struggles

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The ruling class has long gone out its way to give American workers an inferiority complex, to give the working class the false impression that they are powerless to change things, and that struggle is useless. A key ingredient in this bourgeois ideological campaign is the attempt to hide its own history from the working class, in order to prevent workers from building upon the lessons of their experience. In the last issue of Internationalism, we discussed the revolutionary heritage of the U.S. working class as demonstrated by events in 1919, with the tremendous support shown by American workers for the Russian Revolution, the General Strike in Seattle, and the massive strike wave involving four million workers including, miners, transport workers and steel workers. It is important to understand that the struggles of 1919 did not come out of the blue, but were part and parcel of a long history of militant struggle in the U.S.

Great Upheaval of 1877Great Upheaval of 1877

Just seven years after the Paris Commune, a wave of class struggle erupted in the U.S. that genuinely frightened the American bourgeoisie. The Great Upheaval of 1877 began in Martinsburg, West Virginia on July 16 following the announcement of a 10 percent wage cut by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Angry workers began to gather at the rail yard, vowing that no trains would be allowed to move until the wage cut was rescinded. The company was unable to move any trains. Efforts by the sheriff to open the railroad were rebuffed. The mayor’s appeals for order were booed down.

Striking railroad workers were joined by others who clearly understood that the attack against the railroaders was an attack against all workers. A hastily organized strikers’ guard enforced the blockade. Would-be strikebreakers were turned away. Troops sent to disperse the strikers and their supporters, after a brief confrontation, proved unwilling to fight the workers and were withdrawn. No one could be found to scab on the strike, which quickly spread to all of the Baltimore & Ohio line. Unemployed workers, boatmen and coal miners joined in stopping trains. In Baltimore 15,000 workers from an array of industries joined the effort and forced the trains to stop.

In Pittsburgh a mass meeting called by strikers employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad adopted a revolution calling on "all workingmen to make common cause with their brethren on the railroad," a call for generalization of the struggle. And workers throughout country did respond. The railroad strike spread to Ohio and Pennsylvania, to McKeesport and Buffalo, New York, where delegations of workers called others to join the fight. In Chicago workers from many industries joined the strike: from the stockyards and packing houses, the steel mills, street wagons, brickyards, lumber yards and the tanneries. But nowhere was the strike more complete than in St. Louis, Missouri, where it spread throughout the city in a single day. Anticipating the strides that would be made in 1919 in self-organization during the Seattle General Strike, workers in St. Louis created a strike committee to organize the struggle and to take rudimentary steps towards governing the city.

Mass marches were used to spread the strike from neighborhood to neighborhood, marching behind the symbol of the struggle: a loaf of bread on a flagstaff. Just as forty years later, the Seattle strikers would grant exemptions to the strike to maintain the health and welfare of workers and their families, the St. Louis strir families, the St. Louis strike committee decided to allow the continued production of bread to feed the population. A plea from a sugar company to allow continued operations in order to prevent spoilage was granted. At one of the mass meetings in St. Louis, the specter of revolution was raised by one of the speakers:

"All you have to do gentlemen, for you have the numbers, is to unite on one idea – that the workingmen shall rule the country. What man makes belongs to him, and the workingmen made this country."

For more than two weeks the front page of the New York Times talked of nothing else. Federal troops eventually restored order, but the workers had shown their capacity to respond to the attacks of the bourgeoisie, to spread their struggles across an expanse of 1500 miles, from Baltimore to St. Louis, to neutralize the forces of capitalism’s law and order, to organize themselves, and to pose revolutionary questions on an embryonic level.

For the bourgeoisie the struggle of 1877 was a traumatic experience. The New York Times referred to the strikers as "desperate men," and characterized the strike as "rebellion" and "a state of insurrection." Times editorialists blamed t editorialists blamed the strike on the "tyranny of trades-unionism," and criticized "the imbecility" of local authorities who failed to subdue the workers immediately. Supporters of the strikes were derided as "a parcel of fanatics and ragamuffins." The Times urged that the repressive forces of the state be used protect the railroads and their scabs: "Any interference with them, or their employees, must be prevented whatever the case." Regarding the "ringleaders" of the "riots," the Times invoked the specter of the Paris Commune:

"It is not at all necessary to show the vindictiveness in their prosecution which characterized the trials of the French Communists, but it would be at once weak and wicked to forget that they stand charged with crimes which must be severely punished if society is to continue to exist under democratic forms of government…A lasting service can be performed at once to the class to which these men belong and the interests of the community at large by making salutary examples of all who have been taken red-handed in riot and bloodshed."

The New York Tribune described a crowd of striking workers as a "wild beast and needs to be shot down." The New York Sun prescribed a "diet of lead for the hungry strikers." Just as the French bourgeoisie, undertook to alter the streets of Paris after the defeat of the Paris Commune, creating broader boulevards to make it more difficult for rebellious workers to erect street barricades in future outbreaks of class struggle, the American bourgeoisie began to change the face of American cities. In the aftermath of 1877, the ruling class began the construction of armories in the major cities to serve as weapons depots and strongholds for militias and national guards to be able to put down future unrest.

Homestead Strike of 1892

The Robber Baron Andrew Carnegie precipitated the Homestead Strike of 1892 with his attack against the standard of living of the workers and his bid to break the union representing the highest skilled workers. Carnegie announced his intention to impose an 18 percent pay cut and issued a statement saying that the real issue was whether the Homestead steel workers would be union or non-union. He ordered a 12 foot high fence to be built around the plant -–3 miles in length – with 3 inch holes at shoulder height every 25 feet, signaling preparation for an armed fight with the workers. At the same time Ca workers. At the same time Carnegie hired the notorious Pinkerton company to provide armed thugs for the upcoming struggle. An ultimatum was issued for workers to accept the wage cut by June 24th or face mass layoffs.

The workers did not take these provocations lightly. This was the period in the history of capitalism when unions were still organs of working class self-defense, which workers could use to defend their interests, before the onset of capitalist decadence and the integration of the unions into the capitalist state apparatus. They were not about to abandon the union and submit to Carnegie’s dictates without a fight. The Amalgamated Union, which represented the skilled workers, about 750 of the plant’s 3,800 employees, established an Advisory Committee, comprised of five delegates from each lodge, to coordinate the struggle against Carnegie’s attacks. A mass meeting of 3,000 workers from all categories, union and non-union voted overwhelmingly to strike.

The Advisory Committee took responsibility for organizing an elaborate network to track the company’s maneuvers, to monitor the possibility of an anticipated transport of Pinkerton goons by river boat from Pittsburgh. Workers rented their own vessel to patrol the river. Every road within a five mile radvery road within a five mile radius of Homestead was blockaded, and a thousand strikers patrolled the river banks for ten miles. The Committee assumed virtual control of the town, assuming authority over the water, gas, and electricity facilities, shutting down the saloons, maintaining order and proclaiming ad hoc laws. An attempt by the county sheriff to move against the strikers fell flat on its face when he proved unable to raise a posse. The workers offered the sheriff a tour of the plant and promised to guarantee the security of the facility from any trespassers. Sympathy for the strikers was high.

On July 5th a steam whistle sounded the alarm at 4am. Two barges transporting more than 300 pinkertons left Pittsburgh. By the time the thugs arrived at Homestead, 10,000 armed strikers and their supporters were gathered to "greet" them. An armed confrontation erupted. Thirty workers were wounded, and three killed in the early fighting. Armed proletarians from nearby towns rushed to the scene to reinforce their class brothers. The shoot-out continued throughout the day. Finally the demoralized pinkertons, trapped in debilitating heat on the barges, outnumbered and outgunned, mutinied against their superiors.

Most were not regular agents, but reservists who had been recruited under false pretenses; they were prepared to do some bullying, intimidating and terrorizing, but did not have the stomach to confront armed, organized class resistance. Once the pinkertons surrendered, the workers debated what to do with their despised prisoners. Angered by the casualties inflicted by the pinkertons – a total of 40 wounded, 9 killed -- some wanted to execute the thugs, but the Committee reasoned that a mass execution would be used against the strikers by the bourgeoisie. Instead the pinkertons were forced to run a gauntlet. In the end the casualties suffered by the pinkertons were 20 shot, seven killed and 300 injured running the gauntlet.

The strike continued for four months. Eventually federal troops were brought in to crush the struggle, and 160 strikers were arrested and charged with murder and assault. But the bourgeoisie’s repressive apparatus could not find a jury anywhere in the Pittsburgh region that would convict a single striker. All were acquitted. Hugh O’Donnell, one of the strike leaders, was first charged with treason. Following his acquittal on those charges, he was immediately rearrested and tried for murder. And following acquittal on that charge, he was rearrested and tried for assault – again successfully beating back the state's prosecution.

However, despite beating back the criminal charges, the strike morale was broken, and the union driven out. Throughout the country workers were sympathetic to the struggle at Homestead, and needless to say, the spokesmen of the capitalist class were furious. Strikers were referred to as a "mob." The New York Times granted that the company had provoked the battle, nevertheless maintained solidarity with its class brother and insisted that the obligation of the state was,

"to enforce law and order at Homestead, to quell the mob, to put the property of the Carnegie Steel Company in possession its owners and to protect their lawful rights."

Despite ending in defeat, Homestead was an important moment in the history of class struggle in America. What happened at Homestead was not a riot. It was organized class violence, consciously controlled by the workers, as part of the struggle. Homestead demonstrated clearly the capacity of workers to organize their struggles, to resist the attacks of the capitalist class, to achieve an active solidarity in struggle, to organize their own power to rival that of the local state apparatus during the struggle, to organize class violence and exercise it judiciously.

cise it judiciously.

History Demonstrates the Power of Workers’ Struggles

Whatever the efforts of the ruling class to deny workers access to their own history, it is clear that workers in the U.S. possess a glorious history of class struggle – militant, conscious, intelligent, and fully in step with the struggle of workers in other countries. Today, as workers confront an escalation in attacks against their standard of living, even as the bourgeois propaganda apparatus insists that we live in a period of unbounded prosperity, it is essential that workers take up the experience of their past struggles. Our history shows that workers have the potential and the ability to organize their struggles independently, across the false divisions of job and union jurisdictions, and to take the struggle into their own hands and confront the class enemy. Not only does such action provide the means to beat back new attacks, but it lays the groundwork for the development of a class movement that can challenge and destroy capitalist exploitation once and for all.

Jerry Grevin


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