U.S. labor’s early battles

November 22, 2016

Ruth Hurley reviews the second installment of a five-part documentary series about conditions for the workers who built the foundations of U.S. capitalism.

OCCASIONALLY IN modern politics, the phrase "class war" is bandied about, usually by a Republican decrying any effort to resist escalating the transfer of wealth upward.

But "class war" was not rhetorical exaggeration at the turn of the 20th century in the U.S., especially in the critical industries of coal and the railroads that launched the U.S. to international preeminence. Titanic struggles culminated in armed conflicts, regional strikes were the order of the day, and mass organizations of workers, some revolutionary, grew in the fertile ground of these struggles.

Scott Noble chronicles the violent path of labor relations in his feature-length documentary, Plutocracy: Solidarity Forever. A labor of love, Plutocracy is an ambitious, five-part history of the United States through the lens of class, which Noble is making free for public viewing and use.

This most recent installment Solidarity Forever is the second in the series, following the first part, Divide and Conquer, that provides an excellent view of how race was constructed to uphold an unequal America.

Rail workers walk off the job during the 1894 Pullman strike
Rail workers walk off the job during the 1894 Pullman strike

PICKING UP where part one left off, the film depicts the horrific conditions that built the foundation of American capitalism. With the highest rate of on-the-job fatalities internationally--averaging 35,000 deaths a year--American capitalism utilized every possible means to prevent resistance.

As amply illustrated in part one, race and ethnicity were the favored means of dividing workers. Noble quotes Frederick Engels writing on this challenge:

[In the United States] workers [are divided] into two groups: the native-born and the foreigners, and the latter in turn into (1) the Irish, (2) the Germans, (3) the many small groups, each of which understands only itself: Czechs, Poles, Italians, Scandinavians, etc. And then the Negroes. To form a single party out of these requires quite unusually powerful incentives.

Socialist activist Brian Jones explains how dueling pressures on workers under capitalism both push them to compete for scarce resources like jobs, and to unite to struggle for better conditions. In example after example throughout the film, when workers overcome the barriers of race, skill, or language and take on the bosses, the bosses turn to private armies and police forces to deal ruthlessly with this threat.

Review: Documentary

Plutocracy II: Solidarity Forever, part two of a five-part documentary by Scott Noble. Available online at FilmsForAction.org.

At the height of this turbulent period, the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency--a strike-breaking outfit known both for mass assaults on pickets, but also for infiltration, assassination and framing workers--numbered more than the standing army of the U.S. itself.

Noble makes the case that the actions of the elites at this time were not in contradiction to the political parameters of U.S. society, but well within it.

Quoting Enlightenment philosopher and economist Adam Smith--"Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all"--the second section of the film lays out how the American "caste system" disenfranchised women, freed Blacks and the poor.

In the political realm, like the world of labor struggles, when these inequalities were challenged, especially by Black would-be voters, physical violence was the response. Noble rightly identifies this terrorism as the "paramilitary wing of the Democratic Party," which anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells described as simultaneously acting as social control over Blacks and sublimating the class anger of poor whites.

The political response on the part of workers ranged from the radical rural organizing of the People's (Populist) Party, to the Socialist Party, led by railroad union hero Eugene V. Debs.

Debs was launched into the national spotlight after the American Railway Union won first a regional strike, then launched a national boycott in support of striking Pullman Sleeping Car workers. Perhaps the best-known American socialist, his trajectory from labor militant to revolutionary was a path followed by many in his generation.

The other political force that emerged at this time, which Solidarity Forever spends a considerable portion of its time depicting, is anarchism. Internationally a formidable tendency, in the U.S., it took two major forms: syndicalism and "propaganda of the deed" efforts.

Preaching "One Big Union", the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, rose like a rocket after forming in 1905. With a cast of dedicated, charismatic leaders like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Big Bill Haywood, the Wobblies would lead critical fights across the country.

On the other hand, followers of the "propaganda of the deed" school of thought attempted to spark mass revolt through individual acts of violence. The highest profile act by this wing was the 1901 assassination of sitting President William McKinley. Assassin Leon Czolgosz gravitated to anarchist politics after losing his job in a steel mill during the economic crash of 1893. While other acts of violence were carried out, it was not successful in its stated aims of kicking off a widespread struggle against capitalism.

THE INSTABILITY of the era didn't just affect the extremes of society; the period is known as the Progressive Era for the multiple middle-class movements to clean up the excesses of the age.

While many socially progressive elements did exist--like women's suffrage, legislating against child labor and the anti-lynching movement--there was a heavy presence of patronizing and moralizing about the lives of working people. Prohibition, which outlawed alcohol from 1920 to 1933, exemplifies the attitudes of middle-class reformers toward the poor, who needed saving at the hands of more enlightened, educated figures.

But Progressivism had even darker aspects than moral judgments of the poor. Much to the credit of Scott Noble, the film briefly describes how the Progressive Era justified further ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, driving them further West.

Religion was used as cover for the efforts to "civilize" Indian country, forcibly removing young people into residential schools. The Carlisle School is the most infamous of these institutions, which perversely attempted to "prove" the value of Native people by their ability to shed traditional culture and values, and not only assimilate into, but excel within American society.

It is not a far leap from this false progressivism to eugenics, which asserted that the problems of poverty are based in genetics, not class society. The movement counted among its supporters many of the most powerful members of the U.S. ruling class: the Rockefellers, J.P. Morgan, the Du Ponts, the Ford Foundation and Harvey Kellogg.

As a direct result of this philosophy, tens of thousands of "undesirable" men and women were sterilized against their will--largely Black, Native and immigrant, but also disabled and non-neurotypical adults.

The strength of Solidarity Forever is continuing to chronicle the development of U.S. society using the battle over labor as its touchstone. However, where Divide and Conquer was thematically organized and powerfully made the case for how labor and the construction of race shaped U.S. capitalism, Solidarity Forever lacks that cohesion.

A phenomenally complicated political period, the turn of the century represented both a continuation of the expansion of U.S. capitalism at a breakneck speed, but also a turn--especially in Washington, D.C., and the Northeast industrial zones--toward rationalization of both industry and government. The film depicts the working- and middle-class responses to this same crisis the elites faced, but only partially uncovers the motivations driving reform at the top of society.

Anti-trust and anti-corruption efforts emerged in the upper levels of society as a reaction to the chaos of industry and need for a more smoothly running machine for profit. While elements of this emerge in Solidarity Forever--in depicting the intervention of Theodore Roosevelt against trusts or how private strikebreaking militias became municipal police forces--it reflects more of the chaos than it illuminates.

Nonetheless, Scott Noble and Metanoia Films have again produced a compelling and informative film that contradicts the myths of the American Dream.

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