Our hidden history of strikes

May 2, 2018

Tim Goulet reviews a documentary that tells the story of some of the most important strikes in U.S. history--and the decisive roles played by socialists and other radicals.

IT'S BEEN many decades since we've seen anything like the wave of statewide membership-led teachers strikes that are taking place across the country.

So this is a perfect moment for the release of documentary filmmaker Scott Noble's Plutocracy IV: Gangsters for Capitalism to teach those inspired by the teachers' strikes what the gatekeepers of mainstream historical study don't tell us--that the U.S is home to a rich tradition of labor militancy and radicalism.

Gangsters for Capitalism, which covers some of the country's most explosive struggles from 1920 to 1935, is Noble's fourth installment of Plutocracy, a nonprofit, multipart educational series available for free viewing online. (Socialist Worker reviewed Part Three last year. )

Plutocracy vividly captures this interrelation between radical politics and the workplace through powerful imagery and analysis from radical authors and labor historians such as Sharon Smith, Lance Selfa, Peter Rachleff and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

The series aims to bring historical lessons to a new generation confronted with similar yet unique circumstances. If we can learn to apply what we've learned from our predecessors, we don't have to simply start from scratch with every struggle. In this regard, Noble's brand of history is less an academic or purely artistic exercise than a political intervention.

West Virginia coal miners carry the body of a co-worker killed on the job in 1907
West Virginia coal miners carry the body of a co-worker killed on the job in 1907 (University of Maryland)

Gangsters for Capitalism covers a lot of ground--all relevant for radicals today. In the brief space below I summarize what seems particularly salient today.

West Virginia

Perhaps West Virginia teachers were destined to be the catalyst of the current teacher rebellion. Not only do they have a new generation of young rank-and-file leaders, but they have a conscious tradition of worker-militancy going back to the great miners' struggles that broke out after the First World War, which Gangsters for Capitalism stirringly covers.

The war had brought prosperity to the state, but not to miners. Nonunion mines were controlled by U.S. Steel and the Pennsylvania Railroad, both under the direction of the House of Morgan. Wages were pitiful and most miners were totally beholden to the owners--living in camps in company-owned ramshackle dwellings, with currency only remunerative at the company store.

These mining villages were heavily policed by the armed thugs of the Baldwin-Felts strikebreaking agency. United Mine Workers (UMW) organizers took their lives in their hands in unorganized counties.


Plutocracy IV: Gangsters of Capitalism, part four of a five-part documentary by Scott Noble. Available online at FilmsForAction.org.

In 1919, miners in Mingo County had decided they had enough and applied for a UMW charter. In response, union sympathizers were fired and evicted from company housing. Bloody strikes followed in McDowell, Mercer, Logan and Mingo Counties.

Company gunmen, assisted by the governor, began bloody raids on union halls throughout the southern counties. One such raid was conducted in Matewan along the Kentucky border, home of the legendary feud between the Hatfield's and McCoy's.

("These two families had been shooting at each other for years, but their bloody feud was ended by unionism," writes Philip Foner in his sweeping History of the Labor Movement in the United States, as the Hatfields and McCoys had "joined the UMW and were striking together". This fact was conspicuously absent from the Golden Globe winning miniseries Hatfields & McCoys.)

More than 40 died in what became known as "the Matewan Massacre." When Sid Hatfield, the Matewan sheriff and a former miner sympathetic to the struggle, was assassinated, a semi-spontaneous uprising occurred, with thousands of miners marching toward anti-union stronghold Logan County.

Volunteers from Ohio, Pennsylvania and beyond, arrived and formed a multi-racial phalanx, heavily armed and on the move. A congressional investigation into conditions in WV was not enough to deter the miners, and when President Harding threatened to intervene with federal troops, the march continued nonetheless.

This march would culminate in "The Battle of Blair Mountain." For two days armed miners battled the combined force of private gunmen, local police, and 6,000 soldiers of the U.S Army. In addition, miners were strafed from the air by two planes carrying homemade bombs under the direction of the local police.

The miners were eventually forced to surrender and the local government came down with the full force of the law in an attempt to crush the UMW. But the miners never gave up their efforts to organize the coalfields, and when the Norris-LaGuardia Act and NIRA Section 7(a) opened more legal room to maneuver in the early 1930's, the UMW surged into the coalfields and organized the remaining mines.

The General Strikes of 1934

Gangsters of Capitalism concludes with the epic citywide general strikes of 1934 in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Toledo--with a special focus on the role a small group of Trotskyists were able to play in Minneapolis, radically transforming both the city's labor movement and the entire Teamsters union.

The 1920s was the era of the "open shop"--a period of union-busting and anti-communism that came on the heels of a postwar radicalism. In 1919, 4 million workers participated in job actions. That number had been reduced to fewer than 300,000 a decade later.

The work process was being deskilled through Taylorism and Fordist production techniques--attacks on workers control would foreshadow mechanization. Tens of thousands of immigrants were deported, communists were run out of select industries and unions and economic inequality and speculation on the financial markets culminated in the fantastic stock market crash of 1929.

In the early years of the Great Depression, organized socialists were able to get a hearing among the country's massive army of unemployed. When the economy began to show signs of life, this militancy spilled over into the labor movement, where many radicals were strategically situated to play decisive roles.

1933 witnessed an uptick in organizing activity and scattered strikes, but 1934 was a watershed. Gangsters of Capitalism highlights the role that would be played by the Communist Party in San Francisco, the American Workers Party (AWP) in Toledo, and the Communist League in Minneapolis.

The highlighted what many took to be common features of these strikes. As Trotskyist Bert Cochran wrote, all were "led or propelled by radicals," and "were settled only after the opposing sides took each other's measure in physical tests of strength."

Furthermore, Cochran wrote, "despite the hysteria against Communists," the workers on strike "enjoyed widespread support from the public, including sections of the middle class. The humiliations of the depression years had their effects."

Most importantly, they were victorious. "All three initiated the formation of strong labor movements in their locales and industries," wrote Cochran. Indeed, the one major class battle that was defeated in 1934--the great textile strike--was the one area where the Left was weakest.

Teamsters Local 574--the union the Trotskyists of the Communist League would join and transform--had barely 100 members in 1933. After a three-year organizing drive and strike the union would balloon to 7,000 by April 1934.

More amazing still, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters had but 80,000 members in 1933. By 1939, the union had ballooned to half a million.

A citywide general strike that transformed a city was used as a catalyst to spearhead an organizing drive of over-the-road trucking, bringing hundreds of thousands of new workers into the union across the country and turning took what was a conservative, bureaucratized and insular craft union into a militant, democratic industrial union that would serve as a model for the formation of the CIO in the next few years.

GANGSTERS FOR Capitalism brings these and other stories viscerally to life with lessons that should give socialists great hope today--the most important being that we should never underestimate the ability of the working class to move into motion to demand social justice.

The victories of the early 1930s are a profound demonstration of working-class self-activity and revolutionary leadership in a period that until then seemed decidedly bleak.

The general strikes of 1934 involved mostly unskilled and semi-skilled workers, most of whom had little connection to, and even less faith in, ingrained and often conservative union traditions. This left an opening for radicals to play a major role to steer the struggle forward.

As we're seeing today, strikes will not always be waged with approval or material support of the union officialdom--solidarity from below will be key.

While society has greatly evolved over the last 85 years, the fundamental element separating the rich from the rest of us--class inequality--still exists in spades. Noble's work in the Plutocracy series highlights the most powerful weapon oppressed people have: class organization, and the power that can be leveraged through such solidarity and unity.

Further Reading

From the archives