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This Day in Labor History: December 15, 1921

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On December 15, 1921, the Kansas National Guard arrived to break up women’s marches in support of a strike of coal miners in southeastern Kansas. That intervention, done with the open support of United Mine Workers of America president John L. Lewis who hated the independent and socialist UMWA local in that state, demonstrated the response to socialist and democratic organizing in the post-World War I era.

In 1919, the UMWA went on strike nationally. The Kansas local, led by the socialist Alexander Howat, joined the strike. Kansas governor Henry Allen decided to break the strike. He spoke at halftime of the Kansas-Missouri football game to ask KU students to volunteer as strikebreakers, a common tactic at that time. Many, especially fraternity members, happily became scabs or enforcers. The state took over the mines and busted the strike, starting a very bad decade for the UMWA. In the aftermath, Allen decided to forestall strikes by creating a special court of arbitration. Called the Kansas Court of Industrial Relations, it outright banned strikes in the state and could lead to state takeover of key industries to keep them running. It allowed for collective bargaining but took away any enforcement mechanism.

Meanwhile, UMWA District 14 hated it. They had every intention of pushing the mine owners and the state to demand their rights. Miners called the law making the new court the Kansas Slave Act, directly making connections to the important legacy of slavery in that state and the battles of the 1850s that led to the Civil War. A series of unauthorized strikes followed. Howat was jailed. These strikes didn’t also just make Allen angry–although he also sensed opportunity and hoped to be the Republican candidate for the presidency in 1924–they also infuriated John L. Lewis.

Lewis is one of the most complicated and conflicted people in American history. The man who created the CIO and organized the millions of American industrial workers, largely using communist organizers, also despised communism, voted Republican, and brooked absolutely no opposition to his dictatorial control over his union. Anyone who defied Lewis was evicted from the union, replaced by a yes man. Lewis responded to Howat’s strikes and jailing by expelling him and his supporters from the UMWA. This divided workers both nationally and locally, but most of them in Kansas stuck with Howat. The miners struck again to protest Howat’s jailing.

This time, the miners’ wives held a meeting on December 11. The meeting, closed to men except for one speaker, consisted of great anger at the coal operators, the governor, and John L. Lewis. Calling the law the “Allen Industrial Slavery Law,” they vowed to stand in solidarity with their husbands so that their children wouldn’t become slaves. Explicitly using family rhetoric around motherhood, they hoped to take the fight to the governor. While the men had not taken a particularly radical stance in their strike and had even jokingly referred to it as a vacation, after this meeting, the women announced a march to shut down every mine in the district. The next morning, they headed to a local mine to turn back scabs. The men followed at a distance. They succeeded. For the next three days, the women went to local mines and attacked scabs, often by throwing red pepper in their eyes, overturning their lunch buckets, and then stealing their coffee and pouring it on them. These women were not messing around. Mostly immigrants, they were disappointed in the lies of the American Dream. Many had come from socialist backgrounds in eastern Europe. The struggle for them was basically the same in the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the United States. At the same time, they used the American flag to make their demands on the state and employer, going so far as to make captive coal bosses kiss the flag, a reversal of how right-wing vigilantes treated socialists during the Red Scare.

The media went ballistic. Calling them Amazons, they demanded the state intervene to preserve law and order. Allen had no scruples about doing that. Saying that the strike was illegal, the state attorney general wanted to prosecute the entire district under the state’s vagrancy laws, long used to control labor, whether that of the IWW or black laborers in the South. Cities began cracking down on civil rights, closing public facilities, and otherwise making it impossible for union members to meet. The U.S. district attorney ordered the arrest of all non-citizens participating in the march; he later noted gleefully how many had fled Kansas. Given the number of immigrants involved, bootlegging busts became effective, particularly as alcohol production was traditionally women’s work. Several leaders were arrested and convicted of various offenses. Basically, the entire state apparatus came down hard on these strikers, all with the approval of John L. Lewis, although his support made no meaningful difference.

Howat himself distanced himself from the women’s actions quickly, even decrying the idea of going to camps to bust scabs. To what extent this was a rhetorical strategy of a man in prison and to what extent heartfelt belief, I really don’t know. But the District 14 newspapers actually didn’t cover the women’s actions much, even before the suppression set in. Perhaps male union officials were uncomfortable with women taking the lead in the strike, which did not reinforce their rhetoric of independent men fighting what they saw as slavery. Howat used a lot of this masculine rhetoric, talking about the strike as a “fight where it took real men to stand the test, men with manhood and courage and determination, men who could not be browbeaten and bulldozed and driven back to the mines like cowering slaves.” Not much room for independent women in this worldview.

That said, the movement didn’t just disappear. When Mother Jones visited southeastern Kansas in 1922, she told the women “Go out and raise Hell! Your agitation is awakening the nation!” Those with American citizenship worked to elect candidates, even though the strike itself was long over by the fall of 1922. They ousted both the county sheriff and the judge who had sentenced their leaders. The Democrat who opposed Allen’s industrial court won a rare statewide victory for the governor of Kansas that fall. On the other hand, District 14 was basically destroyed in the aftermath. Striking miners were blacklisted and violence between scabs and strikers continued long after the strike was lost. The UMWA got crushed in districts like this around the nation in the 20s, but Lewis was also perfectly fine with the elimination of rebellious regions who defied him.

Later in the 1920s, a series of Supreme Court decisions overturned the Kansas Court of Industrial Relations’ rulings and the cost of the thing and the legal defenses led the state to turn against it as a waste of money. It was disbanded in 1925. Alexander Howat, who returned to the union and then was banished by Lewis again, ended up spending his last years cleaning street gutters in Pittsburg, Kansas. John L. Lewis became the most powerful labor leader in the United States. The women? They remained involved in their community and in politics, but I’ve never seen anything about their long-term histories.

This post was based on Benjamin Goosen’s 2011 article, “‘Like a Brilliant Thread’: Gender and Vigilante Democracy in the Kansas Coalfields, 1921-1922” in the Autumn 2011 issue of Kansas History. Thanks to all the historians whose work makes a series like this possible.

This is the 291st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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