If there’s one thing the state of Illinois needs, it’s another centrist insider Democrat running for high office on a position of tearing down the good life for working-class people. Always important to follow Rahm Emanuel’s example.
Author Page for Erik Loomis
Shortly after midnight on June 12, 1963, NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in front of his home by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of this tragedy.
This is a guest post by Jacob Remes, who is assistant professor and mentor at SUNY Empire State College, where he teaches public affairs and history. His book, Disaster Citizenship: Urban Disasters and the Formation of the North American Progressive State, is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press. He tweets at @jacremes.
Happy Davis Day
Today in 1925, soldiers in New Waterford, Nova Scotia, shot and killed William Davis, a striking coal miner. Members of District 26 of the United Mine Workers, representing miners in Nova Scotia, have never worked on June 11 since.
Davis was killed after a militant turn in a long and bitter strike in the coal fields of eastern Nova Scotia. The previous contract had expired in January, and relief committees in each of the towns had been operating since the winter. To pressure the workers, the employer, the British Empire Steel Company, or BESCO, cut off credit at the company stores at the most militant mine heads. The miners walked off the job in March, and BESCO retaliated by pulling out the ponies and maintenance equipment from three collieries and allowing them to flood. The the men who left work at those mines, they knew, would probably never return.
Even so, the UMW international insisted on a strategy of waiting. John L. Lewis, the UMW’s virulently anti-radical international president, had colluded with the company to break the last strike, watching as District President J.B. McLachlan had been carted off the jail on trumped-up sedition charges and replacing him with a docile and unelected executive. Now McLachlan was out of prison and running a radical newspaper, and by early June the miners were frustrated that no progress had been made.
So they stopped waiting and called for a total strike. Before, only actual miners had stopped work. Now, nobody would be allowed to work for the company. On June 4, the men who had been operating a company power plant in New Waterford walked off the job, cutting off the town’s water and electricity. On June 11, fifty managers and mounted company police overtook the few picketers guarding the plant. In response hundreds—estimates ranged from 700 to 3,000—of striking miners marched to the plant to enforce the strike.
They were met with gunfire. Many were beaten by police, several were injured by bullets, and one was killed. The death of William Davis sparked a riot in which company stores—which had remained tauntingly well stocked but closed to strikers—were looted and burned. Angry miners ran the police out of town and would perhaps have killed them had it not been for the intercession of Father J.H. Nicholson, Mt. Carmel Parish Priest in New Waterford, who calmed the men until the police had a chance to escape. William Davis, killed for striking, had not been given that chance.
Even with this violence, it took until August for a newly elected Conservative premier, Edgar Rhodes, to negotiate a stop-gap contract while a Royal Commission investigated the coal industry. By this point, the union was fighting for its life, and any contract at was a victory. Other than the continued existence of the union, the one victory was that it kept the dues check-off for the length of the final contract. It was, otherwise, a lost strike.
To keep alive the memory of the Strike of 1925 and the murder of William Davis, the members of District 26 swore they would never work again on June 11. Davis Day became a holiday in the coal mining region of Cape Breton. But gradually, Davis Day has become a day associated less with remember the killing of a striker and more with remembering all the dead of Nova Scotia’s mines. There have been many, from the 75 men killed in the Springhill mine collapse of 1958, to the 26 non-union miners killed in the Westray explosion of 1992. In 2008, after the social democratic New Democratic Party was elected to the Nova Scotia government, the province finally recognized Miners’ Memorial Day. But Davis Day should be more than a commemoration of mining accidents, as terrible as those are. Davis did not die accidentally in a tragic, if avoidable, disaster. He was murdered by the military for striking.
Like Davis Day, Workers’ Memorial Day (April 25) began as a Canadian commemoration. Perhaps, like Workers’ Memorial Day, we can spread Davis Day south. One way to so so is to donate to the Rosenberg Fund for Children. Founded by Robert Meeropol in honor of his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Rosenberg Fund supports the children of those who are killed, jailed, or lose their jobs for their progressive political activities. Included in this group are parents whose bosses fire them for union activism. Americans have few better ways to commemorate Davis Day than with a donation to the Rosenberg Fund, perhaps to the Clinton Jencks fund, which is “designated to assist children of workers who have been penalized, injured, fired, jailed or have died for their organizing efforts to build unions, improve working conditions and elevate living standards for all in the work force.”
William Davis was neither the first murdered striker nor the last. The labor movement has too many martyrs. This Davis Day, let us remember them all.
David Frank, J.B. McLachlan: A Biography (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1999).
John Mellor, The Company Store: James Bryson McLachlan and the Cape Breton Coal Miners (Toronto: Doubleday, 1983)
Paul MacEwan, Miners and Steelworkers: Labour in Cape Breton (Toronto: Hakkert, 1976).
Donald Macgillivray, “Military Aid to the Civil Power: The Cape Breton Experience in the 1920s,” in Cape Breton Historical Essays, ed. Don Macgillivray and Brian Tennyson (Sydney, N.S.: College of Cape Breton Press, 1980): 95-109.
David Frank, “The Cape Breton Coal Industry and the Rise and Fall of the British Empire Steel Corporation,” Acadiensis VII no. 1 (autumn 1977): 3-34.
Jacob Remes, “In Search of ‘Saner Minds’: Bishop James Morrison and the Origins of the Antigonish Movement,” Acadiensis XXXIX no 1 (winter/spring 2010): 58-82.
This is the 64th post in this series. Previous entries are archived here.
I’ve linked to articles before connecting the protection of people from lead poisoning through environmental regulations and drops in crime over the last few decades. Here is a scientific study reinforcing these connections, with lead poisoning leading to schizophrenic symptoms in mice. Interesting stuff.
More broadly, the lead-crime nexus shows the unexpected payoffs of potentially expensive environmental regulations and remediation. Protecting people from pollutants creates healthier, happier, and more productive people. It also helps make them mentally healthy and helps prevent them from committing crimes. These are huge payoffs.
Although I like “the right to work a man to death” better because it was generated by workers themselves, calling right to work “the most dishonest words in American politics” is a pretty good way to describe the double speak behind robbing workers of their actual rights. Steven Wishnia provides a good history of the idea, including some new information to me.
I didn’t know the term “right to work” was coined in 1941 by an anti-union editorial writer at the Dallas Morning News. That it comes from Texas should surprise no one.
I did know that the right to work provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act was preserved by a 1965 Senate filibuster after the House voted to overturn them. Yet another piece of evidence that the filibuster is a uniquely pernicious piece of American political life that needs to be eliminated immediately.
Over Five Weeks, Network And CNN Sunday Shows Combine For Just Half An Hour Of Economic Coverage. Since May 12, Sunday morning political talk shows on the major broadcast networks and on CNN have devoted less than 36 minutes to coverage of economic issues. The same programs devoted roughly 10 hours to discussions of Benghazi, the IRS, the leak investigations, and NSA surveillance programs.
CBS’ Face The Nation Devoted Only 12 Seconds To Economic Coverage. During the period reviewed, CBS’ Face The Nation spent only 12 seconds on economic issues. The program provided more than 2 hours and 12 minutes of “scandal” coverage, second only to Fox News Sunday’s two hours and 25 minutes of “scandal” coverage.
MSNBC Programs Devote Greater Coverage To The Economy. MSNBC provided nearly four hours of economic coverage during this period – roughly seven times the coverage on all the other networks combined. MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry provided nearly three hours of economic coverage while Up with Steve Kornacki provided more than 51 minutes. Even correcting for the fact that MSNBC programs are two hours each while the other programs are only one hour, each MSNBC program clearly devoted substantially more coverage to the economy.
Good on Harris-Perry and Kornacki, bad on everyone else.
Given people’s intensity over this issue, I’m probably going to be annoyed by the response to this. But while all the NSA stuff and destruction of privacy is in fact terrible and deeply disturbing, it has about 0.1% as much effect on people’s freedom, security, and quality of life as unemployment, economic inequality, destruction of unions, and household debt, not to mention racism, sexism, homophobia, and climate change. If we saw 1% of the outrage over these things as over the relatively abstract (although not unreal) notion of a government spying on us, we’d be getting somewhere.
Ari Berman with an excellent article on John Lewis and how the Supreme Court’s likely overturning of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is a national repudiation of what he fought his entire life to achieve. Given the long hostility of American conservatism to civil rights and equal access for people of color, I find it unlikely that the attempted rollback of civil rights will stop with Section 5.
I’ve read a few pieces like this one, documenting the sudden spike in home prices and the rush to buy with all-cash purchases. What the linked article does less well than some others is to explore how much this new bubble is being pushed by investors with deep pockets looking to buy up everything for some theoretical future where regular Americans have money to buy again. At least the bubble of the 2000s was backed by relatively stable employment for many (and of course way too much credit). This is backed by nothing at all, with everyday Americans continuing to live lives of contingent labor with great instability and no way they can buy expensive homes with cash.
In Idaho, hunters and trappers killed 698 wolves in the last two seasons — more than the estimated population of 683 wolves in the state at the end of 2012. In more than 80 percent of Wyoming, anyone can kill as many wolves as they wish, without a license. Hunters and trappers in Montana will each be allowed to kill up to three wolves this winter. (In Idaho, the number is 10.) Beginning this fall, hunters in Wisconsin can use dogs to track and chase wolves — a scenario that all but amounts to state-sanctioned animal fighting.
Where management has been transferred to the states, America’s wolves have fallen under an assault of legislation, bullets and traps. A conservation victory is quickly turning into a conservation tragedy. Now the Obama administration is proposing to remove virtually all remaining protections. Have we brought wolves back for the sole purpose of hunting them down?
It’s really depressing that the Obama Administration has continued this move toward state control, which is synonymous with elimination.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post on the Paterson strike pageant, I was moderating a panel of really first-rate historians on the anniversary of the strike. I am going to write up the panel for another forum pretty soon and will link to it. But I wanted to mention one important point that came out of the discussion. Steve Golin, who wrote the definitive book on the Paterson strike, and Mary Anne Trasciatti, who is writing a biography of Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, both made the point that while workers lost the strike, the real defeat was for the IWW. The workers themselves did manage to stave off the four-loom system they dreaded for awhile after the strike and eventually did have successful labor actions down the road.
But it was the IWW that the Paterson loss and the pageant’s ineffectiveness destroyed. Again, the union was completely devastated in the east. Bill Haywood and others wanted to win in Paterson and then start organizing the looms in Pennsylvania. That never happened. Flynn and Haywood and others got into a huge internal battle over who was at fault. Most interesting, and I didn’t really know this, both Flynn and Haywood began calling for centralized control over strikes after the Paterson debacle, which was counter to the IWW’s rhetorical emphasis on placing power in the hands of workers. When workers didn’t respond the way Haywood and Flynn wanted, that became much less appealing in practice than theory.
On June 7, 1913, the supporters of the Industrial Workers of the World led textile worker strike in Paterson, New Jersey held the Paterson Strike Pageant at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The only such stage of production of strikers in American history, perhaps nothing demonstrates both the great skills and significant limitations of the IWW more than the strike pageant and its aftermath.
On February 1, 1913, the Paterson silk workers went on strike, demanding an 8-hour day and better working conditions. Paterson was an early site of the Industrial Revolution and one of the first cities in the United States to see significant labor strife. A century later, skilled weavers still dominated the labor culture, even as mechanization had deskilled and sped up labor and brought a great deal of European silk production to Paterson. Women and children had replaced men in the mills, but men still held a privileged position in the city’s labor movement. Silk workers toiled 10-hour days. Skilled workers averaged $11.69 a week, the less skilled between $6-7. $11.69 equals about $267 in 2012 dollars. So top notch workers were making the equivalent of $1000 a month today. Employers said they could not improve working conditions or they would become less competitive with other states. Workers didn’t accept this. A brief strike in 1912 led to short-lived improvements. The American Federation of Labor showed a bit of interest in organizing the most skilled workers, primarily those who spoke English, but never got very far. The majority of workers were ready to walk out in order to preempt the destruction of their livelihood by low wages and harder work.
In early 1913, the Paterson strikers invited IWW organizers to help them because of the Wobblies’ success the previous year at Lawrence, Massachusetts (although that success was already falling apart after the Wobblies stopped paying attention to the workers’ struggles after the strike was over). The Wobblies responded with vigor. They found the Paterson strike more to their revolutionary liking than Lawrence. It’s multiethnic (although it was significantly less diverse than Lawrence) and multigender nature, filled with songs and cultures in different languages appealed. Of course, the reality was more complicated, with the Jewish and Italian immigrant workers ready for militancy and the native-born Americans and English speakers reticent and conservative. Even more attractive for Wobbly intellectuals was the different nature of the Paterson strikers, who fought for a better life and culture, whereas Lawrence was a reaction to a wage cut. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn called Paterson “more significant” than Lawrence because these workers were more directly seeking a better future.
Wobbly leaders were at their best in bringing big names into a strike in order to mobilize the workers, keep them occupied, and lead large marches. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn played a huge role in Paterson, giving several important speeches and helping organize activities for the strikers. The Italian syndicalist Carlos Tresca came to organize workers. Big Bill Haywood arrived in March, when he was immediately placed under arrest. On April 19, a fight broke out between company thugs and strikers. Modestino Valentino, an innocent bystander, was shot and killed. No charges were filed. The Wobblies built on Valentino’s murder to show workers the corruptness of the system. Not that the system cared. On May 10, a jury convicted Alexander Scott, the editor of a local socialist newspaper, of sedition for the grand crime of criticizing the town’s police force in print.
The silk owners refused to even talk to anyone associated with the IWW, which they considered an un-American organization. Explained one factory owner, “The silk manufacturers of the country are watching our fight and praying for our success for they realize that if we are beaten it will be their turn next.” They had full support from the town’s political leaders, religious figures, and police force. The owners decided to invite the AFL in, figuring if they had to have a union, they might as well work with the one they could stomach. But the workers booed and hissed down the AFL speakers the city organized to speak, destroying this plan. Police repression continued unabated.
What the IWW probably did better than anything else was create culture. Even at the time, their cultural productions attracted attention from both workers and intellectuals. The proximity of Paterson to New York City and the IWW’s skilled propagandists allowed New York’s intellectuals to connect with the Paterson strikers. In the course of the strike, New York intellectual John Reed, future chronicler of the Mexican and Russian Revolutions, met IWW head Big Bill Haywood. Haywood encouraged Reed to visit Paterson. Reed was arrested as well, helping to radicalize him. After his visit, he decided to mobilize the New York art community for the strikers. Reed secured funding from New York art patron (and founder of the New Mexico artist colony and romanticizer of Native Americans) Mabel Dodge and decided to put on a play at Madison Square Garden in New York to show the world the great evil of the Paterson employers and the nobility of the workers’ struggle.
Reed recruited a team of volunteer theater professionals to train the strikers in their performance. You can read the Paterson pageant program here. The workers acted out their work routines, sang famous songs, and reenacted the Valentino murder. Workers dressed as police acted the beatings they received daily. Wobbly leaders like Flynn and Tresca spoke. Everyone sang “The Internationale” and “La Marseillaise.” It was the first and last attempt to put on such a spectacle around a labor struggle.
Reviews were fairly positive. However, neither pageant nor strike were successful in the end. The pageant itself lost money. The strike collapsed almost immediately after the pageant. Reed had promised workers the pageant would pay to keep the strikers going, but it didn’t raise nearly enough money. Morale plummeted. As Flynn said, “Bread was the need of the hour and bread was not forthcoming even from the most beautiful and realistic example of art that has been put on the stage in the last half century.”
The strike preparations had distracted workers from actually striking, giving the owners the upper hand back in Paterson. Without the masses at the gates, strikebreakers began going to work. The pageant also split the workers. Because of space limitations, only 1000 out of the 25,000 strikers could go, leading to jealousy. The skilled English speakers started demanding a settlement. The Socialists and Wobblies began fighting amongst themselves. Food and money became ever more scarce. In early July, the skilled ribbon workers agreed to a shop by shop settlement, kicked the IWW organizers out of the decision-making process, and went back to work. The immigrant workers could not stay out without the English speakers. By July 28, the strike had collapsed in a total defeat for the workers and the IWW.
After 1913, the IWW by and large left eastern industrial organizing behind in order to focus on itinerant labor in the West. Never again would it organize a large walkout among the eastern immigrant working-class.
Much of the information for this piece comes from Melvyn Dubofsky’s still definitive 1969 history of the I.W.W., We Shall Be All. For what it’s worth, if you are in the New York area, I am chairing a panel this afternoon at 1:30 at the Labor and Working-Class History Association on the 100th anniversary of the Pageant, at the Graduate Center for Worker Education downtown. The panel includes Dubofsky and several other leading IWW scholars. Stop by if you are inclined.
This is the 63rd post in this series. Previous entries are archived here.