Author Page for Erik Loomis
The UN consistently chooses the most conservative predictions about the effects of climate change in order to try and mollify climate change deniers. This has the effect of muting the shouting from the mountaintops we need to get a handle on an issue that will destroy the way of life we today know. Not a good idea, especially since those deniers are never going to listen since they have an economic stake in the present system.
On September 10, 1897, Luzerne County sheriff deputies slaughtered 19 unarmed coal miners striking outside of Hazleton, Pennsylvania. The strikers, primarily German, Polish, Lithuanian, and Slovak immigrants, were fighting for decent wages and working conditions in the one of the most brutal industries in the nation. The Lattimer Massacre was a touchstone event in the history of the United Mine Workers of America, who used it to organize workers across the region.
The 1890s saw a rise in immigration from Germany and eastern Europe; thousands of those migrants came to the coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania. They were recruited there by coal companies as strikebreakers and because of that, the English, Welsh, and Scottish miners that previously dominated the industry hated them as scabs. Conditions in the coal miners were abysmal, with mine collapses and death shockingly common, a situation akin to modern Chinese mines. Making things worse was the Panic of 1893 and following depression that lasted for five years. The terrible poverty and desperation that resulted from these events led to some of the most dramatic events in American labor history, including the Pullman Strike, Coxey’s Army, and the rise of the Populists as a serious challenge to the 2-party system. Mine owners slashed wages during the depression for those who could get work at all. Typical company town conditions existed as well, with miners forced to rent from company-owned homes at high prices, forced to see company doctors, forced to shop at company stores, etc.
In 1897, the miners went on strike. The Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre Coal Company laid off workers, raised fees for homes and doctors, forced longer hours on those who still worked, and tolerated a decline in working conditions. Work became more dangerous and more profitable for capitalists. The strike was lead by drivers, mostly teenagers who ran teams of mules to carry the coal out of the mines. The company consolidated its mule stables, forcing the drivers to travel farther on their own time to get their animals. In response, the drivers struck on August 14. When the new mine superintendent, a man named Gomer Jones, found out the mule drivers were striking, he grabbed a crowbar and whacked the first striker he saw in the head. The striker fought back and a general scuffle ensued. This helped lead the rest of the workers out on strike. With overall employment declining, workers saw little to lose by walking off the job together rather than get fired separately. By August 16, 2000 workers were on strike and most joined the United Mine Workers of America, a union trying to establish itself in the coal fields. This was a big deal because the Slavs had avoided the UMWA after being vilified by the unionized Anglo-Saxon miners. But the terrible conditions began to break down the ethnic divides in the anthracite fields.
The first strike ended on August 23 when the companies agreed to give miners the option to live in their own houses and see a doctor of their choosing, as well as grant a wage increase of about 10 cents. A second strike a few days later at nearby mines made the pay raise more universal in the region.
Or so the workers thought. In fact, when the owners announced the new pay rates on September 1, only a few workers saw a raise. On September 3, the workers went on strike again, with 3000 walking out. By September 8, somewhere between 5000 and 10,000 miners were on strike. The miners developed new demands, including a pay raise of 15 cents per employee, the ability to select their own doctor, the right to get paid for work even if the machines they workers were out of order (commonly Gilded Age workers were not paid if the company was not running for any reason; employers never could understand why workers wouldn’t “see reason” over this issue), and the freedom not have to buy from the company store.
Strikers near Lattimer, PA
The coal companies’ private police force, the Coal and Iron Police, were overwhelmed by these numbers and the owners created a posse of English and Irish residents, including many ex-miners. On September 8, about 300-400 miners, largely Slavs and Germans, marched to a mine in the town of Lattimer to support miners who had just joined the UMWA. Expanding the strike to Lattimer would be a huge victory for the miners because it would go a long way to shut down the entire the area and force the companies to grant workers’ demands. The mine owners knew this too. Luzerne County police, led by Sheriff James Martin, were openly heard bragging about how many miners they would kill. When the miners reached Lattimer, the police confronted them and ordered them to disperse. When they refused, the police opened fire, killing 19 and wounding about 40. All had been shot in the back.
The immediate aftermath led to infuriated miners who destroyed the home of the Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre Company mine superintendent and the Pennsylvania National Guard called in to restore order. Unrest continued until September 20. Local response was pro-miners. The Hazleton Daily Standard published this poem on September 17:
“If the courts of justice shield you
And your freedom you should gain,
Remember that your brows are marked
With the burning brand of Cain.
Oh, noble, noble, deputies
We always will remember
Your bloody work at Lattimer
On the 10th day of September.”
Philadelphia Inquirer depiction of the shooting, September 12, 1897
The state actually bothered to try Martin and his 73 deputies but despite the evidence of shooting workers in the back, they all claimed the marchers refused to disperse and were acquitted.
The Lattimer Massacre was a hugely important event in the history of the UMWA. First, standing up for the workers led to membership rising to 10,000, the largest in the union’s history. Second, it ended the widely held belief by both Anglo-Saxon miners and company owners that the Slavic workers were docile and would never join the union. The UMWA built off this event and in 1900, with an improved economy after the depression ended in 1898, won significant wage increases. UMWA president John Mitchell became, along with AFL head Samuel Gompers, the most important labor leader in the country.
The massacre was mostly forgotten about in the larger national consciousness, but finally, in 1972, a monument was erected at the site, which I visited in January.
This is the 76th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
Really, If Conservatives Don’t Like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Why Don’t They Move to Another Country?
There is no argument as stupid as the one that says if liberals don’t like it, why don’t they move to another country. Inevitably, such statements are used against people trying to make life more just for all people in America.
Yet, curiously, the Internal Revenue Service does not treat alumni donations as transactional payments. Instead, it treats them as charitable giving. As a result, alumni that make such donations are entitled to deduct the amount of their donation from their income for tax purposes. In so doing, the richest alumni receive a tax subsidy of forty percent of the amount of their donation. That is, the public ultimately funds as much as forty percent of any given legacy admissions payment.
Under most understandings of charity, it is not clear why any donation, alumni or otherwise, to an elite educational institution should be considered charitable. Top tier universities like Harvard and Princeton, although non-profits, charge high tuitions and enroll nearly 25 rich students per each poor student. In any non-educational context, few would call an organization with similar characteristics a charity. But the case for alumni donations being charitable is even thinner. Because alumni donations purchase improved admissions chances, they violate the most fundamental rule of charity, namely that it not enrich the giver.
In addition to being poor public policy, these charitable tax subsidies generate a disgustingly unjust spectacle. The vast majority of parents do not have an educational background that enables them to benefit from the donation-legacy system. Yet these parents are forced, through the tax code, to help fund alumni donations that intentionally militate against their own children’s chances of admission to the elite institutions they may otherwise be well qualified for. Children of poor parents in particular already endure extraordinary burdens competing against children of rich parents from elite universities; publicly financing the rigging of college admissions systems against poor children is yet another thumb on the scales against their success.
We will have a much better country now that the administration has prioritized bombing Syria for reasons no one can adequately explain instead of fighting for the millions of undocumented immigrants living within our borders and fearing deportation.
On September 9, 1919, the police force in Boston went on strike, the most aggressive action to date by American public sector workers. The harsh response from the government of Massachusetts both set back public sector unionism and changed American political history.
The police had basic demands. They wanted union recognition, a pay raise, and improved working conditions. Boston police had not received an effective pay raise since 1854, with the starting salary for new officers the same as it had been 65 years earlier. Cops made only about half an average worker’s salary in 1919 and had to pay for their own uniforms. They worked between 75 and 90 hours a week and did not get paid for time they spent in court. Police stations were dilapidated and unsanitary. In other words, it was a bad job.
The officers’ first response was to petition to join the American Federation of Labor. The AFL first accepted police officers in June 1919 and cops around the nation immediately signed up. Soon, there were 37 police locals around the nation.
As the Boston police began talking about a strike, a key question was one that still dominates discussion of public unions today. Can public workers go on strike? This was not the only issue, as the state was fighting with the police over their right to affiliate with the AFL. But this is a central question of public sector unionism. It is still often debated, with the most resounding position from a politician taken by Ronald Reagan with the PATCO strike in 1981. Today, some states allow public employees to strike, while most do not. On this blog we’ve had debates about whether BART workers should go strike because it inconveniences San Francisco commuters.
The forces of order also worried whether unionized police would continue to break strikes upon orders from their superiors. The police commissioner and Boston Chamber of Commerce argued that police could not be unionists because it would create “divided loyalty,” a phrase clearly demonstrating their fear that the cops would no longer be a force dedicated to defending the interests of capitalists and busting the heads of those who challenged those interests. The Boston Police Department responded to its police joining the AFL by ordering them to disassociate with it. When the officers refused, the police moved toward a strike. After the police commissioner suspended 19 men on September 7 for union activity, the police responded by voting to go out on strike on September 9. By a vote of 1134 yes, 2 no. They were all fired on September 13.
Boston police officers on strike
The police going on strike at this particular time was especially incendiary. The wave of strikes that year no doubt emboldened the cops to take this unprecedented action, but it also helped ensure a belligerent response. Right in the middle of the Red Scare, with Eugene Debs serving time in prison, activists like Emma Goldman about to be deported, and the Centralia Massacre just around the corner, the forces of order were in no mood to respond rationally. Instead, they blamed it on the Bolshevism that threatened the United States. The New York Sun claimed that unionized police would lead to “virtual Soviet rule” while the Newport Daily News wrote that the “whole movement was the very essence of Bolshevism.”
The strike also put the American Federation of Labor in a sticky situation. The AFL had encouraged these police unions after World War I. But this was a new thing. The AFL had rejected applications from police going back to at least 1897. Gompers was trying to build on his close relationship with the Wilson Administration he developed during World War I to expand the AFL into the heart of American life, a plan that would fail miserably in the coming years. He wanted to start organizing public sector workers and began referring to them as fellow workers to the private sector. At the same time, the AFL was nothing if not an organization dedicated to public order and a strike that portended spikes in crime was nothing that Gompers wanted any part of, especially if it portrayed labor’s interest as opposite to the public’s interest.
And what would happen if cops went on strike? Would anarchy result? The answer was sort of. There was a rise in assault, public gambling, and robbery. Moreover, the poor of Boston saw the strike as the class warfare it was, attacking the property of the rich and stoning a group of reserve police with chants of “Kill them all.” After the second night, state police opened fire on a crowd, killing 9.
In response, Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge called out the state guard to restore order in Boston and urged the Wilson Administration to prepare to send troops if needed. The guard busted the police strike and Coolidge fired all 1147 striking cops. Coolidge had opposed the police union from the beginning and completely rebuffed efforts from the police officers before the strike started to help mediate the situation.
Gompers and the AFL really struggled to respond to this strike for the reasons laid out above. Gompers told Coolidge that the federation did not support public sector strikes, even if it did support public sector unionism. But the ability of the AFL to control the workers federated with it was always pretty limited. Plus there was plenty of labor support for the strike. The Detroit Labor News wrote that policing “may be a sacred trust but the landlord will not accept it in lieu of rent, nor does the grocer consider it a medium of exchange.”
The strikers hoped to be reinstated to their jobs and placed their hopes in the 1920 Massachusetts election for governor, with Coolidge running for reelection against Democratic candidate Richard Long. Long pledged his support for reinstatement and the fired police officers worked for him, but Coolidge won reelection despite losing Boston.
Not surprisingly though, the strike did win real gains for the replacement police. The minimum yearly pay for patrolmen jumped to $1400 a year (still only about $17,000 in 2012 dollars). But the strike devastated public sector unionism around the nation. Even as the government grew, total numbers of unionized public workers declined with remaining unions fearful of even thinking about striking. Public sector unions would always have to be watchful about using the confrontational tactics of private sector workers, a conundrum it continues to face today. The strike’s failure and overwhelming repression also almost certainly delayed collective bargaining rights for public sector workers. The private sector gained those rights during the New Deal, while the public sector had to wait until the 1960s to begin that process. Overall then, crushing the strike was a huge victory for governments who sought to keep their employees union-free.
Coolidge received the Republican vice-presidential nomination for his actions in suppressing the strike and of course became president in 1923 when Warren Harding died, winning election for himself in 1924.
For more, see Public Workers: Government Employee Unions, the Law, and the State, 1900-1962, by our valued frequent commenter Joseph Slater.
This is the 75th post in the series. The rest are archived here.
An Oklahoma state representative said he wants voters to decide whether the state should issue bonds to help fund storm shelters in public schools, a day after the House refused to consider such funding.
Oklahoma Rep. Joe Dorman, a Democrat, said on Wednesday he will hold a special committee meeting on Friday to discuss a possible ballot initiative.
The Republican-led House of Representatives voted on Tuesday to exclude the issue of safety in schools from consideration as part of a special legislative session. The decision came three months after two historic twisters hit the state, including one that killed seven students in a Moore elementary school that did not have a shelter.
“The motion to kill it means to me that no one else had a plan or that they wanted to leave it up to local schools to fund shelters, many of which cannot afford to do so,” said Dorman.
The state House voted 57 to 26, largely along party lines, to not consider shelter funding. One of the Republicans who voted against the discussion represents Moore.
As for the representative from Moore, it’s awesome that Republican ideology doesn’t get phased by dead children.
I assume all readers are familiar with oeuvre of The Sons of the Pioneers, but in case anyone is not, here’s the post title reference: