On July 6, 1924, members of the Philippine Scouts, a division of Filipino troops in the U.S. Army occupying the Philippines, refused to drill to protest their poor pay and unfair treatment. This would eventually lead to their court martial. This incident shines a light on two critical and understudied issues in American labor history: the idea of the military as labor and the labor history of American imperialism.
The Philippine Scouts were a division of troops that joined the U.S. Army in defense of American colonial rule of their nation, land wrested from the Spanish in 1898 and which it then had to crush a independence movement with shocking brutality. This was instituted soon after the U.S. took control and included many Filipino members of the Spanish army. By the early 1920s, these made up the majority of occupying forces, with about 15,000 Filipino soldiers serving under 2500 white officers and additional 5000 American soldiers. Primarily they existed to protect the colony from its greatest threat–Filipino insurrection. Most served near Manila, although they were scattered around the islands. They could marry and bring their families with them, creating what was basically a steady job. Reenlistment rates were about 80 percent.
But the pay was low, especially compared to American soldiers of the same rank. A U.S. private made $21 a month. A private in the Scouts made $8 a month, a rate that had barely changed since the Scouts were first created. With the U.S. wanting to avoid international commitments and costly programs during the 1920s, replacing American soldiers with poorly paid Filipinos was appealing in Washington. The Scouts had to put their wives and children to work, often serving the white officers. Cost of living increased dramatically during the post-World War I years though and the Scouts had a harder time making ends meet. By 1924, the Scouts were making less than skilled labor in Manila. Although the benefits were still much higher than other Manila workers, the Scouts saw themselves as downwardly mobile.
There was a good bit of labor strife in Manila around wages and working conditions during these years, much of it aimed at U.S. controlled operations. By 1924, the Filipino labor movement had 145 officially registered unions or similar organizations, consisting of over 90,000 members. These included fairly conservative unions that served more like member lodges and more radical communist unions. Outside of this, there were also peasant movements heavily infused with messianic religious leadership. The response of the U.S. colonial administration, led by Colonel Leonard Wood, was, not surprisingly given how the U.S. would usually respond to labor uprisings at home and abroad, not that it was a series of responses to specific lived conditions of workers, but part of a global communist plot against colonialism. For Wood, all labor questions were attacks on colonialism. On the minds of Wood and other leaders was the Boston police strike of 1919, which for the first time called into question whether security forces would agree to crush organized labor.
Calvin Coolidge, who had risen to national prominence by destroying the Boston police union, was also responsible for what was to follow in the Philippines. In May 1924, Congress passed an omnibus military bill that raised Scouts’ rations and subsistence allowances and also created a pension system for them that gave them three-quarters of their salary after 30 years. Coolidge vetoed it. The Philippine Scouts did not know all the details, but they came to believe that Congress had granted them a pay raise and their officers were withholding it from them.
In response, the Scouts started organizing into what they called the Secret Soldiers’ Union. They were mostly young and mostly privates. They planned a demonstration for July 4, gathering on a hill near Fort McKinley and marching into downtown Manila where they would present their demands to the commander of the the U.S. Army’s Philippine Department and then go to Leonard Wood’s headquarters to make their demands to him. They decided to delay it until August 2, but on July 5, informants told the Army of the soldiers plan. Fort McKinley’s Provost Guard raided a meeting and detained 26 Scouts. The next morning, July 6, 380 Scouts refused to drill. Warned of the consequences and told their refusal would be treated not as a strike but as a mutiny, only 104 soldiers held out on July 7, but that increased to 202 on July 8.
The American community in the Philippines freaked out, fearing plots to blow up U.S bases and a general attack on Americans. One told a reporter, “Discharging these men and allowing the to return home is similar to turning smallpox into a hospital full of patients. Each man is carrying the germs of insurgence to his home province.” Army officers were more divided on how important this protest was, especially since a growing number of the protesters were veterans with long service records. But on July 9, the Army announced plans to discharge 190 of the men for mutiny. On July 29, three proceedings began, one for 17 supposed ringleaders, another for 209 charged with mutiny, and a third for 298 who had refused to obey orders.
Proceeding over the trial was Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur, head of the Philippine Division’s 23rd Brigade. Nearly all the men charged were found guilty. Tomas Riveral, identified as the mutiny’s leader, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Most of the rest were placed in convict detachments on Correigdor and released after two years. In 1928, the Army finally raised the pay of a private in the Scouts from $8 a month to $9 a month. The Secret Soldiers’ Union disappeared almost immediately after the repression. The War Department did conduct an internal study because it worried that it’s whole plan to defend the colonies from internal rebellion was worthless if the soldiers were not loyal. But the Scouts continued and no additional labor agitation came from the Scouts before the end of U.S. occupation of the Philippines.
As to the broader question of whether military service is labor, the answer is that it is a different form of labor with a different relationship to the state, yes, but it’s labor nonetheless. Like most forms of labor through American history, it is heavily gendered and racialized. And occasionally, despite structures that make protest much harder than in the civilian labor force, soldiers do rise up and protest their oppression, such as in the Port Chicago protests during World War II.
I based this post on Christopher Capozzola’s essay “The Secret Soldiers’ Union: Labor and Soldier Politics in the Philippine Scout Mutiny of 1924,” in Daniel Bender and Jana Lipman, Making the Empire Work: Labor & United States Imperialism.
This is the 184th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
Finally, I will note that I started this series 5 years ago today with a relatively brief discussion of Homestead. It’s been a fun series to write over the years. And now that I’ve gotten through most of the standard events of labor history, I can write up incidents like the Philippine Scouts that basically no one has ever heard about before. Here’s to 5 more years of it.