Labor in the Dawn of Empire

Editors’ note: In the run-up to the atttack on Iraq , for the first time in nearly a hundred years the the AFL-CIO reversed its traditional pro war posture. On May Day itself this year we were proud to feature here Peter Linebaugh’s marvelous recovery of revolutiionary sentiments around the world in May of 1916. This last May Day CounterPuncher JOANN WYPIJEWSKI spoke about those heroes of the US labor movement who denounced their country’s first imperial lunges, in the Spanish-Amrican war and in the Philippines. It was a powerful address, warmly received, given as part of the Fifth Annual Hudson Mohawk May Day Festival at the First Unitarian Society, Schenectady, NY; sponsored by the Troy Area Labor Council (AFL-CIO), the New York Labor History Association, the Solidarity Committee of the Capital District and Eighth Step.–AC/JSC

Workers, Comrades, Friends,

We gather here to celebrate May Day–Workers Day, 8-Hour-Day Day, Revolutionary Labor Day, Haymarket Riot Day, give or take a few days.

Some might say “terror day” but terror cuts two ways.

We commemorate May Day, Workers Day, but in another, less-remembered sense, May 1st might also be called Empire Day.

For on this day in 1886, labor had declared itself dedicated to effect the eight-hour day. And on this day in 1898, American warships commenced the Battle of Manila Bay, which would be the culminating act of the Spanish-American War, and thus the inauguration of America as an overseas imperial power.

Separated by twelve years, those two events are nonetheless on a continuum–as we, this day, with the fresh memory of the bombardment of Iraq, its culture looted, its cities devastated, its children crying out, gagged with rags to keep from howling as their ruined limbs are amputated without anaesthetic or clean water–just as we are on a continuum.

Call it the war at home and the war abroad. Call it capitalism and imperialism. We have seen this before. We are in it, deep in it.

We are being seduced, even by some of our allies, to think that what we are seeing unfold today–the cries of terror, the call to arms, the assaults on workers, the false consciousness, the scoundrel’s patriotism–is something new.

Of course, its features are new, its details, simply because history moves. We are in new times. But it is good to remember that history is not something frozen in the past. It is revived and revised, made and remade in the present. And if the details of what is unfolding today are new, the outline is familiar.

So while we are concentrated here today on the matter of the working class in the midst of war, at home, abroad, I thought it necessary for us to remember the Battle of Manila Bay as well:

– to remember the Philippines and its people, slaughtered fighting for their independence in the aftermath of that famous battle.

– to remember a war that in many ways resembled the one just prosecuted in Iraq–prosecuted in most elemental form by the working class against the working class, for the rich.

– and to consider its meanings for workers, for people of conscience, for anyone keen to the lessons of the past.

The wonderful Czech writer Milan Kundera once said, “The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” So let us remember S curious things.

In 1886, the bomb that was rolled into Chicago’s Haymarket Square during a labor rally may have been the work of anarchists–or it may have been the work of police or agents provocateurs.

Louis Lingg, the only one of the seven men later prosecuted for the bombing who may have actually done it, told the court upon sentencing: “I despise you! I despise your ‘order’, your laws, your force-propped authority. Hang me for it!”

Before they could hang him, his sweetheart smuggled a tiny percussion cap into his cell. He bit down on it, and blew his head off.

But he never claimed the bombing as his deed.

To this day, we don’t know exactly who was responsible for it. But we do know that in its wake came a crackdown on labor: came the blacklist, came a generation-long setback for the eight-hour movement, came fear and, among too many, resignation.

And we also know that elsewhere in the country at about that same time, the counselors to power were propounding theories of expansion. The histories of the period are full of the propaganda of intellectuals: n urging America to build a great Navy n to claim dominion over the Pacific n to gain a foothold for trade (i.e., theft) in China n to find a solution to the problem of America’s “surplus manufactures”.

Before the election of 1896, William McKinley cried, “We need foreign markets for our surplus products!”

Like his capitalist braintrust, he never considered that the solution to the surplus might be found in those who created it: in other words, in raising the wages of American workers, in limiting their work hours and employing the jobless, in eliminating child labor and general misery; in short, in transforming a system that made the American working class a band of near-beggars.

There was a simple solution, a Robin Hood solution: take from the rich and give to the poor. Bye-bye surplus.

But markets were all anyone in power could think about. While the workers toiled and starved, their masters spoke of markets, which is a more polite way of saying: take from the poor, from the poorest, create a bigger band of beggars and near-beggars, and give to the rich.

Westward expansion had created markets, but now the frontier was closed. While workers in the industrial cities had been agitating for better conditions, taking rifle practice in the woods, reading dangerous tracts on revolution and dynamite, the cavalry had been subduing the last of the Indians. Four years after the Haymarket explosion came the massacre at Wounded Knee, and with it the official closing of the frontier. That was 1890.

Westward expansion continued on, across the waters, its racist presumptions going international too.

In 1893, white American planters backed by American guns overthrew the sovereign kingdom of Hawai’i. The USS Boston supplied the guns, and after Queen Lili’uokalani was led away in chains and the American flag was raised atop her palace, US troops began training exercises in Honolulu, repelling off the walls of Kawaiaha’o Church, preparing for their next mission.

The USS Boston would go on to Manila Bay.

But it took another mysterious explosion to set that war in motion.

As with the Haymarket bomb, to this day we do not know precisely who was responsible for the explosion that led to the Spanish-American War, sinking the USS Maine and with it 268 seamen in Havana harbor in February of 1898.

Terror! Outrage! screamed the yellow press.

Meanwhile, the journal of the International Association of Machinists pointed out that on America’s own soil: “a carnival of carnage takes place every day, month and year in the realm of industry; the thousands of useful lives that are annually sacrificed to the Moloch of greed, the blood tribute paid by labor to capitalism, brings forth no shout for vengeance and reparation.”

Before the first spark flew–a year before–Teddy Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, wrote to a friend: “in strictest confidence S I should welcome almost any war, for I think the country needs one.”

Like George Bush today, he had a particularly narrow definition of “the country”, for, in fact, much of the organized working class opposed the gunboat drive for markets early on.

They opposed America’s coup against the Hawaiian sovereign.

They opposed annexation of Hawai’i.

And before war was declared on Spain, most of them opposed it, not believing President McKinley’s high-sounding talk of democracy and liberty for the Cubans, the Filipinos and the others under Spanish rule.

After the sinking of the Maine, a fellow named Bolton Hall, treasurer of the American Longshore Union, wrote what he called, “A Peace Appeal to Labor”.

“If there is war”, it declared, “you will furnish the corpses and the taxes, and others will get the glory. Speculators will make money out of it–that is, out of youS. You will have to pay the bill, and the only satisfaction you will get is the privilege of hating your Spanish fellow-workmen, who are really your brothers, and who have had as little to do with the wrongs of Cuba as you have.”

Replace ‘Spanish’ and ‘Cuba’ in that declaration with ‘Iraqi’ and ‘Iraq’, and it is as apt today as it was more than a century ago.

Before war began, Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor cautiously opposed intervention. But once it began, Gompers, infected by false patriotism, shifted course and declared America’s cause against the Spanish “glorious and righteous”. As it happened, that righteous cause was also against the people of Cuba and the Philippines, who’d been fighting for their independence.

John Sweeney’s turnaround this year on Iraq–first cautiously opposing unilateral intervention but then, as soon as it was on, falling in line–was not as dramatic, but a similar politics of no politics was at work.

They didn’t chant “Support our troops” in 1898. Rather, tens of thousands of working men, caught up by war fever, rushed to enlist. Others gestured approvingly at the booty.

The mineworkers hoped the spike in coal prices would reflect in their wages.

The typographers cheered that the establishment of English schools in Spain’s former territories would help the printing trade.

Glassmakers looked forward to a surge in demand for bottles and so for their craft.

Railroad unions said more goods moving meant more work for them.

“Where shall we turn for consumers of our surplus?” Albert Beveridge thundered on the Senate floor. “Geography answers the question.”

Remarkably, or maybe not, some unions parroted the same opinion. Thus was American labor made complicit in American imperialism, a complicity that bedevils unions and the working class as a whole to this day.

McKinley’s men called the Spanish-American encounter “a splendid little war”. Admiral Dewey out in the Pacific had predicted it would last five days. It lasted three months. This, remember, was over a hundred years ago.

More than a quarter-million American soldiers were mustered for the fight in the Caribbean and the Pacific combined. Today, with respect to Iraq, we hear of US overwhelming force, of war as a low-casualty or even, for Americans, a no-casualty enterprise. It’s worth contemplating that in the Spanish-American War, only 379 American soldiers died as a result of combat. Five thousand more, it also ought to be remembered, died of diseases or other causes, such as rotten, contaminated meat, sold to the government by the Armour Company of Chicago for a nice profit. Thus were the injuries of war and the injuries of capital twinned.

In the “pacification” of the Philippines that took place afterwards and lasted until 1904, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos–“rebels” or “terrorists” in the argot of the day–were exterminated. In 1899, before the worst of the slaughter, in debate on the Senate floor (something we have not seen in the current period) one Senator Tillman of South Carolina asked whether it had ever previously happened that a colony at war for its freedom with one nation had ever been sold in the meantime to another nation (here the US) that was also at war with the colonizer.

“I think”, said Henry Cabot Lodge in reply, “the situation is unique in the fact that the people whom we liberated down there have turned against us.”

To which Tillman replied, “Well, the question of liberation is one which will present two points of view.” He couldn’t know the half of it.

That era’s “smart bombs” were 500-pound shells, which Admiral Dewey shot into Filipino trenches. In some places, the Filipinos fought back with bow and arrow. Along the Pasig River dead Filipinos were piled up like sandbags. Americans used their bodies for fortifications.

One US soldier from Washington State wrote home: “Our fighting blood was up, and we all wanted to kill ‘niggers’S. This shooting human beings beats rabbit hunting to all pieces.”

Back home in these years, there was a frenzy of lynching, and though called upon to intervene, McKinley cared no more about stopping it than stopping the “nigger-killing” that his white troops abroad boasted of. And yet, African-American soldiers were deeply involved in the fight as well.

One famous regiment was responsible for winning all of the major battles in Cuba that Teddy Roosevelt, with his own embedded reporters and photographers, made sure to be credited with. When those black soldiers returned home, they were shunned and spit upon, despised and sometimes killed.

This particular regiment had been Buffalo Soldiers before they went to Cuba, mustered against the Indians. Their next deployment after Cuba was to Colorado–to put down strikes and radical rebellion by the Western Federation of Miners; to terrorize the militant mining towns and guard the infamous bullpens. For the working classes, these were wars of all against all.

When liberation struggles in Cuba and the Philippines were finally suppressed, American capitalists ravaged the land and the resources. The dupes of the working class saw their benefit as well. During the war, employment in the US did rise. Wages did rise too, albeit meagerly. But prices rose more. Over the course of the war, the purchasing power of workers’ wages dropped 20 percent.

Worse than that, labor was divided and compromised. A vast segment made its peace with barbarism. It made its pact with expansionism, colonialism, capitalist exploitation of the worst sort.

Throughout the land there were rebellions workers. And those who’d joined their voices to the Anti-Imperialist League would fight on against foreign adventures and brutality up into the First World War. Their children and children’s children, and children’s children’s children fight on to this day.

But “the war at home”–the essential complement of every war abroad–struck equally at those workers who praised the bloodletting and those who damned it.

One hundred years later, no cowed or cowardly support for George Bush’s war will save American workers from the blows of the war at home. That war began precisely at the moment Bush declared “you’re with us or against us”, and it will continue on as part of the administration’s strategy of endless war–or what, in a McKinleyite formulation, the national Security Council described as its mission: to impose “democracy, development, free markets and free trade to every corner of the world”.

It will continue on unless we stop it. And we must stop it.

Do not imagine that my advertings to the nineteenth century are simply the product of my own quirky historical interests. They are that, of course. But in the councils of power, the enemies of the working class are also reviewing history for its nourishing lessons.

Grover Norquist, part of the Bush team’s activist light artillery from his redoubt at Americans for Tax Reform, was recently asked just what is the fundamental goal of the right in the current period.

“The McKinley era”, he replied, “absent the protectionism. You’re looking at the history of the country for the first 120 years, up until Teddy Roosevelt, when the socialists took over. The income tax, the death tax, regulation–all that” presumably must go.

That is where the enemies of labor would have us on this May Day of 2003: peering backward, at the abyss the nineteenth century.

History, as I said a moment ago, is no frozen, finished thing. The legacy of America’s first overseas imperial adventure takes a very live form in the Filipino laborers lining up for jobs with Bechtel, Brown & Root, the unionbusting Stevedore Services of America and others in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Their own economy pillaged over 100 years, they are the Philippines’ chief export, and the remittances they send home the country’s Number One source of income. Before the first contracts were awarded, The New York Times reported that whichever companies were named, they are likely to use Filipino labor, which is skilled, plentiful, reliable and, above all, cheap.

Their desperation is our shame, and a warning both to the newly “liberated” Iraqis and to the American working class. There are no winners on our side in the war program: workers of the world are being pitted in ferocious competition to see who comes out last.

For workers, there is always a war at home and a war abroad, and it is not enough–it will never be enough–to oppose one without the other.

JOANN WYPIJEWSKI can be reached at


JoAnn Wypijewski is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life.