Ever since Donald Trump became a front-runner in the 2016 primaries, leftwing pundits have offered varied historical analogies to help identify the threat we face. Was he more like Hitler or more like Berlusconi? In my view the best prism through which to view Trump is American history itself. Ever since the Reagan presidency there has been a concerted effort to turn the clock back to the 1880s—the gilded age. Or maybe even further back to Andrew Jackson, whose portrait Trump hung in the oval office. After all, it was Jackson who conned both voters and latter-day historians into believing that he was for the common man. Or fast forward to 1919 when the progressive Woodrow Wilson authorized the Palmer Raids that led to the deportation of 500 foreigners during a Red Scare.
The counter-clockwise rotation speeds up under Republican presidents and slows down a bit under Democrats but it never stops. Only a revolution will reset the clock once and for all.
I was reminded of this while reading Chad Pearson’s Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement that was published in 2015. If you knew nothing about the contents, you might assume from the title that it referred to the Truman presidency when the Taft-Hartley bill was passed. But instead it harkens back to the turn of the century when Theodore Roosevelt was president and whose Square Deal meant conservation, trust-busting, respect for workers and other progressive measures.
If you read the Wikipedia entry on Theodore Roosevelt, you are told that he believed unions “needed a square deal, and a stronger voice and collective bargaining with corporations.” It was up to Chad Pearson to read the fine print of history and reveal the role that Roosevelt played in one of the most bitter strikes during his presidency, the coal miners’ strike of 1902 that pitted the UMWA against big mine owners like J.P. Morgan and George Baer who wrote that the miners “will be protected and cared for—not by labor agitators, but by the Christian gentlemen to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country.”
Ray Stannard Baker, a leading muckraker journalist, covered the strike in the pages of McClure magazine, which was the Mother Jones of its time. Despite his animosity toward J.P. Morgan and other fat cats, his main beef was with the UMWA’s fight for the closed shop. In Baker’s view, that would victimize the 17,000 non-union miners who were “one of the great tragedies of the strike”. Baker’s article was titled “The Right to Work” and can be read online at the National Institute for Labor Relations Research, an outfit that is part of the rightwing coalition pushing for right-to-work laws under the favorable conditions afforded by Donald Trump. Despite his rhetoric about defending the working class, scabs got permanent positions at the Momentive plant in upstate NY that is owned by Stephen Schwarzman, Trump’s “jobs creation czar”.
Using a “soft cop” strategy, Roosevelt tried to position himself as an impartial arbitrator in the same way his distant cousin Franklin would do during the New Deal. Instead of sending in the federal troops to crush the strike like Rutherford Hayes during the 1877 railroad workers strike, he put pressure on both mine owners as well as the UMWA to come to terms. Hampered by their distinctly class-collaborationist leader John Mitchell, the miners caved in.
A blue-ribbon panel had been convened to settle the strike. It relied on the good counsel of famous attorney Louis D. Brandeis who was a symbol of the era’s progressivism alongside Theodore Roosevelt, Clarence Darrow, John Dewey and other notables. As it happened, Brandeis had some experience with the 1877 railway strike. This legendary reformer whose name adorns the prestigious college where Angela Davis studied under Herbert Marcuse was part of a strike-breaking volunteer militia who carried a rifle to protect railroad property from the rebellious hordes.
This go-round Brandeis was much more sympathetic to the workers but stopped short of supporting a closed shop. Concurring with Baker, Brandeis insisted that the non-union workers had the right to work even if that hobbled the union. Like most reformers of the period, there was no notion of class versus class. The individual was primary. The Civil War had enshrined the idea of free labor and many “reformers” invoked Lincoln as an implicit supporter of the open shop. The blue-ribbon panel issued a report that stated: “Abraham Lincoln said, ‘No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.’ This is as true in trade unions as elsewhere.”
While workers came out of the strike with substantial gains, including a 10 percent wage hike, they were not able to secure a closed shop. For Roosevelt, this settlement was in line with his Square Deal, proclaiming it a victory for bosses, workers and consumers. He agreed with the panel’s finding: non-unionists had “the right to remain at work where others have ceased to work, or to engage anew in work others have abandoned.”
In summing up the 1902 UMWA strike, Pearson makes points that are repeated throughout the book on a case-by-case basis. Foundry workers in Cleveland or printers in Worcester, they all got the sanctimonious call for an open shop by “reformers”—the iron fist in the velvet glove:
By the mid-1910s, numerous figures from across the political spectrum had concluded that the open-shop principle was fairer to workers than closed-shop unionism, the most efficient way to run businesses, and in many cases an expression of American patriotism. Moreover, influential public figures, as Roosevelt’s Square Deal demonstrates, helped magnify the reformist, rather than the repressive, character of the open-shop principle. Together, employers and reformers used language and supported policies designed to promote workplace harmony in terms favorable to themselves and non-union wage earners while proclaiming a desire to de-escalate class conflict. Some even denied the existence of class divisions. As a NAM member put it in 1914, “We have no classes in our country.”
Chad Pearson is part of a cadre of historians associated with the The Labor and Working Class History Association whose website is an indispensable source of material such as the kind found in his new book. It was Pearson who suggested I have a look at Ahmed White’s “The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America” that I reviewed for CounterPunch in December. If Theodore Roosevelt sought to tame workers through the open shop, FDR was forced by a rising mass movement to back labor laws supporting the closed shop and other pro-union measures. In some cases, the workers could prevail such as in the Flint sit-down strike of 1938 but lost in other cases such as the Little Steel Strike that White chronicles. In that instance, the unions lost despite FDR’s 1935 Wagner Act that turned out to be not worth much more than the paper it was written on. When the bosses use militias and the cops to break heads with the tacit agreement of liberal Democratic Party governors, who can the workers turn to except members of their own class? The Little Steel strikers could not impose their will on the bosses and had to wait until WWII for the closed shop to kick in. As I pointed out in my CounterPunch article, the war industries needed a disciplined workforce to keep production going nonstop. For that a steelworkers union led by CP’ers who signed a no-strike pledge was made to order.
Right-to-work laws are the result of the passage of Taft-Hartley in 1947 that was the outcome of an anti-labor coalition made up of Republicans and Dixiecrats. For the past 70 years, the AFL-CIO has called for the abolition of Taft-Hartley but it is questionable whether that will do much to revive the labor movement. The last big test of trade union solidarity took place in Madison, Wisconsin in 2011 when Governor Scott Walker sponsored legislation that would eliminate the dues checkoff—the lynchpin of business unionism. In a test of strength, the top bureaucrats of the AFL-CIO failed to mobilize support for the public unions and Walker prevailed.
A graph on Quartz shows how the strike has become virtually extinct. A combination of globalization and a ruling class determined to push through neoliberal austerity has kept labor on a leash even though workers can start a union without facing the naked violence that marked Little Steel. What tends to work against them nowadays is economic pressure as families are simply incapable of being without income for long periods.
The Momentive workers were out for 105 days, forced to cry uncle because of economic pressure and the failure of the trade union movement to come to their aid (or perhaps the lack of a trade union movement.) Whether there is a Democrat or a Republican in the White House, they got screwed. Under Obama, Momentive cut wages by 25%-50% and froze pensions for workers younger than 50. This time under Trump, Schwarzman targeted healthcare, especially for retirees.
Like the airline controllers and the P9 meatpacking workers, the Momentive strikers were driven to struggle because the bosses would not allow them to live like they had in the status quo ante. Unlike any period since the 1930s, trade unionists do not have the backing of the Democratic Party. When a Momentive worker voted for Trump, he or she took the conman at his word. Such a betrayal causes workers to reflect on their class identity. One worker told the Guardian: “Both parties are so busy hitting each other, they haven’t been interested in us. The choice, he said, was: ‘Do you want to die by drowning or die by fire?’”
As the insult and the injuries continue to mount in American capitalism’s senescence, many of these workers will begin to understand that there are alternatives to drowning or death by fire. Perhaps it is the rich who should perish—as a social class. You saw eruptions on Wall Street and in the streets of the Middle East and North Africa over the same violations of human rights and dignity. As James Baldwin put it, it will be the fire next time and the workers will ignite it.