By David Patten
David Patten is an award-winning history teacher, college lecturer, and the author of twenty-one articles published in various magazines, including History Today, Military History, Man at Arms, Arms Collecting, Medal News, and, most recently, the Journal of the Orders and Medals Society of America.
Strikers in Ludlow, Colorado, 1914. Credit: Wiki Commons.
In Bangladesh, more than six hundred workers died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza with hundreds more still missing and presumed dead. We must be shocked by this tragedy, but not at all surprised.
For years we have heard the terrible stories of working people in China, Bangladesh, and a host of other emerging nations around the world. Everyone expresses dismay over the working conditions and now we mourn for the victims of this latest in a string of industrial tragedies. The elites running these sweatshops of the world, through a maze of contractors and plausible deniability, add to the chorus as well. They will announce pledges of improvement, thorough investigations into the plight of the workers, and they will pay appropriate lip service to those so cruelly victimized. Scant change will actually occur and those changes that will actually be made will unfold at a glacial pace. The world will eventually look away until the next tragedy or the next horrible revelation occurs. But, as bad and as patronizing as all this seems to be, there is an even more insidious condition governing the situation. It stems from a philosophy of historical determinism and that very philosophy lies at the root of the problem.
We are told, and most people tacitly accept, that the factory conditions in the emerging industrialized nations are a natural outgrowth of the free market system where intense competition forces owners and investors to cut costs and shave safety standards all in the name of profits and jobs. How else after all can a business thrive in a free, intensely competitive worldwide market? Consumers demand goods at low prices. Meet the demand or lose the business and, even more importantly, the jobs it creates. History tells us that tragedies will occur as the price of growth. Every nation which sought to industrialize and amass wealth went through these brutal conditions and the deaths of its workers.
In a sense, those who put forth this argument are right. We have seen this many times before throughout history. But, in another sense, their words tell us something far greater and far more frightening. They are demonstrating through both words and actions that we are the prisoners and not the beneficiaries of historical instruction. The unrelenting history of free markets, imposing its will upon us, becomes the rationale for deplorable conditions and for the semi-slave labor in the marketplace of today. That is the way it was and therefore, that is the way it must now be.
In truth, there is no historical or biological law that mandates horror in the workplace as the price to be paid for economic growth. History is indeed replete with examples of horrible working conditions and terrifying tragedies that occurred in Britain, France, Germany, and of course, the United States during the time period of industrialization. Examining the Bangladesh tragedy and then peering through the not so distant window of America’s industrial past is like venturing into de Tocqueville’s art gallery of history. We see plenty of copies, but few originals. Given that, the real question becomes, why do we not learn from the past and avoid the mistakes our ancestors surely made?
In America’s period of industrialization, we witness stories of darkness beyond belief where labor was cheap and life even cheaper. In the coal mines, for example, safety standards were virtually non-existent and workers died by the tens of thousands during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Northeast Pennsylvania alone, it is estimated that between the years 1870 and 1897, 32,000 workers lost their lives in the coal mines. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 3,242 such deaths occurred in American coal mines in 1907 alone. Safety standards cost money and workers were responsible for their own well being. Such is the stuff of profits. But beyond the outright deaths in those cruel pits, how many workers had their lives shortened by decades because safety was ignored?
When not dying in the mines, workers in virtually all other occupations faced similar hazards. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire killed 146 women and men. They died because the employers demanded that the doors to the factory be locked from the outside, thus giving them complete control over the workers inside. Building safety standards were ignored as well and when the factory caught fire, the only escape was out windows located on the eight and ninth floors. As a reporter named William Shepard who witnessed people jumping to their deaths remarked, “I learned a new sound that day, a sound more horrible than description can picture: the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.” I could go on and on with tragedies and statistics, but do we really need a remake of The Jungle when the historical facts are there for all to see?
America’s past experience with industrialization is a dirty story as far as labor is concerned. But, there are, after all, lessons to be learned from our experiences and these lessons can well apply to the emerging economies. Dr. Martin Luther King told us, “We know, through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor: it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Extending his sage remarks to the workplace, power elites rarely cooperate with their workers since the individual voices of working men and women do not even constitute a whisper. Only when workers band together is attention paid to their conditions and complaints. Collective bargaining made the American workplace safer and created a vigorous and prosperous middle class. That is the pathway the workers of the emerging nations must follow. If history has determined they must suffer and die on their jobs, then surely it follows that they must organize in their own defense — just like the workers of the established industrialized nations once did.
But, as history has been made complicit in worker deaths and horrifying working conditions, so it will become complicit in the response the power elites will make in regards to workers organizing unions. We saw it dreadfully play out in American history and so it shall be elsewhere. In our free republic, workers faced violent opposition encouraged and subsidized by the wealthy industrialists. It became a fight to the finish and it played out for more than a century.
Just a few examples should suffice:
In the Lattimer mine strike of 1897 near Hazelton, Pennsylvania, Sheriff James Martin and one hundred fifty of his deputies turned the countryside into an outdoor abattoir when they fired upon a group of three hundred to four hundred miners. The unarmed miners were conducting a peaceful march when the massacre occurred. Nineteen miners were killed and approximately forty-nine wounded. Of the nineteen dead, all had been shot in the back. Martin and seventy-three deputies were put on trial for the murders. All were acquitted.
Ludlow, Colorado was the site of a tent city erected by miners striking against the Rockefeller family owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. Nearly twelve hundred miners and their families lived in the makeshift “town” and it was there that the Colorado National Guard and the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company guards decided to break the strike. At their disposal was the “Death Special,” an armored car equipped with a machine gun. The attack occurred on April 20, 1914. Most of the miners and their family members were able to flee to the surrounding hills, but two women, eleven children, and as many as thirteen men were not so lucky. Among the dead was the leader of the Ludlow camp, Louis Tikas, who had tried to negotiate with the attackers and was beaten down with a rifle butt and then shot in the back. His body and the bodies of two other dead miners were hauled from the smoldering tent city and dumped alongside the Colorado and Southern Railway tracks. For three days, their bodies were viewed by the people aboard passing trains just so everyone could absorb the sinister message: this is what happens to union organizers. Twenty-two National Guardsmen including their commander Lieutenant Linderfelt were court martialed. All were acquitted except for Linderfelt who was reprimanded for his assault upon Louis Tikas.
Bisbee, Arizona in 1917 was the scene of a mass deportation of thirteen hundred striking miners. The strikers were set upon by a gang of two thousand vigilantes in the employ of the company. At gunpoint, the strikers were forced to board manure carpeted cattle cars and then taken on a two-hundred-mile rail journey. No food was provided and only once was water granted. They were unceremoniously dumped into the town of Hermanas, New Mexico. The victims of this monstrosity demanded federal government action. The government did not disappoint. Twenty-one company executives and several elected lawmakers and police were arrested and brought to trial. The federal government lost the case at every level and the state of Arizona refused any prosecution.
One would think that the end of anti-union violence would have come with U.S. government recognition of collective bargaining and the right to join unions under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Unfortunately, no one seemed to consider Henry Ford. He hated unions with a passion bordering on the pathological. When dealing with unions, he and his security chief Harry Bennett utilized only the most sublime goons, each well trained in the art of inflicting pain. Their careful selection was well in evidence at the 1937 Battle of the Overpass. Leaders of the United Auto Workers, after obtaining a legal permit, arrived outside the Ford Motor complex to pass out leaflets encouraging the workers to join the union. They were met by Henry Ford’s “security agents”. Among these “agents” were the leader of the “Down River Gang” Angelo Caruso, wrestlers Warshon Sarkisien and Ted Gries, and professional boxer Oscar Jones. In spite of the presence of reporters, the thugs launched an attack upon the UAW leaders. Every one of the union organizers was severely injured. Richard Frankensteen’s coat was pulled over his head. He was then kicked in the head, kidneys, and groin. For good measure, they ground their heels into his stomach as he lay helplessly on the ground. Richard Merriweather’s back was broken and Walter Reuther’s face was turned into pudding.
These few examples are merely a snapshot of what union organizers and members faced in the land of the free. How, I wonder, will it play out for those who live in lands not so free? The unions in America eventually won recognition — even against the troglodytic Henry Ford. It will be much harder but it must be no different in the emerging nations. Work place hell is not so easily conquered. But, conqueror it they must. The road to that objective for the workers in the Far East and, for that matter, everywhere else, will be long, hard, and far more dangerous and violent than the tragedies we experienced. But, the hope of “pie in the sky when you die” is no option for the living. They can wait no longer for pledges and promises to someday come true. They must take matters into their own hands. As the brilliant leader of the Ladies Garment Workers Union Rose Schneiderman said, “The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.” Her words were spoken in 1911, but they could easily have been said only last week. Unjustly convicted of murder and executed by a Utah firing squad, martyred union leader Joe Hill gets the last word: “Organize!”
The tragedy in Bangladesh and the tragedies that have occurred in other emerging nations have greater applications for all of us. They serve as dire warnings not just for their own workers but for all workers. In America, we have steadily turned our backs on unions and we have done so at great risk. The hard won gains and the violence inflicted upon working people have been largely forgotten in a land grown fat off labor’s success. History may not repeat, but as Twain noted, “…it rhymes a lot.” Business owners, aligned with political leaders have steadily and stealthily eroded unions and union power, thus turning back the clock. We are not seeing the violence of the past — instead we see a more subtle and, thus far, successful methodology. Union membership has steadily fallen to rates not seen since before the 1930s. At one time, 35 percent of American workers were unionized. Now, less than 11.4 percent of Americans are. In the private sector, a mere 7 percent can claim union membership. How has this been accomplished? Words in this case matter and they matter a lot. Instead of “union busting” we are subjected to the far more attractive “right-to-work laws” or “freedom-to-work laws”. Many states have put these concepts into effect. These laws are merely one step above “yellow dog contracts” and they have a similar effect. We should abandon the euphemisms and label these laws for what they are — the right to be an indentured servant and the freedom to live in squalor. According to the Bureau of Labor and the Economic Policy Institute, unionized workers in America earn 15 to 20 percent higher wages and salaries than their non-union counterparts.
But it goes far beyond dollars and cents. Work place safety is far greater among union workers. In mining, for example, the number of deaths in the tunnels has increased coincident with the movement toward non-unionized mines. The Sago disaster of 2006 took twelve lives, the Crandall Canyon mine collapse in 2007 killed nine, and the 2010 Massey coal mine tragedy at the Upper Big Branch killed twenty-nine. All were nonunion mines. I don’t think the families and friends of the victims took much comfort from learning that all those lives had been sacrificed for the greater good of the quarterly report. Each one of those disasters could have been prevented or at least mitigated had the proper and more expensive protocols been followed. But, let us face the inconvenient truth: what price human life when coal pays the bills?
We ignore historical lessons at our own peril. We see so clearly the terrible plight of workers in emerging nations, yet we fail to acknowledge and inspire the solution. If that is not bad enough, we fail to see the deteriorating treatment of our own workers and flee from the solution. The contemporary examples of Sago, Crandall, and the Big Branch immediately pass into distant memory and are soon forgotten as we bash the unions through our laws and speech. What happened in Bangladesh and elsewhere must be remembered vividly and the circumstances which caused these horrors addressed through strong unions. We would also do well to reapply the hard fought, hard won lessons of the past to our own nation.
Originally published on History News Network