Consider this quote from an essay by Leon Fink, a labor historian:*

[Andrew] Carnegie, of course, was the protagonist of the Homestead Strike of 1892, a fateful standoff between one of the biggest corporations and the most powerful union of the Gilded Age. When the Amalgamated Association of Iroon and Steel Workers (AAISW) together with an aroused local citizenry proved unable to withstand a combination of lockout, importation of Pinkertons to protect strikebreakers, and ultimate application of state militia, unionism took a toll beyond the immediate causalities of nine dead and eleven wounded. In the steel industry, declining wages and yellow-dog contracts requiring a binding non-union pledge subsequently became the norm. Overvaluing its remaining resources, the Amalgamated made a final, fateful decision to confront the newly formed U.S. Steel monolith [the successor to Carnegie’s concerns, which he sold to J. P. Morgan] in 1901, a decision ending in crushing defeat. Once the last steel lodge in the country dissolved, Big Steel inoculated itself from trade unionism for the next thirty-four years. [citations omitted]

The “importation of Pinkertons,” which were private security guards, and “the application of state militia” reflect something one sees often in narratives about Gilded Age (c. 1877-c.1920) labor disputes. The idea is that unions could have had more success if it weren’t for violent interference from the state. “Success,” at least when counterposed to the above-mentioned use of Pinkertons and the militia, meant that the strikers would be permitted to harm or threaten strikebreakers, to use violence to prevent strikebreakers from taking jobs that “belonged” to union members.

Before I go too far in decrying “union violence” in the Gilded Age there are two counterpoints. First, in the example of Homestead and many other examples, introducing strikebreakers was a provocative move, an invitation to the very violence that often followed. To be clear, blame for any violence rests with those who actually commit the violence. But if someone introduces a situation they know will lead to violence that person also bears some of the blame for the results.

Second, if you look at the history of labor activism, one finds violence directed against strikers or union supporters either without provocation or with flimsy justifications. The examples are many:  Henry Ford’s hiring thugs to beat up union organizers, the Republic Steel Massacre, the Ludlow Massacre, the deportations and bull-pen imprisonments during the “Colorado Labor Wars” of 1902-1905. I wouldn’t be surprised if such violence counts for a majority of the instances of “labor violence” during the Gilded Age.

So why pick on anti-strikebreaker violence, especially at a time when unions in most sectors seem to be so poorly represented and when most union supporters (I imagine) today disavow violence and do so sincerely?

One reason is a preachy one. I want to point out that such violence is illiberal. If “liberal society” means anything, it means that a person has the right to pursue a lawful calling for which someone else is willing to lawfully hire them. Maybe other norms ought to override at least sometimes this liberal presumption–such as “community interest,” a  notion that jobs are “owned” by the jobholder, a commitment to class solidarity, or a shared opposition to an allegedly monopolistic octopus. And perhaps those norms deserve consideration.

Another reason is, the issue of violence is a more extreme version of the issue of when and whether and how employment relations can be said to be voluntary or coercive. And as one of my interests is labor policy and labor history, I’d like to put the issue of violence out there.

For union supporters, I’d like to ask when, if ever, is it acceptable to use violence and to deter strikebreakers? other forms of coercion to impose or establish a union contract? and what counts as violence and “other forms of coercion”? For opponents of unions, I’d like to ask if anything overrides what I call the “liberal presumption” that each person has a right to pursue a lawful calling? and when and by how much is that presumption overridden?

These are questions that bother me as I try to consider my stance on, for example, the repeal of Taft-Hartley, curtailing public employee unions, anti-union shop (aka “right to work) laws, card check votes, or such workplace related policies like Montana’s “for cause” employment law or raising the minimum wage.



*From Leon Fink, “Great Strikes Revisited,” in The Long Gilded Age: American Capitalism and Lessons of a New World Order (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), page 38.


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12 Responses to “importation of Pinkertons to protect strikebreakers”

  1. Murali says:

    I would imagine that nothing over-rides the liberal presumption. Or at least so little, that I cannot think of any right now.

    One thing I often wonder is why do people who think that union contracts are okay object to redlining and other types of contracts that prevented whites from selling their houses to blacks. It seems that a liberal state should either say that any exclusionary contract is fine or nor such exclusionary contracts are enforceable.

    • Murali,

      I’d distinguish union contracts as they exist today from practices like redlining in two ways.

      First, redlining, to some extent, was actual policy by the US federal government, at least when it came to the properties for which it supplied government back loans. The “red line,” as I understand, was grafted onto maps to identify undesirable, unsecurable properties, and that red line coincided largely with black neighborhoods. At least with that context, redlining was almost “required” (that’s one of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s arguments for reparations). That’s not the total of red lining, and while I don’t know the full hisotry, the practice, along with certain types of restricted covenants, etc., were less encouraged by the state than they were a reflection of discrimination among homeowners and realtors.

      The second difference is that union contracts in the US, at least as they have existed since World War II, are in practice “agency shop” contracts. One doesn’t have to be in the union to get the job in the first place, and if the contract requires them to join, their joining is limited to having to pay dues (e.g., they don’t have to go to union meetings). In a “right to work” state, they’re not even required to pay the dues. So it’s less an exclusionary provision than it is an anti-free-rider provision. I also understand that strikebreakers/replacement workers are legally entitled to work if the employer wishes to hire them. (There may be some strike situations in which it is supposedly illegal for the employer to take on replacement workers–I don’t know the law that well–but in practice, hiring replacement workers is in practice almost always permitted.)

      The union targeted by Carnegie in 1892 was probably more exclusionary (I honestly don’t know much about it), in that one had to be a member first, and membership probably entailed more than just automatic dues deduction.

      None of this answers your first point. The alternatives I posit in the OP might not seem particularly defensible to you (or in all honesty, to me at this point in my life), but historically, in the US, they were powerful counterpoints in the 19th century and even today.

  2. Oscar Gordon says:

    But if someone introduces a situation they know will lead to violence that person also bears some of the blame for the results.

    I’d be careful with this idea, since it is the argument of the hostage taker (I have a hostage, if you do X, I will kill the hostage & their death will be on you).

    a notion that jobs are “owned” by the jobholder

    Another idea that has to be handled with care. I would not casually dismiss an argument that a person owns a job provided by another (as opposed to owning a job vis a vis being a sole proprietor business owner), but I have a pretty high bar for that idea since it implies an obligation on the part of the employer without an implied obligation on the part of the employee.

    In one of Saul’s posts I linked in a comment to a government report on NERPs (non-represented employee something something – basically non-Union Unions). The report admitted that such systems seem to work, even without the force of law backing them.

    Today, as long as the courts & the law are not playing favorites, I see no reason to justify any violence. I’d even strongly advise existing traditional Unions to be exceptionally adverse to violence, since there is enough such history of unions employing violence that IAM organizers in SC were met with guns when they went door to door during organization efforts.

    • I agree that both those ideas need to be taken with care. As for the first–how to apportion blame for violence–I agree the hostage analogy works (for me). But then I also think of that nutcase in Florida a while back who made a big showing of burning a Koran and that burning was used in Pakistan (or Afghanistan….I forget) as an excuse for rioting that killed some people. The nutcase, in my opinion, is not wholly innocent, even though the people truly to blame were the rioters and even though his legal right to burn the book was, in my mind, unquestionable.

      For what it’s worth, according to Fink, Carnegie later regretted the decision to use strikebreakers in that situation. (He technically didn’t make the decision. His deputy, Henry Clay Fricke, did, although it’s probably one of those things where Carnegie had another person do it so he [Carnegie] could claim plausible deniability.)

      As for job ownership, I like your way of putting it: there should be a high bar.

      I definitely agree that unions today should be chary of endorsing any type of violence. In fact, unions today should be scared stiff of any violence by their members (endorsed or unendorsed by the union) because of unions’ precarious position in today’s polity. Also, I don’t know what can really justify (to me) violence in a strike.

      Do you have that link you gave to Saul? I’d be interested in reading it.

      • trumwill says:

        I think a decent (though very incomplete) criticism of Jones (the Florida pastor) was that he incited violence that he had every expectation of not being a part of. This is in contrast to Charlie Hebdo or Theo Van Gogh and others, who knew to some extent that they were putting themselves on the line. With Jones there was an element of “Let’s you and him fight!”

        That said, a fair amount of attention after the attack was directed to Jones. And after violence occurs, whatever I think of Jones, he becomes beside the point.

        It’s also why I was absolutely disgusted at the Obama administration’s attempts to keep the focus on that movie.

      • Oscar Gordon says:

        The nutcase, in my opinion, is not wholly innocent

        I agree, but to me it dances dangerously close to victim blaming, especially when the victim is unsympathetic. I prefer the more objective standard of violence belonging solely to the violent.

  3. trumwill says:

    But if someone introduces a situation they know will lead to violence that person also bears some of the blame for the results.

    That notion has been getting a lot of play lately with regard to Charlie Hebdo and Pamela Geller. I’m not a big fan of the logic, as it gives a lot of power to the violent. On the other hand, at least in some contexts, it’s not like we should ignore the propensity for violence, if only to compare that threat to the possible good obtained by doing whatever it is that might incite violence.

  4. I should say I don’t mean to pick on Leon Fink. He writes from within the “New Left” position, a position that is very sympathetic or at least pro-gainsaying labor violence. But from his other writings, I assume he’s not averse to discussing violence and the situation strikebreakers found themselves in.

    The essay I quote from doesn’t really address the violence issue, but it is in part a pushback against the New Left tradition of vilifying employers as “robber baron”/enemies. One of his arguments in the essay is that the employers were complicated individuals with their own sincere sense of right and wrong, and that historians ought to take them seriously and not as caricatures.

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