In 1903, workers at the World Smelter struck for an 8-hour day. The World Smelter was owned by the Trumanverse Smelting and Refining Company (TSARCO) and was located in Worldville, a neighborhood in Danvar, the capital of Cibolia. TSARCO used strikebreakers, from Worldville, from other parts of Danvar, or from other states. By September, the smelters were running again, but the union did not officially call off the strike until spring 1905.

At least two incidents of labor violence occurred during the strike. The first came in November 1903. As replacement workers walked to the smelter, wives of some of the strikers attacked them. They threw red pepper into their eyes and temporarily blinded them. The second incident came sometime in 1904. Someone set off dynamite outside the home of a skilled smelter worker who lived in Worldville. The dynamite shattered the worker’s windows, but otherwise left the inhabitants unscathed.

I wrote my masters thesis about that strike and another one at the same smelter that occurred in 1899. I interpreted the violence differently then than I do now. Neither interpretation is without its problems.

Then: I mostly gainsaid the violence. It was a violent time for union supporters elsewhere in Cibolia. In 1903, the governor had launched a campaign against the Occidental Federation of Miners (OFM), with which the smelter union was affiliated. The OFM had effectively controlled labor relations in the state’s gold and silver mines for about 10 years. The governor used state militia not only to protect replacement workers, but also to intimidate and arrest union supporters on trumped up vagrancy and other charges. He also turned a blind eye to vigilante groups, called “Citizens’ Alliances,” that harassed and deported miners out of the state. The smelter union’s strike was a sideshow to this larger campaign, and Danvar was a different place. But if that union also resorted to violence, I reasoned, the bigger picture made the resort seem less unjustified.

Second, the violence was not so bad because the harms were “mild.” The victims of the pepper spray attack were blinded, but “only temporarily.” The skilled worker’s house was bombed, but the evidence that unionists were responsible was unclear. Also, it was generally conceded in the news accounts, even in those papers not particularly sympathetic to the union, that the dynamite was so placed that the resulting explosion would not harm anyone. Therefore, the bombing was “only” a threat, and not actual harm aside from a few shattered windows. It’s also possible that the explosion was prompted by something other than the labor dispute because the evidence was too scanty.

Now: I’m much more concerned about how violence operated against those strikebreakers and more particularly, how much unionization at that time depended on the threat of violence. I’m more inclined to find reasons to criticize the violence and much more wary of invoking the “community norms” that helped sustain such violence as some sort of justification.  I personally would be quite scared if someone blew dynamite outside my apartment even if the explosion “only” destroyed my windows.  The damage from the red pepper may not have been permanent, but must have been painful. (Last night, I made for the first time what is called “green chili,” a dish I’ve never had outside of Cibolia and that I get homesick for. I got jalapeno seeds on my fingers and they burned for a couple hours. Good thing I didn’t touch my eyes.)

Still, I’d have to concede the points I made above. It was a violent time in Cibolia (and in generally). And the harms, while nothing to sneeze at, did fall short of more severe violence.

One answer to these different ways of telling the story is is to analyze what happened and refer to how it supports or contradicts existing studies in labor history and history of the era. That’s what historians do. And many, not all,  historians like to say, “it’s not the historian’s job to judge, but to analyze the context and the patterns, and understand why things happened as they did.”

That admonition is sometimes used against Marxist-leaning leaning historians like me in 2000 that tried to find a common class-interest among people I knew only through contemporary news accounts and a few other sources. That same admonition could be used against the neoliberal-leaning me in 2015 who tries to find an individualized interest labor market participation. I’m actually compelled, based on the evidence before me (which is the same as 165years ago), that there was something like a class-interest in Worldville. And despite my now strong preference for the liberal presumption, I can’t fully deny this class-based, communitarian sense existed and was part of a reality that would not recognize the policies I support now or the reasons I support them.

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4 Responses to Red Pepper and Dynamite

  1. Mike Hunt Ray Rice says:

    LOL Wut?

  2. trumwill says:

    This ties in quite a bit to the ins and outs of rioting, and the discussions of.

    My view is… such things are like revolution. They can be forgiven if they work, and if they produce results that make everything sufficiently better than it otherwise would be. But if you’re going to break some eggs, you’ve gotta be making omelets. Otherwise, you’ve just broken eggs.

    • Good point. I think if we changed the setting from Cibolia in 1903 to the sit-down strikes in Chippeway of ca. 1937, it would be easier to talk about the violence in more “heroic” terms.

    • I’ll also add that there’s a certain “lost cause” romanticism to a lot of labor history, especially pre-New Deal labor history. The Wobblies are heroes, the Populists were the good guys against the trusts, and the Knights of Labor were a noble experiment.

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