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Labor Union Violence in America: A Brief History

Blocking engine traffic at Martinsburg, W.Va. (Harpers)

In the wake of last week’s Occupy Oakland general strike, which—not insignificantly—gained union support before culminating with riots, The Blaze is taking a look at the history of violence surrounding union activity in America, especially strikes.

And nearly 150 years, it’s apparently no mere misunderstanding or shop-worn cultural stereotype: The United States has had the “bloodiest and most violent labor history of any industrial nation in the world”—so concluded Philip Taft and Philip Ross for their oft-cited study, American Labor Violence: Its Causes, Character, and Outcome.

Who’s Been Running the Show?

Taft and Ross found that “minority groups within the labor movement or without direct attachment to it advocated the use of violence against established institutions and also against leaders in government, industry, and society…Those who saw in violence a creative force…had no objectives of immediate gain; they were not concerned with public opinion. They were revolutionaries for whom the radical transformation of the economic and social system was the only and all-consuming passion.

Sound familiar?


Socialist (and Violent) Roots of U.S. Labor Unions

The International Working People’s Association became the center for national anarchist federations in the early 1880s and “favored warfare against capitalist society and its leaders,” Taft and Ross said. Soon militant social revolutionary groups organized education and defense outposts, their members meeting regularly and drilling “with arms,” the authors noted, adding that insurrection and terror against individuals was also advocated.

This ideology “gained added strength from the terroristic acts of members of the People’s Will, an organization of Russian revolutionaries who carried out campaigns of violence against persons, culminating in the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881,” Taft and Ross noted.

Union Thuggery Is…Lawful?

It’s a huge caveat worth noting anytime union members spiral down toward lethal behavior: The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that certain labor union violence—even when involving homicide—cannot be prosecuted under federal law. The controversial U.S. v. Enmons verdict deemed in 1973 that labor violence against employers—including property damage, assault, and homicide—isn’t federally punishable when it’s carried out for legitimate union pursuits, such as wage or benefit increases.

The ruling makes one wonder to what extent unions have been emboldened, not simply toward stated labor objectives, but also toward violence means to achieve their ends.

A Little History Lesson

The chronicle of American labor union violence is extensive, dating all the way back to the 1870s, therefore we’ll condense things a bit and (for lack of alternate alliteration) hit highlights here:

1. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877

When: July 1877

Where: Martinsburg, W.Va., Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Reading, Pa., Chicago

Why: Baltimore & Ohio Railroad cut wages for a second time in a year; strikers blocked train service

Carnage/Casualties: Street battles with federal troops; soldiers injured; trains damaged; a station, bridge, and trainyards torched.

2. The Haymarket Affair

When: May 4, 1886

Where: Haymarket Square, Chicago

Why: Demonstration supporting striking workers

Carnage/Casualties: Dynamite bomb thrown at police dispersing crowd; blast and mostly “friendly” retaliatory gunfire left eight police dead. Eight anarchists tried for murder; four convicted/executed, one committed suicide in prison. Event inspired caricature of bomb-throwing anarchist.

3. Homestead Strike

When: June-July 1892

Where: Carnegie Steel Mill, Homestead, Pa.; office, Pittsburgh

Why: Considered among most violent labor disputes in U.S. history, mill union wanted contract and mill management locked out workers.

Carnage/Casualties: Pinkerton guards fired on strikers; three guards surrendered, were disarmed, and beaten by a mob. Seven guards and 11 strikers/spectators shot to death. Later, Russian-born anarchist Alexander Berkman attempted to assassinate Carnegie chairman Henry Clay Frick in his Pittsburgh office.

3. Coeur d’Alene Miner Strike

When: July 1892

Where: Frisco Mill, Coeur d’Alene, Id.

Why: Striking miners incensed at Pinkerton infiltration into union

Carnage/Casualties: Strikers dynamited Frisco Mill; two company men killed; strikers captured 60 mine guards; martial law declared; national guard/federal troops ended unrest.

4. Pullman Railroad Strike

When: May-July 1894

Where: Nationwide, culminating in Chicago

Why: Strike against wage reduction

Carnage/Casualties: 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago’s Jackson Park torched; seven buildings burned to ground; railroad cars burned/looted; street fights with police; 14,000 federal and state troops put down strike.

5. Killing of William Healy

When: February 3, 1930

Where: Chicago

Why: Marble Setters Union had been having difficulties with Healy, a contractor

Carnage/Casualties: “Chicagorillas” (labor racketeers) shot and killed Healy.


6. Blinding of Victor Riesel

When: April 5, 1956

Where: New York City

Why: Riesel’s syndicated newspaper column crusaded against labor racketeers

Carnage/Casualties: A gangster threw sulfuric acid in Riesel’s face, permanently blinding him.

7. New York Daily News Strike

When: 1990

Carnage/Casualties: Strikers attacked delivery trucks with stones and sticks; some burned; some drivers beaten. Newsstands threatened with arson; copies of paper burned in front of newsstands; hundreds of violent acts reported/alleged. No convictions.

8. Killing of Eddie York

When: July 22, 1993

Where: Coal mine, Logan Co., W.Va.

Why: York shot and killed after crossing United Mine Workers picket line

Carnage/Casualties: Workmates attempting to rescue York were beaten. AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumpka, then leader of UMW: “I’m saying if you strike a match and you put your finger in it, you’re likely to get burned.” According to National Legal and Policy Center, Trumka’s lawyers settled a $27 million wrongful death suit filed by York’s widow; Trumka “did not publicly discipline or reprimand a single striker present when York was killed. In fact, all eight were helped out financially by the local,” according to Reader’s Digest.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/v/pUVpJnHZNw8?version=3&hl=en_US&rel=0 expand=1]

 9. Rod Carter Attack

When: August 7, 1997

Where: Miami

Why: Carter attacked after crossing UPS driver picket line; a former Dallas Cowboys  linebacker, Carter was interviewed on TV news the day before saying he wouldn’t strike so he could provide for his family.

Carnage/Casualties: Teamsters pulled Carter from truck and beat, kicked, and stabbed him six times with an ice pick. Carter won an undisclosed civil-suit settlement in 2001.

10. Local 17 Case

When: various

Where: Buffalo, N.Y.

Carnage/Casualties: Union members charged with pouring sand into construction vehicle engines, stabbing company exec in the neck, tossing hot coffee at non-union workers, and threatening to sexually assault the wife of a company rep. AFL-CIO lawyer: “We’re not condoning the allegations or arguing that union officials are completely immune from prosecution. Instead, we simply want to make sure that the [federal law] is not interpreted in a way that could have a chilling effect on legitimate union activity.”

11. Washington State Port Dispute

When: September 2011

Carnage/Casualties: Ports shut down in response to dispute between workers union and grain export terminal owner in Longview, Wa.; about 500 longshoremen carried baseball bats into terminal, smashed windows, damaged rail cars, dumped tons of grain from cars; later more than 1,000 longshoremen didn’t go to work, shutting down Seattle and Tacoma ports. “It’s certainly getting more and more violent,” said Jim Duscha, police chief of Longview. “The terminal’s security guards were outnumbered by people with baseball bats. People were busting windows out of the guard shack. They took a security guard out of his rig and drove it into a ditch.”

In Conclusion

Taft and Ross found that "labor violence was almost always harmful to the union. There is little evidence that violence succeeds in gaining advantages for strikers." In addition, they determined that the "blood of the martyr may be the seed of the church, but in labor disputes it is doubtful if the sacrifices have been worth the results obtained. The evidence against the effectiveness of violence as a means of gaining concessions by labor in the United States is too overwhelming to be a matter of dispute."


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