“The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor . . .”
— Du Bois, Black Reconstruction
W.E.B. Du Bois is probably best remembered for writing in 1903 in The Souls of Black Folk that the “problem of the twentieth century” would be “the problem of the color line.” But he came to recognize that the race problem was closely related to a larger tragedy: racism was the white working class’s fatal weakness, causing its leading organizations to adopt reactionary positions counter to the interests of their American members as well as their brothers and sisters in the colonized countries.
Du Bois used the word “labor” broadly to indicate a person’s class position in society and not whether they are lucky enough to belong to a union. But he of course understood the power of organization and, as a partisan of the struggling masses, saw a unified, inclusive labor movement as a necessity.
His Marxist/revisionist interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction was published in 1935. It devastated the standard lies taught in Ivy League universities and public schools alike. It told the inspiring story of an oppressed people’s patient, resolute and astonishing transition from property to “freedmen” in the face of overwhelming, murderous hostility. And it laid bare the working-class tragedy described above. When Du Bois wrote of “the emancipation of labor,” he was writing not only about the past, but the situation in 1935, and the future as well. He was thinking of, and writing on behalf of, black and white working people in the US; he was considering the plight of the world’s “basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.”
The dictum, that the liberation of humanity begins with the liberation of the working masses, is as true today as ever. The analysis of how things were in 1935 – or 1865 – is instructive for present-day activists.
Du Bois, a great scholar – he was the first African-American to earn a Ph. D. from Harvard – and activist – he was a founder of the NAACP, a pan-Africanist and future peace activist and Communist – well understood how American capitalism’s relations to its working classes evolved up to his day:
After the Civil War, poor Southern whites betrayed their class interests by uniting with land-owning, ex-slaveholders to keep African-Americans in peonage; organized white labor, North and South, betrayed its class interests in favor of its “racial interests” by excluding black workers, leaving the latter little choice except to work wherever and whenever they could – including as strikebreakers.
Furthermore, organized labor, under the spell of the ruling-class rhetoric of free land and individualism, made little effort to organize the great mass of unskilled white workers – many of whom were immigrants – believing that the highest achievement was to one day become a wealthy exploiter of one’s own class. Finally, organized labor, now almost totally ignorant of the class-based reasons for its very existence, supported capital’s exploitation and the government’s military oppression of working people in the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia and Africa.
And today? Well, for starters, we can at least say that organized labor no longer excludes people of color – at least, not most of organized labor. In fact, some of the most dynamic and respected leaders nationally, and always some of the most stalwart members at the local level, are women and people of color. This inclusion is a strength whose potential has yet to be fully realized. The future of organized labor will depend in large part on the continued inclusion of working people of all races and the development of leaders like Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers.
But also consider this: today barely 10 percent of US workers belong to unions. By contrast, when Black Reconstruction was published in 1935, there had been such an explosion of worker militancy and organizing that no one could really say how many union members there were. By 1955, when the AFL and CIO merged to form one labor federation, there were more union members than there are today, and organized labor accounted for close to 40 percent of the workforce.
US labor is too weak at home to presume leadership of the international labor movement. And to the extent that US labor is so inclined, it slavishly follows the ruling-class party line of “human rights” imperialism.
The dead past and the living present
One hundred years ago, the United States entered the bloody European conflict that became known as the First World War. Patriotic pundits are wrapping themselves in the flag, using this anniversary to stir up support for the many wars we are currently involved in, covert and overt. But I want to use this occasion to illustrate a very different moral. Like Du Bois, I believe that the emancipation of the working classes of all races and nationalities is the paramount necessity. And like Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and abolitionist who lived well into Du Bois’s day, “I do not ask you about the dead past. I bring you to the living present.”
Douglass famously said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” The most thoughtful leaders of the labor movement agreed, even back in Douglass’s time. Not long after the end of the Civil War, William Sylvis, leader of the first national labor federation, said, “We are now all one family of slaves together, and the labor reform movement is the second Emancipation Proclamation.”
Sylvis was right: Northern capitalists had become fabulously wealthy and influential during the war. The end of black Reconstruction in the South placed the entire nation under “the guidance and dictatorship of capital,” even to the extent that the Supreme Court transformed the Fourteenth Amendment – designed to protect the citizenship rights of African-Americans – into the “chief refuge and bulwark of corporations.” Meanwhile labor failed to live up to the promise of Sylvis’s words; it was ill-prepared for the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.
Pittsburghers played a pivotal and heroic role in the first nationwide strike in the US. Spontaneous strikes first broke out on railroad lines in Baltimore and West Virginia and spread across the country like wildfire. In Pittsburgh, miners, steelworkers, the unemployed and their families joined the strikers; the local militia fraternized with the crowds so the militia from Philadelphia was called in. They arrived by train, promptly proceeded to shoot down strikers and supporters, leading to the Battle of the Roundhouse where the militia was besieged with flaming railroad cars. The strike was crushed nationally within two weeks. As one striker put it, “We were shot back to work.”
Power concedes nothing without a demand. At the turn of the century, the greed of the capitalist class forced workers to continue perfecting their organizations and to keep fighting back – for a living wage, for an eight-hour day, for decent working conditions, for death and dismemberment benefits. In Coeur D’Alene and Homestead, shooting wars broke out between striking workers and the state militias, police and private gunmen arrayed against them. The workers lost, but they also always regrouped, continued organizing and eventually struck again.
An 1894 strike against the Pullman Company, which manufactured sleeping train cars outside of Chicago, put an exclamation point on nineteenth century labor relations. George Pullman ran a company town, requiring employees to live there and thus rent from him, buy groceries, supplies and utilities from him, and be underpaid to boot. The American Railroad Union of Eugene Debs voted to support the Pullman strikers by refusing to move or handle Pullman cars, and soon there was a nationwide strike of some 120,000 railroad workers.
President Grover Cleveland’s attorney general and the special attorney assigned to the strike were both former lawyers for railroad companies. (I don’t speak of the dead past. Look at the corporate connections of Trump administration appointees, or of Obama administration appointees before that.) The power of the executive branch, including Army troops, the press, the railroad companies and the police were brought to bear on the strike. Scores of working men and women were killed; scores more seriously wounded. Debs and other strike leaders were arrested and thrown in jail – lo and behold, the Supreme Court found that the Sherman Anti-Trust Act applied not to corporations but to unions! In essence, the entire machinery of the federal government supported Pullman’s “right” to treat people like vassals.
The quick and the dead
American capital entered the twentieth century powerful and confident. In1901 Bankers’ Magazine wrote: “As the business of the country has learned the secret of combination, it is gradually subverting the power of the politician and rendering him subservient to its purposes . . .”
Although the period from 1901 to 1917 is called the Progressive Era, “few reforms were enacted without the tacit approval, if not the guidance, of the large corporate interests.” Workers had to organize and fight for their very lives during these years, just as in any others. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were formed in 1905 and led militant struggles, including a massive textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, and a shooting-war strike of 6,000 steelworkers in McKees Rocks in 1909. In Colorado in 1912 and 1913, a strike erupted into a shooting war between miners and the bosses, culminating in the horrific Ludlow Massacre. In Lyndora, also in 1909, steelworkers engaged in a bitter strike with the Standard Car company with the aid of the IWW.
Every major US war has resulted in increased power and profit for capital. The US involvement in WWI would be no exception; indeed, it would act as a springboard for the powerful international ambitions of our ruling class. One hundred years ago, organized labor, as well as the fate and aspirations of the people it could and should represent, appeared dead in the water. But as I’ll demonstrate in the second part of this article, working people – labor – had not finished fighting yet.
To be continued . . .
— James Collins
A note on sources
I, of course, relied heavily on Du Bois for the first part of this article and all quotes (except for those of Frederick Douglass) are his up to the Great Railroad Strike, where Howard Zinn and Boyer and Morais take over.
Boyer, R.O. and Morais, H.M. Labor’s Untold Story.
Du Bois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880.
Grystar, E. “A Brief Essay on the 1909 and 1919 Steel Strikes in Lyndora,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 71, no. 3/4.
Zinn, H. The Twentieth Century.