By Jim Mamer / Original to ScheerPost
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
– Frederick Douglass Canandaigua, New York 1857
When I was a kid, the nightly news often had stories about Jimmy Hoffa. I don’t remember anything specific, but the news seemed to indicate that Hoffa was a bad guy and referred to him as a “union boss.” So, I asked my father some questions. What is a union? What does it do? What is a teamster? Why don’t people like him?
His answers didn’t make much sense to an 11-year-old. After the war, he said, he had taken a job as a long-distance truck driver which, he emphasized, was the worst job he ever had. It was lonely, never paid enough, and gave him hemorrhoids. He said nothing when I asked what hemorrhoids were. As soon as he could, my father quit. Finally, he told me that Hoffa was the head of a union of truck drivers demanding decent pay.
I persisted and asked if Hoffa was a bad person. My father hesitated to answer and even seemed a little angry, but finally responded in an uncharacteristic, and memorable way, “Hoffa might be a son of a bitch, but he is OUR son of a bitch.” After he calmed down, he added something like, “He has to be tough to make those companies pay drivers enough to make rent. When you get older you will need a job; find a union job.”
Looking back on that conversation I realize that my father taught me more home-grown economic wisdom than I would ever learn in school.
Eventually, I took a number of economics courses in college where I read a lot about the relationships among labor, value and wealth. Economists from Adam Smith and David Ricardo in the 18th century to Karl Marx in the 19th century used various versions of a labor theory of value to explain the price of things.
Marx, of course, held that prices reflect more than labor because they are increased by the profit claimed by the capitalist.
In the 21st century, French economist Thomas Piketty has examined these relationships and finds that, in modern economies, income from inherited wealth (or capital ownership) is always more concentrated than the income from labor and that this difference increases inequality in any society.
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Despite significant differences, all of these economists agree that labor is a major factor in the creation of value, and thus wealth.
When most of us think of “labor” we probably think of unions in the context of industrial capitalism. But labor exists no matter how an economy is labeled; it was not invented by capitalism.
In the United States, capitalism began to emerge sometime after the Civil War, when most of the economy was still composed of pre-industrial markets characterized by farming, handicraft production and slavery.
The dictionary definition is simple yet all-encompassing. Labor is, “human activity that provides the goods or services in an economy.” And “an expenditure of physical or mental effort especially when difficult or compulsory.”
Given that definition, labor includes work performed by people of all ages, whether free or forced, paid or unpaid. And when done by large groups, it tends to follow a common pattern in which an elite does all it can to maximize revenue by squeezing the workers to whatever extent is possible.
Wealth Created by Enslaved Millions
This description of labor fits plantation slavery as well as it fits industrial labor and yet, in every high school textbook, and perhaps in most American histories, slavery is treated as separate from other components of American labor. Slavery is not “missing” from the texts as much as it is missing its proper place in American labor history.
That is an issue because, before the rise of industry, the wealth created by enslaved millions was responsible for much of American economic growth even though all of that wealth remained in the hands of the enslavers.
In the 1619 Project, Professor Matthew Desmon writes that, by 1835, when the South harvested 500 million pounds of cotton, “Southern white elites grew rich, as did their counterparts in the North, who directed textile mills to form…”
And according to research published by the Gilder Lehrman Institute,
“One crop, slave-grown cotton, provided over half of all US export earnings. By 1840, the South grew 60 percent of the world’s cotton and provided some 70 percent of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry. Thus slavery paid for a substantial share of the capital, iron, and manufactured goods that laid the basis for American economic growth.”
The essential question in every system in which labor produces value is who gets what percentage of the wealth? Slave labor, like industrial labor, created value and thus wealth. That connection should be made clear in textbooks.
In the case of enslaved labor, the elite took all the wealth, and with it they built massive fortunes. Logically, that resulted in numerous slave revolts and a civil war. Unfortunately, both failed to address the consequent inequality.
Wealth Created by Industrial Workers
In the case of industrial labor, the owners of capital did the same as the owners of plantations. Although they could not claim everything, they did whatever they could to maximize their share of the wealth.
That resulted in another wealthy elite, the rise of labor unions and thousands of strikes. Massive resistance on the part of capital then resulted in deadly violence and increased inequality.
High School Texts Exclude Slavery from the Wider Discussion of Labor
Although no one should expect textbooks to examine every type of labor, what they do is limited, for example, by dividing labor into separate components. All textbooks that I have worked with discuss slavery in isolation as “an institution” which was admittedly bad, but also as an institution that is definitively over and therefore no longer an issue.
By considering slavery as distinct from other types of labor, the textbooks avoid the inconvenient truth that people were enslaved in order to maximize wealth in relatively few hands. Then the texts avoid the fact that this highly concentrated wealth was handed down from one generation to the next, ensuring continued inequality which, over the decades, has become structural.
And obviously, massive inequality in this country continues to be an issue.
Specific numbers, showing how much wealth was stolen from enslaved labor, are not easy to come by. But we do have some figures to consider. Bloomberg estimates that the economic value of the four million people enslaved in the year 1860 was about $4 billion “which was more than all the banks, railroads and factories in the U.S. were worth at that time.”
And, according to a 2021 working paper by economist Mark Stelzner of Connecticut College and historian Sven Beckert of Harvard, “the work of enslaved Americans was an important driver of growth not only in the South but also for the national economy as a whole, comparable to the growth in per capita output of manufacturing workers in New England.”
Unfortunately, I have not found any hint of these connections in any high school textbook.
After the 13th Amendment, Labor Still Burdened by Racism
Not surprisingly, the first-time labor is listed in the index of high school textbooks; it refers to events and practices that occurred during a period of about 70 years between the formation of the Knights of Labor in 1869, to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
In “The Americans” the first index entry using the word labor is “labor force” followed by such sub-categories as “children in” and “women in.” The next major listing in that index is “labor movement.” In “History Alive!” the first index listing is “blue-collar workers.” And the next major category is “labor unions.”
Throughout this period, the owners of capital, often referred to in textbooks as “industrial leaders,” took full advantage of workers who continued to be divided by skill level, gender, nationality and especially by race.
Unfortunately, even with the abolition of slavery through the 13th Amendment, the struggles of labor, which now included the labor of recently freed African-Americans, continued to be haunted and weakened by the legacy of racism.
As industrialization transformed the United States economy, the capitalists leveraged the racial legacy of slavery to divide workers and dilute their collective power.
Industrial Leaders/Robber Barons and Government
These capitalists, or “industrial leaders” included: Leland Stanford (railroads); Cornelius Vanderbilt (railroads and shipping industries); Andrew Carnegie (Steel); John D. Rockefeller (Standard Oil); and J. P. Morgan (several railroads and the financing of industrial consolidations).
Every one of them developed close relationships with governments at all levels and, partly as a result, government was overwhelmingly anti-union. In textbooks, unfortunately, the close relationship between government and capital is only occasionally made clear.
“Unskilled immigrant men did the backbreaking and often dangerous work, laboring in dark and unventilated rooms, hot in summer and unheated in winter. Many stood all day on floors covered with blood, meat scraps, and foul water, wielding sledgehammers and knives. Women and children over 14 worked at meat trimming, sausage making, and canning.”
The Library of Congress uses less dramatic language to describe similar conditions. “The working conditions in factories were often harsh. Hours were long, typically ten to twelve hours a day. Working conditions were frequently unsafe and led to deadly accidents. Tasks tended to be divided for efficiency’s sake which led to repetitive and monotonous work for employees.”
As expected, workers were desperate to improve their conditions and by the 1880s, strikes became routine events. According to the United States Department of Labor, between 1881 and 1905 there were more than 38,000 strikes involving almost one million workers. Although it might not be clear in some texts, many were nonviolent and many were settled by compromise.
The strikes described in textbooks are, almost exclusively, the most well-known. These tend to involve the largest industries with the most abusive practices. And, it is in these large strikes that the use of strikebreakers often led to violence.
Unfortunately, when strikebreakers are mentioned in most textbooks their importance is minimized and they are usually identified only as Pinkerton agents specifically connected to the 1892 Homestead strike in Pennsylvania.
By giving most of the attention to Pinkerton agents during one strike “The Americans” and “History Alive!” both ignore the variety of “detective” agencies specializing in anti-union work. These include Baldwin Felts, Burns International Detective Agency, and the Thiel Detective Agency, which often specialized in spying on railroad workers.
Also rarely mentioned are the other professional anti-labor groups. They worked in gathering intelligence, committing sabotage and sowing dissent. And additional help came from citizens groups, like the Citizens’ Alliance.
The courts played an important anti-labor role by interpreting existing law to be anti-union and this is mentioned in every textbook I have used. The Sherman Antitrust Act provides the most important example.
Originally this antitrust legislation had been passed in 1890 to prohibit business trusts or monopolies. But while it was not very effective against monopolies, it was very effective when used against unions.
Here is the way “The Americans” summarizes this:
“Finally, industrial leaders, with helpful rulings of the courts, turn the Sherman Antitrust Act against labor. All the company had to do was say that a strike, picket line, or boycott would hurt interstate trade, and the state or federal government will issue an injunction, or court order, prohibiting the labor action.”
Linking Strikes to Violence
When the textbooks focus on the well-known strikes, they also focus on violence, often without regard to its source. Among the most common examples are: The Haymarket Affair in 1886, The Homestead Strike in 1892 and the Pullman Strike in 1894. Each is summarized very briefly in what follows.
The Haymarket Affair
In 1886, workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago went on strike. During the protest the police fired into the crowd killing one and injuring several workers who were protesting for an 8-hour workday. Anarchist labor leaders then called a mass meeting in Chicago’s Haymarket Square.
On May 4, the police were called (by an unidentified person) to the Square to break up the workers’ rally. A bomb detonates, wounding both police and protesters. At least eight people died, but despite the lack of any evidence against them, seven labor activists were convicted of the bombing. One of the convicted labor leaders committed suicide in prison. Four were executed on Nov. 11, 1887.
One would think that the execution of striking workers, without any clear evidence, would increase sympathy for the unions, however, according to textbooks like “The Americans,” this whole affair increased anti-labor and anti-immigrant sentiment. And that is summarized in one sentence: “As a result of the Haymarket violence, the public began to turn against the labor movement.”
The Homestead Strike
In 1892, conditions at the Carnegie Steel Company’s Homestead plant led to a strike after the company announced a cut in wages. Company president Henry Clay Frick hired 300 armed guards from the Pinkerton Detective Agency to confront the strikers.
A bloody confrontation ultimately killed 16 people and caused many more injuries. Eventually Pennsylvania’s governor called in the state militia to remove the workers and Frick brought in nonunion replacements.
What follows is not in any textbook that I have: The Homestead plant resumed operations in full by mid-August. The striking workers were replaced by 1,700 strikebreakers, including some of the state’s first Black steelworkers, reflecting the ugly legacy of racially divided unions.
Much of what follows is not in the textbooks. If it is, there is a link to the text: In 1893, in a depressed economy, the Pullman Palace Car Company fired about half the workers and cut the wages of the rest by 25% to 40%, but they did not cut the rent paid for housing. This strike is more complex given that the workers lived in employee housing for which they paid rent.
When the economy improved the company hired back many of the workers, but failed to restore wages. More than 4,000 workers went on strike. The strike involved the American Railway Union (ARU) and its leader Eugene Debs. At Debs’ urging, the strike remained peaceful.
Pullman then hired strikebreakers and violence broke out. President Grover Cleveland sent in troops to end the strike and to protect strikebreakers! After violence between the government troops and the strikers, the strike collapsed and the troops withdrew. In the end Debs was arrested and jailed for six months. Pullman fired most of the workers.
Socialism, Anarchism, and other reactions to Industrial Capitalism
They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power; gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.
From Solidarity Forever Ralph Chaplin 1915 (Sung to The Battle Hymn of the Republic)
After spending six months in prison, Eugene Debs emerged a committed socialist. Of course, he was not the only labor activist to identify as socialist; others identified as anarchists or communists and some declared themselves accepting of capitalism.
Unfortunately, in the texts, most labor leaders are identified simply as “labor leaders.” And in doing so they forfeit another opportunity to foster discussion. Making matters worse, the books do not even attempt to examine what these ideologies meant to those who identified with them.
Even in the case of Debs, they simply mention he was socialist. And in one textbook, the implication is that he became a socialist simply because he “became disillusioned” with conditions under capitalism.
That is irresponsible, if only because a very simple search would show that Debs wrote clearly about what drew him to socialism in “Why I Became a Socialist.”
“I began to read and think and dissect the anatomy of the system in which workingmen, however organized, could be shattered and battered and splintered at a single stroke. The writings of [Edward] Bellamy and [Robert] Blatchford early appealed to me … but the writings of [Karl] Kautsky were so clear and conclusive that I readily grasped, not merely his argument, but also caught the spirit of his socialist utterance…”
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones and Samuel Gompers are two ideologically opposed labor leaders about which the textbooks provide insufficient information. Their differences could provide opportunities for productive discussions.
Jones, a prominent socialist labor leader and a co-founder of The Social Democratic Party is, in the textbooks, only identified as a “labor activist.” I’m not sure why, but perhaps, Jones, who is famous for leading the March of the Mill Children to publicize the harsh conditions of child labor, remains too sympathetic a figure to be identified as the socialist that she was.
Gompers is recognized as one of the architects of the labor movement. He accepted capitalism as the most natural method of organizing production. And he opposed socialism because he believed that socialists assumed workers and unions could never coexist with business.
Unfortunately, he was also someone who favored white workers over others. When he was president of the AFL “…he reversed its position on race, disallowing black members.” In most textbooks he is simply a president of the AFL who focused on collective bargaining.
If the purpose of education is to educate, then the textbooks should explain, as clearly as possible, why each leader identified as they did and how that affected what they did.
The pattern of an elite doing all it can to maximize revenue by squeezing labor is repeated over and over in American history, and it should be used as a theme to unify different eras of American labor.
In this article, I have traced labor from the earliest years of the U.S., through the period of rapid industrialization in the late 1800s, and to the early years of the 20th century. In a subsequent piece, I will trace the same pattern from World War I, through the first American Red Scare to the New Deal and after.
Ideology aside, and despite constant struggles, most American labor leaders were surprisingly upbeat about the future. No matter what their ideological beliefs the vast majority found hope in their work.
A little-known activist and a member of the IWW, Harrison George, illustrates that capacity for optimism in lyrics he wrote in the early 20th century. These lyrics were meant to be added to those of Ralph Chaplin’s Solidarity Forever which is sung to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Here is Harrison George’s Remember:
We speak to you from jail today
Two hundred union men,
We’re here because the bosses’ laws
Bring slavery again.
We’re here from mine and mill and rail
We’re here from off the sea,
From coast to coast, we make the boast
We laugh and sing, we have no fear
Our hearts are always light,
Will carry on the fight…
This is part one of Jim Mamer’s Missing Links in Textbook History Labor series. Part two will focus on events following World War I.
Jim Mamer is a retired high school teacher. He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow for study of United States History at Stanford University in 1984. He served as History/Social Science department chair for 20 years and was a mentor teacher in both Modern American History and Student Assessment. In 1992 he was named a Social Science/History Teacher of the Year by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).