by Mike Elk
Last week, Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker threatened to use the National Guard if his state’s public employees go on strike in response to his proposal to strip them of the right to bargain collectively.
By merely mentioning the possibility of deploying the Guard to prevent a strike, Governor Walker has threatened to militarize the attack on unions. The 150-year history of the American labor movement shows that such moves often lead to the deaths of union members.
Some observers claim that Governor Walker was merely “alerting the National Guard” in order to take over Wisconsin’s correctional facilities if the prison unions went out on strike. However, such preparation could have been made in private without risking the criticism Walker has received since raising the issue. By announcing it publicly, Walker was attempting to intimidate unions with the threat of force; his militarization is creating a toxic climate of fear and violence in which an inspired right-wing nutjob might feel justified attacking union members.
It is important to grasp the role of violent intimidation by both the state and privately run militias in order to understand why Governor’s Walker’s attack is such a troubling move in a democracy.
The first time state militias were called out to stop striking workers was during the Great Railroad Strike of 1876, the first nation-wide labor action that shut down railroads from coast to coast. At the time, Thomas Alexander Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad told reporters the strikers should be given “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.” State militia members joined side by side with private citizens and killed over 100 striking workers in a dozen cities across the United States. In Pittsburgh, over 50 strikers were killed in one of the bloodiest confrontations of the strike.
State militias, often aided by private militias like the Ku Klux Klan, would be called out on other occasions to wreak violence on workers demanding their rights. In 1887, the Louisiana militia, accompanied by a posse of “prominent citizens,” killed 37 unarmed black sugar workers striking to demand a dollar-per-day wage.
Before the Columbine High massacre that we remember, there was the Columbine Mine Massacre in 1927, where six unarmed, striking miners were killed by a combination of private mine guards and state police. During the Colorado Labor Wars, private and state-run militias took turns terrorizing and killing union miners. At the Ludlow Massacre, the governor of Colorado even allowed private strikebreakers to be sworn into the National Guard for the occasion of raiding a camp of union miners. That resulted in the deaths of 19 people, including 12 children. When the National Guard ran out of money to continue its campaign against the unions, John Rockefeller offered to pay for it.
The lines between the violence doled out by state security and private militias became even more blurred with the formation of the American Legion in 1918. Former U.S. Marine Corp Major General Smedley Butler, author of War is A Racket, testified before Congress that the American Legion “is nothing but a strike-breaking outfit used by capital for that purpose, and that is the reason we have all those big clubhouses and that is the reason I pulled out of it. They have been using the dumb soldiers to break strikes.”
American Legion veterans beat and often killed union activists throughout the country. In 1919, American Legion members in Centralia, Washington, raided an Industrial Workers of the World hall, killing six.
By the 1930s, vigilante justice by the American Legion against union members went out of fashion as big business realized there were big bucks to be made in killing union members. A special industry then emerged. Pearl L. Bergoff, known as the “King of the Strikebreakers,” wrote a book titled, I Break Strikes, in which he boasted of organizing over 300 violent attacks on strikers that resulted in 54 deaths. In 1936-’37, the special Senate Civil Liberties Committee lead by legendary Wisconsin Senator Robert Lafollette reported that major respected corporations had even accumulated “industrial munitions, such as submachine guns, tear gas, sickening gas, grenades and rifle ammunition, that could be used in industrial disputes.” The Committee also found that corporations had planted spies and agent provocateurs within the ranks of labor to provoke violent outbreaks with the police and militias.
All of this private violence often occurred against the backdrop of milder state-sponsored violence against union activities. Sometimes, both sides worked together — during the Little Steel strike of 1937, Youngstown Steel and Tube and Republic Steel employed a uniformed police force of 400 men, equipped with guns to shoot at strikers who tried to prevent scabs from entering the factory. On May 30, 1937, things exploded when the Chicago police opened fire on picketing strikers and their families, killing 10 unarmed workers and injuring more than 100.
After the Great Depression, the threat of violent force through vigilante mobs or the National Guard became rarer in America. But in 1968, the National Guard was called out to prevent a strike of public sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Over 4,000 National Guardsmen imposed a 7pm citywide curfew in order to stop striking workers from forming effective picket lines. In the ensuing crackdown, a 16-year-old boy named Larry Payne was killed by a policeman as he emerged, unarmed, from the basement of a housing development.
The ensuing violence caused by the National Guard crackdown created a climate of chaos so intense that vigilante “law and order” types took it upon themselves to restore order. They beat strikers and ran a campaign of terror against their supporters. Two days before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. was able to negotiate the withdrawal of the National Guards in order to cool the situation down.
Will Scott Walker’s talk of calling out the National Guard create a similar powder keg of violence? As Media Matters has documented, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and their fellow travelers have been provoking right-wing conspiracy theorists by referring to union leaders as “violent thugs” bent on taking over America. Multiple union leaders have received death threats from the Right’s lunatic fringe.
Stewart Acuff, chief of staff of the Utility Workers of America and the former organizing director of the AFL-CIO, received a handwritten death threat signed by Militia Central after appearing on Fox News. Militia Central is the same organization that accepted responsibility for trying to kill former Congressman Tom Perrillelo, D-VA, by cutting the gas line to his brother’s house (where they thought the Congressman lived).
“I think it’s a real danger when you continually vilify people and dehumanize people, divide a people into them and us,” Acuff told AlterNet. “If people think other people do not share your humanity, you are inviting violence against them. “
Yet, the veteran union organizer, while obviously worried about the threats, seems cool and relaxed. He even joked that the death threats he received from Militia Central weren’t nearly as creative as the ones he received from the Ku Klux Klan when he organized in their back yard in the ’80s. Acuff is a student of labor history and knows that intimidation works only when we allow it to work. The labor movement for decades was brutalized and massacred, but organizers and workers stood together for what they believed in. Facing down these kinds of threats may be the most important battle progressives face in terms of stopping the culture of fear and intimidation that Fox News and right-wing talk radio have bred.
If the National Guard is called out in Wisconsin to shut down negotiations with the state’s public employees, workers across the country should take a page from Egypt and go out on a general strike. As those people assembled in Tahrir Square proved, violent intimidation can never silence the voice of the people.
Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who writes for Campaign for America’s Future. He previously worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE). This report originally appeared on Alternet and appears here with the author’s permission.