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Union Busting in America

Written by Subject: Activism
Union Busting in America - by Stephen Lendman

It dates from America's 19th century industrial expansion when workers moved away from farms to factories, mines, and other urban environments, with harsh working conditions, low pay, and other exploitive abuses. As a result, labor movements emerged, organizing workers to lobby for better rights and safer conditions, pitting them against corporate bosses yielding nothing without a fight.

During unionism's formative years, workers were terrorized for organizing. In company-owned towns, they were thrown out of homes, beaten, shot, and hanged to leave management empowered.

The 1892 Homestead Steel Works strike culminated in a violent battle between Pinkerton agents and workers. As a result, seven were killed, dozens wounded, and, at the behest of Andrew Carnegie, owner of Carnegie Steel, Governor Robert Pattison sent National Guard troops to evict workers from company homes, make arrests, and help CEO Henry Clay Frick's union busting strategy. It worked, preventing organizing of the Works for the next 40 years.

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions chose May 1, 1886 as the date for an eight-hour work day to become standard. As the date approached, unions across America prepared to strike. On May 1, national rallies were held, involving up to 500,000 workers.

On May 4, the landmark Haymarket Square riot protested police violence against strikers the previous day. Someone threw a bomb. Police opened fire. Deaths resulted. Seven so-called anarchists were convicted of murder. Four were executed.

Radicalized by the incident, Emma Goldman became a powerful social justice voice through writing, lecturing, being imprisoned for her activism, and finally emigrating to Russia after its revolution, then elsewhere in Europe. After her death, she was buried in Chicago near the graves of the Haymarket radicals she supported.

Led by American Railway Union's Eugene Debs, the 1894 Pullman strike was the first national one, involving 250,000 workers in 27 states and territories. America's entire rail labor force struck, paralyzing the nation's railway system. At the time, The New York Times called it "a struggle between the greatest and most important labor organization and the entire railroad capital."

At issue were unfair labor practices, including long hours, low pay, poor working conditions, and little sympathy from owner George Pullman. On his behalf, President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops. Hundreds of others were given police powers. At the time, unionists were seen threatening US prosperity.

The strike was broken, killing 13, wounding dozens and resulting in Debs' arrest, trial, conviction for violating a court injunction, and imprisonment for six months. Radicalized by the experience, he became America's leading socialist figure when released, later running five times for president, in 1920 while again in prison for opposing US involvement in WW I.

Founded in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) had 100,000 members at its peak in the 1920s. Led by Big Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, and others, it was committed to help workers against abusive management practices. It's motto was "an injury to one is an injury to all." It's goal was revolutionary, saying in its Constitution:

"The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people. (The) struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the (unfair) wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth....It is the mission of the working class to do away with capitalism (for) a new society within the shell of the old."

As a result, corporate bosses and Washington sought to crush it. In 1917, the Wilson administration used the Espionage and Sedition Act to raid and disrupt union meetings across the country, arresting hundreds on the grounds that they hindered the war effort by opposing it. In 1918, they were tried, convicted and given long sentences, except Haywood. Released on bail after conviction, he fled to Russia where he remained.

From 1918 - 21, the infamous Palmer Raids ravaged the union further during the time of the first Red Scare, effectively busting it, though it's still around, a shadow of its former self. Visit its web site at to follow their latest activities, including comments on class warfare in Wisconsin.

In the early 20th century, Colorado labor wars raged, notably pitting mine bosses, National Guard troops, and strikebreakers against workers. In his People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn wrote poignantly about the 1913-14 Ludlow, CO coal strike and subsequent massacre, killing 75 or more strikers, strikebreakers, and bystanders for defying what he called "fuedal kingdoms run by (coal barons that) made the laws," imposed curfews, and ran their operations more like despots than businessmen.

Other Union Busting Efforts

During the 1902 coal strike, 14 miners were killed and 22 injured in Pana, IL. In 1904, a Dunnville, CO battle between state militia forces and workers left six dead, others injured, 15 arrested, and 79 exiled to Kansas.

During the 1909 New York shirtwaist strike, female garment workers were arrested, a judge telling them, "You are on strike against God." In March 1911, a fire at New York's Triangle Shirtwaist factory killed 46, mostly women and young girls working in sweatshop conditions. They still exist today. Earlier articles discussed them, accessed through the following links:

In 1912, the IWW-led Lawrence, MA Bread and Roses textile strike was largely successful. It was credited with inventing the moving picket line, a tactic to avoid arrest for loitering. Also in 1912, National Guard forces were used against striking West Virginia coal miners. In July that year, striking Brotherhood of Timber Workers were confronted by armed Galloway Lumber Company thugs, resulting in four deaths and dozens wounded, the incident called the Grabow Riot.

In 1913, New Orleans police shot three maritime workers, striking against the United Fruit Company. One died.

In 1914, Butte, Montana militia crushed striking Western Federation of Miners workers.

On January 19, 1915, famed labor leader Joe Hill was arrested in Salt Lake City, UT on bogus murder charges. Nonetheless, he was executed 21 months later. Before his death, he wrote Bill Haywood saying, "Don't mourn - organize!" The same day, Roosevelt, NJ factory guards shot 20 rioting strikers.

In 1916, Everett (WA) Mills strikebreakers attacked and beat strikers. Police stood back without intervening, claiming the incident took place on federal land. Three days later, 22 unionists were arrested for speaking out. In October that year, IWW members were beaten, whipped, kicked and impaled for their activism. At their subsequent November 5 meeting, seven were shot and killed, 50 others wounded, and unknown numbers were unaccounted for.

Numerous other incidents at that time involved shootings, hangings, beatings, and arrests, unionists viciously attacked to disrupt them.

In 1919, nearly four million workers struck, including against against steel and coal companies. Management retaliated. The year's Great Steel Strike failed. Company owners called workers dangerous radicals threatening America. Federal and National Guard troops again were used, resulting in violence, deaths, injuries and arrests. From 1919 - 23, numerous coal strikes also occurred, government again siding with management.

In 1920, the Battle of Matewan resulted in nine deaths, later sparking an armed rebellion of 10,000 West Virginia coal miners at the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest insurrection since the Civil War against which army troops intervened.

In 1922, the Herrin, IL coal strike massacre left 21 dead. In 1927, picketing coal miners were massacred in the company town of Serene, CO. In 1929, National Guard troops and armed thugs destroyed the National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) office during the Loray Mill Strike.

During the 1937 Little Steel strike, Youngstown Steel and Tube and Republic Steel employed hundreds of armed police who fired on strikers trying to prevent scabs from entering factories. On May 30, things exploded when Chicago police joined them, opening fire on picketing strikers and their families, killing 10 and injuring hundreds.

Earlier in the 1930s, unionists were convicted of criminal syndicalism. Vigilantes beat Harlan County, KY strikers. Police killed striking Ford Dearborn, MI strikers. Four cotton workers were killed on strike. National Guard forces killed two Toledo, OH Electric Auto-Lite strikers, wounding hundreds. Police attacked and fired on striking Minneapolis Teamsters. Other deaths, beatings and arrests occurred throughout the decade, even after passage of the landmark 1935 Wagner Act.

In 1932, the Hoover administration warred on WW I veterans, demanding promised bonuses. General Douglas MacArthur-led government troops burned their camps for marching peacefully for their rights.

In 1962, Jack Kennedy's Executive Order 10988 established limited collective bargaining rights for federal employees. It spawned state and local efforts to expand theirs.

In 1968, National Guard troops were used against Memphis, TN sanitation worker strikers, days before Martin Luther King's assassination, there to support them. Violence followed, including beatings. A young unarmed boy was killed emerging from a housing development.

Union busting post-WW II was mostly nonviolent, but just as determined to deny workers their rights after passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. It greatly weakened union clout, allowing stiff penalties for noncompliance.

It enacted "unfair labor practices," prohibiting jurisdictional strikes (relating to worker job assignments), secondary boycotts (against companies doing business with others being struck), wildcat strikes, sit-downs, slow-downs, mass-picketing against scabs, closed shops (in which workers must join unions), union contributions to federal political campaigns (now freely given candidates), and more while legalizing employer interventions to prevent unionizing drives.

Serious erosion of union power to bargain collectively followed. As a result, employers can illegally fire union sympathizers and receive only minor wrist slap fines after years of expensive litigation to prove wrongdoing. Moreover, they can fire workers for any reason like incompetence or none at all. In addition, strikes are further neutralized because companies can hire replacements or threaten to move offshore.

Since the 1980s especially, earlier hard won rights significantly eroded after Reagan busted PATCO strikers, discussed in a previous article, accessed through the following link:

From then to now, it's been all downhill to where private and public workers face losing all rights unless mass activism resists. Despite Wisconsin heroics, national actions are sorely lacking, largely because union bosses collude with management and political leaders against their own rank and file.

"Confessions of a Union Buster"

In his book, Martin Jay Levitt describes from experience what happens, saying:

"Union busting is a field populated by bullies and built on deceit. A campaign against a union is an assault on individuals and a war on the truth. As such, it is war without honor. The only way to bust a union is to lie, distort, manipulate, threaten, and always (one way or another) attack. The law does not (intervene)....rather, it serves to suggest maneuvers and define strategies," pitting media-supported companies, government, and corrupted union bosses against rank and file unionists, on their own, their grit, resourcefulness, and staying power alone for strategy.

Levitt also calls the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act a "union buster's best friend" because "its complexity....presents endless possibilities for delays, roadblocks, and maneuvers that can undermine a union's efforts and frustrate" members. The union buster's key tactic is delay ahead of elections, buying time to organize "counter organizing drives," targeting members and immediate supervisors to fear, not embrace, unionism as allied with their interests.

Efforts are also made to discredit unionists by "routinely pr(ying) into (their) police records, personnel files, credit histories, medical records, and family lives in search of a weakness" to use against them. When no dirt's found, targeted workers are called gay or accused of cheating on their wives. It works in blue collar towns.

Other techniques involve "sackings," even though illegal under NLRA's Section 8(a)(3), prohibiting firing workers for urging others to join unions. Nonetheless, union busters know that reinstatement procedures take time, often years. The idea is to weaken support prior to elections, focusing heavily on winning over supervisor support, who, in turn, can influence rank and file members.

Learn more on Levitt's web site, accessed through the following link:

He also provides "Top Secret" information of what can and can't be said on the issues, accessed through the link below:

He calls his purpose an effort "to inform and educate WORKERS and Union Organizers about what to expect from management in regards to Union Busting Terrorist Tactics used during union campaigns by management and their consultants in their attempt to defeat their employees from forming a union....or destroy (ones) that already exist."

Nonetheless, the Wagner Act, though measurably weakened, lets workers unionize. Specifically, its Section 7 states:

"Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection."

Levitt also provides information on union busting propaganda, tactics used by Walmart and other companies, labor union resources, for-profit union busters, and more.

Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and American Rights at Work Education Fund on Thwarting Union Organizing

On May 20, 2009, they cited a new five-year study, showing employer anti-union behavior intensifying. Cornell University Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner (a noted labor expert) said employers are more than twice as likely to use 10 or more tactics to thwart organizing efforts.

Titled "No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing," it focused on coercive and punitive tactics against organizing efforts, including threats, intimidation, interrogation, harassment, surveillance, retaliation and firings to thwart it. As a result, most workers without unions who want them at best find their wish indefinitely postponed.

Even when workers successfully unionize, 52% have no contract a year later, and for 37% it's two years. Moreover, besides intensive union busting tactics, employers are less likely to offer incentives such as unscheduled raises, positive personnel changes, bribes, special favors, social events, promises of improvement, and employee involvement programs.

In addition, private sector campaigns differ markedly from public sector ones, at least during the 1999 - 2003 period she studied. Recent events in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states show this very much is changing. Though most states let workers freely organize, current tactics show they're subjected to similar private sector tactics to strip away their rights and leave them powerless.

As a result, unionists face increasingly hard times because companies, government, and corrupted union bosses use today's economic environment against them, pleading hard times reasons for cutting back when, if fact, they're exploiting current conditions to reward corporate favorites at their expense.

Joe Hill was right saying "organize" to fight back. So is imprisoned human rights lawyer Lynne Stewart, saying: "Organize - Agitate, Agitate, Agitate, Love Struggle!"

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at Also visit his blog site at and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.

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