Union violence is violence committed by unions or union members during labor disputes. When union violence has occurred, it has frequently been in the context of industrial unrest.  Violence has ranged from isolated acts by individuals to wider campaigns of organised violence aimed at furthering union goals within an industrial dispute.
Anti-union violence has also occurred frequently in the context of industrial unrest, and has often involved the collusion of management and government authorities, private agencies, or citizens' groups in organising violence against unions and their members.
According to a study in 1969, the United States has had the bloodiest and most violent labor history of any industrial nation in the world, and there have been few industries which have been immune.
- 1 Overview
- 2 History
- 2.1 Great Railroad Strike of 1877
- 2.2 Haymarket affair of 1886
- 2.3 Burlington strike of 1888
- 2.4 Labor unrest in 1892
- 2.5 Battle of Virden, 1898
- 2.6 Coeur d'Alene, Idaho labor confrontation of 1899
- 2.7 Colorado Labor Wars of 1903-04
- 2.8 International Association of Bridge Structural Iron Workers, 1906-1911
- 2.9 Battle of Blair Mountain, 1921
- 2.10 The Herrin Massacre, 1922
- 3 False flag operations
- 4 Frameups
- 5 Research on union violence
- 6 Incidents
- 7 Legal status
- 8 Management violence
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 External links
According to a 1969 study, no major labor organization in American history has ever advocated violence as a policy. However, violence does occur in the context of industrial disputes. When violence has been committed by, or in the name of, the union, it has tended to be narrowly focused upon targets which are associated with the employer in question, or upon others closely associated with the target. If union recognition was extended, an employer was more likely to consider a strike just a temporary rupture in labor relations. Violence was greater in conflicts in which there was a question of whether union recognition would be extended.
Employers and workers have each been on the side of aggressor and victim at different times. The "most virulent" violence in industrial disputes has been committed to deny unions recognition, or to destroy a functioning union.
Protest and verbal abuse are routinely aimed against union members or replacement workers who cross picket lines ("blacklegs") during industrial disputes. The inherent aim of a union is to create a labor monopoly so as to balance the monopsony a large employer enjoys as a purchaser of labor. Strikebreakers threaten that goal and undermine the union's bargaining position, and occasionally this erupts into violent confrontation, with violence committed either by, or against, strikers. Some who have sought to explain such violence observe, if labor disputes are accompanied by violence, it may be because labor has no legal redress. As early as 1894, workers were declaring,
..."the right of employers to manage their own business to suit themselves," is fast coming to mean in effect nothing less than a right to manage the country to suit themselves.
Occasionally a violent dispute can involve entire unions, when one union breaks another's strike. In 2004, the murder of Keith Frogson in the village of Annesley Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire in England may have been the result of a feud dating from the coal-miner's strike in the 1980s, when Mr Frogson and his alleged killer were members of two opposed unions, the established and militant National Union of Mineworkers and the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers.
One of the historical problems in labor disputes was the inability of existing police forces to deploy enough trained personnel to perform necessary responsibilities. Corporations frequently turned to private agencies and guard services to fulfill their security needs. In 1866, a Pennsylvania law gave corporations the privilege of securing from the state government a commission for a watchman or policeman, who had the power to act on the corporation's property. The entity thus established was commonly referred to as the Coal and Iron Police. In 1894, United States Marshals and special guards, together with state and federal troops, assisted in putting down the Pullman Strike. In 1902, during the Anthracite strike, hundreds of commissions for the Coal and Iron Police were issued. But this is also when the concept of a state police force to deal with labor issues first saw fruition. However, for more than a century governors have continued to call out the militia, or the National Guard to deal with labor unrest. The army has also been used during labor disputes, including in situations where use of the National Guard proved inadequate (or disastrous, as in the Ludlow Strike).
Great Railroad Strike of 1877
The great railroad strike of 1877 saw considerable violence by, and against, workers, and occurred before unions were widespread. It started on July 14 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in response to the cutting of wages for the second time in a year by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O). Striking workers would not allow any of the stock to roll until this second wage cut was revoked. The governor sent in state militia units to restore train service, but the soldiers refused to use force against the strikers and the governor called for federal troops.
Violent street battles occurred in Maryland between the striking workers and the Maryland militia. When the outnumbered troops of the 6th Regiment fired on an attacking crowd, they killed 10 and wounded 25. The rioters injured several members of the militia, damaged engines and train cars, and burned portions of the train station. On July 21–22, the President sent federal troops and Marines to Baltimore to restore order.
In Pittsburgh, strikers threw rocks at militiamen, who bayoneted their antagonists, killing twenty people and wounding twenty-nine others.
In Reading, Pennsylvania, workers conducted mass marches, blocked rail traffic, committed trainyard arson, and burned a bridge. The state militia shot sixteen citizens in the Reading Railroad Massacre. The militia responsible for the shootings was mobilized by Reading Railroad management, not by local public officials.
Chicago was paralyzed when angry mobs of unemployed citizens wreaked havoc in the rail yards. The strike was eventually suppressed by thousands of vigilantes, National Guard, and federal troops.
Haymarket affair of 1886
In 1886 the Haymarket affair (also known as the Haymarket massacre or Haymarket riot) was a protest rally and subsequent violence on May 4 at the Haymarket Square in Chicago. The rally supported striking workers. When police began to disperse the public meeting, an unknown person threw a dynamite bomb into their midst. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of eight police officers, mostly from friendly fire, and an unknown number of civilians. In the internationally publicized legal proceedings that followed, eight anarchists were tried for murder. Four men were convicted and executed, and one committed suicide in prison, although the prosecution conceded none of the defendants had thrown the bomb.
The Haymarket affair is generally considered significant for the origin of international May Day observances for workers. The causes of the Haymarket Affair are still controversial, but can be traced in part to an incident the previous day, in which police fired into a crowd of agitated workers during shift change at the McCormick Works, where the regular work force was on strike, and at least two workers were killed. In popular literature, the Haymarket Affair inspired the caricature of "a bomb-throwing anarchist."
Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld later pardoned the three living survivors of the Haymarket prosecution, concluding (as have subsequent scholars) that there had been a serious miscarriage of justice in their prosecutions.
Burlington strike of 1888
During the 1888 strike against the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, workers were arrested for wrecking a train. When one of those arrested turned out to be a detective, organized labor complained that the detective had incited the others.
Labor unrest in 1892
"In the 1890s violent outbreaks occurred in the North, South, and West, in small communities and metropolitan cities, testifying to the common attitudes of Americans in every part of the United States." Workers with different ethnic origins who worked under very different conditions in widely separated parts of the United States nonetheless responded with equal ferocity when unions came under attack. "Serious violence erupted in several major strikes of the 1890s, the question of union recognition being a factor in all of them."
1892 in particular was a year of considerable labor unrest. Governors of five states called out the national guard and/or the army to quell unrest—against miners in East Tennessee and in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, where a shooting war followed the discovery of a labor spy, against switchmen in Buffalo, New York, against a general strike in New Orleans, Louisiana, and against the Homestead, Pennsylvania steel strike.
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho labor strike
The strike of 1892 in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho erupted in violence when a union miner was killed by mine guards, and was further inflamed when union miners discovered they had been infiltrated by a Pinkerton agent who had routinely provided union information to the mine owners.
On Sunday night, July 10, armed union miners gathered on the hills above the Frisco mine. More union miners were arriving from surrounding communities, and a showdown was inevitable. At five in the morning, shots rang out, and the firing became continuous. The miners claimed the guards fired first, the guards accused the miners. The union miners, exposed on the logged-off hillside, hadn't positioned themselves for a gunfight, while mine guards were able to shelter in buildings. The union men circled above the mill, and got into a position where they could send a box of black powder down the flume into one of the mine buildings. The building exploded, killing one company man and injuring several others. The union miners fired into a remaining structure where the guards had taken shelter. A second company man was killed, and sixty or so guards surrendered. Union men marched their prisoners to the union hall.
The violence provided the mine owners and the governor with an excuse to declare Martial Law, and bring in six companies of the Idaho National Guard to "suppress insurrection and violence." Federal troops also arrived, and they confined six hundred miners in bullpens without any hearings or formal charges. Some were later "sent up" for violating injunctions, others for obstructing the United States mail.
Homestead Strike, and an assassination attempt
One of the most notorious incidents of violence against management occurred in 1892 during the Homestead Strike—one of the most violent industrial disputes in American history—when Alexander Berkman attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company and manager of the mill where the strike occurred. Frick had locked out the workers, and later hired three hundred armed guards from the Pinkerton Detective Agency to break the union's picket lines, resulting in gunfire and flaming barges on the Ohio River. There was a consensus of all parties that the presence of the Pinkertons inflamed the attitudes of the strikers. The strikers defeated the Pinkertons, but could not keep the mills from operating after the National Guard was deployed.
Berkman, an avowed anarchist, had no connection to the union involved in the strike, but believed he was acting in the workers' interests. He was motivated by newspaper reports of,
...Henry Clay Frick, whose attitude toward labor is implacably hostile; his secret military preparations while designedly prolonging the peace negotiations with the Amalgamated; the fortification of the Homestead steel-works; the erection of a high board fence, capped by barbed wire and provided with loopholes for sharpshooters; the hiring of an army of Pinkerton thugs; the attempt to smuggle them, in the dead of night, into Homestead; and, finally, the terrible carnage.
Berkman's attack, called an attentat by the anarchists, injured but failed to kill Frick. Having anticipated that his act would launch a worker uprising, Berkman was surprised when a carpenter hit him with a hammer after he had been restrained. The attempted murder alienated the anarchist community from much of the labor movement, as well as dividing the anarchist community itself. Frick had been widely hated, but in at least one analysis, becoming the victim of such an attack transformed him into a "folk hero" in the public view.
During the Homestead strike, Carnegie Steel Company employees in Duquesne joined the strike that was occurring across the river. A riot broke out, and a number of the workers were arrested. It turned out that two of the strikers were Pinkerton detectives, and convictions were secured.
Battle of Virden, 1898
In 1897, the Pana Coal Company attempted to import African-American strikebreakers. A train car was intercepted by armed striking miners, and the strikebreakers were sent home unharmed.
The following year, however, another company, the Chicago-Virden Coal Company, attempted a similar strike-breaking effort, this time with an armed escort on the train car. The result was called the Battle of Virden. Guards fired their rifles as they disembarked from the train. In the ensuing gun battle, fourteen men, including eight strikers, were killed. Governor Tanner criticized the company, and called up the National Guard, who were able to restore order. The National Guard prevented a similar incident by turning away additional strikebreakers the day after the riot.
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho labor confrontation of 1899
In April 1899, as the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) was launching an organizing drive of the few locations not yet unionized, superintendent Albert Burch declared that the company would rather "shut down and remain closed twenty years" than to recognize the union. He then fired seventeen workers that he believed to be union members and demanded that all other union men collect their back pay and quit.
On April 29, 250 angry union members belonging to the WFM seized a train in Burke. At each stop through Burke-Canyon, more miners climbed aboard. At Frisco, the train stopped to load eighty wooden boxes, each containing fifty pounds of dynamite. Nearly a thousand men rode the train to Wardner, the site of a $250,000 mill of the Bunker Hill mine. After carrying three thousand pounds of dynamite into the mill, they set their charges and scattered. Two men were killed, one of them a non-union miner, the other a union man accidentally shot by other miners. Their mission accomplished, the miners once again boarded the "Dynamite Express" and left the scene.
From Kellog to Wallace, ranchers and laboring people lined the tracks and, according to one eyewitness, "cheered the [union] men lustily as they passed."
Colorado Labor Wars of 1903-04
During the Western Federation of Miners strike of 1903-04, there was considerable violence, including an explosion at the Vindicator mine which killed two, and an explosion at the Independence Depot which killed thirteen. The Cripple Creek Mining District was under occupation by the Colorado National Guard, the Citizens' Alliance was active in the district, and historians continue to debate who was responsible for each incident of violence. One likely perpetrator was convicted assassin Harry Orchard, who many historians believe may have been a double agent. A major in the National Guard later testified that the militia was responsible for orchestrated beatings of striking miners.
International Association of Bridge Structural Iron Workers, 1906-1911
Perhaps the most significant example of a campaign of union violence, the International Association of Bridge Structural Iron Workers employed dynamite attacks and assault from 1906 to 1911 over employers' demands for an open shop. After an initial peace offer, employers refused to talk to the union, and the union leadership adopted violent tactics as a direct response. Approximately one hundred structures were damaged or destroyed by dynamite, and about a hundred non-union workers were assaulted. The tactics were considered a "colossal blunder".
Battle of Blair Mountain, 1921
Two years of conflict between miners and mine owners, characterized by utilization of the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency for infiltrating, sabotaging and attacking the United Mine Workers union, culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. The largest armed insurrection since the American Civil War was touched off by the murders of Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers on the courthouse steps of Welch, West Virginia. The Battle of Blair Mountain was a spontaneous uprising of ten thousand coal miners from throughout West Virginia who fought the coal company's hired guns and their allies, the state police for three days before federal troops intervened.
The Herrin Massacre, 1922
Williamson County, Illinois, a county with a "unique history of violence" for a rural county, was the location of the Herrin Massacre, one of the most horrific and perplexing incidents of union violence. The 1922 incident is considered the most notorious of the United Mine Workers' struggles in Illinois. Williamson was a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity at the time, with many in the community embracing that organization in opposition to bootlegging of liquor during Prohibition, and for purposes of racial exclusion. The massacre was committed by members (and possibly at the instruction of local leadership) of the United Mine Workers, just eight years after the deaths of miners' wives and children during the Ludlow Massacre. Accounts differ, but most record the strike-related deaths of three union men, followed the next day by union miners committing the brutal murders of 20 men of a group of fifty strikebreakers and mine guards. The ruthless retaliation occurred against the backdrop of broken promises, double dealing, and missed opportunities on both sides.
False flag operations
False flag operations are efforts to turn public opinion against an adversary, while pretending to be in the camp of that adversary. Historian J. Bernard Hogg, who studied agencies hired by companies to undermine unions, and who wrote "Public Reaction to Pinkertonism and the Labor Question," observed:
A detective will join the ranks of the strikers and at once become an ardent champion of their cause. He is next found committing an aggravated assault upon some man or woman who has remained at work, thereby bringing down upon the heads of the officers and members of the assembly or union directly interested, the condemnation of all honest people, and aiding very materially to demoralize the organization and break their ranks. He is always on hand in the strikers' meeting to introduce some extremely radical measure to burn the mill or wreck a train, and when the meeting has adjourned he is ever ready to furnish the Associated Press with a full account of the proposed action, and the country is told that a "prominent and highly respected member" of the strikers' organization has just revealed a most daring plot to destroy life and property, but dare not become known in connection with the exposure for fear of his life!
Some labor spy agencies advertised their false flag operations; for example, Corporations Auxiliary Company, a labor spy agency which boasted 499 corporate clients in the early 1930s, told prospective clients,
"In [the event other methods of sabotaging the union fail, our operative in the union] turns extremely radical. He asks for unreasonable things and keeps the union embroiled in trouble. If a strike comes, he will be the loudest man in the bunch, and will counsel violence and get somebody in trouble. The result will be that the union will be broken up."
While such practices may seem outdated, some apparently still subscribe to just such tactics. For example, Deputy Prosecutor in Indiana's Johnson County, Carlos Lam, suggested in an email that Wisconsin's Governor Walker should mount a "false flag" operation to undermine pro-union protesters involved in the 2011 Wisconsin protests, which would make it appear as if the union was committing violence. After initially claiming that his email account was hacked, Lam admitted to sending the suggestion and resigned. Governor Walker's office disclaimed support for the proposal.
A variation of the false flag operation is the frameup, in which operatives attempt to accomplish the same negative reaction, but aim for specific consequences more significant or damaging than mere bad publicity. During the Colorado Labor Wars, the Colorado National Guard had been called into the Cripple Creek Mining District to put down a strike. The occupation had apparently dissipated perceived threats from striking miners against mine properties, and Colorado National Guard leadership became concerned that the Mine Owners Association had not lived up to their agreement to cover the payroll of the soldiers during the deployment. About the middle of February, 1904, General Reardon ordered Major Ellison to take another soldier he could trust to secretly "hold up or shoot the men coming off shift at the Vindicator mine" in order to convince the mine owners to pay. When such violence occurred, it was most probable that the blame would be placed upon the union. However, Major Ellison believed that the miners took a route out of the mine that would not make ambush possible. Reardon ordered Ellison to pursue an alternative plan, which was shooting up one of the mines. In the dark of night, Major Ellison and Sergeant Gordon Walter fired sixty shots from their revolvers into the Vindicator and Lillie shaft house. The plan worked, and the mine owners paid up.
During the same strike, detectives attempted to frame union leaders for a plot to derail a train. A jury of non-union ranchers and timbermen unanimously found three accused union men "not guilty", and testimony during the trial pointed at a plot by the detectives.
Frameups in labor disputes sometimes swing public opinion one way or the other. During a strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, police acting on a tip discovered dynamite and blamed it on the union. National media echoed an anti-union message. Later the police revealed that the dynamite had been wrapped in a magazine addressed to the son of the former mayor. The man had received an unexplained payment from the largest of the employers. Exposed, the plot swung public sympathy to the union.
Research on union violence
Researchers in industrial relations, criminology, and wider cultural studies have examined violence by workers or trade unions in the context of industrial disputes. US and Australian government reports have examined violence during industrial disputes.
Examples of union violence since 1925 include:
- 2012 - Union workers protesting right-to-work legislation in Lansing, Michigan destroyed a tent run by Americans for Prosperity. People were inside the tent but managed to escape before the collapse. Additionally, hot dog stand operator Clinton Tarver, a popular vendor around the Capital area who was hired to provide catering for AFP, lost his equipment, condiments, coolers, and food in the collapse. According to Tarver (an African American), union workers, who had incorrectly assumed he was supporting AFP, called Tarver an "Uncle Tom nigger". A union worker also punched conservative comedian and Fox News contributor Stephen Crowder, resulting in a chipped tooth and a minor cut on the forehead. Another worker threatened to kill Crowder with a gun.
- 2011 - It was reported on September 9, 2011 that members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) frightened security guards, dumped grain, and vandalized property belonging to EGT, LLC, over a labor dispute. No one was hurt, and no one had been arrested at the time the incident was reported. District Judge Ronald Leighton later issued a preliminary injunction against the ILWU citing their reported behavior.
- 1997 - On August 7, 1997, teamsters Orestes Espinosa, Angel Mielgo, Werner Haechler, Benigno Rojas, and Adrian Paez beat, kicked, and stabbed a UPS worker (Rod Carter) who refused to strike, after Carter received a threatening phone call from the home of Anthony Cannestro, Sr., president of Teamsters Local 769.
- 1996 - On 19 August 1996, Australian unionists physically broke into the Australian Parliament & fought Australian Federal Police during the 1996 Parliament House Riot.
- 1993 - Eddie York was murdered for crossing a United Mine Workers (UMW) picket line at a coal mine in Logan County, West Virginia, on July 22, 1993. Like the 1990 NY Daily News strike, criminal charges under the Hobbs Act were declined, with the FBI and Justice Department citing the Enmons case.
- 1990 - on the first day of The New York Daily News strike, delivery trucks were attacked with stones and sticks, and in some cases burned, with the drivers beaten. Strikers then started threatening newsstands with arson, or stole all copies of the Daily News and burned them in front of the newsstands. James Hoge, publisher of the Daily News, alleged that there had been some 700 serious acts of violence. The New York Police Department claimed knowledge of 229 incidents of violence. Criminal charges under the Hobbs Act were declined, however, citing the aforementioned Enmons case.
- 1986/1987 - three union workers set fire to the Hotel Dupont Plaza in San Juan, Puerto Rico, while other union members staged a fight as a distraction. The union, said to be affiliated with the Teamsters, was having a labor dispute with management over pay and health care. Ninety-seven people were killed, none of whom were union members. Most bodies were burned beyond recognition.
- 1986 - During protests by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1547 against a non-unionized workforce getting a contract, picketers threatened and assaulted workers, spat at them, sabotaged equipment, and shot guns near workers. In 1999, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the union had engaged in "ongoing acts of intimidation, violence, destruction of property", awarding the plaintiff $212,500 in punitive damages.
- 1984 - Taxi driver David Wilkie was killed by striking miners while driving a non-striking worker during the NUM UK mining strike of 1984-85.
- 1926 - In the context of the 1926 United Kingdom general strike, striking miners derailed The Flying Scotsman on May 10.
People who commit acts of violence in the furtherance of industrial disputes can be prosecuted under the normal laws of all countries. In several countries, however, unions have accused state prosecutors of taking either no or insufficient steps against the alleged perpetrators of violence against union leaders, leaving a significant majority of the crimes in partial or total impunity; at present such accusations are most often made in respect of Colombia, and in particular the case of the murder of Isidro Gil is currently (2004) being pursued in a court in Miami, Florida.
Under the United States Supreme Court's 1973 Enmons decision (United States v. Enmons), the actions of union officials in organizing strikes and other united acts of workers are exempt from prosecution under US federal anti-extortion law. Similar legal protections are enjoyed by unions in other democratic countries. These protections do not however confer any immunity from prosecution for violent acts.
Management violence usually takes the form of bullying of or aggression against union organisers or sympathisers in the workplace. It is rarely if ever delivered by employers or senior managers directly, but by front-line managers (e.g. chargehands or foremen) or by other employees incited by management. In a number of well-known cases, however, violent action has been taken against union workers, often using hired goon squads, and unions have charged that this was at the instigation of management or of government bodies sympathetic to management's aims.
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