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Trade Unions in the USA

Mark Rathbone considers why American trade unionism was so violent for much of 1865-1980 but so much more peaceful by the mid-twentieth century.

The history of trade unions in the USA is littered with examples of appalling violence. The first truly nationwide strike, the railroad strike of 1877, set the pattern for labour-related violence, leaving 26 dead in Pittsburgh alone. Sometimes it was union members who were responsible for bloodshed, as in the Herrin Massacre in Williamson County, Illinois, in 1922, when striking miners killed 19 non-union workers. On other occasions, such as the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, which saw the murder of 20 people, many of them women and children, strikers were the victims of violence initiated by employers. As late as 1937, ten striking steelworkers were killed by South Chicago police in the Memorial Day massacre.

Why is labour history in the United States so characterised by bloody confrontation, to a much greater extent than, for example, that of Britain? And why, by the mid-twentieth century, did such violence give way to a more peaceful and cooperative pattern of labour relations?

Trade Union Violence

First, what degree of responsibility do American trade unions themselves bear? Some trade unionists had extreme political views and saw labour violence as a means of bringing about the collapse of capitalism. In Chicago in the 1880s, for example, some unions were infiltrated by anarchists, who encouraged the organisation of a general strike in the city on 1 May 1886. The subsequent meeting at Haymarket Square three days later culminated, it was alleged, in a political extremist throwing a bomb at the police, who responded by firing into the crowd. Ten people died and at least 50 were wounded. Four anarchists were hanged the following year for conspiracy to commit murder. The evidence against them was, however, of doubtful authenticity and many saw the executions as judicial murder.

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