History of Workers’ Movements in the United States
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Guest: Howard Zinn, historian and author of A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present
The following program was recorded at the studio of Democracy Now! on August 14, 2006.
Amy Goodman: Welcome to this POV podcast special. I’m Amy Goodman. As we talk about Waging a Living we turn to legendary historian Howard Zinn, author of among other books, A People’s History of the United States. I asked Howard Zinn to talk about the history of poor and working people’s movements throughout the history of this country.
Howard Zinn: I think what is not known, and what can’t be known from the history that we get in school, is how much class conflict there was in the early years of the colonies, before even the American Revolution. Generally history starts with the American Revolution, and that’s a big jump from Columbus to the American Revolution, but before the revolution there were uprisings of servants. So much of the working population of the colonies consisted of indentured servants who had been brought here almost in a state of slavery. And many times they rebelled against their masters.
There were also early strikes, even back in the 17th century, of skilled workers, coopers, butchers, bakers and porters against the government controlling the fees that they got. We didn’t have factory workers at that time but we had individual tradesmen, and the government, as usual, was controlling how much they could charge, and so they very often went on strike against this. Back before the American Revolution in the 1730s and ’40s there were riots of poor people in the big cities in the United States because there was so much poverty. It’s interesting how today one percent of the population owns 40 percent of the wealth; well, that’s just about what the ratio was in the 1750s and 1760s. The contrast between rich and poor was even greater then because there was no real middle class. And so you had riots of poor people.
In Boston people would riot in the 1730s and they’d demolish the public market, always protesting against high prices. In those years 90 percent of the people were farmers, and so the poor were farmers more than they were urban poor, and farmers very often rioted against their landlords. In the decades before the Civil War in New Jersey, and in the Hudson Valley, in New York State. They would occupy lands that were claimed by these rich landowners who had been given these huge grants of land by the crown. When some of them were arrested, the farmers would storm the jail and release the person who had been arrested for nonpayment of his taxes. And this continued into the years just before the revolution.
Very often when the American Revolution is discussed in history classes, it’s a matter of the colonists versus the English, but what they neglect is the fact that the colonists themselves were divided among rich and poor. For instance, the Stamp Act riots of the 1760s is taught as a rebellion against the British crown and the Stamp Act in school; but the riots against the Stamp Act were as much riots against the rich local people, the rich officials. In the riots against the Stamp Act, the poor would break into the houses of the rich and show their anger at their own condition.
My point is that before the revolution, class conflict was rife throughout the colonies and into the revolution. Poor people were really in a situation where they were treated in the military like dirt. They saw the rich getting clothes and shoes and pay, and so there were mutinies of the poor. After the revolution this turned into veterans organizing against the rich of the legislatures. The most famous of these occurred just before the Constitution was adopted, such as Shay’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts Similar rebellions occurred in other states where poor people, many of them veterans of the Revolutionary War, were angry about the taxes which were being levied on them, which they couldn’t pay and so their farms were being taken away from them. And Shay’s Rebellion was a very scary rebellion for the leaders of the colonies, for the founding fathers. The Constitution, when it was adopted in 1787, was in great measure a way of setting up a government that would be strong enough to deal with poor people’s rebellions like Shay’s Rebellion. I mean, they were very explicit about it. On the eve of the drafting of the Constitution, when Shay’s Rebellion took place, one of Washington’s generals said, “These people who fought in the revolution think that now they’re entitled to some of the wealth of the country, and we have to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Textile mill working all night in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1941.
Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [LC-USF35-1326]
So those were years when it was mostly farmers who were rebelling, although city poor also rebelled against their condition in those early years. But the first real factory strikes came in the 1820s and 1830s by women, by the mill girls of New England in Lowell, Massachusetts and Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The very first strike of factory girls took place in the 1830s, and at one point 20 textile mills were out on strike. These girls were anywhere from 12 years old and 15 or 16 years old. They were working 15 and 16 hours a day, they were being given a few minutes for lunch, and they were protesting against the length of the working day and protesting against not having enough time to [eat] their lunch. In the mid-1830s, there were over 100 strikes of mill girls. And they were organized. They set up an association and they put out a newspaper. In a good library, you can still find the newspaper that they put out in the mills.
The history of the Civil War is a history mostly of battles, but what is ignored is that during the Civil War poor people in both the North and the South were protesting against their conditions, and it took different forms. In the North, it took the form of the Irish and the draft riots of 1863, seeing that the rich were getting out of the military by paying $300, and the poor were being drafted to die in the Civil War. The Irish were livid. They were like most immigrants who come to this country, living under terrible conditions and working for very little, and now they were being asked to die in a war. So you have these great draft riots, the greatest sort of internal insurrections that we have had in the history of this country. In the South, poor people were going to fight for the Confederacy, and meanwhile their women back home were facing starvation because the plantation owners were growing cotton instead of food because cotton was profitable and food was not. So you found, for instance, in the state of Georgia, that women rioted in order to protest against the fact that their young people or their husbands, their brothers, were off fighting in the Civil War and they didn’t have enough food.
So class conflict went on through the Civil War, and that part of the Civil War is submerged in the glorious story of battles of Gettysburg and Antietam and so on. In fact, right on the eve of the Civil War, in 1860, one of the great strikes of working people took place; this was a huge strike of thousands and thousands of people in Lynn, Massachusetts. They were shoemakers who went on strike. Five thousand of them marched through the city in protest against the fact that their wages were being cut. Even in the midst of the Civil War, there were strikes of workers, and what happens is that war always submerges the class conflict that takes place and conceals the divisions of rich and poor. And that was also true during the Civil War.
When the Civil War was over, it was not as easy to suppress and conceal those class conflicts under the flag of patriotism and war. And so when there was a real serious depression in 1873, the railroad workers along the East Coast were having their wages cut by the railroads, while the railroads were making great profits. The Vanderbilts made profits and the railroad companies had an enormous amount of corruption, but they would not give the workers what they wanted. So in 1877 there were strikes through out the East, in Chicago and Pittsburgh, and these were violent and bitter strikes. One hundred strikers were killed and thousands went to prison. The National Guard was called out; the Army was called out. And that inaugurated a whole series of working-class struggles through the late 19th and early 20th century.
Striking garment workers scuffling with policemen, 1915.
Credit: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago Historical Society [DN-0065587]
The period between 1877 and 1914 is unequaled by any country in the world in the number of bitter conflicts between rich and poor, of working people organized. Because after the Civil War, working people began to organize. They formed the National Labor Union, which was the first national union of workers, and the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) was formed in the 1880s. You had strikes for the eight-hour day all over the country in 1886. That’s where May Day originated. The workers were successful in winning the eight-hour day in many, many different places.
It’s interesting that all of these struggles had to take place for the barest minimum of decent conditions, that is, just to work eight hours a day. What that points out, I think, is this enormous failure of the American system to take care of working people. When the Constitution was adopted in 1787, there was a Bill of Rights that came very soon after. The Bill of Rights granted, as most of us know, a whole series of political rights, freedom of speech, press and assembly, the right to trial by jury and the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. But these were political rights, there were no economic rights granted in the Constitution. That is why in 1944 when Franklin Roosevelt ran for office for his third term as president, he made the point that we needed an economic bill of rights to join the political bill of rights; an economic bill of rights in which it would be constitutionally guaranteed that people would have a living wage and that people would not have to work more than a certain number of hours, that people would get vacations, that people would get healthcare.
This was 1944, and we still have not achieved that. But the economic bill of rights missing in the Constitution made it inevitable that workers would have to get those rights by their own efforts, by organizing, by going on strike, by facing the police and the sheriffs and the National Guard and the Army. That’s why we had such a series of bitter labor struggles in this country, because the political system, touted all over the world even today, this great democratic system, gave no economic rights to the working people. They had to fight for it themselves.
After the railroad strikes of 1877 and the eight-hour day strikes of 1886 there were more strikes. The Pullman Strike, which was led by the Socialist Eugene Debs in 1894 — well, actually he wasn’t a Socialist when he went to strike but after he went to jail and began to read, he came out a Socialist. After the turn of the century, you had the organization of the most militant and interesting labor movement probably in the history of this country, and that was the IWW, Industrial Workers of the World. They were rebelling against the fact that in the late 19th and early 20th century the country was, now more than ever before, controlled by corporate wealth. There were great monopolies of oil, steel, banking, railroads; JP Morgan, Carnegie and Rockefeller, and all their workers were being treated in the most miserable way, and at every economic crisis it was the working people who were suffering. When there was another economic crisis in 1893, the children of the working classes of the cities were dying in huge numbers of disease and starvation.
Image of a parade of women during the garment workers’ strike in Chicago, Illinois. Some women are carrying signs, and one sign reads: Why are we prohibited from picketing? This parade took place on Dec. 12, 1910, during the United Garment Workers of America strike.
Credit: DN-0056264, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago Historical Society.
The IWW, formed in 1905, was in good part a rebellion against the conditions of working people. They organized in the mines; they organized in the mills. Their most successful organizing was done in 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, with a textile strike of mostly immigrant women and girls working in the mills whose wages were being cut. The women and girls went on strike, and the IWW went in there to help them. And while most strikes are lost — most strikes are desperately lost — but enough of them win to tell workers that yes, if you persist and if you don’t give up, you can defeat even the great corporations. That’s what happened in 1912 when the workers and the IWW defeated the American Woolen Corporation in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
So that early period, the early 20th century, was a period of great working class organization. The IWW organized workers all over the country. The Socialist Party, which was at its height during that period, organized people. There’s no doubt the success of the Socialist Party and the success of the IWW was due to the horrible conditions under which working people were living. When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, he wrote about the conditions of the packinghouse workers in Chicago, but that same kind of book could have been written in any city in the country about the working people and what they were enduring.
We had, in this country, a lack of economic rights in the Constitution, a continuing series of strikes, and protests and that came to a head in the 1930s when the Depression left one third of the working population unemployed. Those working class movements, those poor people’s movements, manifested themselves in the 1930s in many different ways. The very first, perhaps, was in 1932 when veterans of World War I, whose kids were going hungry, and who had been promised bonuses as a result of their service in World War I. The bonuses had never come through, and so they came from all over the country, 20,000 of them, to Washington D.C. and camped across the Potomac from Congress to demand their bonus. These were working class people from all over the country, veterans of World War I, demanding that something be done about them and their families. Well, they were broken up, they were attacked by the Army. And their tent colony was destroyed. But this was a very early manifestation in the 1930s of the rebellions that would take place through the rest of the decade.
In front of city hall, San Francisco, California. The Worker’s Alliance, Works Progress Administration (WPA) organize simultaneous demonstrations in the large cities of the nation in response to the cut in the relief appropriation by the U.S. Congress, 1939. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [LC-USF35-1326]
This is something that Roosevelt faced when he came into office. A lot of people think, Well, we got all those New Deal reforms because Roosevelt was a kindhearted man and wanted to do something, and it’s true Roosevelt was certainly more sensitive than most presidents have been to the plight of the poor, and he had Eleanor Roosevelt at his side, who was even more sensitive than he was, and I think was a good influence on him, but Roosevelt faced turmoil all over the country. He faced the unemployment councils and tenants’ councils. He faced riots and rebellions. He faced a general strike in Minneapolis and a general strike in San Francisco. He faced, in 1934, 400,000 textile workers in the South going on strike. The country was in danger of having the whole system torn apart and I think Roosevelt was wise enough to sense that. The result was the reforms of the 1930s: Social Security, unemployment insurance, subsidized housing, and, for the first time, labor laws — the National Labor Relations Act, which gave some rights to labor unions.
The ’30s were an amazing period of working class organization. That’s when the CIO — the Congress of Industrial Organizations — was formed. That’s when the sit-down strikes took place, an amazing new tactic of strikers, not leaving the factory and walking the picket line and facing the police, but staying in the factory and holding on to the property of the corporation and demanding that their union be recognized and that the conditions be changed. This was a high point in the organization of the American labor movement and the working class movements.
Even though World War II stifled class conflict, as all wars tend to stifle class conflict in the name of rallying around the flag, facing a common enemy, patriotism and all of that, there were strikes during World War II by workers who felt that — as always in a war — there was profiteering by the rich, making a lot of money through war contracts while the workers’ wages were being held down. When the war was over these strikes erupted all over the country.
Of course, since then, we’ve had a diminution of the power of the labor movement: the CIO merged with the AFL, and the militancy of the CIO, to a great extent, has been lost in the vast bureaucracy of the AFL/CIO. But despite that, there have been movements of workers, whether in unions or outside of unions, to try to better their conditions. In the 1960s, there was a welfare rights movement, and that was something that took place outside the union movement. It was a movement that pointed to the condition of poor people. And I’m sure the welfare rights movement of the ’60s along with the other movements of that time — that is, the Civil Rights Movement and the movement against the war in Vietnam and the Women’s Movement — I think all of that contributed to an atmosphere in which you could get some reforms in the 1960s for working people. You could get Medicare and Medicaid. So the 1960s, like the 1930s, was a period of great social movements which brought some reforms. During that period, in the 1960s, we saw the farm workers union: this was something that had its roots back in the 1930s when sharecroppers organized a union in the South. But there’s kind of a continuum from the populist movement of the farmers of the 1880s and ’90s, to the sharecroppers union of the 1930s, and then to the farm workers union out on the West Coast in the 1960s. This includes Caesar Chavez and others who are amazing examples of very poor and apparently powerless people succeeding in changing their conditions, and forcing these very wealthy fruit growers on the West Coast to improve the conditions of workers and to recognize the farm workers union.
All of this is a history that is now continuing, I think, with the movement for the living wage that’s taking place across this country. While the labor movement itself is not as powerful or as well organized as it was in the ’30s and ’40s, working people are still rebelling against their condition, and very often community people — whether it’s students or other people in the community — are working along with these people in factories and mills and the janitors and bus drivers to get a living wage. So it’s a long saga which still goes on.
Amy Goodman: When we talk about living wage campaigns, there’s the minimum wage, there’s living wage campaigns, and then there’s the whole issue of overall benefits that living wage has to include healthcare. In this time of the consolidation of wealth, do you see the movement going backwards or forwards?
Zinn: Well, it’s true, wealth is being consolidated. But I do believe that the healthcare issue has become very significant, to the point where autoworkers in the Midwest are striking not so much for hours and wages, but striking to maintain their health benefits. I think there’s been more and more awareness of the shameful situation with healthcare in the United States, and I think there’s some more education taking place about health care in other countries, which have a system where insurance companies are not involved, private enterprise is not involved, there’s a direct relationship between the government and the doctors and the patients, with no intermediaries, and where everybody’s entitled to free medical care.
This is something that our politicians have been very, very reluctant to come out in favor of, although back in the 1930s there were people calling for that, saying everybody’s entitled to free healthcare. The government has the money and can raise the money, all the government has to do is cut the military budget and raise the taxes on the rich, and there’ll be hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars available to give everybody free medical care. I do believe that that idea is more and more taking hold. More and more people are becoming aware of it. People in Congress have a wonderful government healthcare program, why can’t everybody have it? Medicare, the principle of Medicare, which has very low cost in its administrative network, could be extended to the whole population. I believe that there’s a growing feeling about that. And I still think that it’s inevitable that one of these days we are going to have a radical transformation of the health system, but it will take a lot more organization, a lot more protest and a stronger labor movement. But I think it’s an idea whose time has come.
Amy Goodman: As we have this discussion in an election year do you think there is any sense of building opposition within the Democratic Party? We’re speaking now at a time when the minimum wage — the minimum wage, not the living wage — has been defeated by Congress.
Zinn: It was defeated by Congress in good part because it was attached to an enormous cut in the taxes for the rich in the estate tax. But I do believe that at some point the minimum wage is going to have to be raised. And the Democratic Party has to listen to its constituency. Its constituency, much more than the Republican Party, consists of working people and people in the labor movement. I believe there are some signs inside the Democratic Party of rebellion against this old ossified leadership of the Democratic Party, some more signs of boldness. And my hope is that there will be a kind of grassroots rebellion inside the Democratic Party. It may not come about unless there’s a threat from a third party, unless people across the country say very vigorously, we are not going to support the Democratic Party unless it comes out against the war, reduces the military budget, uses the money to help poor people and middleclass people. Listening to John Edwards on television he seems to be tuned in to the fact that there is conflict between the rich corporations and the ordinary American. And there’s some promise there that the Democratic Party might face an internal rebellion which will move it in a progressive direction.
Amy Goodman: Howard Zinn, thank you very much for joining us.
Zinn: Thank you, Amy.
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