These days, we associate the right to bear arms with right-wing cranks who think they are defending themselves when they bring their assault rifles with them to Chili’s. But consider a few episodes from American labor history. During the Great Strike of 1877, workers beat back hundreds of National Guardsmen with stones, brickbats, and pistols, taking over most of St. Louis for a few days. In 1892, during a running battle with local militias in the town of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, miners loaded a railroad car with powder and a burning fuse and sent the makeshift bomb down a hill into a mill where strikebreakers and their militia protectors had been staying. In 1922, after armed guards fired machine guns at strikers trying to convince strikebreakers to rejoin the strike, hundreds of miners accompanied by an airplane dropping dynamite bombs attacked the mine personnel. The guards surrendered; the strikers executed the mine superintendent; a mob then massacred nineteen strikebreakers, and a subsequent jury of locals refused to convict anyone of murder. In September 1934, in the midst of a strike that brought out more than 400,000 Southern and Northeastern textile workers, “flying squadrons” of strikers, each numbering in the hundreds, roved from town to town, spreading the word and engaging in battles with police and National Guardsmen. During the Flint sit-down strike of 1936–1937, after a judge issued an injunction authorizing National Guardsmen to arrest picketers and labor leaders, pro-union veterans planned to take up arms, “in defense of the U.S. Constitution, of ‘real Patriotism,’ and the union,” and “take over the city hall, the courthouse and police headquarters, capture and imprison all officials and release union men.” Public officials, however, backed away from enforcing the order.
These are but a few of the many instances in which hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of workers took up arms of various sorts against employers and the American state to protect what they understood as their basic rights.
It is a strange feature of American historical consciousness that we only dimly recall the long period of rebellion, quasi-civil war, and, in a few cases, near social revolution that characterized labor relations before the Second World War. The basic outlines of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement are written in indelible ink in our mainstream awareness, but the decades of class conflict are, at most, a faded footnote. Yet between 1865 and 1947, mass strikes were a recurring feature of American labor relations. What’s more, they were met with a vast arsenal of law and repression. Sheriffs, mayors, governors, and attorneys general declared martial law, suspended civil liberties, permitted warrantless arrests, authorized mass detention, and generally forbade strike activity, even when peaceful. Private security, local police, state militias, National Guard, even federal troops were ca...
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