The Abolitionist Struggle

After colonization, the first serious labor battles in much of the Americas were slave uprisings. It was necessary for these to be armed rebellions because of the nature of colonial slavery as a forced labor regime imposed through racial terror. Slaves in the US looked to Haiti, after its revolution, as a beacon of freedom. Abolition seemed far off for a very long time. Yet, in some rare but significant instances, slaves were their own liberators. Howard Zinn describes one such incident which took place in 1841:

Slaves being transported on a ship, the Creole, overpowered the crew, killed one of them, and sailed into the British West Indies (where slavery had been abolished in 1833).

A People’s History of the United States, pp. 183

Artwork depicting the 1841 Creole Mutiny

The underground railroad is well-remembered, as it should be, but what is less remembered is that it was considered, in modern terms, a network of “extremists,” and that helping slaves escape was heavily criminalized nation-wide by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Yet resistance to slavery was not always clandestine. Zinn recounts an incident of public, collective direct action against slavery in Syracuse New York in 1851:

A runaway slave named Jerry was captured and put on trial. A crowd used crowbars and a battering ram to break into the courthouse, defying marshals with drawn guns, and set Jerry free.

A People’s History of the United States, pp. 181

Bold mass actions like these, which undoubtedly had to be organized in advance, helped tremendously to set the stage for the end of slavery.

The Caste War of the Yucatan

In 1847, the unassimilated Maya people of the Yucatan Peninsula revolted against Criollo (white) and Mestizo domination. This little-known conflict is called the Caste War of the Yucatan. Like the earlier and nearby Haitian Revolution, this was a struggle for social equality which became a war with class, race and religious dimensions. Attempts to enforce private property (ie, dispossession) on the indigenous Mayan communities played a significant part in sparking the uprising. Territory changed hands year by year. The independent Maya fought off Mexican, British and Guatemalan forces for decades.

Rare of Mayan insurgents during the war
Rare of Mayan insurgents during the war

To quell the uprising, many concessions were made to the Mayan communities, including the undoing of many of the “reforms” that had catalyzed the rebellion. In 1884, a treaty was signed to re-integrate the territory into Mexico as long as Crescencio Poot remained governor of the state, but he was deposed in a coup the following year. Some Maya communities in the Yucatan continued to self-govern up until 1901. The issues at the core of the Caste War were echoed half a century later in the agrarian revolts of the Mexican Revolution and in the Plan of Ayala. This conflict also coincided with the Yaqui people’s battles for independence in the current-day Mexican state of Sonora.

The Irish War Against Exploiters

Ireland had been occupied by the British for hundreds of years, but during the rise of industrial capitalism the country subjected to new horrors. The Great Famine of 1845–1852 killed a million Irish people and led another two million to leave their island home. In the wake of the Famine, a small class of Irish owners had also woven their way into the framework for exploitation set up by the British:

“From this fresh breed of hard-fisted graziers, the bulk of them Irish and not a few springing from Catholic and Gaelic families, tenants and laborers alike could hope for little mercy, perhaps even for less mercy than from the older aristocracy, for if that class as a whole had deserved its generally odious reputation, some members of it at least had practiced a benevolent, if erratic, paternalism.”

Ireland Since the Famine by F.S.L. Lyons, pp. 26

The Famine disrupted and traumatized Irish society in ways too deep to be healed in a single generation. In driving Irish people away from their homes, the Famine created dispossessed, desperate and highly exploitable workers for the labor-hungry United States.

“Yet, although the immediate demographic effect of this mass-flight was very great, its psychological legacy may have been even more profound. The traditional resistance to emigration already, as we have seen, weakening before the Famine, had been still further broken down and leaving the old country now came to be regarded as the most practical, if still unpalatable, alternative to dumb acquiescence in extreme poverty and insecurity at home.”

Ireland Since the Famine by F.S.L. Lyons, pp. 44

Irish immigrants were some of the most militant workers in the North East United States during the tumultuous 19th century. Irish workers rallied in New York and Boston against the US war of aggression against Mexico. Some Irishmen (and other Catholics) who’d been drafted to fight on the US side defected to Mexico, dubbing themselves St. Patrick’s Battalion, the Mexicans called them the “San Patricios.” Annual celebrations to honor them are still held in both Mexico and Ireland.

Reconstructed version of the flag of the St. Patrick’s Battalion

Perhaps the most iconic Irish-American rebels of the late 19th century were the Molly Maguires.

“The background of the American Molly Maguires reaches back into feudalistic Ireland of the fourth decade of the ninteenth century. There lived then an energetic dame, the widow Molly Maguire, who did not believe in the rent system that was in effect in her country and became the leading spirit of a loosely organized resistance to it. She was a barbaric and picturesque character. She blackened her face and under her petticoat carried a pistol strapped to each of her stout thighs. Her special aversions were landlords, their agents, bailiffs, and process-servers, and her expression of hatred was limited to beating them up or murdering them. This she did with her own hands or through her ‘boys,’ who called themselves the Molly Maguires, or Mollies for short. She was down on the government, which aided the tyrannical landlords in collecting the rent. She was the head of the so-called Free Soil Party, whose banner was her red petticoat. If a landlord or his agent evicted a peasant who was not making his payments, that landlord or agent was usually as good as dead.”

Dynamite: the Story of Class Violence in America by Louis Adamic, pp. 13

These tactics, although crude, proved effective in several Irish counties. After facing persecution in Ireland, many Mollies, including perhaps Molly herself, decided to depart for America, where many of them found work in the deadly Pennsylvania coal mines. They continued the use of their ruthless brand of direct action against coal mine bosses. Their drastic approach may have been warranted by the conditions.

Art depicting Mollies beating a mine owner

“The wages were low. Miners were paid by the cubic yard, by the car, or by the ton, and, in the driving of entries, by the lineal yard; there was much cheating in weighing and measuring on the part of the bosses. Little, if any, attention was paid by the owners, of their own accord, to the safety of the miners. Cave-ins were frequent, entombing hundreds of men every year. When and wherever possible, employers took advantage of the men.”

Dynamite: the Story of Class Violence in America by Louis Adamic, pp. 14

By the 1870s the Mollies had become a full-fledged underground class-war / organized crime organization. They had begun getting loyal men into public office, including judges. They enforced at least one miner’s strike by threatening the workers out of scabbing. Eventually, they were infiltrated and suppressed by Pinkerton Detectives and the state. After trials that were questionable to say the least, ten Mollies were hanged and fourteen sent to prison. Despite their organization being quite large by this time, the repression was enough to disorganize them.

Eugene Debs wrote the following about the Mollies in a 1907 article for Appeal to Reason entitled Looking Backward:

“Not one of them was a murderer at heart. All were ignorant, rough and uncouth, born of poverty and buffeted by the merciless tides of fate and chance.

To resist the wrongs of which they and their fellow-workers were the victims and to protect themselves against the brutality of their bosses, according to their own crude notions, was the prime object of the organization of the ‘Mollie Maguires.’ Nothing could have been farther from their intention than murder or crime. It is true that their methods were drastic, but it must be remembered that their lot was hard and brutalizing; that they were the neglected children of poverty, the products of a wretched environment.”

Debs, E. Appeal to Reason. (1907). Looking Backward

Nicaragua’s National War

In the mid-1850s, Nicaragua was in the midst of a civil war between Liberal and Conservative factions. The Liberal elite controlled the city of Leon and the Conservative elite controlled the city of Granada. Fearing defeat, the Liberals turned to a US mercenary, William Walker, for military assistance. It was a classic “Pandora’s Box” move, and it did not turn out well. The fact that Walker had invaded Baja California and tried to set up a slave state under his personal control only a few years earlier should have been a tip-off as to his fiendish motivations.

It only took Walker a few months to defeat the Conservatives and take their capitol of Granada. Rather than handing power to the Liberals, however, in the summer of 1856 he declared himself president of Nicaragua, re-instituted slavery, declared English the official language of the country, and dispatched troops to invade Costa Rica. He could hardly have made his intentions of imposing Anglo domination on Central America more clear.

The governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador hastily entered into an alliance for mutual defense. The Liberals and Conservatives of Nicaragua also soon found common cause in seeking to remove Walker from their country. By Spring of 1857, Walker’s forces had their backs to the wall. However, he did not (yet!) receive the fate he richly deserved at the hands of his Central American victims. Like school children getting picked up from detention, he and his surviving men were picked up by the US Navy and sailed to New York City.

Chilean oil painter Luis Vergara Ahumada’s rendition of William Walker’s troops being defeated at the 1856 Battle of San Jacinto

But Walker never was one for quitting while he was ahead, and in 1860 he returned to the region with the intention of helping Anglo colonists set up a settler sate in the Bay Islands. However, he soon fell into the hands of the Royal British Navy, which regarded him as a threat to their own interests in the Caribbean and Central America. Perhaps because he had a sense of poetic justice, British Admiral Nowell Salmon delivered Walker to Honduran authorities, who had him executed by firing squad.

The US Civil War and Reconstruction

In his iconic history, Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. DuBois recounts how Black people seized their freedom in increasing numbers as the Civil War escalated. Eventually, slaves deserted plantations en masse amidst the chaos of the war. DuBois calls this the general strike, and it was a blow that crippled the Confederacy. The widespread narrative that abolition came mainly from above, in the form of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, is a prime example of elitist history robbing the everyday people of the past of their rightful remembrance in order to subtly rob present-day people of any notion that our actions might make a historic difference.

Freedom from slavery was rapturously celebrated by African Americans across the US South. Families separated by slavery were joyously reunited after years apart. Black churches became centers of community and social organization. Black Reconstruction began with the right of Black men to vote. Many Black women also advocated and organized for their right to vote, but did not get it for decades more. In some parts of the Deep South, African Americans were a majority of the population. Across the former confederate states, Black and Republican legislatures were elected. They pursued modernizing and pro-labor policies, creating the first universal public school system in the US South. The nation’s first Historic Black Universities were also founded at this time.

Drawing depicting African Americans celebrating freedom

Despite a military occupation of the South, southern whites began a terror campaign against newly free African Americans and their non-Black supporters. White mobs rampaged, murdered, burned and committed other heinous acts. The goal of this campaign of racial violence was to restore the terror relation of slavery as much as possible. Federal troops did not pose a significant threat to the insurgent white supremacists. Rather than arming African American communities, Federal forces began to be withdrawn as the terror campaign escalated during the late 1860s and early 1870s.

A new ruling class consensus was forming in the United States. In his fantastic book An African American and Latinx History of the United States, Paul Ortiz gives it a name: White Business Supremacy.

The Rise of White Business Supremacy

Growing racism threatened to overtake the emergence of solidarity movements across the United States. In 1867, hundreds of underpaid Chinese railroad workers went on strike in California. One of their demands was that their overseers no longer use whips. When no publicity or solidarity of any kind was forthcoming, and in the face of intimidation at the hands of armed white strike-breakers, most of the workers reluctantly returned to their dismal jobs. In October of 1871, five months after the fall of the Paris Commune, a very different massacre took place in a small but growing town called Los Angeles. A mob of whites and Latinos entered the Chinese quarter and murdered 19 Chinese immigrants. It was the largest mass-lynching is US history. Both the Knights of Labor and the later American Federation of Labor (AFL) included African Americans but excluded Asian immigrants. Then, as now, racism was backed up by shameful and shallow arguments that immigrants were being used to keep wages low. Helping Asian immigrant workers organize together with citizens was out of the question for the self-appointed leaders of the early US Trade Unions.

Across the US, machines and factories were replacing tools and craftsmanship. Corporate capitalism was taking shape, and many worker’s lives were sacrificed to feed the growing mammon. Americans, especially the ruling class but many workers as well, were in the grips of a “philosophy” called Social Darwinism. Richard Hofstadter, writing in 1944, critically articulates one strain of Social Darwinism this way:

“The struggle of ordinary workers to find employment is a social equivalent of the struggle for existence; it contributes but little to progress, for the greatest forward steps in the development of man have been accomplished any improvement in the breed of its laborers. The industrial struggle that really promotes progress is the battle among leaders, among employers. When one of two competing employers succeeds in conquering the other, the working men of the vanquished are absorbed in the employ of the victor, and lose nothing; but but the fruits of the successful leader’s skill are bequeathed to the community. It is, then, not the brute struggle for existence but the war for domination among the well-to-do that results in social progress.”

Social Darwinism in American Thought by Richard Hofstadter, pp. 102–103

In the 1870s, this elitist line of thinking served to normalize and justify mass destitution existing alongside fabulous wealth and luxury. It was soon to merge with “scientific” racism and eugenics to form justifications for all manner of other atrocities. Remnants of these backwards views are still recognizable in mainstream US conservative opinion today.

Social Darwinism was the theory, and White Business Supremacy was the practice. A practice of dividing the working class by race, but giving the most advantage to white workers, especially those willing to break solidarity with their non-white peers. A major objective of White Business Supremacy was maintaining the dispossession of most of the non white population by whatever means necessary. It was a merger between racism and big business, solidifying what some have termed Racial Capitalism. It involved the terror campaigns that defeated Reconstruction, the Convict Lease and other post Civil War forms of slavery, Black voter suppression, labor suppression of all kinds, the kidnapping and forced assimilation of Native American children, scapegoating of Asian immigrants in the western states, laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage, the many US invasions of smaller non white countries, the viciously racist attitude of nearly all major publications of the day (including ones such as Time Magazine and The New York Times) and much more.

Ortiz’s poignant term White Business Supremacy reflects that from the fall of Reconstruction into the 20th century, being “pro-business” in the United States almost always meant supporting white supremacy in the realm of property-labor relations. This is quite arguably still the case.

The Cuba Solidarity Movement

Many abolitionists did not view the end of slavery in the US as the end of their mission. As Ortiz chronicles, they next turned their sights to Cuba, where 500,000 slaves still toiled.

“In religious gatherings, mass assemblies, and state legislatures, African Americans insisted that their newly won citizenship rights could form the basis of a global fight against tyranny. Church meetings — whether held publicly in buildings or outdoors, or held in secret — were events where African Americans had taught each other mutuality, striving, and love for their fellow human beings, values that were always under siege in the nightmarish world of slavery.”

An African American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz, pp. 71

The fierce internationalist spirit of the abolitionists is another aspect of history that has been cleansed from the textbooks, lest we learn too much.

“African Americans viewed abolition in the United States as a springboard to challenge subjugation elsewhere. The Reverend J.B. Sanderson used his 1868 Emancipation Day speech in San Francisco to link the campaign for Black equality to Italian independence, the end of serfdom in Russia, and the liberation of Ireland.”

An African American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz, pp. 73

As Cubans took up arms against the Spanish Crown, abolitionists and other internationalists made efforts to support their struggle.

“The Cuban War of Liberation, also known as the Ten Years’ War, fought between 1868 and 1878, inspired African Americans and infused Black Reconstruction with special meaning. The desperate struggle of Cuban patriots against the Spanish reminded African Americans of their own harrowing journey to freedom. Numerous US cities passed resolutions in support of Cuba Libre, and newspapers published accounts of atrocities inflicted by the Spanish on the inhabitants of the island. However, it would fall to Black organizers and institutions to build a nationwide Cuban solidarity movement based on the principles of emancipatory internationalism.”

An African American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz, pp. 75

Exiled Cuban independence fighters also published their perspectives, spoke at public events and took part in organizing in the US. Even while under attack from the KKK and similar groups, African Americans ardently lent their time and support to the Cuban independence struggle. The movement was very oriented towards political action, hoping to get the US to officially recognize and arm the Cuban rebels, a goal which was sadly never met. Northern white capitalists saw US interests as aligned with Spain, and their words held more weight with President Grant’s Secretary of State and others. As Black Reconstruction crumbled, so too did the Cuban solidarity movement.

Native Resistance to Genocide

The attacks on Native American communities did not cease or even slow down during the US Civil War. The wars against the Native American nations of the west were sadistic in nature. Unarmed native families were massacred, such as in the case of the Sand Creek Massacre, with no punishment for the murderers. Famously, US Lt. Colonel George Custer attempted one massacre too many, and in 1876 tried to attack some Lakota and Northern Cheyenne camps. However, this time the natives were prepared, and their force of warriors outnumbered Custer’s by more than two-to-one. Battle commenced, which by itself was likely more than Custer had bargained for. He, two of his brothers, and hundreds of other war criminals were killed in combat by their would-be victims at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Victory Dance, Little Big Horn, 1876 by Z. S. Liang

The Apache tribe proved particularly difficult for the US and Mexico to subjugate. Using guerilla tactics, they fought against colonization from the late 1840s to the late 1880s. As craven as ever, US forces would sometimes massacre Apache women, children and elders while the younger men were fighting elsewhere. Destroying crops and food supplies was another favorite tactic of the US forces. Tribes that were unable or unwilling to take up arms as the Apache did were subjected to massacres and forced relocation without delay.

Throughout the US wars of genocide against native peoples, settlers would be very aggressive when they felt confident that they could not be defeated, but when they were less certain, they would decide it was time to negotiate. The negotiations were never in good faith, they were, in reality, only a tactic in a continuing power struggle, used to stall native peoples when settlers felt they may be vulnerable. This old but clever tactic of “turning to dialogue” when insurgent forces seem to be at a strong tide is still used by bosses, cops and other oppressive forces today. We would be wise to learn to recognize it.

The Uprising of 1877

These years would come to be known as the Gilded Age. Railroads were the large logistics corporations of the day, and the wealthy traveled in the luxurious Pullman Cars which would be attached to other trains. Thousands upon thousands of workers had jobs directly or indirectly related to the railroads. In 1869, rail lines from the West and East coasts of the US were connected for the first time in Promontory Utah. This Transcontinental Railroad was considered a huge triumph for the country. In 1873, there was a market crash, commonly known today as the Panic of 1873, which left thousands upon thousands of workers and their families unemployed, destitute and on the verge of starvation. The working class of the day was desperate and disorganized. Because of this, corporations took exploitation to extremes. In 1877, the Ohio & Baltimore Railroad company pushed its workers just a bit too far.

Print art depicting crowds surrounding B&O trains

“Early in July, the B. & O. announced another ten per cent cut of its fireman’s and brakeman’s wages, effective on the sixteenth of the month. The news brought panic to the employees, who already were scarcely able to support their families on what they received. Desperate, they held protest meetings and sent committees to the manager of the road. He declined to see them. With the other officials of the company, he believed that the hard times would prevent the men from walking out. Besides, if they did, so much worse for them; for there were hordes of jobless men along the B. & O. lines to choose from.”

Dynamite: the Story of Class Violence in America by Louis Adamic, pp. 23

The bosses were trifling with worker’s lives and acting like it was nothing. Soon they would see the consequences of their harsh actions.

“On the morning of July 16th, the trains were manned as usual. There had been strike talk, but, to all seeming, no action had been decided upon. In the middle of the afternoon, a gang of firemen and brakemen quit at a junction in Maryland. It appeared to be a local movement. The company had no difficulty replacing them. Hungry men were begging for work everywhere.

But as the afternoon wore on, the company officials received word of difficulties all along the road. Nothing definite as yet; merely ‘trouble’ … ‘discontent’ … ‘insubordination.’ And the trouble seemed most intense at Martinsburg, West Virginia, where, towards evening, the men sidetracked their trains and quit.

Elsewhere the situation became equally acute and dramatic. News came that the canal-boatmen were quitting. By midnight the entire system dominated by the B. & O. was paralyzed.

It was a spontaneous movement, with practically no organization behind it.”

Dynamite: the Story of Class Violence in America by Louis Adamic, pp. 23

United States officials had never had to deal with a situation like this before, and they handled it badly. In Baltimore, poorly trained troops were called in against discontented crowds of strikers, and soon shot and killed several of them, plus many bystanders, sparking an all-out uprising throughout the city.

“For three days the riots continued in Baltimore. The strikers, who were practically leaderless, were joined by thousands of laborers and mechanics who were out of work as well as by the entire criminal class of the city, eager for an opportunity to plunder. A large number of men in various other occupations, who had recently suffered reductions in wages, were in a sullen mood. They welcomed what they thought was an attempt on the part of the railroad men to right a common wrong.”

Dynamite: the Story of Class Violence in America by Louis Adamic, pp. 24

In her much more detailed and dramatic book on this uprising, focused on Baltimore and Pittsburgh, Cecelia Holland portrays the panicked mood of the corporate and government officials of Baltimore amid the riots:

“The strike, which was spreading farther and farther all the time, was costing the railroad thousands of dollars, and would soon cause shutdowns of other industries too, as fuel and raw materials failed to reach factories. The B&O men were desperate to get the trains rolling again; they demanded that the governor call on the federal government for troops to break the strike. That they clung to their belief in the efficacy of troops, even after sending in the troops had led to such explosions of violence, shows how little they understood what was happening.”

Blood on the Tracks by Cecelia Holland, part 4)

The militia was horribly demoralized. Although they had participated in a massacre, they lacked the determined attitude of professional killers.

“Most of the few remaining of the Sixth Infantry couldn’t take any more. They sneaked away in the dark, and, by morning, only eleven men remained of the hapless regiment.”

Blood on the Tracks by Cecelia Holland, part 4

These and other defections, revealing a glimmer of class solidarity, were a warning sign to the country’s owning class. The uprising of 1877 was to be a catalyst for a total reorganization of US police and the move from poorly armed and trained militias to the modern National Guard. As labor historian Robert Ovetz recounts for ROAR magazine:

“The initial successes of the strike threatened to inspire widespread worker rebellions and shook US capital to the core, prompting a complete overhaul of local police and the transformation of militias into the state-run and -funded National Guard we have today. Howls from the newspapers and elites about the “mob,” “communism,” and the armed “rabble” provoked the reorganization of the police, transformation of both volunteer and state militias into the National Guard, the reorganization of railroad work and the consolidation of the railroads into integrated industrial corporations to be better prepared for the next general strike.”

The Railroad Strike of 1877 and the birth of modern policing by Robert Ovetz

In the same article he continues:

“The 1877 railroad strike resulted in a new emphasis on legitimizing and expanding the police. Changes to policing coincided with the reorganization of the militia into the National Guard. In St. Louis, the police force was enlarged, a National Guard armory was built and the Lucas Market, where strikers had assembled, was demolished as part of the process of reorganizing public space to facilitate the deployment of police and military force. There was a substantial growth in the size of forces, as much as seven-fold in some cities across the Great Lakes region. Harring observed that because ‘class struggle is at the core of the police function,’ the growth and reorganization of police forces was intended to meet the need for changing tactics and strategy of class conflict.”

After Baltimore, the next site of the uprising was Pittsburgh. Cecelia Holland gives us the social context:

“Pittsburgh had a history both of strong labor politics and fractious dissent. Perched on the jutting V of land between the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers, on top of a huge supply of coal, the city had drawn great numbers of Germans and eastern Europeans to the industrial jobs. These working people also had opinions about politics and some experience with socialism and activism, of which Europe at the time was a hotbed.

Pittsburgh political sentiment ran steeply in favor of the little guy. Newspaper cartoons portrayed the railroad bosses as vultures feeding on the exploited workers. A Pittsburgh literary society sponsored a lecture on ‘Labor and the Capital that Oppresses It.’ Pittsburgh’s mayor, William McCarthy, was a feisty Coleridge-quoting Irishman who owed his job to the votes of workingmen and hated the railroads.”

Blood on the Tracks by Cecelia Holland, part 5)

Encouraged by news of actions against the company elsewhere, Pittsburgh workers began to strike little by little, throughout July 19th, eventually becoming a formidable force.

“At a gathering of the Trainmen’s Union, that evening of July 19, one speaker after another stoked the packed house to a fine passionate blaze. The workingmen’s crowd was charged with energy, a sense of possibility. Periodically someone rushed to the podium, interrupted a speech, and announced another crew walking off somewhere, another business on strike, each one a shot of emotional adrenalin to the crowd. They felt part of something huge, righteous, and unstoppable, and the focus of their discontent was growing sharper by the moment.”

Blood on the Tracks by Cecelia Holland, part 5

Soon there was another confrontation with poorly trained troops, and another massacre, but as more workingmen died martyrs, the uprising gained more life. Pittsburgh residents began to burn and loot waiting traincars. The uprising was now nation-wide, but it was not to last.

“Across the country, the railroad cities were boiling, New York, Harrisburg, Reading, Cleveland, Columbus, Philadelphia, Buffalo, a dozen more. Some of it was a comic-opera: Altoona, Pennsylvania, sits at the bottom of the long steep grade that carries the railroad up the mountains. When a train packed with soldiers started up the curve, Altoona housewives slathered the tracks with cooking grease, and the train slid helplessly back to the bottom again.

Some of it was deadly serious. In Chicago the police were battling mobs street by street. A mob in San Francisco burned down Chinatown. St. Louis, on a major hub of the railroad, saw an entrenched elite facing off against riled workers. The strikers drove out the money barons and took over the city and declared a commune.

But the furious energy was ebbing. Without a purpose, without leaders, the mass action could not sustain itself. In the chaos of Chicago, the police succeed in keeping people from gathering long enough to talk things over and develop plans and agendas. In St. Louis, the communards, with no practical idea of what a commune did, frittered away their advantage in marches and proclamations until the elite got its nerve back and retook the city. In both places, federal troops arrived after the fact.”

Blood on the Tracks by Cecelia Holland, part 11

As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz notes in her book, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, the Federal troops that arrived in Chicago had been recalled from their campaign against the Sioux nation to suppress insurgent workers.

The United States had had it’s first major working class uprising. It not to be the last. Workers didn’t win much as a direct result, but there was at least one victory. They had discovered their power.

Back to Top