For most people on the left, including me, American labor struggles begin with the 1877 railroad strikes and come to a climax with the CIO organizing drives of the 1930s. This is especially true if you have read Philip Foner’s “The Great Labor Uprising of 1877”, a Pathfinder book I read in the early 70s. It was a companion piece to Art Preis’s “Labor’s Giant Step”, another Pathfinder book that served as a great guide to the 1930s labor struggles and still does.
I would recommend both of these books to people who want to learn about labor history even if the money goes to a group that has lost the thread completely on the labor movement if not to speak of the class struggle in general. To these two must-reads, I would add a new book by Mark A. Lause, a former member of the Socialist Workers Party who has followed in the footsteps of Philip Foner and Art Preis with the magisterial “Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of the American Working Class”.
When you hear the term “free labor” in the context of the Civil War, the first thing that springs to mind is the Radical Republican agenda to abolish slavery but Lause uses it in a broader sense. His study amasses an astonishing collection of historical detail to demonstrate that the worker soldiers who fought for emancipation also thought the term applied to their own struggle against bosses, whether they owned a shoe factory in Massachusetts or a plantation in Mississippi.
In the very first sentence of the Acknowledgments, Lause states: “Work on this subject has gone on for decades, as I gathered up what has become the bits and pieces from almost every library or archive I’ve ever visited.” Support for this statement can be found on just about every page of a work that is studded with amazing profiles of personalities and events that have languished in obscurity for far too long.
As an experiment, I opened “Free Labor” randomly and felt positive that I would land upon the kind of revelation that makes the book so compelling. So on page 80, I read:
[DeWitt Clinton] Roberts went from Charleston to Atlanta for work, but, as the weeks wore on, the prospect of Confederate conscription once more threatened him. He had gotten a thirty-day leave from his employer, the Southern Confederacy, to visit Charleston, and then told the provost marshal that he wanted to visit his relatives near Oxford, Mississippi. On December 20, 1863, he abandoned his “trunk, books, and clothing,” saving what he “could carry in a handtrunk.” He found that war had crippled the Southern railroads, but he reached Oxford nevertheless, eight days later. There, he persuaded the Confederate cavalry to permit him through the lines to Holly Springs. Circumstances soon forced Roberts, who had thought so disparagingly of the blacks attacking Fort Wagner, to rely entirely upon African Americans for assistance in reaching Union lines.
Roberts was a printer from the North who had ended up in the South for work before the start of the war and became part of the modest trade union initiatives that were cropping up there as well, often incorporating the region’s racist ideology. When the prospects of being drafted into the Rebel army confronted him, he had no choice except to depend on Blacks to escape to the North. Whatever his racial attitudes, and as Lause points out he was no William Lloyd Garrison, he made common cause with those seeking freedom.
The printers are to the labor struggles of the 1860s that railway workers were to 1877 and auto workers were to the CIO in the 30s. This was a function of the vanguard role played by craftsmen in the 1860s, a period long before Fordism and assembly lines became dominant. Like the men who volunteered to fight against Franco in Spain, printers enlisted in the Union army as a way of defeating chattel slavery in the South and what was commonly known as wages slavery in the North at some point in the future. Lause cites a newspaper that observed in 1861 that every volunteer regiment had enough printers to open an office of its own.
The National Typographers Union was to the labor vanguard of the 1860s that the UAW was to Flint sit-down strikes even if it like the UAW failed to break the color line at General Motors. Lause points out that after the war the Washington, DC printers deferred to the Confederate veterans who refused to work alongside Blacks, including Lewis H. Douglass, the son of Frederick Douglass, who worked in the Government Printing Office.
For New Yorkers, there is a great pleasure in store to read about the most militant bastion of free labor in the city, the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Lause writes:
There, too, a vicious dispute in the Navy Yard among radicalized workers was raised. One of their leaders, Moses Platt, “made an extravagant speech about capital and labor,” calling on workers to throw off their yoke. At a meeting of a Brooklyn trade union meeting, one of the members rose to discuss working-class political action, adding that “the nearest approach to success was made in France during the last revolution, when the combination of labor became so strong that capitalists in all countries became alarmed and combined to put it down, and – did so through Napoleon.”
Employers reacted coherently when workers beyond the Navy Yard showed signs of militancy: stonecutters, blacksmiths, carpenters and laborers went on strike as did painters and hatters, while piano makers faced a lockout, and plasterers, molders, jewelers, machinists, and musicians organized for a pay increase. A “Farmers’ Protective Union of the counties of Kings, Queens, Suffolk, Westchester, Richmond and Rockland” formed. At the same time, the use of convict labor drew the molders and other trade unionists into politics, urging a bill to regulate such innovations.
You get a sense of the craftsmen character of the early labor movement from the inclusion of jewelers, musicians and piano makers fighting for higher wages. Many years ago just after I had completed a training program as a machinist in Kansas City in order to help me get a factory job as part of the SWP’s “turn to industry”, the word came down that party members should only work in unskilled jobs like in the meatpacking industry. Clearly, they had a very poor grasp not only of the role of skilled workers in this period but how workers become politicized in the first place. As was the case during the Civil War and will surely be the case in the next radicalization, workers will move against the class enemy not because of their role in surplus value creation but as a reaction to social crisis in general. When Lenin wrote in “What is to be Done” that a socialist party has to respond to every injustice, including the right of artists to paint as they please, he was polemicizing against the “point of production” mentality that has confused so much of the left over the years into adopting a “workerist” orientation.
African-Americans, either those still enslaved or those in the ranks of “wages slavery” were on the front lines of the labor movement. In the South, they engaged in mass resistance to the Confederacy as they abandoned their slave-master’s plantation or carried out sabotage and arson to undermine the rebel cause.
In the general insurrectionary mood, poor whites in the South began to make common cause with Blacks as Lause points out:
The growing numbers of aggrieved nonslaveholders, including armed Confederate deserters and escaped Union prisoners, provided slave rebels a growing number of whites ready to transgress the color bar. Civilian authorities far from Federal lines clamored for martial law and the assignment of troops to suppress small bands of armed blacks. Increasingly, Confederates feared a convergence of “deserters from our armies, Tories and runaways.” By early 1864 Confederate officials in South Carolina reported “five to six hundred negroes” not in “the regular military organization of the Yankees” who “lead the lives of banditti, roving the country with fire and committing all sorts of horrible crimes upon the inhabitants.” Florida officials reported “500 Union men, deserters, and negroes . . . raiding towards Gainesville,” while similar groups formed to commit “depredations upon the plantations and crops of loyal citizens and running off their slaves.” At Yazoo City, Mississippi, they not only attacked such private estates but successfully burned the courthouse.
As it happens, this is the scenario of a film I saw at a press screening last night. Titled “The Free State of Jones”, it is about the pro-Union resistance of Newton Knight, a poor farmer in Mississippi who deserted from the Confederate army, and his Black allies. It is a great film just as “Free Labor” is a great book and one that I will be reviewing in a day or so.