Something usually not discussed on Labor Day weekend is the violence and thuggery, which has always been part of the union movement. And it still happens. The history of the labor movement in the U.S. is littered with extremists who use violence to get their way. Sometimes when violence was used, their objectives were legitimate, but their methods weren’t.
At the beginning of the union movement, the violence was outer-directed; toward the government, management, or the police, who were using violence to destroy the labor movement. As the movement matured, the abuse became directed inward, targeted towards keeping the rank and file “in line,” going after replacement workers, or sabotaging the company under siege. Like the fictional Johnny Friendly bullied Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) in “On The Waterfront,” real live union bosses rule with an iron fist.
Union thuggery/violence has also become a political weapon, attacking members of the public who may disagree with the progressive-socialist politics championed by union management.
Here are a few examples of violence committed by Big Labor to show the evolution of union violence. Starting with:
remembering union violence in America
The Haymarket Square Incident, May 1886
Led by the Knights of Labor (one of the first national unions), workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. in Chicago began a strike hoping to gain an 8-hour workday. Two days later, on May 3, police were used to protect strikebreakers, and a scuffle broke out; one person was killed and several others injured.
On Tuesday, May 4, a mass meeting of workers was called to protest the police actions the previous day. A crowd of 20,000 had been expected, but it was a cold rainy day, so only about 2,500 showed up to hear speeches by Albert Parsons, Samuel Fielden, and August Spies.
Responding to pressure from businessmen, 600 police reserves were called in duty that night at the West Chicago, Harrison, and Central stations near the site of the protests. An extra 100 officers were added to the Des Plains station, less than a half-block from Haymarket Square.
The rally began at 8:30 pm, and the crowd was calm (and wet from the rain). Chicago Mayor Harrison rode by on his horse a short time later and was satisfied that the protest was peaceful. He ordered the police inspector to send the reserve officers home. The police inspector refused, and two hours later, he ordered his men to disperse the crowd. The speakers were approached by Police Captain William Ward, who commanded the meeting to end in the “name of the people of Illinois.” A pipe bomb was thrown from a vestibule at Randolph and Des Plains Streets. The bomb exploded in the middle of a column of police. One officer was killed instantly, and six others were mortally wounded. The remaining officers quickly recovered and began shooting wildly into the fleeing crowd of laborers. The shooting continued for more than five minutes.
Officers began a reign of terror among working-class citizens in Chicago, looking for the person(s) who threw the bomb. Hundreds of suspects were arrested, beaten, and interrogated at all-night hours. “Confessions” were beaten out of those thought to be “anarchists” or sympathizers of the labor unions.
Despite the brutal response, the person responsible for the bombing was never caught. Nevertheless, in the end, eight anarchists were put on trial, and seven were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. Four were hanged in November 1887, one committed suicide, and three were later pardoned by Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld.
The Haymarket Massacre was an event that changed the direction of the American Labor movement. It delayed acceptance of the Knights of Labor’s key issue, the eight-hour workday, because people left the K.O.L. and moved toward the more moderate American Federation of Labor. For many years the police at Haymarket Square were regarded as martyrs and the workers as violent anarchists, a view that has moderated as history has discovered and revealed new information.
1905 The Assassination of former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg
Due to strong support by the State’s union membership, Steunenberg, a Democrat and Populist, was elected as the first non-Republican governor of Idaho in 1896. He was reelected in 1898 (the governors’ terms were for two years). The governor was a reliable labor supporter, particularly within the mining industry.
Fearful that Steunenberg’s government would not provide them with support if the workers strike, the mine owners increased wages for workers. Well, except for one, the Bunker Hill Mining Company.
In 1899 the Western Federation of Miners launched an organizing drive at the Bunker Hill Mining Company. Mine superintendent Albert Burch declared that the company would rather “shut down and remain closed for twenty years” than recognize the union. Next, he fired seventeen suspected union members. Burch followed up by demanding that all other union men collect their back pay and quit– In other words, he declared war.
On April 29, 1899, 250 striking union miners seized a train in Burke, Idaho, and drove it to the site of a mill for the Bunker Hill mine. The union miners set off three thousand pounds of dynamite, destroying the mill. Two men were killed, one of them a non-union miner, another a union man accidentally shot by other union miners.
In response, Governor Steunenberg declared martial law and asked President William McKinley to send federal troops to quell the unrest. This action was seen as a betrayal by Steunenberg’s union supporters. Martial law remained in place through the end of his term. This was a horrible betrayal of the unions that got him elected.
Six years later, at the end of 1905, a professional hitman for the mining unions, Harry Orchard, killed Steunenberg via a bomb rigged to go off when the former governor opened the gate to his home.
In the early evening of December 30, 1905, Frank Steunenberg, returning from a walk in eight inches of freshly fallen snow, opened an in-swinging gate leading to the porch of his Caldwell, Idaho home, and was blown ten feet into the air by an explosion that “shook the earth and could be heard for miles around.” Within an hour, Steunenberg, the former governor of Idaho, was dead.
When captured, Orchard admitted to the murder and identified the people who hired him as the Western Federation of Miners officials who wanted to get back at the governor for his 1899 “betrayal.”
Three Federation leaders, who Orchard said had commissioned the assassination, were arrested. “Big Bill” Haywood, the Federation’s secretary-treasury (defended brilliantly by Clarence Darrow), was, put on trial first. At the time, it was the trial of the century. The closing argument by Darrow’s co-council Edmund Richardson appealed to the racism of the jury: union Violence In America.
“They threw them in the dirty, vile-kept bullpens and they were subjected to all sorts of indignities and insults at the hands of those Negro soldiers. If you had been there…gentleman of the jury, it is certain that you would have attained in your breast a righteous hatred for every person who had anything to do with causing your humiliation and suffering.”
Darrow followed and seemed to argue for what today would be called jury nullification. While not admitting to Haywood’s guilt, he argued that union violence is justified:
.. I don’t care how many wrongs they committed, I don’t care how many crimes these weak, rough, rugged, unlettered men who often know no other power but the brute force of their strong right arm, who find themselves bound and confined and impaired whichever way they turn, who look up and worship the god of might as the only god that they know–I don’t care how often they fail, how many brutalities they are guilty of. I know their cause is just.”
Haywood was found not guilty. A second union leader George Pettibone was acquitted in 1908, and charges against the union president Charles Moyer were dropped. Union Violence In America
In a letter to the British ambassador, Progressive President Theodore Roosevelt wrote that the Haywood trial verdict was “a gross miscarriage of justice, concluding, “I suppose the jury was terrorized.” He may have been right.
remembering union violence in America
Pittston Coal strike April 5, 1989, to February 20, 1990
The strike against the Pittston, Tennessee mining company began when it ended health care benefits for approximately 1,500 retirees, widows, and disabled miners. The strikers also cited other reasons for the strike. The refusal of the company to contribute to the benefit trust established in 1950 for miners who retired before 1974 and the company’s rejection to bargain in good faith as grounds for their action. This long strike was declared by none other than AFL-CIO Chief Richard Trumka, the United Mine Workers president.
This strike was chock full of violence and intimidation.
Walt Crickmer remembers the strike. He was in the lead coal truck when the rocks rained down, smashing every windshield in convoy and setting the tone for an 11-month standoff.
Crickmer said that, despite the union’s message of nonviolence, violence by union supporters was ongoing – though mainly by those arriving from out-of-state [Using out-of-state workers to be the “bad guys” was a tactic used during the riots during the summer of 2020.
Fifteen tractor-trailer loads of coal escorted by 10 state police cruisers followed Crickmer on that first day of the strike, rolling down a mile-long road lined with picketers from the mine to the prep plant. Union Violence In America
“The convoy did not go half a mile before every windshield of every vehicle, including the state police cruisers, was knocked out, and at least 50 percent of every tire on those trucks and cars were jackrocked and flat,” Crickmer said.
“There were at least 500 pickets in the woods, all in camo, and it was a constant rain of large rocks and jackrocks,” he said.
“I saw state police rolling out of their cars, hunkered down behind their cruisers as the rocks just pelted them, rocks the size of footballs taking out windshields and side glass,” he said. “It didn’t quit the rest of the strike. Every day was the same.”
….Every day was the same. It was like you were in a big giant battle, a war, and you became accustomed to the intensity of it, they came home with you and they came to your house. They knocked out the windows in your house, they destroyed the windows in your car,” he said.
“At home they blew up your garage at your house, they would jackrock your driveway, your kids would come out going to school, they’d step on the jackrocks,” he said. “These are the kinds of things we heard from our hourly people constantly. … It was just unbelievable harassment.”
Jackrocks are a welded knot of nails, thrown onto the road with their sharp points upright to puncture tires.
“Whatever else you want to say about the UMW, they’re incredibly good at public relations, and they adopted a public relations policy that they would just call this a nonviolent strike and talk about nonviolent civil disobedience, but the reality was very different,” Kindig said. “There’s no question about it: I spent a good part of a year going to court on a regular basis and documenting in some detail the incidents of violence that occurred during the strike.”
While many violent acts were carried out in the name of this strike, and many people were injured, thankfully, there were no deaths.
Circuit Court Judge Donald McGlothlin Jr, who imposed hefty fines on the union, declared that:
“the evidence shows beyond any shadow of a doubt that violent activities are being organized, orchestrated and encouraged by the leadership of this union.”
remembering union violence in America
N.Y. Daily News Strike, October 25, 1990
The Daily News is the paper that made the “tabloid” format famous. Through its use of “in your face” headlines and large pictures, the News earned the spot as the paper of record for most of New York City throughout the 20th century. Sure the New York Times was the paper of record for the progressive elite, but real New Yorkers read the Daily News.
After months of labor tension, the violent strike against the newspaper was started by a dispute between a driver and a supervisor. A driver at the Brooklyn plant refused to abide by a supervisor’s order to work while standing on both feet. The driver contended that a disability entitled him to perform the work sitting down. Calling a temporary work action, 60 union drivers refused to deliver the paper early that morning. The newspaper responded by calling the move a full-blown strike and struck back by hiring 60 replacement drivers. According to reports in the L.A. Times:
Seven of the newspaper’s 10 unions followed the drivers’ lead, said George McDonald, head of the Allied Printing Trades Council, the umbrella group for the unions. A ninth union, the Newspaper Guild, said it would honor the picket lines.The 10th union, the typographical union, had said it would not strike because it has lifetime-guaranteed jobs for its 200 members.
On the first day of The New York Daily News strike, trucks were attacked with stones and sticks. And things went downhill from there, per the Freeman Online;
… News vendors have been intimidated, beaten, bombed, and shot. Newsstands and their inventories have been looted, bombed, and trashed. Delivery trucks have been bombed and torched, and their drivers have been beaten. Members of the general public who have been imprudent or unlucky enough to be close to acts of sabotage have been injured, and even more of them have been endangered. As Michael Gartner has aptly pointed out, this no-holds-barred attack against the newspaper amounts to thugs’ attempting to tell us what we can and cannot read.
remembering union violence in Americavvvv
The 1993 Murder of Eddie York
As head of the United Mine Workers, Richard Trumka ordered a nationwide strike against Peabody Coal in 1993. On July 22, a non-union worker, Eddie York, was shot in the back and killed as he attempted to pass striking coal workers. Picketers continued to throw rocks after York was shot, preventing his would-be rescuers from assisting. This is how the incident was described in court papers:
On July 22, 1993, heavy equipment was taken to the sediment pond to perform the legally-mandated environmental corrections. Two Deskins employees, Marion Hensley (Hensley) and John Edward York (York), were assigned to travel to the sediment pond in separate company trucks owned by Deskins and to remove sludge from the sediment pond. Hensley arrived at the sediment pond on the morning of July 22, 1993, and was later joined by York between 12:30 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. ..
..At approximately 5:00 p.m., a Ford Bronco driven by Larry Kopplin of Elite and a Chevrolet Club Cab driven by another employee of Elite, left the guard shack at the entrance of the Ruffner Mine to provide an escort through the picket line for Hensley and York. As the two-car convoy travelled up Slab Fork Hollow Road and passed the picket line, the Ford Bronco was hit by a steel ball shot from a wrist rocket launched by one of the pickets. The ball hit the Ford Bronco below the glass on the passenger side. As the security vehicles were proceeding up Slab Fork Hollow Road toward the sediment pond, the pickets heard a loud noise, which some pickets believed to be a backfire. Others believed the noise was a firecracker, and still others thought it was a gun shot resulting from one of the security guards firing into the air.
As the vehicle driven by Kopplin approached the area where the pickets were waiting, his Ford Bronco was pelted by rocks, smashing the windshield. Hensley’s vehicle suffered the same attack, with his windshield being broken. When York saw the rock attack, he initially slowed down and then sped up. As York was approaching the rock throwers, a bullet, fired from the creek side of Slab Fork Hollow Road from the area Lowe had positioned himself, entered the rear window of his pick-up truck, striking York in the head and killing him instantly. York’s vehicle came to rest on the side of Slab Fork Hollow Road opposite the creek. The Chevrolet Club Cab’s back passenger window was also struck by a bullet from the same area on the creek side of Slab Fork Hollow Road.
In a detailed account of the York murder and subsequent investigation, Reader’s Digest noted that “U.M.W. President Richard Trumka did not publicly discipline or reprimand a single striker present when York was killed. In fact, all eight were helped out financially by the local.”
Eventually, the union agreed to let the company “dismiss the eight original defendants if they were convicted.” Still, when the company “issued letters of dismissal to the seven pickets who pleaded guilty,” the union filed a grievance on their behalf. (Fitzgerald, Randy. “Murder in Logan County.” Reader’s Digest Feb. 1995) Trumka and other U.M.W. officials were charged in Eddie York’s widow’s $27 million wrongful death suit.
After fighting the lawsuit intensely for four years, U.M.W. lawyers settled suddenly in 1997. Coincidentally it was just two days after the judge in the case ruled evidence in the criminal trial would be admitted.
remembering union violence in Americavvvvv
2009 Anti-Tea Party Violence
There was racial violence in St. Louis long before the Michael Brown shooting. Sometimes it was even condoned by the government. On August 6, 2009, Kenneth Gladney went to a town-hall meeting to protest President Obama’s health plan. The town hall was hosted by Rep. Russ Carnahan, Missouri Democrat. While passing out “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, Gladney was viciously attacked by SEIU members. SEIU is a union for government workers. One union attendee even called Gladney the “N-word,” which was just the start.
According to Gladney:
A group of people with purple t-shirts were leaving the rally. As the group walked past me, I offered one of the gentlemen a Gadsden flag and a button. The man turned and looked at my board and said, “who in the fuck is selling this shit?” I replied “I am Sir, would you like a flag or a button?” He shouted at me, “What kind of nigger are you?!” Then, he grabbed my board, so I quickly grabbed it back, then the man punched me in the face and charged at me . I put my hands up to block the second blow from the large man, when two other people from that group grabbed me and threw me to the ground and started punching and kicking me. I was kicked in the head and in the back, legs and buttocks. Then a white woman ran up to me while I was on the ground and began kicking me in my head as well. A few people came to my rescue for which I am forever grateful.
St. Louis County officials waited until November 25 to press charges and then only after pressure from the public. Of course despite injuries to Gladney’s back, neck and legs the DA each were charged with the lightest possible version of assaulting a person and interfering with police. The NAACP protested the trial, not to support Gladney, but to get the charges against the SEIU thugs dropped. You see, Gladney deserved it because he was an Uncle Tom.
remembering union violence in Americavvvvv
2015 Philadelphia Ironworkers Threaten and Sabotage
According to prosecutors, “There has been a long tradition of night work within the Ironworkers Local 401 stretching back 50 years or more. The defendants, in this case, took (it) to a new level.” Nightwork is slang for after-work violence.
Union ironworkers decided to make rounds at non-union sites around Philadelphia, threatening builders, smashing beams, and ultimately burning down a Quaker Meeting House just before Christmas.
The NY Times reported the burning of the Quaker meeting house:
The $5.8 million building was being constructed for the Chestnut Hill Friends, a Quaker community in a northern section of Philadelphia. Cuts in the steel columns that make up the building’s frame were made with an acetylene torch, indicating that the attack was carried out by someone with both the equipment and the expertise to operate it, the police say, suggesting that it may have been the work of trade unionists who were disgruntled after being refused work on the site.
Other incidents happened at apartment complexes, elementary schools, boutiques, coffee shops, and a gym.
“The defendants used ‘goon squads,’ which included union members and associates who committed assaults, arsons and other violent and destructive acts, to make their point emphatically clear,” said US Attorney Memeger. “That point, to any contractor or builder, was, ‘You better hire local ironworker union members, or you will pay a heavy price.'”
One group even alleged called themselves “‘THUG’ — The Helpful Union Guys,” according to Memeger.
Witnesses also described torching another construction site, attacking non-union workers and their cars with baseball bats, rumbling over jobs with the rival carpenters union, flattening tires, and causing other “mischief” on an 18-month picket line outside a new apartment complex.
For example, just before 9/11, there was what could be considered a real example of the movie “On the Waterfront.” On September 9, 2011, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) frightened security guards, dumped grain, and vandalized property belonging to E.G.T., L.L.C., over a labor dispute. No one was hurt, and no one had been arrested when the incident was reported. District Judge Ronald Leighton ruled the longshore union in contempt of court for its protests and vandalism.
The Washington Times blamed the recent union violence on the Supreme Court:
In 1946, Congress enacted the Hobbs Act to criminalize acts of violence designed to obstruct commerce. This was meant to put a stop to racketeering in labor-management disputes.
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court turned the law on its ear in United States v. Enmons, in which justices declared that violence carried out in furtherance of a labor union’s objective is not a violation of the extortion and robbery provisions of the Hobbs Act.
Union bosses took this as encouraging them to do whatever it takes to intimidate foes into submission.
The National Institute for Labor Relations Research has recorded 12,000 incidents of union violence since then, but only a few hundred convictions. With so much to gain and so little to lose, union bosses can play the role of Tony Soprano.