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Labor Pains

Organized labor has been a driving force in the American economy for well over a century. The labor movement has early bona fides right here in Massachusetts. George McNeill began working 12-hour days at the Amesbury Woolen Mills at the age of 10 and was an instrumental member of a worker strike in 1851 as a boy of 14. McNeill would go on to help establish the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, the first department of labor in the United States. As many bumper stickers will tell you, organized labor is responsible for developing child labor laws, limits on hours worked per day, and the weekend (not to be confused with Grammy award winner The Weeknd). Amid all of these great accomplishments, organized labor has also seen its troubles.


In the mid-Nineteenth Century, workers from all over the world came to the burgeoning United States for (often horrible, back breaking) jobs. In 1875, white miners in Wyoming organized a strike for improved wages and conditions. The employer, Union Pacific Coal immediately replaced them with Chinese workers who took a lower hourly wage. Union Pacific Coal would go on to hire many more miners from China. When, in 1885 in Wyoming, white coal miners again wanted to strike for better wages, their Chinese co-workers would not agree to strike.


[Okay, a little Chinese immigrant rabbit hole - one possible reason why even the most established Chinese workers would not strike has to do with a recurring theme here at The Charge - racism. Just 3 years before this occurred, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which – as its name suggests – banned immigration from China for a decade. It is almost certain that many workers had built lives here, had spouses, friends, children, and homes and did not want to be seen as troublesome and then deported to China without an opportunity to return. Their white co-workers were also immigrants, but it is reasonable to presume that their experience in the US was very different. They may have faced some discrimination, but nothing like the Chinese immigrants faced.]

Knowing this history, the white workers, many affiliated with the Knights of Labor, were a tad miffed. The Knights of Labor was more like a federated group of workers than an actual, organized union. They seemed to really enjoy violence and they were also kind of racist. Maybe they were involved – it’s hard to say (well, it’s hard to prove, at least). In any event, some of these men determined that their Chinese co-workers drove down wages so, logically, they had to murder them – which they did with devastating brutality and barbarism. Suffice it to say, it was appalling. I wish I could go into the details of the murder trial that followed these events, but the Wyoming Grand Jury refused to indict any of the white miners who butchered dozens of Chinese men, so they were never charged with crimes.


Let’s skip ahead to Big Bill Haywood getting accused of murder in Idaho. Okay – wait – in 1894 there was a kerfuffle in Chicago (which, in retrospect should have been the Labor Day topic due to the bizarre turn of events landing Eugene Debs in jail for contempt and Clarence Darrow arguing a violation of the 6th Amendment right to a jury trial to an exceedingly unsympathetic Supreme Court of the United States, but there’s always next year). So, Bill Haywood is a bigtime labor organizer in the early 1900’s and he is pretty much a Marxist revolutionary kind of guy who dabbles in violence and is definitely not a fan of capitalism.


In 1905, the former governor of Idaho – who was not really a fan of unions, particularly Haywood’s - dies in a big explosion outside his house. All law enforcement eyes gaze at a previous associate of Haywood’s, Harry Orchard. Lots of due process violations occur before Orchard confesses not only to this homicide but several others as well as assorted and sundry other offenses. In his opus of a confession, Orchard claims that Haywood and others were co-conspirators. This leads to Haywood getting tried for murder. Our old friend Clarence Darrow is on his game and Haywood gets acquitted. So do his co-defendants. Orchard spends the rest of his life in prison, writing an autobiography, and insisting until his dying day that everything he said was true. Big Bill Haywood became a star and played a leading role in the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, another event full of violence and intrigue, and later in the Paterson Silk Strike.


A bona fide celebrity, effective labor organizer, and ardent Socialist, Haywood became a target for the government. He was charged and convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917. Just to prove that this Act has teeth (for those who think it is poppycock), Haywood received a 20-year sentence. But, in a turn of events that Hollywood could only dream about, Haywood skipped bail, defected to the USSR and became an advisor to Lenin even though he did not speak any Russian. Turns out this Communist stuff was not nirvana, or even beneficial to workers which is kind of the point of the labor movement and unions. Haywood correctly believed that thoughtful, organized labor is genuinely good for workers, the economy, and overall societal well-being. The Soviet Union was none of those things. Big Bill was unhappy. In a few short years, he died, alone, in a Moscow hospital at the age of 59.


Maybe he could have used better writers. Poetically, they are on strike.

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