by Bill Onasch
The New York Times ran an overview of use of the National Guard in civil unrest. But it did not mention one related incident that I first learned about from local labor history buffs while living in St Louis from 1968-70. The National Guard Armories that exist in every major American city were created in direct response to a little known historic event–the St Louis Commune.
Growing out of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877–that featured pitched battles in many towns — the Commune began as an initially peaceful, and highly successful general strike in St Louis.
The main leadership of this strike–which was able to quickly win such objectives as banning child labor and imposing an eight hour work day in the biggest industries employing thousands
–were Marxist German immigrants organized in the Workingmen’s Party. They urged the strikers to set their sights even higher. One speaker at a mass rally got an enthusiastic response when he said,
“All you have to do, gentlemen, for you have the numbers, is to unite on one idea – that workingmen shall rule the country. What man makes, belongs to him, and the workingmen made this country.”
A leader representing Black workers on the river boats and levees was understandably unsure that this unity included them. He asked straight up, “Will you stand to us regardless of color?” The crowd shouted “Yes!” And, at least for the duration of that struggle, they did.
The police–just as mean and arrogant in those days but not stupid–concentrated on protecting the residences of the rich and avoided frontal confrontations with the workers who had essentially taken charge of the city. Using the nomenclature of the Paris workers–who, in the 1871 aftermath of a lost war had briefly taken power–a St Louis Commune was declared. Their Official Order Number One banned all rail traffic in St Louis, and East St Louis across the River, except for trains carrying only passengers and mail.
But the rest of the country was not ready to follow the St Louis example. As the ruling rich of St Louis cowered in their mansions the government in Washington–in collaboration with the Burlington Railroad–mobilized to take back St Louis. It took about a week for them to put together a force of 3,000 regular Army troops, supplemented by 5,000 well armed “special deputies” on the Burlington payroll.
Unlike the largely peaceful mass action that established the Commune its destruction by the Army and paramilitary thugs was bloody. At least eighteen were killed, hundreds injured, many jailed. All local Burlington strikers were fired.
To assure a more rapid response to any future local rebellions, the Armories for state militias, later organized in to the National Guard, were established in every town of size across the country.
This episode is little known even in St Louis. But it has never been forgotten by the ruling class of that city. For nearly a century after, they marked their rescue through a Veiled Prophet Parade, Fair, and Ball. No references were made to the unpleasantness of 1877 in the parades and fairs meant to entertain the common folk. The Masked Costume Ball was another matter. Only those locals in Who’s Who were invited to their celebration of the victory over the unwashed masses–and not even all them. The revelers were not only all white but mostly patrons of the Roman Catholic Church. No Jews allowed and even Lutherans were suspect.
In the 1970s, the civil rights movement found other aspects of the elite Veiled Prophet objectionable. Today more inclusive fairs and parades take place without tribute to masked men or their disguised queens. But I have no doubt in the privacy of their drawing rooms the ruling rich still lift a glass of brandy or schnapps to toast that day when men with guns saved their wealth and privilege.
I’m not advocating that the unrest in Ferguson be channeled in to a new Commune. You can’t build socialism in one St Louis suburb. In fact, I offer only my solidarity. Tactics for those facing the National Guard, State Troopers, and County cops should be solely determined by those who will live and work there after the international media corps has gone off to the next breaking news.
But I think some of the lessons of the Commune–class identity, a party of our own to win political power for the working class majority, and Black-white unity in action–are still relevant and important. We should at least start to study and discuss such things even if we can’t immediately implement them.
A retired IAM Local officer in San Francisco I have known for years, Carl Finamore, has called out an important force missing in action in Ferguson–among many other places. In an article entitled AFL-CIO Should be in Ferguson, Carl wrote,
“At a time when the overwhelming majority of working people have no contact with unions, it is imperative that we go to them – as partners in the combined struggle for economic and social rights. Nowhere is this more true than in the besieged Black community where our natural and most loyal allies await our arrival.”
I found little about Ferguson in a search of union websites. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union wrote,
“Justice is too often elusive in a society that remains segregated and divided by race and class. These divisions are coming to the surface in Ferguson, Mo., and we are encouraged that the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI are intervening with an eye toward easing tensions, guaranteeing civil rights and protecting and serving that community and its residents. On behalf of the 2 million members of the Service Employees International Union, I extend thoughts and prayers to the family of Michael Brown. May all parties involved in this tragedy find justice and peace.”
Not bad–but hardly a clarion call for action.
The Amalgamated Transit Union, to which I pay retiree dues, initially didn’t have a statement of their own but did provide a link to a pretty good opinion piece on the Time magazine site by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race. Later this was followed up by a statement from ATU president Larry Hanley with favorable commentary about the Abdul-Jabbar column.
Jane Slaughter has a good piece on Labor Notes based on discussions with unionists, and workers hoping to get a union, in St Louis. The St Louis chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists had a contingent in the solidarity march last Saturday. So did the CWA state employees local, and SEIU locals representing janitors, home care workers, and organizing Fast Food workers, as well as the ATU local of bus and MetroLink workers.
But an effort to get the St Louis Labor Council to endorse was simply not taken up. Such elementary solidarity in their own backyard was too controversial.
It wasn’t perfect back in the day but labor’s contribution was a whole lot better during the mass civil rights movement in the 1950-60s. The underappreciated heros of the first major action in that movement were trade unionists around ED Nixon who, along with Rosa Parks, initiated the Montgomery bus boycott. When Martin Luther King and his followers were being viciously attacked in later Alabama protests, UAW president Walter Reuther rushed to march at his side, and was joined by numerous other union officials, Black and white. And, of course, Dr King was in Memphis, where he was murdered, supporting an AFSCME sanitation workers strike.
Such solidarity in action is what is needed–not carefully phrased resolutions calculated not to embarrass labor’s “friends” in office. We used to hear a lot about “teachable moments.” But what we have missed are learnable moments.
My old friend Traven Leyshon has long provided such moments on Equal Time Radio, broadcast on WDEV in Vermont. I thank him for again having me on his show on Tuesday.
* From the New York Times, “Millions of unemployed Americans….have trained for new careers as part of the Workforce Investment Act, a $3.1 billion federal program that, in an unusual act of bipartisanship, was reauthorized by Congress last month with little public discussion about its effectiveness. ….many have not found the promised new career. Instead, an extensive analysis of the program by The New York Times shows, many graduates wind up significantly worse off than when they started — mired in unemployment and debt from training for positions that do not exist, and they end up working elsewhere for minimum wage.”
* Researchers at the University of California San Francisco found charges for common blood tests in the state were all over the place. The price charged by hospitals for a standard cholesterol test ranged from ten to ten thousand dollars.
* Last October, Kellogg’s surprised the union at their Memphis plant by breaking off negotiations over local issues and locking out 220 workers. Recently, a Federal judge declared the lockout move illegal and ordered the company to reinstate the workers who were off the job for 295 days. However, the ruling did not address the question of back pay. That now goes to the NLRB. Other plants in Omaha and Lancaster are now in local issue bargaining and national negotiations for the Master Agreement covering all unionized plants will open next year. It’s likely the company will be pushing the same unacceptable demands in all of these. Steve Payne has a good, comprehensive article in Labor Notes.
That’s all for this week.
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