Race and the lack of it in Jeremy Brecher's strike

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Mike Harman
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Jan 9 2018 10:05
Race and the lack of it in Jeremy Brecher's strike

Splitting this off from https://libcom.org/forums/anarchist-federation/whats-going-afed-27122017

Mike Harman wrote:

There is a whole history of class struggle that was centred on anti-racist and anti-sexist lines which is often ignored or given lip-service by mainstream accounts.

For an example, I re-read Jeremy Brecher's strike not that long ago. The first time I read it in my early '20s, I wasn't very familiar with the history of post-reconstruction convict leasing in the US. As far as I can remember, Brecher doesn't mention convict leasing once in Strike! However convict leasing was a central element in breaking the strikes from the 1870s-1890s, and racial antagonism continued well into and past the race riots against black workers post WWI and wildcats against integration of black workers in the '40s. The second time I read it, after reading 'Slavery by Another Name' (possibly not the best history of convict leasing but it's OK) I noticed the omission.

We can compare these two accounts:
https://libcom.org/history/us-coal-miners-strikes-1894-jeremy-brecher

Brecher mentions both black and Italian groups of strike breakers - some intimidated into fleeing, some who refused to work upon arrival, and differing approaches to them from strikers. However there is no depth on why the strike breakers were there. With black strike breakers they had often been taken, in chains, from prison and forced to work (whether breaking a strike or as bonded labour) under armed guard.

Without knowing the history of the convict leasing system and the areas it was active in, we're just presented with strike breakers who may or may not have been of a different ethnicity to the strikers and may or may not have had the option to quit.

Compare with this on Tennessee https://libcom.org/library/stockade-stood-burning-rebellion-convict-lease-tennessee-s-coalfields-1891-1895 and there's an example of white workers specifically liberating black leased convicts from where they were being held captive to be used as strike breakers.

I don't think Brecher glossed over this intentionally, but understanding exactly why and how there was such a ready supply of labour available as strike breakers - not just un-unionised scabs but pressed/captive labour due to a revived racial caste system helps to understand the strengths and limitations of the early US labour movement. There's also a comparative lack of history on the slave revolts, maroon communities and Reconstruction itself - which again are useful to inform our understanding of how capitalism developed and was resisted in the US and Caribbean.

Much more recently, there's very little written about the strikes of Asian workers in the UK before Grunwick (which unlike Grunwick received very little support from other workers at all), https://libcom.org/history/unity-grunwick-40-years-imperial-typewriters-strike-evan-smith and https://libcom.org/library/women-struggle-mansfield-hosiery-strike cover some of this. That history isn't comfortable reading, but if we look at a lot of the anti-immigration stuff from people like Paul Mason or Len McCluskey, a better understanding of class struggle by immigrant workers in the UK (and union/Labour responses to it) - whether hospital cleaners in London last year or factory workers in the early '70s is one way to debunk the 'immigrants are responsible for lower wages' bollocks.

Steven. wrote:

Mike Harman wrote:
For an example, I re-read Jeremy Brecher's strike not that long ago. The first time I read it in my early '20s, I wasn't very familiar with the history of post-reconstruction convict leasing in the US. As far as I can remember, Brecher doesn't mention convict leasing once in Strike!

I know this is derailing a little bit so I don't intend to go into this in detail, however in response to this comment I think it is worth defending Brecher somewhat. His book, Strike! is a study of a few mass strikes in American history. Convict leasing wasn't really connected with any of the mass strikes he talks about and so I don't really think needs mentioning.

however at least one of the strikes he does talk about, the Flint sitdown strike, was in a segregated workplace under Jim Crow, and he does not really talk about the race segregation of the plant, and how this was unchallenged by the union. And this is not really justifiable.

Mike Harman wrote:

Steven. wrote:
Mike Harman wrote:
For an example, I re-read Jeremy Brecher's strike not that long ago. The first time I read it in my early '20s, I wasn't very familiar with the history of post-reconstruction convict leasing in the US. As far as I can remember, Brecher doesn't mention convict leasing once in Strike!

I know this is derailing a little bit so I don't intend to go into this in detail, however in response to this comment I think it is worth defending Brecher somewhat. His book, Strike! is a study of a few mass strikes in American history. Convict leasing wasn't really connected with any of the mass strikes he talks about and so I don't really think needs mentioning.

Well he literally talks about black strike breakers under armed guard. That could be scabs taking advantage of a scarce work opportunity (under armed guard for their own protection), or prisoners in chains (with the guns pointed inwards in case they try to escape, whippings if they don't work etc.). Given we know that employers would try to pit different white nationalities against each other, and also that convict leasing was widespread, it's missing context.

It's the difference between employers relying on interpersonal racism and exclusion of black workers from the labour market (race as 'divisive'), or a strikebreaking labour force conscripted on an industrial scale by vagrancy laws and convict leasing by the state, with the full enthusiastic collusion of the police and justice system who in turn were often family members of industrialists themselves. Those are two very, very different things. Given the focus on the Pinkertons, police, National Guard etc. the prison system would not be much to add.

Steven. wrote:

however at least one of the strikes he does talk about, the Flint sitdown strike, was in a segregated workplace under Jim Crow, and he does not really talk about the race segregation of the plant, and how this was unchallenged by the union. And this is not really justifiable.

I don't think he mentions it at all, even though there was one black worker (literally one) who participated in the strike at one of the plants, which shocked the white workers (they told him he didn't have anything to gain from the strike the first day, and he began eating meals separately until they started to include a bit) - some other black workers stayed off work but didn't picket/occupy, the union promised equal recognition for them but didn't follow through.

Where it's relevant to this thread is that active exclusion, and later indifference, is what has led to autonomous organising (whether it's the League of Revolutionary Black Workers or Sisters Uncut), whereas a lot of people dismiss autonomous organising as separatist.

zugzwang wrote:

Steven. wrote:
Mike Harman wrote:
For an example, I re-read Jeremy Brecher's strike not that long ago. The first time I read it in my early '20s, I wasn't very familiar with the history of post-reconstruction convict leasing in the US. As far as I can remember, Brecher doesn't mention convict leasing once in Strike!

I know this is derailing a little bit so I don't intend to go into this in detail, however in response to this comment I think it is worth defending Brecher somewhat. His book, Strike! is a study of a few mass strikes in American history. Convict leasing wasn't really connected with any of the mass strikes he talks about and so I don't really think needs mentioning.

however at least one of the strikes he does talk about, the Flint sitdown strike, was in a segregated workplace under Jim Crow, and he does not really talk about the race segregation of the plant, and how this was unchallenged by the union. And this is not really justifiable.

Don't mean to get involved, but isn't convict leasing mentioned in ragged edge of anarchy chapter? Maybe you have an older version?

Steven. wrote:

zugzwang wrote:
Don't mean to get involved, but isn't convict leasing mentioned in ragged edge of anarchy chapter? Maybe you have an older version?

You are completely right, I retract my previous comment. Here is that chapter where he does talk about it: https://libcom.org/library/chapter-3-ragged-edge-anarchy

Mike Harman
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Jan 9 2018 10:06

Steven. wrote:

zugzwang wrote:
Don't mean to get involved, but isn't convict leasing mentioned in ragged edge of anarchy chapter? Maybe you have an older version?

You are completely right, I retract my previous comment. Here is that chapter where he does talk about it: https://libcom.org/library/chapter-3-ragged-edge-anarchy

Good find, although while he does mention convict leasing there, the racial component isn't mentioned. White prisoners did get leased out too but they were in the minority, since it was mainly fueled by more or less abduction by local police. This is similar to the absence of discussion of race in the Flint sit down strike chapter. I don't think it's malign but it's a limitation for understanding that period of struggle without reading other works (it specifically was for me the first time I read it) . And we're talking about a couple of sentences giving that context.

Mike Harman
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Jan 9 2018 11:48

Here's the relevant paragraphs:

Brecher wrote:

Meanwhile in Tennessee another little-known struggle was culminating. Throughout much of the South, convicts from the state penitentiaries were leased out to politically powerful employers at extremely low rates. An investigation by the Tennessee legislature reported that the branch prisons were "hell holes of rage, cruelty, despair and vice."40 A conservative newspaper added:

Employers of convicts pay so little for their labor that it makes it next to impossible for those who give work to free labor to compete with them in any line of business. As a result, the price paid for labor is based on the price paid convicts.41

Colonel Colyar, the Tennessee Democratic leader and general counsel for the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, an employer of convict labor, wrote:

For some years after we began the convict labor system, we found that we were right in calculating that free laborers would be loath to enter upon strikes when they saw that the company was amply provided with convict labor

In the spring of 1891, miners in Briceville, Anderson County, turned down a contract which would forbid strikes against grievances, give up the right to a checkweightman, and provide pay in "scrip" redeemable only to the company store - the last two were illegal under Tennessee law. On July 5th, the operators imported a carload of forty convicts. The convicts tore down the miners' houses and erected stockades for themselves. Ten days later, the miners decided at a mass meeting to act before the main body of convicts arrived the next day. Just after midnight 300 armed miners advanced on the stockade in a massed line, demanding the release of the convicts. The officers and guards realized that resistance was futile. The miners marched convicts, guards, and officers to the depot at Coal Creek and packed them on the train to Knoxville.

The next day the Governor in person came to Anderson County, at the head of three companies of the militia, with the convicts in tow. After the Governor departed, the miners entertained the soldiers in their homes and slipped food into their barracks. The militia requested leaves of absence and one whole detachment nearly deserted. It was generally doubted that the militiamen would have taken any action against the miners. Similarly, according to the State Superintendent of Prisons, "nearly all the citizens of Anderson County around [the] mines are in sympathy with the mob."43

At 6 a.m., on July 20th, miners from the surrounding counties, including some from Kentucky, armed with shotguns, Winchester rifles, and Colt pistols, began pouring into Briceville and Coal Creek, on trains and mules and even on foot. They formed a line and marched on the offending mine, spreading out into the mountain ranges and taking cover behind rocks and trees as they drew close. They sent a committee forward to demand the expulsion of prisoners. When a militia Colonel moved as if to capture the committee, one of its members waved a handkerchief as a signal to the miners, who sprang from cover. The 2,000 armed miners had little difficulty persuading the militia and guards to accompany them to the railroad station with the convicts, and return again to Knoxville. Meanwhile, the Briceville miners marched on another mine and sent guards and convicts packing.

The Governor immediately ordered fourteen companies of militia - 600 men - to Anderson County. The miners were talked into accepting a truce if the Governor would call a special session of the legislature to repeal the convict lease law. The session convened, but the leasing companies were too powerful and nothing resulted. The miners then appealed to the courts for relief, but received none. Therefore, they turned again to direct action.

At a mass meeting on October 28th, 1891, the committee which had represented the miners at the legislature resigned, and leadership was taken by men of a more radical tendency. The miners then held a series of secret meetings to prepare their action. On the evening of October 31st, the miners filed up to the stockade and demanded the release of the prisoners. Officials turned the 163 convicts over to the miners, who set them free. The miners then marched to another mine and released 120 more convicts in the same manner. Two nights later, the miners rode on horseback to the stockade at Oliver Springs, battered down the door with a sledge hammer, and quickly released the convicts. In each case, the stockades were burned to the ground.

For a time it looked as if the miners had won. All available miners were hired full time with their own checkweightman; other objectionable features were removed from their contracts as well.

"Peace and prosperity had descended upon the entire valley from Coal Creek to Briceville."44 But in the middle of December, the Governor announced that the convicts would be sent back into the mine stockades at Briceville, Oliver Springs, and Coal Creek. "Fort Anderson," a permanent military camp, was established, with 175 civil and military guards, surrounding trenches, and a Gatling gun overlooking the valley. The miners deeply resented this virtual military occupation.

The climax of the miners' struggle against the convict lease system came in the summer of 1892. In July, an operator in Tracy City, Grundy County, put regular miners on half time and brought in 360 convicts to work full time. The miners began holding secret meetings. On the morning of August 10th, the miners converged on the convict stockade, overpowered the guards, captured the mines, and put the prisoners on the train to Nashville. The miners then marched to the Inman mine and repeated the same maneuvers.

This triggered renewed conflict in Anderson County. On August 15th, 100 miners marched on the convicts' quarters at Oliver Springs and demanded their release. For the first time the guards, instead of submitting, opened fire on the miners, wounding several. In response, miners from the surrounding area poured into Coal Creek, commandeered two freight trains, and ordered the engineers to Oliver Springs at gunpoint. Bands of fifty to one hundred miners continued to arrive and mass into formation. They marched to the stockade, disarmed the guards, burned the blockhouse, and returned guards and convicts to Knoxville. They then laid seige to the militia at Fort Anderson, firing on it from the surrounding hills. Only when an army of 500 soldiers was organized and marched to Anderson County was the seige relieved. Large numbers of local citizens were arrested and locked up in railroad cars, the school house, and the Methodist church. In the end, nearly all were released by local juries. Although the militia succeeded in crushing the revolt, the convict lease system was thoroughly discredited and was abolished soon thereafter.

So I was completely wrong that he doesn't mention convict leasing, but he doesn't mention at all that the convict lease system was primarily a response to the abolition of slavery and Reconstruction, and the vast majority of leased prisoners were black workers who had been picked up for crimes like vagrancy.

There are some very important aspects to this:

* Chattel slavery had been based almost entirely on the plantation system, with some additional wage labour via the 'hiring out' system.
* Convict leasing massively changed how captive labour was deployed. While some prisoners went to farms and plantations, a lot of others went to coal and ore mines, or heavy industry. One mining site could have a convict mine and a 'free labour' mine as different compounds.
* Convicts weren't property as such - first of all the 'cost' of a convict labourer was much less than purchasing a slave (allowing many more companies and small farms to employ convicts than the old plantation system), secondly sentences might be 2 or 5 years so there was no incentive not to work people to death, although some people got 'lost' in the system and worked far longer than their sentences, or had their sentences extended etc. this was combined with deployment to mines etc.

This doesn't have to be an intentional omission at all - the breaking out of black convicts that employers used as strikebreakers is a great counter-example to the American working class just being dupes of employers using racism to divide workforces, narratives about black workers taking jobs from white workers etc., so there's no reason not to include it. Either he didn't sufficiently know the racial history of convict leasing himself, or he assumed everyone else did.

However he also mentions black workers taking jobs during railroad strikes (since they'd otherwise been excluded from the jobs due to colour bars in the union) while others turned over railroad cars in Chicago - this is in the same chapter:

Brecher wrote:

(Despite this objective the A.R.U. maintained the railroad brotherhoods' traditional principle of including only white workers, with the consequence that some blacks gladly took railroad jobs during the great strike. That, however, did not prevent Chicago blacks from taking part in the movement to the extent of tipping over railroad cars in their own neighborhoods.

adri
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Jan 9 2018 15:20

Bit sick atm and I wasn't really aiming for a more detailed discussion, just remembered the mention about convict leasing as a way to break strikes (which is still fresh on my mind b/c I'm still reading Strike!). But you're perhaps right he ignores convict leasing as it relates to post-reconstruction era (maybe he should have had a chapter). He does however point out unions/organizations which discriminated against non-whites and how some were more inclusive than others. He also brings up how employers sought to divide workers of different nationalities/cultural backgrounds against one another to prevent organizing. These sort of things aren't explored further it seems. The role of women, who he mentions were crucial in a number of strikes (not to mention how they help nurture the future labor force), is a topic that could have also been explored.

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Steven.
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Jan 9 2018 15:51

I guess the easiest thing to do would be to ask him about it, as he is still around. I would be interested in his perspective now, nearly 50 years on

Mike Harman
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Jan 9 2018 16:38

Steven. wrote:

I guess the easiest thing to do would be to ask him about it, as he is still around. I would be interested in his perspective now, nearly 50 years on

Good plan, sent an e-mail.