US Supreme Court Attacks Right to Strike

from ASR 87

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 on June 1, 2023, that a union can be sued if a strike causes the employer economic harm simply as the natural result of workers withdrawing their labor. The bosses dispatched concrete truck drivers after their union contract had expired. When negotiations broke down, Teamsters Local 174 struck. Rather than abandon the trucks in the field, they returned them to the yard so management could clean out the concrete before it set. But they left it too long, and much of the concrete was spoiled. Rather than swallow their losses, the bosses sued the union. Continue reading

General Strike in Myanmar

From ASR 82

A week after a military junta took over the country and declared a state of emergency, protests have spread throughout Myanmar. Textile workers and students quickly went on strike against the army takeover; an initiative which grew in size and scope until it became a nationwide general strike.

Among the unions calling the strike was the Federation of General Workers Myanmar, which has worked with the syndicalist International Confederation of Labor. Demonstrations, strikes and marches continue across the country, including in the factory areas of Shwepyithar, Hlaingthayar and Mingalordon, in the industrial belt of Yangon.

Together with other organizations of the Anti-Junta Mass Movement, the FGWM has signed a declaration demanding the abolition of dictatorship, full democracy and respect for civil liberties, repeal of the 2008 Constitution (imposed by the military) and the immediate release of those arrested by the army during the coup and the protests.

All too often, the media focus on prominent political figures when reporting on events such as these. However, now, as always, it is the workers who make things move forward, who take to the streets to confront the repression, who bring the country to a halt with a general strike and, ultimately, who can stop the coup.

This is not the first time that working people have risen up to confront military dictatorship. When this happens, the army can only back down or unleash bloody repression. All the sections of ICL wish the best for our comrades in Myanmar. They know that they can count on our solidarity and support, as always. [ICL]

Death Squad America

Editorial, ASR 81

As we write the U.S. election is still impending, and so we cannot know which candidates won. What we do know is that once again workers have lost.

We faced a grim choice between a president who cheers on police and neofascist thugs as they shoot down protesters and a former vice president who suggests it would be better to merely maim us; a president who encourages his followers to ram their cars into anti-fascist protesters and his opponent’s suggestion that instead “anarchists and arsonists” be arrested and prosecuted for our thought crimes; a president who loots the treasury for his personal benefit and a man who spent his entire career shilling for the banks and insurance firms, helping them pick our pockets and shielding them from being held culpable for their crimes. Continue reading

The Torture State

Editorial, ASR 41 (2005)

It is perhaps a sign of advancing age when one thinks fondly back to the days of one’s youth, when you could march down the streets without having to worry about the snipers on the roof tops; when you could join a union demonstration, at least, without worrying about police firing upon you with rubber bullets and wooden blocks; when the government had to at least pretend you had committed some crime in order to lock you up; and when torture was universally condemned.

To be sure, torture was widely practiced, and not only by the brutal military dictatorships the U.S. and Soviet governments propped up around the world. In Chicago, it seems police routinely tortured suspects in order to extract convictions used to send them to jail or death row. But officials dared not admit to the world that they practiced torture, and when it became clear that the fruits of torture (among other violations of basic human rights) had sent several people to death row, Illinois’ governor felt compelled to lift the death sentences of every inmate facing execution in that state. In short, torture, while practiced in back rooms and secret cells, was universally acknowledged to be abhorrent.

Today, torture is official U.S. government policy. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez issues legal opinions ostensibly prohibiting torture, but allowing methods including sleep deprivation, psychological abuse (lasting, but not permanent, mental damage is OK), and the infliction of pain up to (but not including) the point of death or major organ failure. International human rights agreements, he says, do not apply. Gonzalez was among the top contenders for a recent opening on the U.S. Supreme Court, but was apparently blocked by conservatives who thought he was too soft on moral values.

Homeland Security Czar Michael Chertoff required convicted Taliban supporter John Walker Lindh to sign a gag order promising not to reveal the systematic torture (the severely wounded Lindh was blindfolded and duct-taped to a stretcher for days in an unlit shipping container; denied medical care, food and water; and threatened with death to elicit his confession) to which he was subjected as a condition of his plea agreement. If U.S. citizens are treated this way by the U.S. military, one can only imagine the conditions inflicted upon Afghan or Iraqi prisoners.

Even a few “civil libertarians’’ now say torture is inevitable, and so call for a system of torture warrants which would allow torture so long as a judge somewhere said it was OK.

Fortunately, even if it has become official government policy, most people continue to reject torture. Human Rights Watch has called for criminal action against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and ex-CIA Director George Tenet in a report titled Getting Away with Torture? Command Responsibility for the U.S. Abuse of Detainees. Human Rights Watch says there is overwhelming evidence that U.S. mistreatment and torture of prisoners took place not merely at Abu Ghraib but at facilities throughout Afghanistan and Iraq as well as at Guantanamo, and at secret locations around the world. Where U.S. torture was not rough enough, the CIA “rendered” detainees to countries where they would be subjected to more aggressive torture.

In these difficult times, the criminality of the state can be overwhelming. Yet we must continue to confront it, even as we work for the abolition of this brutal, force-propped system.

Long ago, Mikhail Bakunin wrote that no crime was so terrible that it could not be justified “for reasons of state.” In this, as in so many things, history continues to prove him right.

Wobbly shot protesting neo-fascist

A Seattle IWW member was shot in the stomach at a protest against neo-fascist Milo Yiannopoulos. The fellow worker (whose name has not yet been released by police or supporters) is in critical condition. Funds are being raised for medical care, lost wages, etc.:…

This newspaper report includes information about the 34-year-old fellow worker, who remains in hospital:…/police-release-man-arrested-…/

Police have released the shooter, “pending investigation.” He claims he thought the victim was a white supremacist, and fired in self-defense. This sort of argument, apparently, is good enough to free folks who shoot at unionists; one suspects police would be far less receptive were it the other way around.…/person-shot-at-uw-protest-…/389516924

The U.S. government’s war against the IWW

A Symposium on The Wobblies in their Heyday

Eric Chester, The Wobblies in their Heyday: The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during the World War I Era. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2014. 316 pages, $58, hardcover.

Eric Chester’s new book on the IWW focuses on the period leading up to the U.S. government’s decision to crush the organization, and to the massive repression unleashed against the union during World War I. Based upon an impressive array of archival sources, many previously unavailable, Chester argues that the IWW appealed to many workers precisely because of its radicalism but that IWW leaders made a series of strategic errors that undermined their ability to build the broader radical coalition necessary to prevail.

ASR has published three articles by Eric Chester: two on IWW history (one on the Wheatland Hops case appears in longer form in this book; the other examined IWW membership levels from World War I through the mid-1920s) and an analysis of a Danish general strike for shorter hours. His previous books include True Mission: Socialists and the Labor Party Question in the U.S.; Rag-Tags, Scum, Riff-Raff and Commies: The U.S. Intervention in the Dominican Republic; and Covert Network: Progressives, the International Rescue Committee and the CIA.

Chester offers detailed accounts of the Bisbee and Butte mining strikes, offering a sympathetic portrayal of IWW organizer Frank Little in the process, though he is critical of Little’s proposal to resume picketing when strike support waned (strikers originally decided against picketing in order to avoid confrontations with gun thugs), and seems to suggest that Little should have heeded warnings to go into hiding at a critical moment in the strike. (Little was lynched two days later.)He discusses California Wobblies’ resort to empty threats in a counter-productive effort to free Ford and Suhr (imprisoned for their role in a strike of hops pickers) – substituting rhetorical bluster for the power they had been unable to build in the fields. (The argument that national IWW leaders supported this, or that government officials were provoked to crush the IWW by this campaign is less persuasive.)

Chester also offers a detailed analysis of the IWW’s legal strategy, which he argues exhibited a naive faith that justice could be had in the U.S. courts. He demonstrates that the Chicago espionage trial was a show trial whose outcome was pre-arranged by prosecutors and the judge and presents evidence suggesting promises of leniency if the Wobblies played along. (Instead, the judge handed down savage sentences that shocked many observers.)

The book focuses on IWW activity and government repression in the Western United States; the IWW looks like a very different organization when examining its work in the maritime, textiles and timber industries, or its substantial membership among the immigrants who made up so large a share of the U.S. working class. (The claim that the IWW failed to sink deep or lasting roots in working-class communities, for example, ignores textile, longshore and seafarers branches that lasted for decades, as well as a network of Finnish branches that sustained a daily newspaper, several large halls, a traveling theater troupe, etc.) And while Chester is surely correct that the union suffered a far more devastating blow than is acknowledged in its official history, it remains true that the IWW was far from crushed. The IWW launched several major organizing drives in the 1920s and 1930s, reopened its halls and newspapers, and maintained a significant industrial presence in manufacturing and maritime.

We offer four takes on this important addition to the historiography on the IWW. We asked each reviewer for critical reflections on the book and “what this history can tell us about the challenges and prospects facing those trying to rebuild a labor movement that envisions itself as part of a broader emancipatory project.”

Staughton Lynd has written countless books on history, labor law and political theory; is a longtime advocate of solidarity unionism; and a life-long participant in and student of radical social struggles. His books include Doing History From the Bottom Up, The New Rank and File, and Wobblies & Zapatistas.

Peter Cole is professor of history at Western Illinois University, wrote Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia (University of Illinois) and edited Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly, including Fellow Worker Fletcher’s Writings & Speeches (Charles H. Kerr). He is currently working on a book titled Dockworker Power: Struggles in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Gerald Ronning is chair of the liberal arts department at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. His dissertation explored the IWW in the West and offers the most authoritative available account of IWW martyr Frank Little.

Steve Kellerman is a longtime Wobbly, retired machinist and compiler of An Annotated Bibliography of Books on the IWW (2007), a comprehensive list of books published in the IWW’s first 100 years with brief but useful assessments of each.