It didn’t start with Ronald Reagan or even Republicans.
Composite by Peter Slattery. Images via Wikimedia Commons (Jeff Bezos), Pixabay (flag) and PNGIMG (money).
It wasn’t all that long ago that the idea of someone like you going on strike was enough to scare the hell out of rich people and politicians across America. Richard Nixon deployed the National Guard in hopes of quelling a “wildcat” (or possibly illegal) strike by postal workers in 1970; the federal employees eventually got their raises. But of all the sometimes bloody spats between regular people and bosses over the years, the 1894 Pullman Strike still stands out, in part thanks to its colorful characters, and the ugly role played by the feds. The episode saw labor organizer and future Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs lead the charge against what you might call the Jeff Bezos of his era, luxury railroad car baron George Pullman, who lowered wages for employees in his Chicago-area company town without cutting rent or other fees, sending many to the brink of (or actual) starvation. Workers who raised beefs with management were ordered fired, and a violent strike soon erupted and spread, with Debs and his American Railway Union swooping in to lead the fight.
Instead of sitting the saga out or doing anything to help workers toiling in hellish conditions, the US government—spooked by vaguely anarchist vibes—backed Pullman and deployed troops to put down the strike by force. The conflict may have helped accelerate the onset of the Progressive Era: President Grover Cleveland instituted Labor Day to appease enraged workers that year, and various labor protections emerged in the following decades, culminating in the New Deal. But ultimately, when it came time for choosing, the feds sided with the rich.
If that sounds familiar, it should.
It sometimes feels as if unions are veering toward banishment in modern America. The Supreme Court has been extremely hostile to organized labor and workers generally in recent years, making it way harder for many unions to collect dues and advocate for their members. Meanwhile, income inequality has not exactly been solved by a couple of years of positive GDP growth, and crushing debt looms over generations of Americans. The idea of a violent insurrection in response to all of this is still rather far-fetched, but the proliferation of antifascist activism in the Trump era has shown that rage and radical politics are not exactly extinct, either.
In his forthcoming book The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America, Jack Kelly looks back at the clash of ideals in the Pullman era and compares it to what’s going on today. VICE talked to Kelly to find out why the scenes from his book are so resonant in our current moment, why big business is always trying to screw over workers, and how much progress America has made on inequality since the Gilded Age.
VICE: Even though your story takes place well over a century ago, many of the scenes from the book could be taken from today’s headlines. How do you explain that?
Jack Kelly: One of the parallels to the Gilded Age and today would be technology. We’re in the age of hi-tech technology and between the railroads, telephones, just general industrialization, and the changing nature of labor, technology was really a more disruptive [force] back in the 1880s and 1890s. Everything was in transition and they were trying to figure out how to adjust to it. Somewhat like we’re trying today to figure out. They had the rise of corporate capitalism in the 1880s, which led to the same type of inequality.
The term “the 1 percent” was actually invented in the 1890s to talk about the ultra rich. Working people [were] trying to adjust to a really new situation where a lot of them were put on piece work. They didn’t have the dignity and were looking for their fair share of the great boom that came in the post-Civil War era.
Was the way bosses tried to maximize profits actually different back then? Would it be fair to say the railroad bosses represented the worst of capitalism, or just another flavor?
They represented capitalism in all its aspects, both the good and the bad. The railroads were immensely influential and had introduced huge improvements in the country. But they were people [like] George Pullman, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller—they understood how to work this abstract game of capital, of finance. And you see it today in venture capitalists, or hedge fund managers, or private-equity firms. It eased up a little bit in the middle of the 20th century, [but] it’s come back in a very toxic way I think, this hyper capitalism, where everything is to maximize profit. Its roots [stretch] back [to] then, but today is a new version of it.
When Sears was riding high they were very generous with their employees. They had profit-sharing and if you were working in a Sears store you could do quite well if you worked hard. Today you have Amazon and there’s none of that. There’s no sharing the wealth. At Amazon all of the money goes to the top, particularly to the top executives. That’s the idea of hyper capitalism.
You can’t rise to the top of a corporation unless you go along with the system to maximize profit. It doesn’t matter how you do it. [There’s lots of] drug companies that raise the price of drugs or it’s the oil companies [who’re] willing to bring on climate change as long as they can make their profits. There’s no human factor in it. It’s interesting that it goes back to the 1890s with George Pullman—a corporation as a system [that] just disregards the human.
Why did the federal authorities work with Pullman against the strikers and why does the government continue to side with corporations? Has that relationship changed?
For the same reason as today, which is they were in the bag. You know, they were paid off. The Attorney General was a railroad director and a railroad lawyer at the very same time that he was serving as Attorney General. He knew where his loyalties lie. And President Grover Cleveland happened to be a very pro-business president. But it was money. Money and politics back then and the same thing now. So they danced to the corporate tune.
How would you compare the monopoly that some of these guys operated to Bezos and Amazon?
Monopoly was really at the heart of the capitalism of the Gilded Age. Rockefeller created a monopoly of standard oil and Pullman wanted a monopoly of making these specialty rail cars. That’s the tendency of business and you see it today in not only Amazon, but Microsoft and Facebook. Capitalists are always trying to get a monopoly because then you can make the most money. The old Gilded Age is being repeated today.
Is it reasonable to compare someone like Eugene Debs and what he represented to modern movements that use Antifa-style tactics?
After Debs became a socialist one of the things he did was to join up with the Western Miners Union and create the International Workers of the World, which was known as the Wobblies. He didn’t stay with the Wobblies. They believed in violence and Debs never thought that violence would accomplish anything for the working class. To that extent I [don’t] think that he would really approve of the tactics, even though he might approve of the principles.
How does the modern labor movement compare to the movement that Debs organized?
The heyday of the labor movement was from the 30s up until the 70s. It’s hard to even talk about a labor movement now. I think that in a way there’s a parallel with what Debs was doing because he was trying to find a way for labor to accommodate these new conditions. Today the labor movement is also looking for a new model. There’s a lot of interesting things going on, but labor is on the ropes and they have to find a new way of bringing the struggle to their opponents. Because labor has so little power now it’s sad.
One thing that really struck me about your book was all the archival images—every photo depicts an African American as a servant. How much progress do you think America has actually made on class and race in particular in the context of labor organizing?
We’ve made some progress, but I think that it’s sort of another parallel between today and back then. George Pullman was the largest employer of African Americans in the country. They all worked as servants, essentially, on the trains. They were porters [that] made up the beds and brought the drinks and so forth. They had no opportunity to rise and were very poorly paid. Eugene Debs proposed bringing those men into the union because if they were in the union the union would have more clout because [the African Americans] were essential to running these Pullman cars. [But] the union rejected that. They said, “We don’t want black people in our union.”
That [was] a short sighted self-destructive attitude that unfortunately went on for years in the labor movement. They didn’t want to reach across the race lines. Black people couldn’t get jobs on the railroad, except for these demeaning jobs as Pullman Porters. It was only in the 60s [that] they finally opened up the railroad unions to black people, [but] by that time the railroads were on the decline and there were no jobs. It’s a sad commentary. It’s one of the things that Eugene Debs preached. Solidarity meant everybody. It didn’t mean just white people, [but] a lot of people in the labor movement couldn’t grasp that and just weren’t willing to do it.
Learn more about Kelly’s book here.