Notes on Veterans and Labor
Many US labor activists consider soldiers the enemy, with good reason. Federal and state troops have been deployed again and again against rebellious workers; aside from the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the recurrent wars against native Americans, labor strife - whether strikes or genuine revolts - was the usual reason for domestic military mobilizations until the New Deal. (And even Reconstruction was partly about labor peace.) Since 1945, troops have been less often used as industrial police. The last major deployment of federal troops against strikers was 33 years ago next month (March), when Richard Nixon sent 16,000 reservists into postal facilities during the 1970 postal workers wildcat strike. But the threat remains - reiterated most recently during last year's longshore West Coast lock-out.
What would you expect? The military is the government's force of last resort, and the government has rarely been on labor's side in any conflict. Even when trade unionists conspicuously support the government and its policies, they keep finding themselves along with other social dissidents on the wrong side of the barrels of the army's guns. Two months after the postal wildcat, Ohio National Guardsmen went from "riot duty" at a Teamsters' strike to the Kent State University campus where they killed four students.
Labor activists' wariness of soldiers extends to ex-soldiers too. Veterans' organizations have not always supported labor rights. Confederate veterans of the American Civil War formed the Ku Klux Klan to roll back emancipation, and in its later days the various Klans were as much concerned with insurgent labor as with unruly people of color. Veterans of the first World War formed the American Legion to combat Bolshevism - which included socialist and syndicalist trade unionists as well as communists. Patriotic veterans were prominent in the anti-communist crusade which targeted "red" trade unions before and during the Cold War.
Of course some military veterans became labor heroes. Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons served in his brother's Texas cavalry brigade during the Civil War. After demobilization he became a Radical Republican, married an ex-slave, and moved to Chicago, where he worked as a typesetter and became active in the labor movement. Lumberjack Wesley Everest had been back from Army service in France during the first World War for less than a year when he was caught in an American Legion attack on an Industrial Workers of the World union hall in Centralia, Washington, on the first anniversary of Armistice Day in 1919. The leader of the Legionnaires died in the shoot-out, and Everest along with three other Wobblies was arrested for murder. That night the Legionnaires came back and lynched their fellow veteran.
Other veterans fighting for the rights of working people may not have become so famous, but not for lack of courage or perseverance.
Black veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic fought for their rights in the post-war south. Many of the 46 black men caught and killed in the Memphis riots in early May, 1866, were Union veterans. Ex-slaves like Henry Adams joined the U.S. Army after Emancipation, where he learned to read and write. On discharge in 1869, he settled in Louisiana, where he helped start the "Committee" - some 500 black Union veterans who organized Republican Clubs to advise freedpeople of their legal rights, distribute ballots at elections, and investigate fraud at the polls, swindles by landlords and terrorist attacks. Adams probably left New Orleans after the local "White League" marked him for murder in 1878. African American veterans returned from the first World War ready to challenge Jim Crow laws and customs. The sight of a black veteran with a gun determined to stop a lynching provoked the massive white riot which destroyed the African American Greenwood district in Tulsa. Oklahoma, in May 1921. (Contemporary allegations that the Oklahoma National Guard started the riot's final conflagration with aerial firebombs were never confirmed.)
Dr. Hector Garcia and other Mexican American veterans from the second World War founded the American G.I. Forum in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1948, one of the first Hispanic-American civil rights organizations. Cesar Chavez also served in the military, in the Navy in the second World War.
Frank Kameny from New York City dropped out of college to join the Army in the second World War, seeing combat in Holland and the Rhineland. In 1957, the U.S. Army Map Service fired him for homosexuality, and the next year he was barred from all federal employment. As he saw it, "My dismissal amounted to a declaration of war against me by the government." He founded the Washington D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society in 1961, and by 1965 was picketing the White House for gay rights. Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, a decorated Vietnam veteran with AIDS, led the Stonewall 25th Anniversary parade in New York City.
And veterans have sometimes been especially useful union activists: during the 1937 Flint sit-down strike, veterans working in auto plants joined union groups pledging "not [to] become a stool pigeon of the Capitalists and give them any information of our order" and to defend the community from strike-breaking thugs.
But perhaps the most valuable contribution veterans bring to the labor movement is the consciousness which results from their military service. Their most common conviction is that their military service entitles them to certain rights. Examples include "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." A convention of veterans from Iowa's 60th U.S. Colored Infantry declared in October 1865, "that he who is worthy to be trusted with the musket can and ought to be trusted with the ballot."
At many times and places labor activists have claimed to defend the same privileges, and have cultivated connections between unions and soldiers or veterans. In the early Republic when working people organized to defend and extend their rights, they claimed to act in the name of their Revolutionary Army sires and grandsires. "Free soil and free labor" was a slogan of early Republicans, and in 1862 some trade union locals enlisted as entire units in the Union army.
Unlike the Socialist Party and the IWW, the American Federation of Labor supported U.S. entry into the first World War. But many workers figured that the "war to make the world safe for democracy" should extend to field and shop floor. War-time mobilization could certainly intrude on work. Freda Maurer, then a teenaged helper on a knitting machine, recalled a day some conscripts left for military service: "We laid down our tools and paraded with our boys to the railroad station, and ate our lunch when they were gone, and took the afternoon off to show our patriotism."
During the second World War most labor activists supported the war effort and the men and women in the military. The Political Action Committee set up by the Congress of Industrial Organizations lobbied legislators to let soldiers and sailors register and vote by mail. Auto worker locals in southern Illinois walked out when members on leave for military service returned with medical discharges and were declared unfit for work. The CIO's 1946 Atlantic City convention endorsed - among other things - better veterans benefits, military reforms to eliminate "caste distinctions" and fix the "outmoded and unjust courtmartial system," and an end to the draft.
Of course working people in uniform are still the brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, of working people., This has sometimes been a problem. During the 1877 railroad strike some militia units refused to fire on strikers; other units refused to enforce the order to fire. Around the turn of the century, the government made use of African-American "Buffalo soldiers" to restore order to metal mining districts in the West - white soldiers might be too sympathetic to hard rock miners and their families. Much of the National Guard's history and structure is explained by the need to diminish the risk of fraternization.
Sometimes the soldier's experience leads to awareness of the nature of the mission he has been ordered to accomplish. African American soldiers were among the most persistent critics of the extension of the U.S. empire overseas. Writing to the Richmond Planet, Sergeant Major John Galloway, a black soldier stationed in the Philippines, correctly predicted, "The future of the Filipino... is that of the Negro in the South." In 1901 the U.S. Supreme Court (in the "Insular" decisions) ruled that residents of the new U.S. colonies did not automatically enjoy rights and protections guaranteed by the Constitution, a precedent which still applies to "unincorporated territories" like Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. After General Smedley Butler retired as commandant of the Marine Corps, he became a vociferous critic of the way he had been used as a "gangster for Wall Street" in China and Latin America. The Vietnam experience produced "Vietnam Veterans Against the War" (VVAW), veterans organizing to stop the war they had just been fighting, the first such case in U.S. history. The same period saw attempts to organize unions in the military.
Many of these themes were on display the last time federal troops were deployed in large numbers against strikers.
In 1970 federal postal workers worked long hours for low pay under harsh and arbitrary supervision. By law they could not strike. President after president had promised that Congress would make their pay made comparable to private-sector wages. In March, President Nixon decided that any raise for postal workers would be inflationary. Defying union leadership, federal courts, and the establishment media, New York City postal workers went out on strike Tuesday, March 17th, and by Friday the nation's postal system was at a standstill. The wildcat strike was historic, with lasting consequences for the post office, postal workers, and federal employees, and the story is better told elsewhere.
But one aspect of the strike is rarely discussed. The post office exams gave extra points for military service, so many postal workers were military veterans. By 1970, many were Vietnam veterans. If any Americans had learned the hard way that politicians lied, that laws and regulations served the interests of bosses and politicians, that follow-the-leader did not pay, many of them were working for Post Office.
President Nixon tried to appeal to their patriotism. "The men who work in the United States postal service," he announced, "have taken the same oath to uphold and defended the Constitution of the United States as I have taken... I expect that the oath... will be honored." Well, they had taken that oath, and they had already served. Defending more than a hundred postal workers unfairly disciplined in Brooklyn, Post Office clerk Steve Parise calculated "a total of 3000 years of service to their Government, which includes years of fighting...for the preservation of liberty which they themselves are being denied."
The troop deployment actually was pretty much a bust. Guardsmen occupied the main postal facilities in New York City on the sixth day of the strike. Most of them had no idea what to do. Some were actually striking postal workers themselves, and most of the rest sympathized with their one-time comrades. The mail did begin to move outside New York, but not in the city itself, where the financial district had come to a standstill. The soldiers would not break the pickets, and the lines stayed up three more days - until the government and union leaders could declare a compromise. The use of troops had failed.
The writer is a member of the Professional Staff Congress (AFT Local 2334) and NYC Labor Against War. He served in the U.S. Navy 1965-9, and deployed twice to Vietnam.