The Importance of Labor History

Cartoon depicting Haywood stomping on Gomper's foot and about to be stabbed in the back by Moyer; Gompers about to be stabbed by the ASCJ, a carpenter's union.  The Detroit IWW and Chicago IWW are fighting each other as are the Boston and Washington Knights of Labor.  A quartet of railroad labor unions are looking on at the scene.
An old cartoon depicting the US labor movement and some of its many factions.

A hundred years ago, a different Sacramento IWW local languished in the cells of the Sacramento County Jail awaiting federal trial for conspiracy against the United States. They were the victims of the First Red Scare (1919-1920), a seldom discussed event in US history that provided the precedent for the Red Scare of the 1950’s. In fact, unions and labor history in general is rarely taught in schools at all. To the average American, unions seem to have appeared out of thin air sometime during the Industrial Revolution and lost their usefulness sometime after the postwar economic boom of the 1950’s. Without context, unions are an anachronism, a relic of a less enlightened time when conditions were harsher and employers more unreasonable.

This is not true. Unions are needed now more than ever, and the lessons of history still apply today. The US has thus far failed to reckon with its history, or has taken the wrong lessons from history entirely. It’s up to us to not fall into that trap and to educate ourselves on the entirety of our history. And part of that education means learning about unions and the labor movement.

So why should we learn about this ourselves? It turns out that even when unions are mentioned in schools or popular society, they are usually treated as monoliths, which besides being wrong on all counts ends up serving the employing class. After all, if all unions are the same and one union turns out to be corrupt, it follows that all unions are corrupt. Treating all unions as the same becomes a weapon in the employer’s hand, and ignorance of the true purpose and nature of unions makes that weapon sharper. We have an obligation as members of the working class to not hand our employers anything else that can be used against us; after all, they already hold most of the cards.

Aside from finding out who Gompers, Haywood, and Moyer were, labor history tells the story of the American worker. This isn’t just the story of the American-born white male worker, either; this is the story of all people who work and their fight for justice in their workplace and their lives. Labor history is about the so-called little people, the ones who are usually left out of most history books or are reduced to statistics in a table somewhere. There’s power in knowing what people like you did a hundred years ago when they too were persecuted for demanding basic rights or when they too suffered pay cuts or overwork at their jobs. There’s power in going back and reading what an “uneducated” worker wrote about philosophy and politics. There’s power even in looking at an old cartoon someone drew lampooning the boss for being a greedy slob. History puts a human face on the unions we hear so little about. It’s a reminder that unions were ultimately created by and for the ordinary worker – something the powers-that-be in the world today would be glad to have us forget. Ignorance and fear was what put the Sacramento IWW local of a hundred years ago in jail. Let us not make that same mistake.

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