Wisc. Governor Makes a Threat to Sic the National Guard on Union Workers
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Last week, Wisconsin's Republican governor Scott Walker threatened to use the National Guard if his state's public employees go on strike in response to his proposal to strip them of the right to bargain collectively.
By merely mentioning the possibility of deploying the Guard to prevent a strike, Governor Walker has threatened to militarize the attack on unions. The 150-year history of the American labor movement shows that such moves often lead to the deaths of union members.
Some observers claim that Governor Walker was merely “alerting the National Guard” in order to take over Wisconsin's correctional facilities if the prison unions went out on strike. However, such preparation could have been made in private without risking the criticism Walker has received since raising the issue. By announcing it publicly, Walker was attempting to intimidate unions with the threat of force; his militarization is creating a toxic climate of fear and violence in which an inspired right-wing nutjob might feel justified attacking union members.
It is important to grasp the role of violent intimidation by both the state and privately run militias in order to understand why Governor’s Walker’s attack is such a troubling move in a democracy.
The first time state militias were called out to stop striking workers was during the Great Railroad Strike of 1876, the first nation-wide labor action that shut down railroads from coast to coast. At the time, Thomas Alexander Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad told reporters the strikers should be given "a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread." State militia members joined side by side with private citizens and killed over 100 striking workers in a dozen cities across the United States. In Pittsburgh, over 50 strikers were killed in one of the bloodiest confrontations of the strike.
State militias, often aided by private militias like the Ku Klux Klan, would be called out on other occasions to wreak violence on workers demanding their rights. In 1887, the Louisiana militia, accompanied by a posse of "prominent citizens," killed 37 unarmed black sugar workers striking to demand a dollar-per-day wage.
Before the Columbine High massacre that we remember, there was the Columbine Mine Massacre in 1927, where six unarmed, striking miners were killed by a combination of private mine guards and state police. During the Colorado Labor Wars, private and state-run militias took turns terrorizing and killing union miners. At the Ludlow Massacre, the governor of Colorado even allowed private strikebreakers to be sworn into the National Guard for the occasion of raiding a camp of union miners. That resulted in the deaths of 19 people, including 12 children. When the National Guard ran out of money to continue its campaign against the unions, John Rockefeller offered to pay for it.
The lines between the violence doled out by state security and private militias became even more blurred with the formation of the American Legion in 1918. Former U.S. Marine Corp Major General Smedley Butler, author of War is A Racket, testified before Congress that the American Legion “is nothing but a strike-breaking outfit used by capital for that purpose, and that is the reason we have all those big clubhouses and that is the reason I pulled out of it. They have been using the dumb soldiers to break strikes."
American Legion veterans beat and often killed union activists throughout the country. In 1919, American Legion members in Centralia, Washington, raided an Industrial Workers of the World hall, killing six.
By the 1930s, vigilante justice by the American Legion against union members went out of fashion as big business realized there were big bucks to be made in killing union members. A special industry then emerged. Pearl L. Bergoff, known as the "King of the Strikebreakers," wrote a book titled, I Break Strikes, in which he boasted of organizing over 300 violent attacks on strikers that resulted in 54 deaths. In 1936-'37, the special Senate Civil Liberties Committee lead by legendary Wisconsin Senator Robert Lafollette reported that major respected corporations had even accumulated "industrial munitions, such as submachine guns, tear gas, sickening gas, grenades and rifle ammunition, that could be used in industrial disputes.” The Committee also found that corporations had planted spies and agent provocateurs within the ranks of labor to provoke violent outbreaks with the police and militias.