7 Occupations That Changed US History
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Political occupations have a storied history starting with the first recorded labor strike. Some 3,176 years ago in Ancient Egypt royal tomb builders from the desert village of Deir el-Medina repeatedly occupied temples following the failure of Pharaoh Ramses III to provide wages consisting of wheat, fish, beer, clothing and other provisions.
In the centuries since, other movements have stamped their mark on history by occupying spaces, such as the Diggers who formed a utopian agrarian community on common land in 17 th century England, and the workers, soldiers and citizens who established the ill-fated Paris Commune in 1871.
American history is rich with examples of political occupations that left a lasting impact. Sometimes the 99% pushed progress forward, as with Rosa Park’s occupation of a bus seat that propelled the Montgomery Bus Boycott and ended with Alabama’s bus segregation being declared unconstitutional. Often the 1% of the time – slaveholders, robber barons and merchants of war – re-asserted control with new methods of domination such as after the Great Upheaval of 1877. But each event proved that true democracy lies in collective act of taking space public and private, while corporations and the state are just two arms of the same beast.
With the spread of political occupations to all 50 states today, the most dynamic democratic movement since the 1960s, lessons can be gleaned from past occupations for a movement that shows no signs of going away. Here are seven of the most important occupations that changed American history.
1) The Great Upheaval of 1877
In his magnificent work Strike!, Jeremy Brecher describes how railroad men sparked the first general strike in U.S. history. Following a second pay cut in eight months, workers for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad seized the train lines and roundhouse in the small town of Martinsburg, West Virginia on July 16, 1877. The strike spread along the B&O line and workers halted freight traffic while continuing to move passengers and mail. Brecher argues that to succeed, the strikers had to “beat off strikebreakers by force [and] seize trains, yards, roundhouses.”
Thousands of miners, industrial workers, unemployed and youth rallied to the cause blocking and sabotaging trains protected by federal troops from moving in much of Maryland and West Virginia. Railroad companies enlisted state militias, but they inflamed sentiments by gunning down scores of strike supporters. In other instances guardsmen deserted, mutinied or handed over their weapons to the crowds.
The strike snowballed into an insurrection between as workers joined from every possible industry. Train yards were occupied in Buffalo, civil authority collapsed in Pittsburgh, strikers assumed policing, the telegraph and railways in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and general strikes flared in cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Mass actions and strikes cropped up in Texas, Kentucky, Missouri and California.
While federal troops, corporate goons and police eventually broke a strike movement that lacked organization and strategy, and the massive national guard armories in the center of American cities is one enduring legacy, Brecher argues “the power of workers to virtually stop society, to counter the forces of repression and to organize cooperative action on a vast scale was revealed in the most dramatic fashion.”
2) 1930s labor movements
The Flint sit-down strikes that began in December 1936 and won union recognition for hundreds of thousands of industrial workers are legendary. But more than two years earlier, workers flexed their militancy through forms of occupation that won wage increases and union representation. Prior to this, argues Frances Fox Piven, co-author of Poor People’s Movements , workers were usually thwarted by intransigent capitalists who relied on vigilantes, police, government indifference and the self-interested leaders of the American Federation of Labor.