Against the Odds: Labor Repression and Worker Demands for Autonomy in the Long “Progressive Era”

Solicited by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA) Endorsed by SHGAPE

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 8:45 AM - 10:15 AM

Type: Lightning Round

Tags: Business and Economy; Intellectual; Labor and Working-Class


The long “Progressive Era,” reaching back to Reconstruction and extending through the New Deal, witnessed a flourishing of democratic promise as well as the dousing of much hopeful fire.The six presentations in this lightning round consider worker efforts to organize in that period, and particularly focus on top-down repression of such efforts. Common to all these struggles has been a contest over the narrative: are workers striving for democratic self-control or spreading lawlessness and radicalism, is worker organizing progress or trampling individual rights, are employers resisting unions repressing legitimate demands or defending law and order, are unskilled industrial workers agents in their own story or beneficiaries of labor organizing projects devised further up the labor hierarchy? How contemporaries answered such questions was shaped by their positionality, and workers’ lack of power in the society at large made it difficult for the bottom-up version of the narrative to gain traction. More explicitly, direct repression—sometimes physically violent, sometimes legally construed—set the boundaries of acceptable discourse. In our current moment, when not only one’s interpretation of what’s going on in the world but the very facts one believes seem dependent more on which “tribe” one belongs to than on external reality, and when calls for censorship and restriction of social media content as well as school curriculum are rampant, it behooves us to consider whose voices have in the past been accepted—or rejected—as legitimate participants in democratic conversation. 

Papers Presented

Ruling Class Violence and the War Against Radical Ideas from Reconstruction to the “Progressive Era”

Numerous elite men formed vigilante organizations during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to, paradoxically, promote “law and order.” One of their goals was to control the type of information that circulated in their communities, and this meant challenging those who introduced ideas that they found subversive. This paper explores different ruling class formations and actions across space and time, highlighting the ways they mobilized violently to prevent outside teachers, union organizers, radical writers, and leftist agitators from conducting their work. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, hoping to prevent Republican ideas from circulating, Klansmen burned books, torched schools, and drove out “carpetbagger” educators from southern communities. In the mid-1880s, Law and Order League members forced socialists, anarchists, and labor orators to leave several Midwestern towns. In the early 1890s, Western-based cattle barons burned copies of books that shed light on their corrupt practices. And in the misnamed “Progressive Era,” members of Citizens’ Alliances, several of whom were veterans of nineteenth century vigilante organizations, destroyed the offices of union printers and forcibly detained leftist editors and writers. This paper insists that we take a long view of ruling class-orchestrated information suppression efforts.

Presented By
Chad Pearson, University of North Texas

A Right to Live, a Right to Work, or Freedom of Work? An Origination Story of Company Town USA

This paper explores the dynamism of right to work rhetoric as it developed in the late 1930s and 1940s. It examines Florida’s attorney general of the period, J. Tom Watson’s successful effort to pass the nation’s first right to work constitutional amendment (three years before Taft-Hartley was passed) by situating that specific history into a larger context of welfare capitalism and company town class relations. In what ways was the rhetoric of right to work, as crafted by employers and their business organizations, a struggle for the hearts and minds of workers? The endeavor entailed navigating rough waters. Some currents pulled in the direction of worker empowerment (collective bargaining) and others toward visions of substantial economic security (Four Freedoms, Economic Bill of Rights). Employer faith in paternalistic stewardship offered a steady stream of a rhetoric of fear as well as the language of the American Dream. In unpacking the hopefulness that business expressed in fostering a free enterprise system free of labor union power, the paper will explore how the right to work rhetoric hid a darker vision of diminishing expectations one that promised a company town paradise and a faith in worker economic independence.

Presented By
Thomas A. Castillo, Coastal Carolina University

The Race to the Bottom Constructed from Above: Employer Activism in the Illinois Coal Fields in the Gilded Age

Illinois coal operators reconstructed the coalfields of Illinois from 1863-1897 as accumulation centers for through individual and collective strategies. They did so in reaction to union campaigns in key coal fields and political action by miners unions. They were among the first employers associations who advocated the “right to work” against unions. This activism led to a race to the bottom that made Illinois a low-cost leader before unionization shifted that to West Virginia and Colorado. Usually historians have pointed to intense competition between operators in the marketplace as the explanation for the poverty of the coalfields. But coal operators acting collectively through the state offers a lens to see the secrets of the hidden abode of the labor market in the coal fields. One telling moment, for example, during the first series of coal mine wars, after an uprising of “Amazon” coal mining women, Allan Pinkerton ceded the job of armed repression to the state, establishing the role of the state militia in the enterprise. These hidden stories, excavated, give a clearer picture of the origins and problems of the Central Competitive Field and a longer history of seminal events in West Virginia and Colorado.

Presented By
Rosemary Feurer, Northern Illinois University

Rooting Out the Reds: Employer Attacks on Radical Community Spaces in the Pacific Northwest

A persistent myth in U.S. history holds that early twentieth century radicals, particularly western Wobblies, were mostly young single men with few ties to family or community. They were “rebels of the woods” – rootless individuals who “invaded” communities and caused trouble. In response to these threats, elites—employers, news editors, and police—adopted the rhetoric of safety, family, and community well-being. Their actions prevented “outsiders” from “dictating” conditions in communities and workplaces not their own. But elites’ own actions demonstrated this was a gross public deception. To break strikes and suppress radical movements, they attacked and eliminated community spaces, families, and immigrant groups. Indeed, “rooting out the reds” required a steadfast commitment since radical workers’ organizations were frequently created and nurtured by diverse people with long community connections. Taking a close look at the first 40 years of Pacific Northwest history, this presentation explores the myths of the “third party outside agitator” and elite vigilantes as “defenders of the community.” I document the violence and destruction committed by organized capital in the Northwest, as bosses and their allies committed deportations, beatings, murders, and the destruction of community spaces—all, while rhetorically championing “law and order,” family, and the community.

Presented By
Aaron A. Goings, Saint Martin's University

Who’s Entitled to Self-Government? How Employers Torpedoed Worker Demands for Democratic Influence over the Work Relationship Before the New Deal

This presentation addresses a moment of democratic promise in labor relations and what we can learn from its passing. At the opening of the twentieth century, union organization and collective bargaining briefly looked like a promising avenue out of the constant labor strife that racked the nation. The United States Industrial Commission even proclaimed that “by the organization of labor, and by no other means, it is possible to introduce an element of democracy into the government of industry.” Yet when push came to shove, few middle-class reformers were willing to defend independent worker power against the inevitable employer counterattack. Thus, when the National Association of Manufacturers spearheaded a vehement employer campaign against supposed union tyranny, that campaign resonated with many middle-class reformers. Meanwhile, unions of skilled workers sometimes defended themselves by deploying a language of respectability and American manhood that implicitly left other workers—women, minorities, the unskilled—out in the cold. The story of the successes of the early twentieth-century employer campaign, then, highlights how democracy is weakened when we refuse to acknowledge that democracy is like free speech in that it is only meaningful when we extend its promise to those who are not like us.

Presented By
Vilja Hulden, University of Colorado Boulder

“Facing Down Fear, Force and Poverty!:” Black and Radical Women Laundry Workers’ Organizing in the Era of Industrial Unionism

Low-wage service workers have always lived precarious lives, toiling under difficult and often dangerous working conditions typically without the benefits of traditional labor protections such as unions. While a state of crisis is far from new for these workers, significant numbers of whom are women of color, it is true that their occupational status has meant that they have borne some of the most devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Using industrial laundry workers as a case study, this paper explores the early and mid-twentieth century activism of Black women laundry workers and their radical allies in New York City, activism that culminated in the formation of a union in 1937 under the umbrella of the nascent Congress of Industrial Organizations. Posing the question of how low-wage female and racialized industrial service workers have historically mobilized against exploitative working conditions and racist treatment, the paper considers the important interplay of organizational tactics, union resources, allied support and legislation. An analysis of the successful laundry campaign and the workers’ subsequent efforts to build a democratic union committed to racial justice and gender equality sheds light on the possibilities and limitations of the mid-twentieth century industrial union movement.

Presented By
Jenny Lynn Carson, Toronto Metropolitan University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Nate Holdren, Drake University
Nate Holdren is employed in the Program in Law, Politics, and Society at Drake University. He is a legal historian of American capitalism, with particular interests in Marxism. He holds a PhD in US History from the University of Minnesota and is the author of the book Injury Impoverished: Workplace Accidents, Capitalism, and Law in the Progressive Era.

Presenter: Jenny Lynn Carson, Toronto Metropolitan University
Jenny Carson is an Associate Professor of History at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) in Toronto, Canada. In 2021 she published A Matter of Moral Justice: Black Women Laundry Workers and the Fight for Justice (University of Illinois Press). Her work has also appeared in Labor Studies Journal; Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas; Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society, and the Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History. She is very grateful to be a member of a faculty association!

Presenter: Thomas A. Castillo, Coastal Carolina University
Thomas A. Castillo is an Assistant Professor in History at Coastal Carolina University. He is the author of Working in the Magic City: Moral Economy in Early Twentieth Century Miami (University of Illinois Press, June 2022). He is also currently working on a history of the right to work. He has published in several journals and venues, including Counterpunch, Metropole, Labor History, Labor: Working Class History of the Americas, Journal of American History, and the Florida Historical Quarterly.

Presenter: Rosemary Feurer, Northern Illinois University
Rosemary Feurer is Associate Professor of History at Northern Illinois University. She is the author of Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950, (University of Illinois Press, 2006) and co-editor and author with Chad Pearson of Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism (2017).  Her current projects include The Illinois Mine Wars, 1860-1940 and a new biography of Mother Jones. She is the author of numerous essays in collections and journals, and curator of numerous public history projects.

Presenter: Aaron A. Goings, Saint Martin's University
Aaron Goings is an Associate Professor of History at Saint Martin’s University. He was previously Senior Researcher at the Institute of Advanced Social Research at the University of Tampere. Goings’s newest book, The Port of Missing Men: Billy Gohl, Labor, and Brutal Times in the Pacific Northwest (UW Press), won the Western History Association’s Owens Book Award given annually for the best book on the history of the Pacific West.

Presenter: Vilja Hulden, University of Colorado Boulder
Vilja Hulden is teaching assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her first book, The Bosses’ Union: How Employers Organized to Fight Labor before the New Deal, will be published by the University of Illinois Press in January 2023. Her current project, funded by the NEH and tentatively titled Speaking to the State, uses a variety of computational methods to investigate who has been represented at hearings held by the U.S. Congress and how different groups at those hearings have used different language to advance their case.

Presenter: Chad Pearson, University of North Texas
Chad Pearson teaches history at the University of North Texas. He is the author of Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement (2016) and is co-editor with Rosemary Feurer of Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism (2017). He has published essays in Counterpunch, History Compass, Jacobin, Journal of Labor and Society, Labor History, Labour/Le Travail, and Monthly Review. His current book, Capital’s Terrorists: Klansmen, Lawmen, and Employers in the Long Nineteenth Century, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press. E-mail: