Today’s Wall Street protesters are unlikely to encounter the extremes of police violence that faced workers and radicals in the last Gilded Age. They are even less likely, given their widespread commitment to nonviolence, to respond in kind. Still, the labor wars of the last century contain powerful lessons about what can happen when struggles for economic justice cease to be arguments about ideas, and instead become contests on the ground.
It should be said, for starters, that repression often worked. Guns and jail terms turned out to be remarkably efficient tools for clearing encampments and suppressing strikes. And yet such tactics often had unintended consequences. Labor and radical movements can seize upon incidents of official violence to fuel outrage and publicize their cause. Just as importantly, encounters with police and courts may radicalize initially moderate participants and spectators. Emma Goldman dated her political awakening to the execution of the Haymarket anarchists, charged with advocating violence and inspiring the 1886 Haymarket bombing. Socialist leader Eugene Debs attributed his own radicalization to his time in jail after helping to lead the Pullman Strike.
Even milder forms of official repression frequently served to galvanize rather than dampen labor protest. In 1908, the radical Industrial Workers of the World launched a series of “free speech fights” designed to draw attention to local restrictions on picketing and soapbox oratory. In a typical action, IWW members planted themselves on street corners to read the U.S. Constitution or to point out the many flaws of the American capitalist system. When police swept them up, dozens of others flooded into town to take up the same work, often defying vigilante violence. The effect, in cities such as Spokane and San Diego, was to overcrowd the jails and raise the question of whether or not preventing speech was worth the logistical headache. In at least a few cases, the answer was no, marking an important turning point in civil liberties consciousness.
Ultimately, the IWW’s few early successes were wiped out in the conflagration of World War I, in which the union’s leadership opposed the draft and ended up on mass trial for sedition. But if the Wobblies’ tactics do not provide a model of surefire success, their experiences—like those of the labor movement more broadly—nonetheless speak to the difficulties of mounting a sustained challenge to entrenched institutions, and to the flexibility and creativity that is inevitably required. If there is one lesson for Occupiers to take from the early history of American labor, it is that making real changes in the structures of wealth and power in this country is likely to be a long, hard slog. Chances are, this past week was just the beginning.