Chapter IX 4 Techniques of Terror
In later years, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, with its 6,000,000 members, was to be almost universally recognized as a vital and integral part of American society. But in the mid-thirties, those labouring men and women who set out to build the CIO were often treated as common criminals, were widely branded as “Communist conspirators” and traitors to their country, repeatedly jailed, driven from town after town, and blacklisted in every major industry.
During 1935-1937, more than 47,000 workers were arrested while participating in trade union struggles in America . . .
Frequently union organizers carried on their work at the risk of their lives. Time and again they were kidnapped by company-hired gunmen and vigilante gangs, mercilessly beaten and brutally tortured. Not a few were murdered in cold blood.
One graphic, personal account of the sort of ordeal often experienced by these organizers appeared on August 28, 1935, in the New Republic. It was written by Blaine Owen, an organizer in the steel industry in Birmingham, Alabama.
Here is the story Blaine Owen told:
“There are names which should be put in parentheses after the name Birmingham: TCI, Republic Steel, Schloss-Sheffield. And the greatest of these is TCI. TCI is Tennessee Coal and Iron— United States Steel, the House of Morgan.
“In the company houses they have established a rule that workers with gardens must not grow corn or anything as high as a man’s head. Lights burn in the spaces between the houses all night. Don’t be found in the streets after nine-thirty. But somehow the meetings go on, somehow no terror can stop these meetings. Although it means jail and beating, leaflets appear miraculously on doorsteps overnight, calling for organization and struggle.
“It was on my way home that a police car went by slowly, two uniformed men in the front seat. One drove, the other swung the spotlight full on me. Across the street stood a dark sedan, men standing about it, smoking. I walked on around the corner. They closed in, and the Ford sedan quietly rolled in front of us, the doors already open . . .
“Held firmly between them in the back of the car, we shot past the traffic light and between the rows of quiet buildings. No one said a word. The windows were closed tight and we all sweated slowly, out of breath from the tussle, panting . . .
“Smash! It came— though I had known it would come— as a surprise. My lip was numb as I took a deep breath and tried to double as it came again. This time it caught me on the cheek . . .
“There was a salt taste to the thick blood, and I sucked it in with my breath. A sharp knee dug into my stomach and I gasped, straining to free my arms. I thought I would never again get air into my lungs, they felt crushed and splattered all over inside me. Somehow I forgot my face. It was in my lap, maybe, maybe in his lap, a trip hammer pounding on it, but it was no longer part of me . . . Suddenly the blows had stopped. The realization startled me and I opened my eyes, but only the right one would open . . . “The tall, gaunt one stood in the shadow with the dull gleam of a revolver at his side, and asked me quick, short questions. Each time he would pause long enough for the younger one with the straight, dark brows and the rolling lips to slam me in the face. ‘He won’t talk,’ he said. Smash! ‘Hasn’t said a God-damn word.’ Smash! . . . “Keep your mouth shut,” I said to myself over and over, “keep your mouth shut, because they’re going to finish you anyway, and the more you say, the more they’ll pound you before they finish you off.
” ‘Throw him in the river,’ the fair young one said, and from somewhere a rope was brought . . . the rope cut down across my shoulders, with a high, crying swish from a sharp slap. I felt hands rip off the shirt, strip by strip, yanking it off the places where blood had begun to dry and stick. Someone was ripping my trousers with a knife . . .
“The whipping stopped, and a boot crashed into my ribs. I rolled over and slumped back on my face. There was a slight pause before it began again . . .
“I don’t know when it stopped. I only know I could think of nothing except the great necessity of keeping my mouth shut and lying as still as possible. I recall more questions coming out of the shadows . . .
“Vaguely I realized that it had stopped, heard the car door slam, and tried to lift my head as the tires dug into the soft dirt and the car spun away . . .
“I let my face drop forward again, and hugged the earth, not wanting to slip off into sleep, wanting now to go, somehow, back to Birmingham, back to the workers there.
“Workers kept an armed vigil at my bedside. One metal worker, who had been a member of the Klan only a few years ago, brought his little eight-year-old boy to me. He asked me to sit up in bed, and he bared the cuts and slashes that crisscrossed my body, back and face before the child’s eyes.
” ‘Look at that, sonny,’ he said. “That’s the company. That’s what you got to learn to hate— and fight agin.’ ”
As millions of workers in the mid-thirties sought to put into practice the rights guaranteed them by their Government in the Wagner Labor Act, and as the trade union movement gathered momentum throughout the land, acts of savage violence against labor organizers and trade union members became daily occurrences in America.
These are a few typical instances of the anti-labor violence during 1935-1938:
Alabama: In August 1935, the cotton pickers of Lowndes County went on strike. The local sheriff organized a gang of vigilantes who roved the countryside, breaking into strikers’ homes, kidnapping strikers and subjecting them to merciless beatings. On August 22, the vigilantes kidnapped and killed a striker named James Merriweather. Mrs. Merriweather later related:
“We had heard about the lynch mob whipping the hands on the Bell place . . . About half the mob came on to the house where I was . . . They started tearing up the place looking for leaflets. They found the leaflets under a mattress … I said I didn’t know about the meeting because I had been working . . . Vaughn Ryles started doubling the rope and told me to pull off all my clothes. He said, ‘Lay down across the chair, I want naked meat this morning.’ I lay down across the chair and Ralph McQuire held my head for Ryles to beat me . . . He was beating me from my hips on down, and he hit me across the head. They said, ‘Now see if you can tell us what you know.’ They were all cussing . . . Ryles put a loop in the rope . . . He threw the rope over the rafters . . . drew me up about two feet from the floor … I heard guns firing . . . They told me about my husband being shot . . . They were lynching him then . . .”
Arkansas: Describing violence in this state, Howard Kester, an organizer for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, wrote in the New York Post of February 10, 1936:
“At night deputy sheriffs and masked men ride the roads, on the lookout for secret meetings of the union . . . Beatings are frequent and killings are not uncommon . . . Planters even organized a Fascist band wearing green shirts and carrying the swastika as its symbol . . . Hundreds of our members have been beaten and scores of families have been driven from their homes by terror … At least ten of our members have been killed.
“Just a few weeks ago, at Earle, Ark., armed vigilantes broke up a meeting in a Negro church— and shot two men . . . The next day, while I was addressing 450 white and Negro members of the union in a Methodist church, about fifteen armed planters and deputies came into the meeting house.
“I was dragged from the platform and thrown into my automobile by three men while the others began beating members of the union, men, women and children. The interior of the church was wrecked.”
Michigan: Vigilantes including American Legion members and National Guardsmen in mufti called out by Mayor Daniel Knagge of Monroe on the night of June 10, 1937, hurled tear and vomit gas bombs at strikers’ picket lines at the Newton Steel Co. After beating strikers with baseball bats, the advocates of “law and order” dragged sympathizers from their homes, beat them, burned a tent used as picket headquarters and wrecked a dozen strikers’ automobiles.
Texas: During a pecan-shellers strike toward the end of 1937 over 700 workers were arrested in San Antonio for claiming the right to picket. Both men and women strikers were beaten, clubbed and kicked. Pickets, including women, children and mothers with babies in their arms, were lined up by the police who suddenly shot tear gas into their midst. Scores were held in jail without any charges placed against them.
California: Local 283 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers led a strike of gold miners in Nevada County for recognition of the union early in 1938. A vigilante mob led by the local sheriff and by members of the California State Highway Patrol on January 20 attacked strikers at the Murchie mine. Later, a band of 300 vigilantes, armed with riot guns and clubs, attacked a picket line of 60 strikers. The next evening 12 pickets were sent to the hospital and the union headquarters were smashed. Union officers were threatened with lynching. More than 100 miners with their families were driven out of the county.
Mississippi: On April 15, 1938, in Tupelo, Charles F. Cox, a 27-yearold CIO organizer, was forced into an automobile by a group of men, driven about 20 miles, stripped naked and beaten with leather belts by 11 men. Left barely conscious, he crawled back to town. Cox was an important witness for the labor board in cases against mill owners resulting from a local strike in 1937. Organizations investigating the case charged Cox had been kidnapped to prevent his testifying against the company.
But nation-wide company-organized violence and intimidation, vigilante terror, and strikebreaking by National Guardsmen and municipal police failed to accomplish their purpose.
Spurred on by the hardship and misery of the depression years, by the pro-labor policies of the New Deal and by union victories in mining. West Coast maritime and other industries, American workers continued their mass influx into trade unions and intensified their fight for higher wages and better working conditions.
Early in 1936 the leaders of the CIO unions raised a “war chest” and pooled their forces to assist organization in rubber, auto, steel, aluminium, radio and other major industries. Newspapermen, chemists and technicians, retail and office workers, government employees, lumbermen, seamen, shoe, fur and oil workers joined the swelling army of organized labor.
In February 1936 10,000 Goodyear Tire and Rubber Workers at Akron, demanding recognition of the CIO Rubber Workers Union, occupied the Goodyear factory buildings in the nation’s first sit-down strike. After four weeks, the company yielded to the workers’ demands.
In November 1936, the United Auto Workers called a strike at General Motors, the nation’s largest industrial corporation. After three months of bitter struggle involving 125,000 workers and tying up GM plants in a score of cities, the company signed a contract with the union. Two months later, Chrysler recognized the UAW as the bargaining agent for its employees.
The crucial struggle was in the steel industry. “If Lewis wins in steel,” commented Business Week on June 13, 1936, “no industry will be safe . . .” By the year’s end, Phil Murray’s Steel Workers Organization had organized 100,000 workers. On March 2, 1937, in the CIO’s greatest single victory, the new steel union signed up U.S. Steel and its subsidiaries.