Lessons for Occupy Wall Street

Take a cue from the only social movement that has ever made a real dent in the nation’s extremes of wealth and poverty.

Occupy Oakland.
Occupy Oakland protesters march near the Oakland City Hall on Oct. 25.

Photograph by Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/Getty Images.

Last week, the Occupy Wall Street movement entered a new phase. For its first few months, Occupy was all about message, the 99 percent taking a tentative stand against the 1 percent. Now, the on-the-ground challenges of sustaining such a movement over the long term have begun to take center stage.

The freak East Coast snowstorm answered one challenge question a few weeks early: What will happen to the encampments when the weather turns cold? Apparently they will stay. More ominously, protesters in many cities now face the prospect of sustained police crackdowns, from the hassles of permitting and noise ordinances to the violence that erupted last week in Oakland. There, police used tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets to attack protesters near city hall. One of those bullets fractured the skull of Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen, leaving him hospitalized in critical condition. Since then, Olsen has become the chief symbol of Occupy’s new reality: Going up against Wall Street, it turns out, is serious business. And the more serious the Occupy movement gets, the more official and near-lethal hostility it’s likely to encounter.

As they sort out what to do next, the Occupiers might take a page from the history of American labor, the only social movement that has ever made a real dent in the nation’s extremes of wealth and poverty. For more than half a century, between the 1870s and the 1930s, labor organizers and strikers regularly faced levels of violence all but unimaginable to modern-day activists. They nonetheless managed to create a movement that changed the nation’s economic institutions and reshaped ideas about wealth, inequality, and Wall Street power. Along the way, they also helped to launch the modern civil liberties ethos, insisting that the fight to tame capitalism went hand in hand with the right to free speech.

The first major national clash between “capital and labor,” in the parlance of the 19th century, came with the Great Rail Strike of 1877. That July, railroad workers in Martinsburg, W.Va. protested a pay cut by walking off the job. Within days, rail workers throughout the country joined in, effectively shutting down the nation’s major trade and transit system and inspiring localized general strikes. The authorities responded harshly. In Pittsburgh, the local militia fired on strikers, killing 20 men. By the time the smoke cleared a few weeks later, 80 more protesters across the country had been killed. President Rutherford B. Hayes recorded proudly in his diary that the rail strikers had been “put down by force,” setting the tone for many a future conflict.

Over the next half-century, the history of American labor came to read like one great catalog of “force”: 10 strikers and three strikebreakers dead in the 1892 Homestead strike; 2,000 federal troops called in to suppress the 1894 Pullman rail strike; up to three dozen killed, including 11 children trapped in a burning tent colony, during the 1914 Ludlow Massacre. Not until the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935 did the free-for-all violence of the labor wars begin to slow. Even then, it did not stop entirely. In 1937, the Chicago police fired into a crowd of strikers marching on the anti-union Republic Steel corporation, killing 10 men and wounding dozens more—one of the most lethal conflicts of the country’s last great economic crisis.

In response, workers a century ago sometimes gave as good as they got. Though the preponderance of power was always on the side of government, strikers regularly armed in self-defense. A handful of militants went beyond such clashes into acts of sabotage and even terrorism. On Sept. 16, 1920, a still-unknown assailant (most likely the Italian-born anarchist Mario Buda) left a cart loaded with dynamite at the corner of Wall and Broad streets in New York. It went off just after noon, killing 38 people and wounding hundreds in the most dramatic act of anti-Wall Street rebellion in the nation’s history.

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.