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One of America’s greatest public historians, Philip Dray has been in some unusual places but none more unusual than this: seated in an orange dinghy just launched from the Bay Ridge shore and headed for… the wine dark sea? For Staten Island? “No, no, no” the oarsman, Brian Berger, assures me. “Fort Lafayette!” All I saw was the Brooklyn tower of the Verrazano Bridge, aglow with the rise of a hot August morning.

“Right, the tower was built on top of Fort Lafayette—on top of what was left anyway,” he said. “We just want to get a little closer.”

“Historians always do,” added Dray.

“They hanged Robert Kennedy here—Captain Robert Cobb Kennedy, 1st Louisiana Infantry, that is” Berger explained as we bobbed towards the fraught winter of 1865. “They tried him as a spy, and guerilla, not as a soldier. It was the last Federal execution of a Confederate during the war.” All was quiet save the rattling oarlocks and the soft slosh of water against the hull. “He sang on the gallows.”

“What did he sing?” I asked.

“Probably not ‘John Brown’s Body’” Dray said.

“Definitely not,” Berger replied. “You know Phil won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, right?”

“Did you meet Ethel?” I asked.


Later, at the Bridgeview Diner on 3rd Avenue, the oarsman revealed himself further. While Dray and I ordered lunch, Berger (“just coffee for me, thanks”) set up a “portable” reel-to-reel tape recorder the likes of which Alan Lomax might have admired. It took up nearly half the table.

“This place is open 24 hours, right?”  I asked.

“It’s ‘the folk process’ in action” offered Dray.

“No, it’s an Ampex” Berger said, and when the bulky machine clunked and whirred itself to life, their interview began.
— Kenny Wisdom

Philip Dray will discuss his new bookThere Is Power In A Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America (Doubleday), Wednesday September 15, 6:30 PM at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Brian: First let me congratulate you on Capitol Men winning the 2009 Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship—that’s very impressive, both for your part and that of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University. Shepherdstown is very near Martinsburg, West Virginia, where the 1877 railroad strike began on July 14, and Sharpsburg, Maryland, where on September 17, 1862, the Battle of Antietam was fought.

What’s the relationship between the Civil War and labor? “Free Soil, free labor, free men” sounds good but it wasn’t abolitionism, and it certainly didn’t predict the 15th Amendment—just look at all the old Free Soilers who’d never really accept Reconstruction.

Phil: Most labor unions responded with loyalty to the North’s cause. Some even fought the war together in units with their union brethren. In the lead-up to the war, many Northern workers had adopted some type of anti-slavery view. This was in part dictated by the fact that except for some urban enclaves where the Democratic Party held sway, workers tended to identify with the “free soil, free labor, free men” position of the Republican Party. They favored the idea that the western states and territories would allow “free labor” not slave labor, and the related possibility that lands would be opened there for settlement and made available to men of modest income (the Homestead Act of 1862). Of course there were notable exceptions to workingmen’s faith in the war – the New York Draft Riots of 1863 and the spurning of federal military conscription by Irish-American miners in Pennsylvania.

Two other effects of the war were to bring about the tremendous growth of northern industry and the expansion of the nation’s railroads. This in turn inspired labor to work assiduously to create national labor federations in order to remain apace of capital. The violent rail strike of 1877, sometimes called “The Great Upheaval,” was in a sense an act of frustration by rail workers at the controlling domination of the huge national “roads,” and, although inchoate as a protest, it taught the workers that they also possessed the ability to operate and coordinate on a national scale and to bring rail movement to a standstill.

Brian: Tell me about the 1902 Anthracite Coal Strike, which, although it ended in October, was cause for coal shortages in Brooklyn through the early winter. what effect did President Roosevelt’s intervention have on future large-scale strikes?

Phil: The 1902 strike by the anthracite miners of the United Mine Workers threatened severe coal shortages for the Northeast. Because of this threat of a “coal famine,” the resolution of the strike became a critical political issue. President Theodore Roosevelt was confronted by George Baer, the head of the mine owners’ consortium and head of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Baer was adamant in his refusal to recognize the UMW in any negotiations; he firmly believed that mine owners retained a supreme right to dictate work conditions and wages, summing up his philosophy with the charged statement, “The rights and interests of the laboring men will be protected and cared for— not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of this country.”

Roosevelt disliked labor’s radical factions but detested the pompous Baer, and had a gentlemanly friendship with John Mitchell, the youthful UMW president. Roosevelt also was concerned by the hovering presence of Mark Hanna, powerful senator from Ohio and the kingmaker behind William McKinley’s two successful presidential election victories; Hanna, who was thought to harbor presidential ambitions for 1904, had been influential in settling coal work stoppages before as McKinley’s aide. He would be more than glad now to show up Roosevelt by taking a key role in ending the present crisis.

Baer demanded that Roosevelt dispatch soldiers to the mine regions. Roosevelt, acting as a true Progressive, sought a more reasonable solution along the lines of what was becoming known as “industrial democracy,” the theory that both labor and capital had much to gain if worker demands and disputes could be settled amicably. Roosevelt, at the advice of his commissioner of labor Carroll D. Wright, who investigated and concluded the miners’ complaints and demands were legitimate, announced an unprecedented approach: a presidential conference that would bring all parties to the table. Coming in the wake of the disastrous Pullman Strike of 1894, when President Grover Cleveland had sent federal troops into the Chicago rail yards to confront strikers, a move that brought chaos and death, Roosevelt’s managed effort offered an important departure. While the conference itself produced little – Baer refused to even speak directly to the UMW representatives in the room – Roosevelt reached out to financier J. P. Morgan to help create an Anthracite Coal Strike Commission that attained many of the miners’ demands.

Thanks to the president’s direct involvement, there had been no court injunctions, no violence; no one had been driven from the street at the point of a bayonet. The mining of coal, so essential to the nation’s well-being, had been peacefully restored.

Brian: It’s been a while but everyone who’s seen Reds (1981)—and everyone should— has at least a basic understanding of the great left and radical foment of the 1910s, which led to the Revolution of 1917 in Russia and tremendous schisms in the American labor movement. In one of history’s greatest ironies, this all came together in the Red Scare of 1919-20, most of which was instigated by the anarchists— who despised Communism, had little use for Socialists and really were blowing things up, United States Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house in Washington D.C. included.

How did labor get out of this mess—or did they?

Phil: The tainting of the labor movement with accusations of radicalism has been a long-running aspect of the movement’s development. American industrialists in denial about the legitimate demands of workers (and frightened by the collective nature of unionism) had since the 1840s depicted leading agitators as troublemakers, communists, “Amazons,” anarchists, etc. The allegations changed with the decades: leaders of 1870s labor marches were “communists,” an allusion to the 1871 Paris Commune; after the violence of the Haymarket Riot of 1886 anarchists were deemed responsible for labor difficulties (the mainstream American Federation of Labor rose to prominence in part as a reaction to Haymarket); following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the American establishment was shaken by the notion that Bolshevik ideas and methods had infiltrated the US labor struggle.

This culminated in the era of the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920, when the federal government, egged on by the press, launched a sweeping series of raids, prosecutions and deportations that targeted suspected radical and labor organizations. The threat of radical subterfuge had some basis in fact— a cell of anarchists was pursuing a campaign of terrorist bombings, including one, as you note, against the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer – although the government’s over-reaction and breaching of civil liberties was soon criticized by judicial observers and disavowed by Congress.

One of the tragedies of the 1918-1920 political persecution of labor groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was that labor developed a kind of self-policing mechanism, acting to repress unions and members deemed too radical. Ironically, when the severe labor and employment issues of the Great Depression arrived, it was the Communist Party USA that was among those responding swiftly, uniting employed and unemployed Americans to demand relief from the federal government.

The labor stance on communism received a critical test in 1947 when the Taft-Hartley Law required union leaders to sign an oath that they were not Communists; already mainstream elements of the big unions were divorcing themselves from more “suspect” left-leaning labor organizations. This rift would be manifested by controversial efforts by the AFL-CIO to support anti-leftist union activity in other countries, sometimes in conjunction with the CIA.

Brian: What was the place of blacks in the labor movement? In World War II Brooklyn, for example, the Navy Yard, Sperry Gyroscope, and the Arma Corporation together hired tens of thousands of new workers during the war years— very few of whom were black, and fewer than that were hired as anything but menial laborers.

Phil: The National Labor Union of the Civil War era, the Knights of Labor, and the American Federation of Labor, all paid lip service to the idea of black inclusion in the workers’ cause. While to an extent the aim was altruistic, it was also apparent to union leaders that if blacks were not included they would form a permanent peasant class of cheap non-unionized workers whose labor could be purchased on the cheap, thus undermining unions overall. Unfortunately, few of the outreach efforts proved effective; union locals defied national organizational policy by refusing to integrate. A Colored National Labor Union came into existence in the wake of the Civil War, and for the most part blacks, if unionized at all, remained in black-only trade unions.

As a result, many black workers grew antagonistic toward the mainstream white-dominated labor cause, and the hostility was reciprocated when blacks hired out as “cheap men,” workers who accepted low pay and thus “hurt” white union workers. Kept out of unions, black workers of course had little choice to work for whatever wages they could obtain, but a powerful enmity developed from leaders like the AFL’s Samuel Gompers toward Negro strikebreakers. Frequently violence— such as the St. Louis Riot of 1917 and the Chicago disturbances of 1919—  was triggered by conflicts involving race and jobs.

A breakthrough came in the late 1930s, when A. Phillip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters won the right to bargain with the Pullman Company and affiliation with the AFL. Randolph was key to expanded rights for black workers again in 1941, when he used the threat of a march on Washington to pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt into signing an executive order opening the defense industries for black labor.

Brian: Lately I’ve been obsessed by Robert F. Kennedy—a not unusual affliction, I know, although if we only knew Bobby as chief counsel of the McLellan Committee, it’d be a rather strange affection.

Why was Kennedy so obsessed by the Teamsters—Jimmy Hoffa especially—and was he right to be so angry? Did such a high profile government attack on an America’s largest union affect the labor movement generally or was its eventual decline foretold many other ways as well?

Phil: Robert F. Kennedy was serving as counsel to a senate committee investigating army procurement irregularities in the mid-1950s when Kansas City reporter Clark Mollenoff began speaking to him of likely corruption and financial improprieties in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The result was the formation of the McClellan Committee to inquire into labor union corruption. This capped a decade that had begun with allegations about union crime on the New York waterfront and the televised Kefauver hearings into the extent of organized crime in America. With the 50’s Red Scare on the wane, press and public warmed to the spectacle of the Harvard-educated Kennedy going toe to toe with the tough Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters. Labor corruption was a homegrown embarrassment, and in the age of Sputnik and competitive comparisons with the Soviet Union, a blot that needed erasure.

Obviously the taint of labor corruption has done a great deal of harm. Despite Congress’s efforts to legislate closer scrutiny of union finances in the late 1950s, the temptation at the top of unions often involves the presence of massive amounts of money sitting idle in union coffers, the aura of power around union leaders whose word is not questioned, and a blasé attitude among union rank and file who are willing to accept a bit of non-kosher behavior from their leaders so long as the important issues—wages and benefits— are seen to.

I think the tragedy of the union corruption tales that the headlines announce is that most unions are not corrupt; for every story one reads about a union chief with his hand in the till, there are hundreds of union locals that operate successfully, legally, and on the up and up. And by the way, why is labor singled out in this regard; every sector of American society from big business to Congress to sports and entertainment has seen more than enough corruption, greed, and crime.

Brian: The last time we spoke we discussed some of the literary influences on your writing of history. Do you read historical fiction at all?  It’s a disreputable genre in many ways but goddamn, its best examples are some of the greatest things ever!

And speaking of the Civil War and labor history again, you absolutely must read The March by E.L. Doctorow, General William Tecumseh Sherman— “Uncle Billy” to you and me— being the older brother of—

Phil: Ohio Senator John Sherman, he of the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

Brian: Precisely. Well, as extraordinary as The March is, the audio book, narrated by Joe Morton, is that brilliant and more*: genius meets genius and a thousand cheers to Random House Audio for bringing the two together. There’s just one weird thing.

Phil: What’s that?

Brian: In Chapter XV of the audio book— disc four, track five— General Sherman is humming Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” to himself. This is Savannah, Georgia, December 1864 and Die Walküre’s premier wasn’t until 1870.

Anachronisms happen, I know, but I wonder what Doctorow was thinking? Of Apocalypse Now (1981)? Of the original score to Birth To Of A Nation (1915)?

Phil: Both of which make memorable use of “Ride of the Valkyries.”

Brian: Correct. But— but! I assume they fixed it in proofs but The March book gets it right, on page 121: “He was humming the Overture to The Flying Dutchman.” And Der fliegende Holländer premiered in—

Phil: 1843.

Brian: Gentlemen, Sherman announced, we have had enough of these fleshpots. Tomorrow we begin preparations for the new campaign. You all know what it is. We have Grant’s leave to take the Carolinas. It will be hard, no mistake. Georgia was no more than a hayride. We must divest ourselves of surplus horses, mules, and Negroes. We must pare ourselves down to our fighting essence. The terrain is forbidding, the march will be arduous. But I assure you the infamous state of South Carolina, as instigator of our war, will have never known the meaning of devastation until it feels the terrible swift sword of this army.

Hear! Hear! The generals raised their glasses.

At the end of the evening Sherman went to his rooms mellow with wine and feeling more relaxed than he had in days. He was humming the Overture to The Flying Dutchman. Some newspapers were newly arrived from Ohio. He lit a cigar and, expecting to amuse himself with the local gossip, sat back and read in the Columbus, Ohio Times that Charles Sherman, the six-month-old son of General and Mrs. William Tecumseh Sherman, had died of the croup.

His hands dropped to his sides. Oh lord, he cried, is the envy yours as well?

Special thanks to Joe Hill, Paul Robeson, Phil Ochs, Hazel Dickens, Hubert Selby Jr., E.L. Doctorow and Joe Morton.

* Kenny Wisdom adds: The March is a mind-bogglingly great audiobook and probably my favorite performance of fiction this side of Matt Dillon’s narration of Jack Kerouac On The Road (Caedmon Audio), which— throw out every skeptical preconception you might have— is wholly incredible.

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