[Headnote: As rage and protest spread from Ferguson across the country, writer JoAnn Wypijewski was visiting Martinsburg, West Virginia, where in 1877 a local conflict initiated a nationwide conflagration -- what became known as the "Great Upheaval" -- in an uncannily similar way. She draws on Jeremy Brecher's labor history Strike! to make the comparison between these two popular upheavals.]
By JoAnn Wypijewski*
(A shorter version of this piece was published in CounterPunch Magazine, September 19, 2014).
"We are jobless men, and this is our job now — getting justice. If that means violence, that’s okay by me."
– Unidentified 27-year-old Chicago man making “poor man’s bombs” in Ferguson, Missouri, August 18, 2011
"The workingmen intend now to assert their rights, even if the result is shedding of blood…. They are ready to take up arms."
– Unidentified speaker at a meeting of the Workingmen’s Party in St. Louis, late July 1877
Martinsburg, West Virginia, August, 2014
The man addressing his comrades 137 years ago was poised to engage in the final battle of a war which started in this small railroad town on July 16, 1877, and spread to Baltimore, Wheeling, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Toledo, Chicago, Louisville, Galveston and points in between before culminating at St. Louis. It is known as the Great Upheaval, arguably the most sweeping general strike in US history, and it was “put down by force,” as President Rutherford B. Hayes exulted in his diary: 3,000 federal troops and thousands of specially deputized police willing to kill for capital.
Paving stones at the base of Martin Street overlooking the rail yard where it all began wiggle underfoot. Some are loose enough to pick up, to hurl if one has a mind to do so. It is bracing to read history while the whiff of rebellion hangs in the air, even if the protests in Ferguson appear, at this writing, to have been managed into the anodyne rhythms of memorial and “healing.” While Molotov cocktails and police artillery flared, TV presenters spoke as if the destructive fury of the common man, done down, and the state’s military response were new phenomena. They are relieved now to be talking about victims and the calming effect of liberal intervention. But the coals are still hot. They have been hot a long time.
“We are jobless men…”
The Great Upheaval began with jobbed-up men, but the jobless, women, even children, quickly joined. The story unfolds at the start of Jeremy Brecher’s magnificent Strike! – a vivid, muscular labor history, just updated and re-released by PM Press, which should be at the side of anyone who wants to understand the deep structure of force and counterforce in America.
Railroad barons were the hedge fund lords of their day. They moved money literally and figuratively, controlling the economy, politics and the daily ways and means of the masses. By 1877, most of the 50,000 Chinese the railroads had imported to lay the Western track had been abandoned to their own wits and the resentments of poor whites fed on skin privilege and little else. The same went for the 40,000 black trackmen who’d made up the largest industrial labor force in the post-Civil War South, working and sometimes dying, like John Henry, alongside steam drills blasting through the Appalachians. As recounted in another galvanic history, Scott Reynolds Nelson’s Steel Drivin’ Man, hundreds of those dead were chain-gang laborers who couldn’t strike over brutal conditions, their bodies laid in unmarked graves, their histories known only in shards.
In West Virginia, which had seceded from secessionist Virginia in 1861 and been torn up in the war, particularly rail towns like Martinsburg, the track lines had been rebuilt and the citizens pressed into wage slavery. That July 16 the bosses of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad cut wages by 10 percent. It was the second cut in eight months, an assault being perpetrated elsewhere against men who – as one described the situation – were already stuck in debt, surviving on beans and corn meal, “the wife breaking down under privation and distress, and the children growing up sharp and fierce like wolves … because they don’t get enough to eat.”
By that first evening every railroader struck, and the townsfolk took their side. The police withdrew, seeing the strikers for what they were: their kin, class brothers and sisters. The county militia did the same the next day, with no more taste for blood after one of their number was shot and a striker killed.
Workers seized the trains, the yard, the roundhouses. Engines and freight cars sat idle, 670 of them. Passenger and mail cars, the strikers ran themselves. State militia recoiled, scared but also sympathetic to their class. The president of the B&O wired the White House, and Hayes – a man who bought the office in a bargain to pull federal troops from the South and reanchor white power – sent 300 US Army regulars to suppress “rioters” and protect out-of-town strikebreakers.
The rats rolled the trains, but not for long. Railmen, boatmen and miners, white and black, set upon them. Coal miners in Piedmont declared, “In view of the rights and in the defense of our families we shall conquer, or we shall die.”
And so it went, through half the country: plain people halting commerce in factories, fields and ports; defending each other and their common highway; organizing work for common purposes; convincing militias with camaraderie or cudgels to abandon the field; enduring bayonets and bullets – even a Gatling gun – and responding with stones, knives, rifles and fire. When the great strike was crushed in St. Louis, some 100 strikers were dead and more wounded.
This is our history, the history of the jobless men in Ferguson with nothing to lose, and of the men in tanks on the other side. It is the world that made modernity, that made our world today. 1877 ripped the mask of classlessness from the image of America that the country’s masters had crafted. Afterward, those men erected armories in city centers. Built to resemble castles, those were never intended for the common defense.
Ferguson is a race skirmish, but it is something else too. Racism may be irrational, but its material basis is not – not when race, class, police power and prison are capitalism’s warp and woof. That is the class war called normalcy.
The class war called insurrection won’t be forestalled forever. In Galveston in 1877 black-led strikers won a standard wage of $2 a day, or about $45.25 in today’s money. That’s $12.75 less than a worker today makes after laboring eight hours at the federal minimum wage – a century-plus of pain for roughly the cost of a pack of cigarettes in New York. Descendants of those who grew up “sharp and fierce like wolves” are many, and born every day.
(JoAnn Wypijewski’s column “Diamonds and Rust” appears regularly in CounterPunch. She is co-editor, with Kevin Alexander Gray and Jeffrey St. Clair, of Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence, just out from CounterPunch Books.)