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The 1920s were a decade of defeat for working people

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The "Roaring 1920s" were characterised by savage repression and profiteering
Issue 2113
The IWW’s logo
The IWW’s logo

Last week we saw how protests, strikes and socialist organisation spread across the US working class during the early years of the 20th century.

The revolutionary trade union activism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) began to challenge the reactionary “craft union” traditions of the American Federation of Labour (AFL).

The US joined the First World War in 1917. The AFL fought to dampen down struggle in order to maintain “social peace”.

Dissent or protest against the war was banned under new laws. Socialist and union leaders were hounded and imprisoned.

But the Russian Revolution that year also had a huge impact in the US. Strikes and revolt broke out across the country.

Employers and government feared the spread of revolution. The IWW and the left were attacked as Bolsheviks. Conservative politicians demanded that the state suppress all resistance.

In 1919 a dispute by shipyard workers in Seattle grew into a tremendous city-wide general strike of 60,000 workers as 110 local unions struck in solidarity.

The mayor responded by arming the police and encouraging vigilantes to attack the strike. IWW and Socialist Party headquarters were raided and their leaders arrested.

National papers screamed about the threat of revolution in Seattle. Within a few days, the strike was defeated.

A strike by steel workers for union recognition in September 1919 proved to be a turning point. The US Steel Corporation refused to negotiate and 400,000 workers across 50 towns in ten states walked out.

They were met with violent reaction. Meetings were outlawed and groups of more than three people were broken up.

Martial law was declared in Gary, Indiana, and 26 union organisers and strikers were murdered at the hands of company police in Pennsylvania.

The steel strike nevertheless managed to hold out for over three months in the face of sustained attack. But its eventual defeat in January 1920 was a massive blow for the workers’ movement.

After the steel strike the “red scare” escalated. The IWW fell victim to repression – and to its own political weaknesses.

Its orientation on the new workforce often led it to abandon the “native” skilled working class, which allowed the AFL to drive a wedge into potential class unity.

Crucially, the IWW’s rejection of political parties meant it did not have a strategy for gaining political power or for confronting the state.

The war spurred industrial production, and its expansion continued through the 1920s.

The “Roaring 1920s” were symbolised by the motor car, the telephone and the hedonism of the rich as described by novelists such as F Scott Fitzgerald.

Republican presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge presided over a period of intense repression of dissent and the enrichment of the few.

J Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner of today’s FBI, collected information that led to thousands of suspected radicals being imprisoned or deported.

Repression was savage. A miners’ strike in West Virginia in 1921 became an armed uprising known as the “Battle of Blair Mountain”. Bosses and state officials worked together, arranging aircraft to drop pipe bombs and tear gas on workers and their families.

There were race riots in Chicago and St Louis as returning soldiers competed for jobs with the many black workers from the South who had migrated north to work in the war industries.

The American Legion was founded to carry out anti‑communist propaganda and vigilante violence.

Reaction cleared the way for a massive employers’ offensive as unions were smashed across the country.

The combination of an economic boom and a labour movement in retreat saw unionisation collapse from five million in 1920 to 3.5 million in 1923.

Employers launched the “American Plan”, which combined patriotic propaganda with company welfare plans and social activities to drum loyalty in their workforces.

“Yellow dog” contracts were pushed through, which made workers promise never to join a union. Radicals were blacklisted and could not work.

Meanwhile, the richest 1 percent of the population held a staggering 48 percent of the country’s wealth into their hands.

The 1920s was a decade of defeat for US workers. But 1929 saw the Wall Street Crash and the onset of the great Depression.

Next week we will see how the economic chaos formed the backdrop to a tremendous rebirth of working class organisation.

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