George Novack

Call Out the Militia!

(June 1938)

First Published: New International, New York City, Vol.IV No.6, June 1938, pp. 189-190.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

Call Out The Militia! A Survey of the Use of Troops in Strikes
By Walter Wilson and Albert Deutsch
32 pp. New York. American Civil Liberties Union. 10¢

Few books will be published this year of more vital concern to the labor movement than this small pamphlet. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, it contains “the first available material showing clearly the violations of civil rights by the militia” in the United States.

The facts assembled here on the use of troops in strikes speak eloquently for themselves. They require little additional comment. We shall, therefore, simply quote some of the most important passages.

“Today there are about 200,000 men in the National Guard, besides some 15,000 officers. This powerful army is equipped with artillery, airplanes, gas, machine guns, tanks. It is composed of every branch of service in the regular army. The difference between them is that while the regular army is composed of professional soldiers, the National Guard is composed of men in civilian life, training only periodically and subject to call in war or any ’emergency’ or for police duty. The President may call out the National Guard for war or in a national emergency; governors, for state police duty where local police seem inadequate.”

“National Guardsmen, when called to duty, are paid by the state. The rate of pay is usually nominal—one dollar a day while on duty. Most employers do not discriminate against men who are members of the National Guard because of possible interruptions of their duties. Often employees are kept on the payroll at regular wages during time spent in National Guard duty.”

“The sums spent for National Guard upkeep are staggering. For the fiscal year 1937 the Federal Government appropriated $38,004,559 for this purpose; additional funds are granted by several states. This record figure is nearly four million dollars above the 1936 appropriation and about ten million dollars larger than the 1935 appropriation, showing the rapidly growing cost of this military force to the nation’s taxpayers.”

“Originally under complete state control, the militia, thanks to a series of so-called National Defense Acts and amendments passed since 1903, has gradually come under federal control. As at present constituted, the National Guard is officially a ’reserve component part’ of the United States Army, directed by the National Guard Bureau of the War Department. Federal money is used in part to pay the guardsmen and to provide practically all the equipment, ranging from mess-kits to tanks. The guardsmen, on entering the service, take a dual oath to state and federal governments.”

“The National Guard, as it is now constituted and used, stands as a constant menace to civil liberties. Two major factors make this menace evident: first, the increasing use in recent years of state troops in labor disputes violating, with rare exceptions, the rights of workers; second, the ease with which the militia has been employed to build up the personal power of governors.”

“A governor has practically unlimited power over the state troops. The role of the Louisiana militia in building up and maintaining the personal dictatorship of Huey Long is too well known to require elaboration... Governor ’Alfalfa Bill’ Murray of Oklahoma found over twenty occasions to call out the National Guard in three years.”

The authors cite similar instances of the employment of the National Guard in promoting the personal power of governors in Georgia, South Carolina, Arizona, North Dakota, Florida, Colorado, California, and Rhode Island.

“In these perilous times,” they conclude, “the potential role of the National Guard in the creation of dictatorships on a local or state basis cannot be ignored.”

“But by far the most important activity of the National Guard in recent years,” the authors point out, “has been ’preserving the peace’ in industrial conflicts... Figures are more complete for 1935 than for any recent year. In that year, according to the chief of the National Guard Bureau, the militia was called out 84 times in 32 states and one territory in connection with ’civil disturbances’. Of these 84 instances, 18 were connected with strikes. In three instances the militia was used for ’suppressing the unemployed’, as the War Department report bluntly puts it. More than 35,000 men, including officers, were called out in 1935. A total of 22,000 of these men were used in strike duty and against demonstrations of the unemployed — nearly twice as many as for all other purposes combined.”

“The record of the use of troops in strikes and demonstrations involving workers, farmers, and the unemployed for the five years 1933 to 1937 inclusive, shows a total of eighty-three instances in which troops were called out in thirty-six states. The map indicates the states in which troops were called out and the occasions in each state over that period. The number varies from year to year according to the occurrence of serious strikes. Troops are more frequently called out in national strikes where governors are induced by the pressure of nation-wide propaganda to respond quickly to the suggestion of threatened violence. It will be noted that in the record for the five years, troops were called out notably during the national textile strike of 1934 and the C.I.O. strikes of 1937.”

“Although commanding officers of the National Guard, themselves recruited largely from employer and managerial ranks, usually are content to show their hostility to strikers in terms of action, some officers commanding troops on strike duty have given frank expression of their hostility to labor. For example, the police chief of Massillon, Ohio, testified to a National Labor Relations Board hearing in July 1937, that when he objected to deputizing company foremen for strike duty, General William E. Marlin, head of the Ohio National Guard, exclaimed in exasperation: ’This is no time to be neutral.’”

“The employers utilize various devices to put the militia under obligations to them. During the Ohio steel strikes in 1937 it was discovered that for years the Ohio Chamber of Commerce had been making annual contributions of $20,000 toward the upkeep of armories. In some cases the employers furnish free barracks to National Guardsmen on strike duty. During the Elizabethton, Tennessee, rayon strike in 1929-1930, the Glanzstoff-Bemberg Corporation not only provided barracks but served free refreshments, provided music and furnished dancing partners to the men on duty. After the San Francisco general strike in 1934 the largest employers made up a ’purse’ which was distributed to the National Guardsmen on duty.”

These facts are taken from the first ten pages of this pamphlet. The remaining pages contain considerable more information on the reactionary, strike-breaking role of the National Guard that ought to be known to every union member and labor militant. We must see that they are put in possession of them.

The authors neglect to emphasize one significant fact. The alarming growth in the employment and anti-labor activities of the National Guard has taken place entirely under the regime of Franklin D. Roosevelt. This alleged “friend of labor” and “defender of democracy” has never once during his administration protested by word or by deed against National Blackguardism!

These facts prove, beyond a doubt, that the National Guard, although supported by taxes wrung from the workers, is never the protector, but essentially the suppressor, of the rights of labor. The state officials who call out the National Guard aim to break the militant action of the workers for the bosses. They are greater and more dangerous strikebreakers than the thugs hired from private detective agencies. The reactionary repressive role of the Governors stands out in bold relief when they send the National Guardsmen against the unemployed struggling for a handout to sustain their lives and families. Finally, the National Guard is the principal weapon for the establishment of dictatorial principalities in the states, as the police, as Jersey City shows, supports municipal despotisms.

What are American workers to do in the face of these facts? The Civil Liberties Union recommends certain legal remedies and legislative actions. The authors state, however, that “Recourse to the courts by labor for relief against abuses by the National Guard has thus far failed to achieve results.” This is hardly surprising since the courts, like the National Guard, function by and large in favor of the employers and are staffed and controlled by their servitors. Whatever legislative bills are passed to curb the violation of civil liberties by state troops—and they should be curbed in every way possible—they will prove insufficient to protect the workers’ rights.

In order to defend themselves from all quarters, the workers, employed and unemployed, cannot rely upon the police, the courts, or the capitalist politicians. They can only depend upon their own united and organized strength. Just as pickets are needed in every strike to protect the workers against scabs and gunmen, so organized labor needs its own guard for protection against the bosses’ guard. Trade unions ought to take the initiative in constituting such workers’ defense committees.

This is the lesson to be drawn from the experiences of American labor summarized in this pamphlet. The deepening social crisis pregnant with colossal new class conflicts will inevitably supply fresh confirmation of this lesson in the coming period.


Last updated on: 4.2.2006