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Julie Falk

“Government by Injunction” A Strike-Breaking Tradition

(20 January 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 3, 20 January 1947, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

According to capitalists and capitalist-inspired theoreticians, government is above classes. It is, they say, an impartial system which recognizes and administers to the needs of the people in general. Socialists, on the other hand, deny this. They maintain that a government is a class institution which is primarily concerned with maintaining the rule of one class against the encroachments of another; in America, of protecting the capitalist class against the wants and needs of the working class.

In the history of American courts, socialists find an almost perfect test tube illustration of the inherent partiality of government institutions to big business. As long ago as 1828 a perspicacious American senator said that “the power of wealth ... is harmless without the connivance of judges.” In two quick phrases the senator accurately summed up the essential relationship between big business and the judiciary.

The background for court orders restraining workers from fighting for better conditions was provided by the victory of the Northern capitalists in the Civil War, which set the future industrial pattern of American life. On the heels of this triumph there followed a tremendous growth of American industry and a concomitant development of a large and permanent working class. By the 1890’s the industrial system finally emerged as the dominant characteristic of economic life in America.

Early History

The American labor movement did not keep pace with this rapid industrial growth. The Knights of Labor, with its vague idealistic program, and a membership which crossed class lines, was passing out of existence by 1890. The American Federation of Labor was in its infancy at this time and had but a few hundred thousand members.

Though the organized labor movement was weak, its possibilities for growth in a rapidly expanding capitalist system were tremendous. The new and powerful capitalist class was conscious of this, consequently, it resorted to crudest tactics in an effort to smash unionism as an existing and potential force.

In the early labor struggles the industrialists found the quickest and most effective anti-union weapon in injunctions and restraining orders issued by state and federal courts. Whenever the capitalists were hard pressed by an aggressive working class, they repeatedly turned to the courts for aid and comfort. The courts, in turn, which had the power to enforce and interpret the laws, have an almost unblemished record of answering the demands of the bosses with restraining orders and injunctions.

If we examine several earlier injunction cases in the two industries which have been most affected by such court orders, railroads and coal, we get a more accurate picture of the connection between the capitalist class and the government.

The Sherman Act

The history of the labor injunction actually began in 1890 with the passage of the Sherman anti-Trust Act. The Sherman act was supposedly aimed at the growing monopolies. It outlawed, as conspiracies, combinations which interfered with interstate commerce. On the surface it appeared to be progressive. Union leaders hailed it as a victory for labor. But the labor movement was soon to learn that the Sherman act far from curbing monopoly was to be repeatedly invoked as a legal basis for anti-labor-injunctions.

The wage scale and living conditions of the Pullman Company shopmen in the 1890’s were among the lowest in the country. Some workers were paid as little as $1.50 per day. They lived in company owned houses and the pittance they received for a salary was further thinned down by deductions for rent, gas and water.

As if these conditions were not wretched enough the Pullman Company announced in 1894 a twenty per cent wage cut. The shopmen who were well organized, replied with a strike. Fortunately the shopmen secured the help of the American railway union led by Eugene Debs, whose members refused to haul trains that included cars built by the Pullman Company.

The capitalist statesmen and press unleashed a ferocious campaign against the strikers. But in the face of verbal threats and physical assaults by company police, the railroaders remained solid. Even when the government sent troops into striking areas the workers would not budge. It appeared as if nothing could crack their solidarity.

The Arrest of Debs

But the Pullman Company found a valuable ally in the government and a worthy agent in Richard Olney, U.S. Attorney General and ex-chief counsel of the Erie Railroad. At the instigation of the attorney general a suit was brought against Debs and the striking workers. The charge was interfering with government mails and interstate commerce. The legal basis was the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

The government courts issued a sweeping injunction against the strikers and “all persons – whether identified or not” with the strike. The injunction prevented the workers from “compelling or inducing or attempting to compel or induce by threats, intimidations, persuasion, force or violence, any of the employees of any of the said railroads to refuse or fail to perform any of their duties as employees of any of said railroads.” (Emphasis mine – J.F.) The workers were gagged by the government. The edict deprived them of every means including speech (“persuasion”) of winning their demands.

Despite this government trust against the militant workers they did not go back to work. But the government courts, persistent in their drive, found four strike leaders guilty of contempt and sentenced Debs to six months in jail.

With the strike decapitated by the government the workers became demoralized and the strike was swiftly ended.

The Debs case set the precedent. The government by injunction became for a number of years the favorite strike-breaking technique of the capitalist class.

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