This month is the anniversary of a long-forgotten landmark in American history, the “Great Upheaval” of July, 1877. It may be surprisingly relevant today.
The Great Upheaval was a movement widely portrayed as a violent rebellion. In the midst of a national depression, and with unions decimated, railroad workers struck and closed most of the nation’s railroads; crowds battled or won over police, state militias, and Federal troops; roving crowds and general strikes halted work in a dozen major cities.
In a few cities, notably St. Louis, the Great Upheaval became a general strike. The British consul in St. Louis wrote home:
“The city was practically in the hands of a mob . . . Parades of the discontented were permitted on all principal streets without a show of countervailing force, and nightly mass meetings were held in the most public places, where thousands of the most ignorant and depraved in the community were made riotous by the incendiary speeches of their orators.”
(His description was perhaps a bit overblown; the St. Louis Globe-Democrat said of one protest march “A more orderly procession has seldom been seen.”)
An informal “executive committee” with delegates from many groups of workers ordered most work stopped and freight trains put in their roundhouses. But they allowed passenger trains to run and permitted grain mills to operate so that people could have bread. Workers controlled the life of the city as employers petitioned the executive committee for permission to operate their shops.
State militias and Federal troops were called out around the country to suppress the movement. President Rutherford B. Hayes wrote in diary: The strikers were “put down by force.” Over 100 of them were killed.
The world of 1877 is as different from today’s as a printed handbill and a digital podcast. But there are also some deep similarities between the 1877 and today.
Both times followed periods of rapid growth. In the era following the Civil War, local economies had been incorporated into a national economy as a result of railroads and the emergence of national corporations. Today, the national economy has been incorporated into a global economy by globalization policies, the Internet, and the rise of the global corporation.
In both cases, great promises were made regarding the benefit that growth would bring. But for many workers, the result was a race to the bottom in which local communities competed with others all over the country ““ or today all over the world ““ to see who could produce for the lowest wages.
Both periods also saw a global movement of peoples as local economies were disrupted and people had to go far from home to find a livelihood.
1877, like today, marked the end of a period of growth and the outbreak of economic crisis. The depression that started in 1873 was one of the worst in US history; the same could be said of the “Great Recession” we face today.
Both these economic crises were marked by mass unemployment, even as huge needs went unmet. The both represented a deep crisis of a system in which production was conducted to produce profit, not to meet human needs.
Both periods also saw the culmination of a shift from viewing workers as human beings to viewing “labor” as a commodity to be bought and sold. In the 1870s, the idea that working people were defined as citizens of a republic was taking a back seat to the idea that workers were nothing but contractors selling a commodity ““ their labor ““ in a market. When they had no purchasers for their labor, they were left to starve.
Today we face a similar free-market ideology, often referred to as “neoliberalism.” After three-quarters of a century in which workers were increasingly defined as human beings possessing human rights, neoliberalism is redefining labor as nothing but a commodity. Job security has been replaced by a system of contingent work in which workers’ labor is bought and sold by the piece. Social rights to economic security, health, education, and housing are being abandoned and denied. Support for those who are unemployed as a result of the system’s failure is being reduced to the level of 1877.
Before the 1873 depression, the US had more than 30 national trade unions; by 1877 it was down to 9. We see a parallel decline today, as union membership in the private sector is barely a third of what it was a few decades ago.
Meanings for today
A pervasive demand of workers and the unemployed in 1877 was for public works and more broadly for “production for use.” A St. Louis rally in the midst of the general strike passed a resolution calling for the president to convene Congress to appropriate one hundred million dollars “to save the people’s lives by giving them work.”
“We are in favor of law and order” but “we are also in favor of bread and meat.”
The concluding resolution of the rally stated that
“every man willing to perform a use to society” was “entitled to a living.”
“If the present system of production and distribution fails to provide for our wants, it then becomes the duty of the government to enact such laws as will insure equal justice to all the peoples of the nation.”
There is one overriding difference between the world of 1877 and that of today. Human induced climate change threatens to disrupt all human life. As the British government’s Stern report established, climate change, unabated, will cause economic dislocation greater than the Great Depression and World War I and II put together.
But the concept of production for use, so clearly articulated by workers in 1877, may have a central role to play in making the economic and social changes that are necessary to correct climate change.
More than a century later, President Barack Obama, presenting his stimulus package, echoed the theme, noting “both the paradox and the promise” of the moment:
“There are millions of Americans trying to find work, even as, all around the country, there is so much work to be done.”
He said his program would:
– double the production of alternative energy in three years
– modernize three-quarters of federal buildings
– improve energy efficiency of two million homes
– create millions of new jobs
– spark the creation of a clean energy economy
We know what has happened: that program has been blocked or abandoned. The result is catastrophic both for American workers and for the future of the earth and our species.
Henry Allen at a demonstration in the midst of the 1877 general strike said:
“We workingmen can present such a force that even the government itself must and will comply with our demands.
We will take such steps as that the old and the young,
the sick and the healthy will be provided for.”
Today we must add:
“And the planet will be provided for.”