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date: 20 July 2019

Summary and Keywords

Strikebreakers have been drawn from many parts of the American population, most notably the permanently and seasonally unemployed and underemployed. Excluded from a vast range of occupations and shunned by many trade unions, African Americans constituted another potential pool of strikebreakers, especially during the early decades of the 20th century. During the first quarter of the 20th century, college students enthusiastically volunteered for strikebreaking, both because of their generally pro-business outlook and a desire to test their manhood in violent clashes.

A wide array of private and government forces has suppressed strikes. Beginning in the late 19th century, private detective agencies supplied guards who protected company property against strikers, sometimes assaulting them. During the early 20th century, several firms emerged that supplied strikebreakers and guards at companies’ request, drawing on what amounted to private armies of thousands of men. The largest of these operated nationally.

On many occasions the state itself intervened to break strikes. Like some strikebreaking firms, state militiamen deployed advanced weaponry against strikers and their sympathizers, including machine guns. Presidents Hayes and Cleveland called out federal troops to break the 1877 and 1894 interregional railroad strikes. In 1905, Pennsylvania established an elite mounted force to suppress coal miners’ strikes modeled on the British Constabulary patrols in Ireland.

Corporations directly intervened to break strikes, building weapons arsenals, including large supplies of tear gas, that they distributed to police forces. They initiated “back to work” movements to destroy strikers’ morale and used their considerable influence with the media to propagandize in the press and on the radio. Corporations, of course, discharged strikers, often permanently.

In the highly bureaucratized society of the late twentieth and early 21st century that stigmatized public displays of anger, management turned to new “union avoidance” firms to break strikes. These firms emphasized legal and psychological methods rather than violence. They advised employers on how to blur the line between management and labor, defame union leaders and activists, and sow discord among strikers.

Keywords: strikebreakers, strikebreaking, trade unions, mercenaries, strikes, police, machine guns, college students, African Americans

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