From Today’s Battles to Butte’s Yellow Peril
BY LYNN ZHENG
The battle being waged today in the United States by labor unions to protect their turf is hardly new. For decades, unions have compelled businesses and taxpayers to meet their demands in the name of “workers rights,” through brute force and intimidation, albeit with decreasing membership and political clout, while the Right to Work movement has in many states put a check on union power. Central to this battle is a provision of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act authorizing states (but not local governments) to outlaw union shops and allow open shops in which an employee may not be forced to join or pay dues to a union—nor can a worker be fired for joining a union in an open shop. This provision of Taft-Hartley, passed by Congress over President Truman’s veto, affirms a person’s right to work regardless of whether or not he is a member or financial contributor to a labor union.
Without an ability to force workers into unions, to force employers to fire them for not joining, and to take cash from workers’ pay, labor unions lose a significant portion of the power they often hold over business and state and local governments—and in the case of public employee unions, their ability to compel taxpayers to pay for ever increasing benefits, pay raises, and pensions, a central issue today as states and municipalities grapple with dwindling budgets and exploding payroll, healthcare, and pension costs.
Unions opposing the “right to work,” in Montana, date back to the 1870s when labor groups targeted Chinese immigrants willing to work for less than white workers (read on). Much has changed since those days in both the labor and business communities, with labor having lost significant leverage in the private sector, and therefore much political power, even as it thrives within state and municipal governments, and as Business as a whole, union-ized or not, has for decades adopted standards the labor movement imposed on behalf of workers—the 40 hour work week, child labor laws, overtime pay, sick leave, and safe working conditions.
One thing that has remained constant, though, is the determination of organized labor to protect its turf—or, from the perspective of Right to Work proponents (those who oppose forced union membership), its attempts to compel workers to join unions, pay dues, and at the same time prevent non union workers from earning a living in union shops.
Workers for Verizon Communications in Northeast and mid-Atlantic states recently went on strike, 45,000 of them, as the company seeks concessions while coping with a long-term drop in revenue and profits in its flagging land line telephone business. Striking workers, adamant that they should not have to help pay increasing health care or pension costs, demonstrate and form picket lines, as union bosses claim Verizon workers’ “middle class lifestyles” are being threatened, and that executives making multi-million dollar salaries ought to distribute more of their incomes.
One Verizon union member appeared on YouTube recently, presenting his young daughter as he stopped a vehicle crossing a picket line, excoriating fellow union members in the vehicle who dared show up for work as a threat to his family, while others demonstrated at the homes of Verizon executives—and with the force of the state often still on their side, institutionalized as the federal government’s powerful National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), union leverage goes much further in the form of powerful allies in high places, including the President of the United States, Barack Obama, whose pro labor and often anti-business politics go hand in hand with political contributions from Big Labor.
The NLRB recently accused Boeing Corporation of Seattle, the aviation manufacturer and the country’s largest exporter, of retaliating against workers for planning to open a plant in a non union state, South Carolina, putting that venture on hold (even though Boeing has of late created jobs in Washington state, and plans to create thousands more in South Carolina, a Right to Work state). NLRB’s unprecedented action shows just how serious a threat Boeing’s planned move is to the already waning power of private sector unions. And so Labor’s arm in Washington, D.C., the NLRB, buttressed by the pro union Obama administration, takes up the slack as historical trends deny Labor the power it might otherwise wield over business and governments.
The Supreme Court’s 1973 Enmons decision granted union bosses immunity from federal prosecution for acts of violence and vandalism they intiate in the “pursuit of legitimate union objectives.” The Associated Press reported that hundreds of Longshoreman union militants held security guards hostage for hours at the Port of Longview in Washington State on September 8, 2011. Union thugs reportedly committed numerous acts of vandalism and violence including breaking windows, cutting brake lines on railroad cars, and threatening police officers with baseball bats. Nor are these isolated incidents. According to the Buffalo News, union activsts threw hot coffee at independent-minded workers, dumped sand into the engines of company vehicles, and the wife of a company representative threatened with sexual assault. Furthermore, hundreds of criminal complaints are filed against unions for harassment and violence every year.
Labor’s power and membership in the United States, excepting public employee unions, has declined markedly since the heydays of the 1950s. As a percentage of employed workers, union membership peaked in 1954 at 28.3 percent. In 2003, just 11.5 percent of employed workers were union members. By 2010 that number fell to 11.3 percent—and notably in 2010 labor unions lost 600,000 members, mostly due to unemployment resulting from the economic recession.
Public employee unions in Wisconsin and Ohio this spring found themselves fighting, just like Verizon workers (though unsuccessfully), legislation that would have them pony up more for health care and pension costs and that would take the teeth out of state laws favoring government employee unions. Ten other states followed suit, not all successfully, with governors and Republican legislators invoking fears expressed by, of all people, Labor stalwart Franklin Roosevelt and Labor leader George Meany—both of whom warned against government employee unions and the conflict of interest they create as taxpayers pay union salaries, and therefore union dues that in turn benefit politicians who side with unions.
The original rationale for Labor unions in the early days of the movement, when workers suffered under sometimes life-threatening conditions, as with the Anaconda Copper mine in Butte, Mont., and the Northern Pacific Railroad, was displaced historically and politically by union abuses of power, creating sentiment against forced unionism—the repeated strikes called for by John L. Lewis without regard to the harm done to the economy, the criminality that came to be associated with certain unions, and the heavy handed tactics used against workers. In the case of the Teamsters—those tactics included outright thuggery, firebom-bing cars, displaying guns and knives, and threats of bodily harm.
During World War II, President Roosevelt helped set the stage for this backlash, as he aggressively enacted compulsory union membership through his War Labor Board. By 1945, contracts requiring that employees belong to a union covered an overwhelming majority of unionized shops, and those who preferred not to join the union would simply lose their jobs. Compulsory union membership, though—or “union security” in the parlance of Labor proponents, hardly seemed consistent with the constitution’s right to free association, and so public support for the right to work movement gained momentum. Concerted efforts by business interests, of course, to decrease the power unions wield over their payroll costs, often the lion’s share of any company’s budget, also fueled the political process against unions in various states, favoring Republi-can lawmakers.
Montana, though, and 27 other states, remain pro-union (non Right-to-Work) states, due in part to the state’s history of having been at the mercy of the Anaconda Copper Company in Butte from 1881 to 1947 and that company’s reviled historical hegemony over politicians, the press, its abuse of the environment, and of miners (from 1906 to 1925, 685 miners perished and hundreds more were maimed or injured in Butte mining accidents, while many more suffered or died due to respiratory illness).
In one notable incident involving Anaconda (known as Amalgamated Copper Mining Company until 1915), in July 1917, Frank Little, the socialist labor and anti-war activist, showed up in Butte. Little’s plan was to organize copper miners and lead them in a strike against Anaconda. But, preemptively, in the middle of the night, masked men believed to be associated with the Pinkerton detective agency took Little from his boarding room, beat him, dragged him with a car, and then hanged him from a railroad trestle, placing a letter on his body with the code used by the Montana vigilantes of Virginia City (3-7-77) and the initials of various unionists in the area to show that they might be next. In a show of support, thousands of sympathizers marched behind Little’s funeral procession to Butte’s Mountain View Cemetery.
In subsequent decades though, as the Teamsters turned to violence and criminality themselves, and with industries having adopted humane standards for workers, sympathy for the plight of organized labor decreased, and as of 2010, with private sector unions on the ropes, most union members are government workers rather than private-sector employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as unions focus as decided-ly as ever on their own largesse and the advantages to be had by extracting hundreds of millions of dollars per year in taxpayer paid dues that they use, in part, to finance the political campaigns of mostly Democrat politicians who do their bidding.
Labor unions, though, aided by laws compelling workers to join unions, can still exclude non-union workers from “union shops” in 28 states not designated as Right to Work (right to pay less, unionists insist). The Right to Work movement, born in the 1940s, offers workers in 22 states the choice of whether or not to join a union, a proposition with popular appeal that has proven to be the achilles heel of the labor movement, in that it offers “choice” as opposed to forced membership that effectively excludes workers from competing freely for union jobs.
In addition to the 22 states, the territory of Guam has adopted right-to-work laws, and federal employees also have the right to choose whether or not to join unions.
Yellow Peril—a Sordid History
A good 70 years before compul-sory unionism took hold as a result of FDR’s aggressive pro Labor policies, organized labor, when threatened by competition from immigrant workers, attempted to exclude them from the workforce, often successfully, by instigating racial hatred and violence.
Although a small number of Chinese immigrants came to the United States prior to 1850, it wasn’t until news of the gold strikes in California reached China that large numbers of Chinese men, eager to earn money, sailed for Gum San, the gold mountain. Western encroachment and civil unrest had led to inflation, starvation, and loss of land in southern China. Many young men emigrated to the States as a last hope for their families. Among their occupations were mining, building the Central Pacific Railroad, laundering, cooking, farming, and, if successful, operating restaurants and becoming merchants.
Chinese husbands left wives and children, headed for America (especially California), and parents sent their sons across the Pacific Ocean. As a result, early Chinese communities in the United States were comprised almost entirely of men. In 1850, approximately 450 Chinese men entered California; in 1852, 2,716 more arrived; and in 1852, 20,000 Chinese men crossed from China to the Pacific Northwest. By 1880, the ratio of male to female Chinese immigrants was approxi-mately 20 to 1. They lived and worked in Chinatowns, in groups according to their district or region and dialect.
The Northern Pacific Railroad employed several thousand Chinese laborers, running track through places like the Bozeman Pass and Livingston, Montana, all the way to Washington state. As skilled railroad workers, according to the Montana Historical Society, the Chinese were adept at extremely difficult and dangerous tasks, like planting dynamite in cliffs to blast rock. At times workers fell to their deaths from rope ladders used to descend treacherous cliffs, and at other times dynamite exploded unexpectedly and tragically, injuring or killing Chinese workers.
Chinese and Japanese laborers also faced racism, as whites accused them of stealing their jobs, because they would work for lower pay (as much as 38 percent). Yet the unions refused to let Asian workers join their ranks and bargain collectively for better pay and working conditions, in spite of the life-threatening hazards they faced as employees of the railroads, and hardly in the way that early Labor cared for its own by insuring the sick and injured, and by paying for doctors and hospitals.
The early Chinese immigrants were begrudgingly accepted by Americans and not immediate targets of animosity or violence. The main sources of anti-Chinese sentiment during those times were workers’ groups who described the influx of Asian workers to the United States as yellow peril. In addition to widespread intolerance for Asians, many labor unions held that cheap immigrant labor would lower wages for American workers. In the 1870s, the Anti-Coolies Association and the Supreme Order of the Caucasians ran boycotts of Chinese businesses and laborers and caused riots in Chinatowns across the West. Many immigrants returned to China, while others fled to San Francisco, home to the largest Chinese community and Chinatown in the United States.
Fueling the anti-Chinese senti-ment in the United States was the economic depression of the 1870s. It was believed that overcapitalizing of railroads contributed to the Panic of 1873, and as a result the railroads, big businesses, and the Chinese laborers became targets. The public, upset with big business excesses and rampant unemployment, supported early labor organizations such as the socialist Workingman’s Party led by Denis Kearney, himself an Irish immigrant. Kearney called for the expulsion of Chinese from the United States, inciting white workers with the slogan, The Chinese Must Go.
In 1877, the Workingman’s Party led several violent demonstrations in San Francisco and elsewhere. Tensions exploded on July 23, 1877, in the Sand Lot Riots, when a labor rally in San Francisco in support of striking railroad workers turned ugly and violent. Ignited by Kearney’s demagoguery, including racially biased pamphlets denigrating Chinese culture, a group of 20 men or so brutally attacked a Chinese man who had the misfortune to be in the vicinity of the rally, igniting three days of riots that included the burning and destruction of Chinese homes and businesses.
Some courts opposed attempts to harass and discriminate against the Chinese. In one San Francisco case, a judge denounced a ruling by the state Board of Supervisors that required male prisoners’ hair to be cut within one inch, unofficially referred to as the Queue Ordinance. The judge described it as spiteful legislation intended to discourage immigration. He ruled that such a hair-cutting law purposely aimed at the Chinese, and not enforced against any other prisoners, violated the Civil Rights Act of 1870, the 14th Amendment, and the Burlingame Treaty. Federal laws, though, supported by anti-Chinese labor movements, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882 and became the most devastating of all anti-Chinese legislation. It barred Chinese from entering the United States for 10 years, allowing only Chinese merchants, teachers, students, or travelers in, and only under strict regulations. It also required Chinese already residing in the United States to have a permit to reenter the country, and it granted all Chinese permanent alien status; this meant they could not become citizens. The Chinese Exclu-sion Act was extended two times, once in 1892 for an additional 10 years, and again in 1902 for an indefinite time period. It was finally repealed in 1943.
As Chinese workers who remained in the United States migrated eastward for work, including to Montana to work on the Northern Pacific Railroad, discriminatory legislation and a poor economic climate accompanied them. And so, they continued to be scapegoats for anti-immigrant labor unions. An affidavit by two Chinese merchants in Butte, Mont., and the corresponding trade union flyers calling for a boycott of Chinese businesses in Butte, remain as evidence of these racially charged labor movement campaigns.
In 1884, labor unions in Butte ordered Chinese immigrants to leave town, but with no results. In 1891 and 1892, and again in 1896 during another nationwide depression, labor unions boycotted Chinese-owned businesses as well as businesses employing Chinese, blaming the immigrants for the adverse economic climate. Union flyers promoting the boycott were one means of notifying members and encouraging the general public not to patronize these establishments and of instilling hatred for Chinese immigrants.
While many Chinese fled Butte, some merchants retaliated in federal court. In Hum Lay, et al. v. Baldwin, also known as the Chinese Boycott Case, an injunction to stop the boycott was sought by Chinese merchants. The court paperwork lists 132 Chinese names, and the affidavit of Huie Pock and Quon Loy. The case was heard in the Ninth Circuit Court of the United States, District of Montana, and contrary to the prevailing public attitude of the time, the court ruled in favor of the Chinese. The defendants were “enjoined and refrained from further combining or conspiring to injure or destroy the business of the said complainants or any of them and from threatening, coercing or injuring any person or persons becoming or intending to become patrons of said complainants.” The Chinese also recovered costs of $1,750.05 from the defendants for fees and expenses. The court provided relief in the form of prohibiting certain behavior or causing the defendant to perform certain actions rather than money damages.
In other words, the federal court listened to the grievances of a hated minority persecuted by labor groups and ruled based on fairness rather than race. The union was ordered to stop their activities.
Sources: National Archives; Daley, W. The Chinese Americans. New York; Yu, C. Y. Who are the Chinese Americans?, Reference Library of Asian America; U.S. Bureau Labor Statistics, 2011; The Chinese in California, 1850-1925, Library of Congress; George Everett. ButteAmerica.com, When Toil Meant Trouble: Butte’s Labor Heritage. Note: portions of this article are reprinted from the National Archives.
Lynn Zheng is a fourth generation Chinese American, a freelance writer, and a frequent visitor to Butte, Montana.