Podcast with Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts and Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood, Faculty Member, History
Were labor unions successful in improving the quality of life for working-class people? In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to history professor Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood about the history of labor unions in the Carolinas. Hear about the turbulent and often violent efforts to form unions including the infamous Charlotte massacre of August 25, 1919 and how such efforts relate to present-day unions.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we’re talking to Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood, associate faculty of history. Our conversation is going be about dynamics at work. Welcome, Jeff.
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: Glad to be here, Bjorn.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. So let’s just jump in to the first question. Why study the New South and the Carolina Piedmont region? And why is Charlotte so important?
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: Well, first of all I’m from the area of Western North Carolina, a little further west than Charlotte. But this is a region that is at play, even to this present time, politically speaking. North Carolina, a battleground state in the last few elections. And one of the really interesting things about Charlotte is that it was held up as symbolic of the New South, which was a goal that was expressed by Henry W. Grady in the post-Civil War years.
He believed that the South of agriculture and the South of slavery was dead, and it would be replaced by a New South of economic opportunity and development. Of course, those economic opportunities presented new challenges to the working people of the Carolinas.
The Piedmont region is the area dominated by Charlotte. It’s interesting to note that Charlotte, even though it’s a North Carolina city, actually has lot of economic impact on parts of South Carolina, the upstate. You can see the threads of this back during the previous century, 100 years ago in the post-World War I era.
That’s why I found this a very fascinating topic. Charlotte, in recent times, in 2012 was where the Obama campaign kicked off the re-election. And in 2020, before COVID-19 complicated matters, the Trump campaign also thought about doing their big shindig in Charlotte. So being an economic capital, though, seriously hurt by the 2007 recession, Charlotte’s still a force to be reckoned with.
That’s the reason why I did my research on Charlotte, because it was a very important theater for labor history 100 years ago. But it’s a forgotten history because it’s a bloody history, and Charlotte today doesn’t really like to revisit what happened in the past. But you can’t rewrite history, not a single line of it.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No. That’s absolutely excellent. Myself, having probably lived 1,800 miles from Charlotte my entire life, I know very little about Charlotte, the Carolinas, honestly, and the South in general. I think that’s one of the complications of history, is we all essentially learn these mythologies about history. And sometimes we think these mythologies, or just oral history that for some reason that has been passed to us, are true.
We simplify history to sometimes caricatures, such as the South. People who don’t live in the South might have these preconceived ideas of the South. Or maybe people who live in the Carolinas, you have the preconceived idea of California because there’s a certain mythology that goes to certain places, and then just stereotypes.
So how did you discover this research topic? You said you’re from the area, so that obviously is a contributing part.
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: You brought up something really salient about the mythologization of a certain region. There’s this reigning theory that the South was not organized and was wholly rejective of organized labor. That’s simply not true, because there’s a number of historians who have pointed out that there were willing minds and willing hands to embrace organized labor in the Carolinas, particularly in the upstate South Carolina and the North Carolina Piedmont region.
But I got interested in it because I was a Master’s student at Western Carolina University, and I had a professor that I was very fond of, very close to, named Gerry Schwartz, who tragically passed away last year. So I’ve been thinking about him a lot because in many ways he inspired me to go on to become who I am today.
One of the assignments that we had in his industrial class was to look at some labor history or industrial event that had a local connection. When most people think of labor history in North Carolina, they think of the textile mills. They think of the mill towns. These have a lasting influence on the region because the mill towns are around all the way until the 1960s or the 1970s.
Think what you will of former Senator John Edwards, the presidential hopeful, that one of the things he boasted about was the fact that he’d come so far from a mill town family. But the streetcar men, I found this a fascinating subject, because the 1919 Charlotte strike, unlike a lot of the textile mill strikes was almost forgotten.
Until I discovered it in the early 2000s as a topic, only one other person, Carol Shaw, has really attempted to do any long-term research on it. She did it for a senior thesis at the undergrad level, and then didn’t develop it any further.
I didn’t even read this work until after I’d done my initial research. I’d done newspaper research. And your bringing up oral history, that’s something else I wanted to point out. One of the really nice things about oral history is that you can take one oral history source and you can triangulate it with others.
I found some oral accounts that had been preserved by an historian named Allen Tullos, who’s a published author who’s done work on Southern industry. He did a lot of good. Like other scholars, he laid the foundation for me to continue doing my work. I try to give full credit to other scholars for inspiring me or offering insight.
There were several people who were observers during the strike and afterward. You can take all these triangulated sources, and corroborate, “Okay this person coincides with that person. This is something that maybe isn’t as easy to support.” That’s really how historians try to work, whether it’s oral or written sources. We try to triangulate. We try to corroborate.
I found myself doing a lot of this with the Charlotte strike. Even though my thesis at the time was on a completely different subject, World War II bomb squads, which we could talk about another time, the Charlotte strike story stayed withme. It ended up becoming my Ph.D. dissertation.
West Virginia University history faculty are really strong on Appalachian history, and really strong on labor history because of the coal mines. I had a really good labor historian direct my thesis. His name is Kenneth Fones-Wolf. He just retired from the department.
So this bridged my Master’s program all the way to my Ph.D., and then beyond. Because I then enhanced it further and I published it about three years ago.
The reason why the story has stayed with me for so long is one, because of my ancestral connection to the region. As you were saying about stereotypes, you really want to try to give a three-dimensional portrait of people instead of a two-dimensional stereotype. It’s very easy, especially in this present time, to stereotype people. I have to remind myself. The historian in me says, “People are not monolithic. People are not two-dimensional.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: At the time of the recording that we’re doing right now, which is November 2020. The election just happened, and what you just said really resonates. People are not monolithic. People are complex.
So after the election, people who voted for Biden, people who voted for Trump, there seem to be such a draw for people to just talk about large swaths of people. “Oh, well they did this because of this reason. They voted this way because of this reason.” People are more complex than that. Always more complex.
And history, more than any other subject, really delves into the complexity of humans. Their actions. Their reactions. And just the complicated downstream events that happened. So why are streetcar conductors and motormen so important in the era that you’re talking about? What was the working world of the streetcar men like?
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: Well, it’s changed, of course, and we can talk about the changes that came after the 1920s and 1930s further down the road. But as you were saying, you can’t really judge an entire people and sum them up with a few facile arguments.
The reason why the region I’m talking about was amenable to labor was because of bread and butter issues even though labor union members have been often painted by their critics as socialists. That was very common back then. The propaganda that the local newspapers used was very anti-labor and it used a lot of anti-Bolshevik imagery, saying the Bolshevik Revolution happened in 1917, it can happen here in 1919.
Of course, the people who backed the streetcar unions in the Carolinas were anything but socialists. They were thinking about ordinary working class concerns, like cost of living, which after World War I was really dreadful.
But the streetcar men acted as conduits of information about the way that working class, local working class people, were treated. Because they heard all the stories from the textile workers and the other workers that traveled to and from, and they were sympathetic in large part.
There was some mistrust by the streetcar men towards some of the textile workers, because the textile workers tended to be a little more fiery, a little bit more unmanageable. But many of the streetcar men believed that the workers in the textile mills should be unionized too, even though the American Federation of Labor focused more on trained workers.
Now, streetcar men were trained workers. They were skilled laborers. This is something that was borne out by state and national discussions in Congress when they talked about why streetcar men were so important. They’re skilled workers. They take people to and from work. They operate streetcars safely. The union promoted safe conduct and safe practices.
And they were the primary means of transportation in the period in between horse-drawn and gasoline-powered buses. You had sort of a transitional period. You had electric streetcars starting in the 1890s. They still in vogue all the way until the 1920s.
The construction of streetcar suburbs that served the local areas. People would go to school on streetcars. They’d go to work on streetcars. They’d go downtown. They’d go out to recreation parks.
It wasn’t until after streetcars began to phase out in favor of buses, and of course private transportation, that the role of the streetcar motormen and conductors really started to disintegrate because there was no longer a need for them.
Nowadays streetcars are a major tourist attraction. It’s sort of what I like to all “ain’t that quaint” version of history that tourists really enjoy. But in those days it was much more of a prosaic, everyday phenomenon.
The streetcar men wore uniforms. They paid dues. They had baseball teams, which they would actually play with their managers. They had a culture of their own, but because they weren’t as long-lasting as the textile mills, or as dramatic as the textile mills. The textile workers have had a number of documentaries and films made about them, whereas the streetcar men have kind of vanished over time.
And, again, picking up the vanishing threads of that past world, that was the biggest challenge for me because I had to go through the newspapers, the oral histories, and so forth.
I found that they were just like bus drivers today. Bus drivers hear it all from their passengers, and you’d be surprised at what they know. They get taken for granted sometimes. Transportation workers even today are very important. We take them for granted because, well, they’re just there. But they have lives and they have aspirations, and many of them love what they do, or they wouldn’t do it.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No. I mean there are bus routes everywhere. Honestly, one of I guess you could say environmental pushes these days is to use more mass transportation. Don’t drive as much. Take a bus. Take a train or whatever you have in your locality. The legacy of, like you said, horse-drawn carriages, to streetcars, to other things. It’s still alive with us today.
So why was there so much resistance to unions, especially in the New South. You mentioned communism, of course. There was the 1917 Revolution in Russia, which is interesting because then there was a Red Scare in the US that lasted a pretty good long time. Can you go a little more into depth into some of the resistance?
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: It really coincided with the First World War. Now, labor had really enjoyed an upswing during the immediate first two decades of the 20th century. One of the important factors was the influence of Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor, because they had replaced the more radical unions like the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies.
They had become the premier labor organization, a big umbrella, a union of unions. But they avoided the really radical expressions of labor. They used strikes only as a last resort.
They also abided by the prejudices of the era. They had very few women organized. They abided by Jim Crow in areas of the South. And they largely ignored unskilled trades like the textile mill workers. Of course, the deskilling of labor was something that had been going on since the Civil War.
But with the 1912 election, you had very strong support for organized labor from the Democratic Party under Woodrow Wilson. In fact, a former united mine worker became his Secretary of Labor. That would be William B. Wilson.
During the war the labor unions demonstrated their support for the government at war by resisting impulses to strike. Labor was largely divided. Much like the Democratic Party of today, you had the moderates, and then you had a few people on the fringes who were more radical.
Of course, it was the radical elements that the businesses argued against. And, of course, guilt by association. Because you’ve got these really radical outspoken people, therefore the whole labor organization is really like that. Again, we hear the same argument today about why labor is so dangerous.
But nonetheless, despite all these prejudices, during the 19-teens, you had expansions of the streetcar union, which back then was a big mouthful. It was the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees, or AASERE as I call it.
They were able to organize in places like Asheville, North Carolina, or Columbia, South Carolina, where in fact the chapter president was also the elected representative for District 77, which here in Columbia where I’m sitting right now, is actually represented by a very progressive African American politician, a very young star of the Democratic Party by the name of Kambrell Garvin.
But back 100 years ago, it was represented by the president of the local streetcar union. It’s really fascinating to figure out. There’s strong support for these really progressive politicians. Progressive back then, Representative Gerald was considered progressive 100 years ago. Of course, he probably would have been appalled or at least frightened by the idea that 100 years later we have an African American who is now representative. But they both represent politics in their own way.
So what we have is a ground of support, but there is also a ground of opposition. Because of the Bolshevik Revolution, which we talked about earlier, and the Red Scare which most people associate with McCarthy. But there was an earlier Red Scare with Palmer raids and so forth. It touched the Carolinas, and Georgia, and Tennessee. I could talk about Georgia and Tennessee a little bit, but we’re focused on this region so we’ll stay focused on that.
But there were a number of clashes between the streetcar union and politicians in all these states: Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina. But Charlotte was important because it was the hole in the doughnut. If they could unionize Charlotte in 1919 before Wilson left office, Wilson was a lame duck president. If they could unionize Charlotte, they would fill the hole in the doughnut because you’ve got Columbia. You’ve got Asheville, North Carolina. You’ve got a few other small unions in other mill towns. And that was the big one.
The reason why was because it’s the headquarters for Duke Power, or in those days, Southern Power. And Duke, very anti-union, had been busted by the Supreme Court for anti-trust violations with its tobacco empire.
So what does Duke do? He reinvents himself as a hydroelectric dam developer. He also has part interest in the textile mills that uses power. And he also has interest in the utilities companies that use the electricity from the dam. So that’s why there was a lot of resistance in Charlotte, because James Duke and his associates did not want any unions. Even one union because that would mean, of course, that others would come. They were determined to nip it in the bud.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So the next question I have for you is why was 1919 such an important year for labor history?
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: Well, it was the year of the big strikes. It was the year after Johnny came marching home. One of the things I’m going to be doing very shortly is a course, a special topics course on the Roaring 20s. I start with the year 1919 because it really sets the stage, not just for the immediate future, but also for the whole decade.
It was the year in which Prohibition went into effect. It was also the year in which the backlash against labor reached a fevered pitch.
You’d had, during the war, the National War Labor Board, which was actually chaired by former President William Howard Taft. It was a fairly egalitarian way of dealing with labor issues. They would arbitrate instead of allowing strikes to go on to become violent.
Oftentimes they would find in favor of the unions, but there was a sunset on that particular body. It should have probably beenkept permanently, but it was just a matter of sunset legislature as they say. It expired, and therefore there was no way to really arbitrate except through the Department of Labor and it was a non-binding process in a lot of cases.
The Department of Labor could send people to observe. There was an observer in Charlotte, and he had some interesting things to say about the strike. But the power was very limited because he couldn’t compel private industry, like Duke, to play ball with the labor unions.
It was the year of the Centralia Massacre. It was the year of the big steel strike. A lot of people were in the balance because of the war between the corporations. They had unions of sorts too, a union of corporations, different political groups, what we would call today PACs, who were pretty much focused on getting rid of labor unions. That was their raison d’etre.
So to organized labor, 1919 is sort of like a last-ditched effort. This is our Hail Mary. So they begin to push to organize Charlotte and other places. And in a lot of cases, like in Charlotte, they ended up suffering.
The Charlotte streetcar men were among the lowest paid in the country. The national average was 26 cents to 28 cents for an hour. We’re talking about wages 100 years ago, when we’re still on the gold standard.
But the Southern Transportation Company, Duke’s forerunner, which operated in Charlotte during the early 1900s were paying as low as 12 cents hourly. Duke, they only went up to maybe 15, 16 cents per hour starting wages. So it wasn’t that big of a jump.
The streetcar men were tired of being treated as little better than textile workers, or unskilled workers. They wanted better wages. They wanted better working conditions.
Of course, the hazards of the job, because of the cold weather oftentimes they would turn off the heat onboard these streetcars in order to save money. This was actually the reason for a 1903 strike that happened in Charlotte before Duke bought up the transportation company. This is the kind of working condition they had to deal with, so they were really receptive to the unions when they came in.
Unfortunately for the streetcar union, they brought in a guy from Ohio who had good intentions. His name was Jones, Albert Essex Jones. He was a skilled Ohio union official. He had been president of local chapters. He was also a very combative and fierce sort of guy, and he rubbed people the wrong way when he came to the Carolinas.
He successfully organized a small chapter in Spartanburg, which is in a very conservative upper part of South Carolina, the upstate. He saw an opportunity to march on Charlotte, and that’s where he moved towards Charlotte, the hole in the doughnut as I said earlier.
Charlotte at this time is booming. It’s growing fast. But there’s a lot of resistance in Charlotte. There was some support. The mayor of Charlotte, Frank McNinch, is an interesting figure. He would later on become the first head of the Federal Communications Commission under Franklin Roosevelt. But at the time he was mayor of Charlotte, and he was pro-labor but he was in a bind because he also had to deal with conservative businessmen like Duke in the area. So he had to play very soft with the organized labor.
As a result there were mixed messages in Charlotte for the union. On the one hand, they were able to organize not only the chapter in Charlotte, but also they were able to organize chapters in three other towns. One in Winston-Salem, which is to the north of Charlotte. Then a couple to the south of Charlotte, in Anderson and in Greenville. Anderson went back over to Duke almost immediately. But Greenville would end up being the most hard bitten. They would be the last to tear up their charter and come back into the fold.
But when the Charlotte strike started in August, it paralyzed not just Charlotte’s public transportation, but also transportation in two other towns and complicated the situation in other towns. This is why it really hurt Charlotte and why they considered it to be a threat.
The local newspapers attacked Jones and attacked the union. The company hired strikebreakers. Zebulon Taylor was the vice president. He was Duke’s right-hand man. I like to refer to him as the hatchet man because he did all the firing and all the hiring for the Southern Public Utilities Company. He was vociferously anti-union. You read his tirades in the newspapers and they’re every bit what you might expect from a Twitter message from a politician of the present day.
These people were attacked as outsiders, even though the local union consisted of local people. There were violent clashes between these armed strikebreakers and local demonstrators. No one was actually killed by these strikebreakers, but they were intimidated. And in one or two cases the strikebreakers actually shot over the heads or at the feet of protestors.
It all came to a head on the night of August 25th, 1919. This is what’s called the Battle of the Barn. Before I go into that, are there any other questions you’d like to ask me, because that’s a pretty big chunk right there?
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. No. You’re definitely leading up to the violence of August 25th, 1919. Correct? So can you explain what happened with that event?
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood (26:11):
Well, it’s sort of an anatomy of a disaster in a way. I often use disasters as a teaching tool, but in many ways a massacre like this is human disaster. It’s the worst kind, because it deals not with the failures of machinery, or the elements of weather, but it deals with the fallibility of man.
You had some interesting individuals at work here. You had the Police Chief, Walter Orr, who was a very small man. He didn’t like the textile workers, and he didn’t like the unions. He was called out to protect the car barn where the strikebreakers were being housed when they were not on shift. There were some attacks on streetcars where people were throwing bricks through the windows. The usual kinds of mayhem. But nothing really serious.
What happened that really elevated the situation is that you had protesters, some of whom may have been drunk, violating prohibition. They had baseball bats. They’d been playing sandlot baseball games and drinking beer. They all flocked to where a small group of protesters were hovering outside of the car barn in downtown Charlotte.
You had Police Chief Orr and his men, and you had the strikebreakers who were armed, but who were not necessarily on picket. There’s a question about whether the strikebreakers took part in the shooting. Most of the shooting seems to have been the police, however.
To make a long story short, there was a teenager who attacked one of Chief Orr’s officers. Whether he was drunk and causing mayhem, or if there was something more political involved, we don’t know. I’ve not been able to ascertain. But the police officer claimed the boy was trying to grab his gun. But whatever happened, the boy was slugged and he was injured, probably with a concussion. He was taken to hospital. But he was so badly hit that there were rumors that the boy had been killed. The kid’s name was Clem Wilson.
Well, Clem had a big brother named John Wilson, and by all accounts he was huge. He was supposed to have been a big textile worker, a big bruiser. He came wanting to know what happened to his brother.
He went up to the police chief, who was much smaller than he was, and even though Wilson himself didn’t actually have a weapon on him. In fact, he rode to the scene in a horse-drawn buggy, which tells us kind of how rural the guy was. He didn’t have a gun with him or anything like that. But the police chief felt threatened, so he drew his revolver. He backed up toward the line in front of the car barn, and he panicked and fired in the air with his police revolver.
Later on he claimed that he fired at and above the crowd because he thought he saw a gun. But in the murder trial that followed, he finally broke down and admitted, “Yeah. I fired in the air. I got scared and I fired in the air.” But nothing ever happened to him. He was never punished for this action which started an avalanche of violence.
You had lead flying from one direction, from the car barn out into the crowd. Five men were killed, and 12 were wounded, some of them very seriously. When the smoke had cleared there were bodies lying all over the area in front of the car barn.
One unfortunate fellow, Caldwell ‘Collie’ Houston, who was a railway union member, which indicates that there was cross-union support for the streetcar men, he had dragged himself all the way to die in front of a laundry building. One person, Claud Holland, who was 17, was not a member of the union. He worked as a store clerk and he may have stuck his head out the window. It might have been collateral damage, as they like to say. Friendly fire, whatever.
But I was able to trace his gravestone. He was only 17, and he was killed by a flying bullet, killed instantly. So this is the short-term tragedy.
The unions took all the blame for the violence. The Mecklenburg County courts covered Chief Orr’s backside. They blamed Frank McNinch, because Frank McNinch had earlier hammered out a deal that gave the union a one-year trial period, which of course Duke rejected. McNinch had to go through a recall election. He barely passed. He won the recall election, but he left office not long after that because he had lost all taste for politics.
The long-term effect was that the local areas around Charlotte were saying, “This is what the unions are like. Let’s divest ourselves of any connections with the unions. The unions are at fault.” So it not only slowed any union progress, but it also undercut previous union successes.
By 1920-22, there had been a couple of strikes in the Columbia area, and Columbia streetcar union collapsed because they were locked out of their jobs. They had to go find other means of supporting themselves.
So by the end of the 1920s, the only streetcar union chapter that was still around in the mountains was Asheville, which is interesting because today you have the American Transportation Union and back in 1920 they were known as AASERE chapter 128. Now they’re ATU chapter 128. So they’ve got the same designation as 100 years ago.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s fascinating because of the tragedy. I mean for all intents and purposes, as with most violence, as you were talking about, kind of the fallibility of being human. None of this had to happen.
As with any kind of, say, protests that turn into riots, if level heads would meet at the table, they could easily talk it out. But human nature for what it is, human inclination for violence for what it is, these happen. Human fear. And then, just like you said, with the store clerk, who was collateral damage. The poor guy got killed.
How many times in various riots throughout history has that happened, where a poor bystander is snuffed out of existence for no fault of their own because other people can’t control themselves? Which, of course, is the real sad part of any kind of riot. So what has changed for transportation workers since this fateful year in 1919?
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: Well, obviously the streetcars gradually were phased out. In Charlotte, they were phased out by 1935. They were going out in 1929, but they were finally, completely phased out and replaced by an autobus system.
The car barn itself, the monument to the men who died, was turned into an up-to-date modern garage system. Later on it was used by Duke Power as a storage building. When I started researching it, they were trying to save it as an historic monument. They were going to use it as a museum to talk about transportation. But the bond failed in 2003, and in 2007 it was torn down.
And nothing has really been remarked upon except for a few newspaper articles. They missed an opportunity last year to commemorate the century of the strike and the tragedy. There was really nothing done about it.
I’d talked to a few historians about getting something started, but there was just no interest in the city. The Amalgamated Transportation Union still helps the transportation workers of the country, and they’re still a vital part of the American Federation of Labor, which is now part of the AFL-CIO network. That’s one of the big changes. They have historians too, and they were fascinated by the history I just related to you because they didn’t know anything about it.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Again, it’s sad to think of these important events that happen for people. They might be categorized as small events, because they only impact a few dozen, a few hundred. And only a few people died, which of course is a horrible thing to say. That’s one of the unfortunate rhetorical devices of history, is when you say stuff like, “Well, only five people died,” or “Five people died.” That’s five people who died, though.
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: Right. Exactly. I always tell people, that’s the same number of people that were killed in the Boston Massacre. We make a big deal about the Boston Massacre even though it was anything but. With regards to the people that died there, it only made one sidebar in The New York Times. I mean it really was, by comparison with bigger events, very small. But it had a powerful impact on the people who were immediately affected by it.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. It makes me think of the John Adams series on HBO, gosh, 20 years ago now, in which they recreated the Boston Massacre. When you watch that, of course, the visual medium of television helps make things come alive. You look at it and you watch. You’re like, “That’s a really small event.” Again, people died. A tragedy.
But, yes, the Charlotte riot versus the Boston Massacre, similar in scope which is so bizarre. But Charlotte, forgotten. Completely forgotten, which is sad.
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: The circumstances under the Boston Massacre, of course, were a bit different because we are talking about a much smaller number of people. You have the East Coast versus the entire nation. Of course, something like that is going to be commemorated, especially because it was valuable propaganda for the Sons of Liberty.
Whereas with the 1919 period, I mean, take your pick. There’s a lot of strikes and a lot of violence that happened. So it’s overshadowed. Whereas the Boston Massacre was really partly instigated by the Bostonian workers.
I mean, that was one reason why John Adams was able to defend the British troops and Lieutenant Preston so effectively, is because facts are stubborn things. The fact is the soldiers didn’t start the violence. Whereas you could definitely say that the violence was escalated by the company in Charlotte, and abetted by the police officers.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. And it really makes you be very skeptical of the intentions of corporations, such as in this case. When you think of the Ludlow Massacre, where it was just about breaking the union, or breaking the organized labor to save money, which is just they’re fighting for just a better life. Yet companies can’t pay a little more?
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: Same thing with Matewan, which happened around that same time period. It comes down to greed as you are saying.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m going to go out on a very, very far limb here, and I’ll compare it to the current discussions about Amazon. Amazon, I think it’s the largest company in the world as of 2020. Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world.
And they’re hesitant to pay their workers a little more, the workers in the warehouses. These are the people that give everyone the products, and you could make their lives a little better. But you want to chip into your multi, multi, multi, multi-billion dollar valuation by just paying people a little more? It’s completely bizarre.
I guess from my perspective, and from an ethics perspective—ethics are gray—but you give people a little more, they are a little happier. Of course, there is a point to where you give them more, then it’s a zero-sum game.
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: Right. Exactly. The advent of corporate welfare, and say what you will about Henry Ford. I loathe the man, and his attitude about history, and his anti-Semitism. But he did believe in giving competitive wages.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s one of the topics that I do like to talk about, is the rhetoric of hard work. I think this is a great example of it, because these men, I’m assuming they’re all men who did the streetcars.
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: They only had women in World War I, and they were mostly in big cities like New York and Baltimore.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. And this time is so interesting because women were given the right to vote in 1920. I guess ratified in 1919. So it just happened.
And so these men are just literally trying to make it a little better, and to have the American Dream. I’m not sure if the American Dream existed as an idea in 1919. But you can only work so hard until something has to change. It’s just so interesting how the rhetoric of hard work is like, “Well, you need to work as hard as you can. You still won’t make that much money, but that’s just your place in life.”
And then when people actually try to organize, and try to make it better, it’s then blocked constantly by corporations. When then what I’m saying right now would have like, well, this is communist propaganda.
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: Well, you still have that rhetoric in a lot of things that we hear today. Unfortunately, there are some people on the outer fringes who kind of tear out the carpet occasionally because they don’t know how to temper their zeal with maybe a little more restraint, maybe a little more decorum.
Of course, they say things that are embarrassing and that can be used against the overall effort to ameliorate the world of working people. Of course, now we have working men, working women. We did away with child labor though that could come back if we’re not careful.
Yeah. The concept of hard work, it’s almost like a boilerplate expression of, “Work hard!” But it is true that in order to be successful, you have to be good at what you do. You have to be competent.
There was some talk about organizing when I was a PhD student. They talked about organizing adjunct professors, or adjunct instructors because they were considered to be exploited by the universities, because the universities weren’t hiring more tenure-track professors.
Of course, I never got into that particular business too much. I know that some people were afraid to get involved with that movement, because they were afraid that it might hurt them when they got their degrees and tried to apply for tenure-track jobs.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. I mean, what you said right there. It’s existing structures surviving because they always have, and people fearful of changing it because it could jeopardize their future. It totally makes sense.
Just like with universities, we’re on a side tangent, universities keeping underpaid resources, labor, because they can. Well, you’re getting a degree. We’re not paying you anything. It’s just part of the deal. That’s one thing in higher education that doesn’t look like it will change, but it should.
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: They run like businesses instead of institutions. They always look at the bottom line. To a certain extent, you have to have efficiency, and you have to have accountability. These are good traits to have in universities. You don’t want to waste money, or duplicate effort. I can see how the business model might help an institution like that.
On the other hand, people are people. You have to see them as resources, but you know, we talk about resources, human resources. But it is always in practice? In a lot of companies they don’t always see human beings as human beings. Walmart is a good example. In the town where I went to college for my undergrad and master’s, they tried to organize that Walmart, and they fired everybody.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. And that’s large corporations, such as Walmart, Amazon, just to pick on those two because they’re so big. Yeah, the individual person is completely replaceable. The rhetoric hard work is “Work hard, you’ll benefit someday.” Well, it’s more complicated than that.
Everybody works hard. Then even the executives, and it’s not to say that there can’t be an executive class, there can’t be a managerial class. There has to be. But just the sheer amount of money, that I’ll say the leadership has deluded themselves that, “Oh well, we have to pay quality talent to retain them.” No. That’s just because you control the purse and you’re like, “Well, I’m just going to pay you, Jeff, a million dollars if you stay here.” And you like, “Okay.” Who’s going to disagree, because you’re in charge? While an average worker at Walmart has, say, a few kids and has to have two jobs.
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: A lot of times people do work two jobs, or more, to keep things on the table. Of course, the goal of unions is to try to ameliorate that situation, to amend it to where they don’t have to do that. They can focus on their one job, and it should be enough to support them.
We could go into the double income phenomenon. In the 1960s and 1970s, they figured they could charge more to double income families because they’d be willing to pay for the goods and services. But that’s another story.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I know, it is. Another side conversation is how the politics at large expect people to hustle constantly. Well, you have your job and then you have your side income stream. Well, most people have to work and have a family. Then you want them to have something else in addition?
Everybody’s hustling so much that I understand why there is more interest in, say, unionization or government help as of 2020. In the same respect I understand why people still believe in the American Dream, because of course, it’s true. It’s complicated. Everything is complicated.
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: It is that. I mean, I can say that I’ve lived the American Dream because my grandfather was a bootlegger from Western North Carolina, and my dad was a high school dropout. He had to drop out to work in a furniture factory because his mother was terminally ill.
If it weren’t for his 20 years service in the Army and my own service many moons ago, I wouldn’t be here. I say that there is an American Dream. But again, it is complicated. You have to find your way.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And it’s tough because, again, going back to the rhetoric of hard work, the American Dream is really about your average person being safe and having a job, if that makes sense. It’s not about becoming a millionaire.
I think because of media and American media portrayals of wealth and extravagance, that’s kind of what people think of. And in reality, a more temperate approach to the American Dream is reality.
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: It is. And the median income in America is something that I can tell you from having visited other countries, the luxuries that we enjoy here on just a median income would be really considered extravagant in a country like Northern Italy where I lived as a child.
I had toys that the Italian kids could only dream of owning, and that was just from the perspective of a child. As a young adult when I was in Turkey, the American dollar could go a long way.
It’s made me appreciate things a little bit more because I’ve actually seen how other people live in other places. I’ve been to Mexico once or twice, just over the border, and I’ve seen the poverty in places like Juarez.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I grew up in El Paso, Texas. I took some credits at UTEP, University of Texas, El Paso. When you’re coming out of the library right in front of you, across the river, the Rio Grande, is Juarez. It’s not a shanty town per se, but it’s very shabbily constructed buildings. You’re like, “That is reality.”
It’s sad that the rhetoric hard work, what is would describe is mainly used by politicians to say, “You need to work harder. It’s your fault you’re in this position.” When the reality is that we all work hard. If somebody could have that message, “We’re all working hard, and we all just need to have a good life.”
For the most part, the average person, they do that. They understand that. Much like what we were talking about here with the Charlotte strike, those people in leadership positions that then corrupt what is going on, and put into place bad things.
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: A lyric from Neil Peart, the lyricist and drummer for Rush who died earlier this year comes to mind. Nobody’s Hero, in one of the verses he said, “It’s the pride of purpose in the unrewarding job. It is the voice of reason against the howling mob.” I’ve always liked that particular line. Of course, it’s sort of an aspirational role model. You want to be like that.
As a historian, I’ve had students who’ve told me they’re really angry about situations today. And I tell them, “Stay at home. Don’t go out there into the streets. Don’t go pounding the pavement.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. I don’t recommend anybody going to protests. You can protest. But protests can turn into riots, and when riots occur, all bets are off. Anything can happen. You could die.
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: And who gets the blame? Just like with the Charlotte strike. If anything that has taught me, this is even before the obvious example that they used about, “Oh, the Nazis fighting in the street during the rise of Hitler.” No. But even before that, if you go out there and you protest, and you fight with the police, and you fight with strikebreakers, they’re going to make you into the bad guy even if you have the gravity of justice on your side.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No. It’s true. And from a political perspective, I loathe the media because the only things that seem to be important are national elections, when the most important things are local elections. Local elections is what keeps people together. It’s what makes the world go by.
Example, those people in Washington DC who get all the attention. Not that it’s a clown show, but what really happens is what goes locally. And locally, almost every time people work hard, and they work for the good of the local environment and local people. But before we keep on going, any final words, Jeffrey.
Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood: I think that this has been an enjoyable and thought-provoking conversation. Hopefully, from me to you as well as from you to me. You’ve brought out a lot of really good points that I was able to tie into my research.
I think that this time period has a lot to offer us looking back on it from a centennial viewpoint. Human beings tend to be number obsessed. So, “100 years ago.” But regardless of when something takes place, it still offers a valuable lesson for the present day.
Because one thing I’ve learned, our technology evolves, our governments sometimes change, but human motivations are always the same. To understand history you have to understand human nature.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. And I thank you for an absolutely wonderful podcast. Today, we were talking to Dr. Jeffrey Leatherwood, associate faculty of history. Our conversation was about dynamics at work.