State of the Debate: The Other American Dilemma


J. Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America (Simon & Schuster, 1997).

A couple of hundred pages into the rich and sprawling narrative of Big Trouble, Anthony Lukas quotes an Irish-born union president named Ed Boyce who, one day in 1902, was moved to lay down the facts of life for his members: "There are only two classes of people in the world," Boyce told a convention of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), "One is composed of the men and women who produce all; the other is composed of men and women who produce nothing, but live in luxury upon the wealth produced by others."

That statement evokes much of the meaning and drama Lukas wants to convey. The "big trouble" of his title stemmed from a history of class violence in the silver mines and mining towns of the intermountain West. The drama began in Caldwell, Idaho, on a snowy evening in late December 1905. Frank Steunenberg, a former governor, opened his garden gate and was blown apart by a bomb attached to the gatepost. Almost immediately, his family and business associates suspected the miners union. While in office in 1899, Steunenberg had requested troops to battle the WFM's sway in the silver and lead mines of the Coeur D'Alenes, a rugged region of northern Idaho; hundreds of union workers were incarcerated in several boxcars and a barn. Forced to subsist on bread and water and without blankets to protect them against the mountain cold, several miners perished. "We have an account to settle with you," the union paper warned the governor at the time.

Days after Steunenberg's murder, Caldwell authorities arrested a drifter named Harry Orchard for the crime. They were immensely pleased when he fingered the WFM's top leaders for suggesting and bankrolling the murder. To make the case stick, Idaho's governor turned to the Pinkerton Detective Agency, the premier union-busting force of its day. Crack Pinkerton agents captured a trio of union officials—Charles Moyer, William "Big Bill" Haywood, and George Pettibone—near their Denver headquarters and spirited them across the Idaho border in a closed train. After the U.S. Supreme Court found the "extradition" constitutionally acceptable, the first trial—of the charismatic Haywood (who was also leader of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, remembered as the "Wobblies")—began in Boise, the state capital. Clarence Darrow was chief counsel for the defense.

So began a judicial drama that captivated the nation. "The Haywood case," writes Lukas, "may have been the first trial in American history in which the real target wasn't so much the jurors in the box as the larger jury of public opinion." President Theodore Roosevelt publicly branded the WFM trio "undesirable citizens" and rooted for Haywood's conviction. His epithet brought tens of thousands of workers into the streets of New York and other cities to protest. If even a "progressive" chief executive was calling for labor's blood, Ed Boyce's polarized worldview seemed indisputably accurate.

But Boyce himself was not among the demonstrators. His fiery remarks in 1902 were given during a farewell address to his union. By the time of Haywood's trial five years later, Boyce had tiptoed across the great divide. He was managing an exclusive hotel in Portland, Oregon, and, as befit the post, wore tailored suits and dined in the best restaurants. As far as one can tell, he never looked back.

Introducing his book, Lukas writes, "I hope that in telling this big story I've helped illuminate the class question at a time when the gap between our richest and poorest citizens grows ever wider." But the little story of Ed Boyce suggests one reason why through most of U.S. history class inequality has been, to paraphrase Gunnar Myrdal, the other American dilemma.

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S ince Tocqueville deemed it our ineradicable national curse, race has haunted Americans by its permanence. Our very skin reminds us of slavery's legacy. But class changes. If an immigrant worker like Boyce could vault the social ladder, seemingly throwing aside both his grievances and his poverty, why couldn't others do the same? Millions of wage earners in Boyce's day lived close to destitution, but they knew the story of Andrew Carnegie, the foreign-born son of an unemployed handloom weaver, who saw his chance to rise and seized it. Few Americans, then or now, embraced a tradition of loyalty to the working class. Without such a tradition, historical narratives about class allegiance and conflict have a difficult time gaining a large audience.

This reality should give pause to contemporary intellectuals and activists who want to place class in the center of the story that liberal activists and politicians tell ordinary Americans. Academics and activists like Jeff Faux, Joel Rogers, and Michael Tomasky have argued that progressives can revitalize American politics by setting aside race and gender and concentrating on class issues. Over the last two decades, Tomasky argues, "the country has been engaged in class warfare. But it hasn't been working people against the owning class— instead, it's been the other way around."

It is true that, notwithstanding the sunny state of the macroeconomy since the mid-1990s, class awareness has increased of late. Fear about the damage that globalization does to American workers helped to sink fast-track authorization for trade agreements. Last spring, a majority of Americans supported UPS strikers who were demanding the kind of secure, full-time jobs that fewer and fewer corporations now provide. Almost 90 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, abusive sweatshops are again in the news, this time with greedy employers paying famous black athletes to push products churned out in Ho Chi Minh City. And last fall the New Yorker, aspiring voice of the hip and well-heeled, ran a lengthy defense of Marx's theories about capitalism in a special issue dedicated to future trends.

But class must compete in a cultural environment filled with words and images about the primary American dilemma of race. Countless talk shows and films, memoirs and novels testify to the importance of racial identity. In contrast, class rings oddly impersonal, left to the business section (where a pro-labor view is seldom found) rather than the Oprah show. During O. J. Simpson's murder trial, there was little discussion of the millionaire's capacity to hire the legal "dream team" that won his release. The main argument was whether the trial was about racial prejudice or wife abuse; class seldom got mentioned. After all, Simpson had earned his money, performing in front of cameras, on and off the gridiron. Whether or not they believed his story, most Americans felt O. J. should be able to hire the best help he could afford.

America's ongoing fascination with race bespeaks a view of the world at odds with traditional notions of class consciousness. With whites cast as the largely contented majority and blacks as the perpetually abused minority, the guilt of one race and the rage of the other serve as the primary motivations of social change. Other divisions that betray the American dream remain in the shadow of that essential divide.

S o can liberals craft a compelling story about class? Lukas tests this question on fertile historical terrain. Beginning in the late 1870s, "the labor question" jostled to the front of the American agenda and stayed there through World War I. Massive industrial strikes regularly punctuated the growing but inegalitarian economy, and even prosperous unionized building tradesmen called for "the emancipation of the working class by and for themselves from the thralldom of competitive ex ploitation." Populists and Socialists won hundreds of local elections and threw a scare into both big business and the major parties.

It was the golden age of class narrative. In the late nineteenth century, best-selling books by Edward Bellamy and Henry George boosted popular support for socialism and radical tax reform, respectively. In the early twentieth century, radical muckrakers like Upton Sinclair and Lincoln Steffens exposed the venality of corporate rule and spurred reform movements to curb it. John Dewey, the nation's most influential philosopher, openly hoped that liberalism could give way peacefully to socialism. And Charlie Chaplin persuaded audiences to root for a tramp in his endless struggles with the selfish and the pompous.

The Haywood trial highlights the era's polarization. Local mine owners secretly, and illegally, paid the prosecutors' salaries. Idaho prison authorities invited the press corps to interview Harry Orchard in his cell but excluded reporters from left-wing papers. And Haywood would not have been on trial at all if the elected officials of two states, and the justices of the Supreme Court, hadn't approved his virtual kidnapping.

Only the defendant's surprising acquittal mitigates the grimness of the tale. And the result would likely have been different if the Boise judge had failed to instruct the jury that, under Idaho law, a person could not be convicted on the word of a single (alleged) accomplice. The Pinkertons had alternately bullied and cajoled some of Orchard's erstwhile associates in the WFM. But, in the end, none agreed to corroborate Orchard's elaborate story—which, ironically, Lukas suspects (on ambiguous evidence) was true.

Lukas, who committed suicide after completing the book, was a brilliant, indefatigable reporter. Big Trouble demonstrates his talents to the full. Besides untangling a complex drama, Lukas offers lingering portraits of many characters, famous and obscure, whose lives coincided with the courtroom theatrics. Providing relief from the class war, the author lavishes 14 pages on the baseball immortal Walter Johnson, who was then starting his career in a hamlet near Boise. Throughout, Lukas is scrupulously fair to actors from both sides. As in Common Ground, his widely read book about the Boston busing crisis of the 1970s, he does not allow his sympathies to cloud his judgments.

In particular, Lukas unflinchingly addresses the racial animosities of turn-of-the-century Idaho. The soldiers sent to the Coeur D'Alenes in 1899 were mostly black. Both their commanders and Governor Steunenberg knew that African Americans would be unlikely to view their adversaries as fellow workers, while white servicemen of the day often fraternized with strikers. Years later, this blatant reversal of the racial order still burned in the hearts of WFM activists. In 1912, Haywood claimed that, while union miners were suffering in makeshift prisons, "black soldiers were at home insulting, outraging, ravishing their wives, mothers, sisters and sweethearts." The period of most intense class feeling in U.S. history was also the era when a lynching took place, on average, every four days. Class struggle was supposed to be a war fought exclusively between two groups of white men.

This began to change in the 1930s, when economic conflict became prominent again. The industrial unions of the CIO welcomed workers of every race. The new movement also encouraged the flowering of a multiracial, pro-labor culture. Writers and artists as different as John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson, Richard Wright, Orson Welles, and Billie Holiday spun stories about haves and have-littles and lent their considerable talents to the CIO left.

But the Depression-era upsurge, unlike the one that forms the background of Big Trouble, would likely have failed without the support of powerful outsiders—New Deal officials and liberal intellectuals alarmed by the rise of fascism. This gave the period's activism a patriotic quality that merged easily into a nationalist consensus behind World War II, even though wartime governments supported labor only intermittently. The consensus continued after the war and through labor's support of the Vietnam War and Ronald Reagan.

E ven a powerful writer like Lukas cannot make labor history seem relevant to mainstream audiences by simply detailing it. More than intellectual dedication is required to make class a big story again. Most people are drawn to grand narratives that echo and synthesize experiences and reflections they have already had. Because of its prominence in the public imagination, race lends this advantage to its narratives. Common Ground compellingly described three families in a cauldron of racial strife (although Lukas did not scant their class differences). It was a best-seller, won numerous literary prizes, and became a TV docudrama. Big Trouble has received lengthy and laudatory reviews in all the right places, but its hardcover sales are quite modest. Sadly, it will probably not gain the author much posthumous honor.

Lacking the cachet of race, class does not set its tales aflame. Liberal academics and activists have talked cogently about wage gaps, corporate irresponsibility, and the unmet needs of working families for some time now. But their ideas will catch fire only in tandem with a social movement that sparks the imagination of working Americans of different races, convincing them to take risks in the service of a better future.

As Lukas shows, this kind of movement was once sustained by a rich working-class culture that, however, seldom crossed the racial barrier. Writers and artists could nudge it along only after the culture had already emerged from a thicket of neighborhood, ethnic, and workplace groups that gave shape to wage earners' lives.

In the Coeur D'Alenes a century ago, a cavalry officer named R. V. Walsh glimpsed the binding power he and his troops were ordered to demolish. Unionism, Walsh wrote, "pervaded the entire population, everybody was subject to it. . . . [T]he burning question was not wages. It was 'The Union.' This was everything to them, wages, politics, religion. The subject had been discussed and brooded over so long that they were fanatics on the subject."

I t isn't easy to recreate such zeal in an age of computerized capitalism, when a variety of pleasures and, more importantly, cultural identities, are available to even the ardent unionist. The WFM's militant faith now sounds hopelessly outdated, in part due to the victories that it and later unions won. What is more, given the violence and intolerance that attended the early labor movement, it is probably a good thing that we cannot relive the past.

Yet it is difficult to imagine organized labor regaining the influence it enjoyed 50 years ago without stirring an analogous depth of commitment in twenty-first-century Americans. To do so, labor and its intellectual supporters must learn to integrate the story they want to tell with ones ordinary people already tell each other—about both racial justice and the shared ordeals of their working-class ancestors.

This would mean reviving the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a fierce foe of both economic injustice and of racial inequality. It would mean recovering the decisive role of organized workers in winning the five-day week, the eight-hour day, and the minimum wage—not to speak of Medicare and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It would mean talking about the right of all workers, not just the well-educated professional minority, to a measure of control over the jobs that shape much of their lives. The multicultural realities of today's working world should enhance the appeal of such stories.

In the past, unions and their allies grabbed the public's attention when they put forth a moral vision, and suffered when they seemed to be merely competing with other "interests." In the 1930s, unions marched under the rallying cry of "industrial democracy" and tripled their numbers. A generation later, Dr. King helped bring workers into the black insurgency by criticizing a system of "selfish ambition inspiring men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life."

That legacy needs to be recaptured. Many Americans may be ready for an anticorporate politics that acknowledges race and gender but transcends them—"a politics centered on the struggle to prevent the rich from ripping off the rest of the country," as Richard Rorty so bluntly puts it. But most people are understandably cynical about another round of politics as high-finance electioneering and spin-doctoring, in which "class" is just another barbed projectile in the campaign consultant's quiver. There is really no short cut to building a movement that practices the same democratic vision it preaches. As in every reform era since the 1890s, the chance for a liberal revival hinges on the participation of ordinary Americans who care little about government policy but care a great deal about improving their own lives.

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