The streets of the U.S., and many other countries around the world, are filled with protestors marching to protest the unlawful deaths of Black people in the U.S. political system. The ‘inalienable rights’ demanded in the Declaration of Independence appear not to be applied on a universal basis across the land and discrimination of jobs, housing and social support systems are undermined by police forces acting to preserve the privileges of those who retain unimpeded access to these rights. There is little to be gained in understanding the preservation and endurance of such skewed practices by the nation and its institutions by reference to the Constitution, case law and agreed political norms when, for the most part, the driving force behind these aberrations is the underlying economic system.
We all live in a world in which there are at least two, often conflicting, determinants of our behaviour; our political and social lives and our economic lives. Our educational and ethical systems of belief are founded on notions of equality and justice. We are taught civics, ethics, religious values, and belief in the rule of law from our earliest age. We learn what is right and wrong, fair, and socially acceptable and, to a high degree, we tend to follow these principles of equity and justice in our lives; we value and praise democracy. This is generally true across almost every culture, ethnic origin, language group and the various religious faiths. There are very few of us who wilfully abjure these principles and standards. We create political parties, movements, self-help groups and social clubs to give focus to our beliefs and aspirations. The world is not short of Good People.
On the other hand, our economic lives are determined and constrained by an economic system which has never been characterised by notions of justice, fairness, equality, or social responsibility. The challenges of dealing with the demands of the economic system have frequently been in conflict what we have learned and value in our political, ethical, and moral education. As our social systems evolved, they were accompanied by increasing levels of political enfranchisement and methods of voting and political participation which expanded democracy to the public as opposed solely to property owners. These struggles to create, enfranchise and maintain systems of political engagement by the populace in their governance were not mirrored by a similar democratisation of the workplace.
The emergence of the Industrial Revolution had a profound effect on society, especially in the creation of a large number of workers who were gathered in factories and industrial mills to produce goods for the benefit of the owners of the factory and, beyond that, for the banks and financial institutions whose capital was invested in these new mines, mills and factories. This industrial revolution began in Britain. It started with the enclosure movement, which meant land could be transformed into collateral for raising capital. Ownership of land meant having access to capital to invest. The repeal of the Corn Laws opened the way for free trade and the evolution of the privateers’ and buccaneers' fleet into the royal merchant navy, which enabled the English to “rule the waves”. With the availability of raising capital on lands, banks and financial institutions began to grow. Then, as the mechanisation of labour took place in the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution the seeds of capitalism emerged as a full-fledged economic model. It spread throughout the world in varying degrees. It also spawned organisations of working people.
Each country, during its development, has permitted the growth of workers' self-help organisations designed to further the well-being of their members. Often starting as simple burial societies, self-help educational schemes, cooperatives, political organisations or other forms of workers' societies, trade unionism grew to fit the mould of the society in which it functioned.
The development of institutions of working-class power within Europe are of relatively recent origin. The barriers to their growth were not on the whole the "conspiracy doctrine" or the Masters and Slaves acts, although these certainly played a part. The real barriers to the development of trade unionism, and especially international trade unionism, were the barriers of literacy and restricted mobility. Except for the UK, where the industrial revolution came early, where there was one national language, where the control of the educational system was not in the hands of the church, and whose wars were largely fought on other nations' territories, most of the rest of Europe suffered from the great disabilities which accompanied frequent occupation by foreign powers, a severely restricted access to education, multiplicity of languages and dialects even within the national borders, and a largely agrarian economy.
In the UK and North America, where the franchise was extended early to cover the upper strata of the working class, the skilled craftsmen and journeymen, there was a much lower level of expectation that trade unionism would bring political change or act as the vehicle for that change. The skilled workers and craftsmen were active politically, but they were active in political parties, not in their roles as unionists. Through their efforts, British and US laws restricting the form and activities of trade unions were modified; they sought and won the repeal of the criminal conspiracy doctrine which served to bar effective union recognition. They soon formed trade unions of skilled workers (shoemakers, printers, dyers, hatters, etc) whose negotiations with their employers set minimum rates of pay, minimum standards of working conditions and initial rules on the security of work.
The pace of trade union development on the Continent was quite different from that in North America and the UK. For a long period, trade unionism even of the guild form was outlawed. Under the Loi Chapelier of 1791, the working classes of France, Belgium and Holland were forbidden to form guilds or to meet or gather together in groups to discuss common action in support of their demands. In 1803 the French laws were extended to require every worker to carry with him a 'passbook' or workbook in which his employer had to write comments about the skills and behaviour of his employee; a system which effectively operated a blacklist for agitators or unsatisfactory workmen. These laws survived until the late 1870s. In Belgium, the right to strike was not granted until even later; after the workbook system was abandoned in 1890.
The pace of industrial development was relatively slower on the continent than in the UK and small businesses were the rule- businesses run by a family under a paternalistic system. This paternalism became encrusted in an ideology of conservative adherence to a belief in a rigid social order in which the management of a business was a sacred obligation on the middle classes. Deviations from this social order were not only viewed as unpleasant but also as immoral. Many of the nascent unions which began to form, albeit clandestinely in some nations, found that the wave of conservative reaction which swept across Europe in the wake of the revolutions of 1848 forced their activities underground. What little voice the workers had in their own government was quelled.
A major factor working against the extension of the franchise to working people and the spread of literacy among the lower classes was the strong reaction of the Catholic church. The church was especially hostile to the formation of trade unions and working men's organisations because these groups threatened the precarious social order in which the church's pre-eminence was guaranteed. A complicating factor in this development was the strong anti-church feeling of a large segment of the European middle-class entrepreneurs who made up the backbone of the growing European Liberal parties. This anti church feeling was rooted both in the history of Protestant-Catholic combat and in resentment at the ability of the church to garner bloc political support from its adherents in the political parties under church influence; no small point of controversy in local and regional elections.
It was not until the papal encyclical De Rerum Novarum of 1891 that the church recognised the need for organisations of working people. By then, however, trade union developments outside the church had been largely successful in garnering support from the workers and the European middle classes had made great strides in building a more democratic state by breaking the alliance of the church with the aristocracy, extending the franchise and providing programmes of education.
Whereas in the UK, after the period of Chartism, the legitimacy of working-class efforts at self-help was broadly accepted as part of the normal functioning of a democratic system, trade unionism on the continent was viewed as socially disorienting. Even in those nations in which the franchise was gradually extended to working people, as in Prussia, a three-tier system of representation assured working people a very limited role in shaping their own destinies. To this was coupled a vigorous campaign against parties potentially threatening to the social order, such as the Anti-Socialist Law of 1878 in Prussia which banned the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and forbade any meeting attacking the state or private property and interdicted any propaganda literature. This type of grudging tolerance was prevalent elsewhere.
In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels state that "workers have no country". For a large part of Europe this was literally true. It is, perhaps, difficult to remember today that many of the nations which constitute modern Europe did not exist in their present form until very recently. Germany, before Bismarck, was a loose amalgam of rival princedoms. The modern Italian state is barely more than a century old. Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Kosovo are of even more recent vintage, while nations like Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine appear and disappear regularly in the tides of expansion of their more powerful neighbours. Even Belgium did not exist as a nation until its emancipation from Dutch rule in the early 1830s.
This had a particularly important effect on the development of working-class institutions as these organisations frequently had to look for concessions from a government of occupation. The representation of workers employed in Poland involved negotiations and representations to the authorities of Russia, Austria, and Prussia; three nations with markedly different policies in handling questions of social reform. With frequent wars, frequent changes in the political system and with an uneven tempo of economic development for much of Europe, the development of a coherent programme of trade unionism was severely hindered. What did develop was a highly political movement based on the political and economic needs of the working classes and were directed at a far more ideological set of goals than the pragmatic aspirations of working-class leaders in the English-speaking world. Europeans formed Socialist and Social-Democratic political parties with labour affiliates. Membership in the unions was a part of the structure of these parties. After the Bolshevik victory, such discipline was extended to nascent Communist unions and parties.
In Britain the working classes had viable labour organisations and had used their franchise in the political arena to form their own political party, (first with the Liberals and then the Labour Party) which formed two minority governments under Ramsay McDonald in the 1920s and early 1930s. The Labour Representation Committee (a precursor to the Labour Party) was committed to the political process and, though influenced by Marxism, was described by its leadership as owing “more to Methodism than to Marx”.
In the U.S., the primarily craft unions (carpenters, printers, plumbers, etc.) had also joined together to support political leaders friendly to their interests. They played an important role in the election of Martin van Buren. Their concentration was focussed on using their political strength to form coalitions which would strengthen their hand in negotiations with the unchecked strength of the entrepreneurs in the economy.
In short, the Labour Party in Britain and the nascent labour craft union organisations in North America accepted the capitalist system as a system which needed reform, not its overthrow.
Entrepreneurial Capitalism and the Supply of Labour
One of the earliest challenges to the development of the capitalist system was recruiting labour. It was easy enough to compel slaves and indentured servants to work in the plantations and the farms, but it was harder to induce free men, however poor, to stay at jobs they found oppressive. The mechanisation of labour in the industrial revolution led to a significant improvement of the standard of living for the middle and upper classes and a degradation of the lot of the working people who found themselves congregated in insanitary urban centres, cut off from their roots in their former agricultural societies, and working in tedious, dangerous and debilitating industrial jobs. Many, like the Luddites, rebelled at their plight but the forces of the state were ranged against them.
The working classes were subject to the “Iron Law of Wages”; a theory of the world of work put forth by David Ricardo and Lasalle. It postulated that real wages always will tend, in the long run, towards the minimum wage necessary to sustain the life of the worker. Wages cannot fall below subsistence wage levels because without subsistence, laborers will be unable to work. However, competition among laborers for employment will drive wages down to this minimal level. In other words, workers will get paid enough to stay alive, but no more. If the worker wanted to be paid more than the survival wage, he could be replaced by a different worker who would be willing to work for the survival wage. This Iron Law of Wages is the bedrock of the capitalist system; not only for keeping the wage rate down, but also for introducing the notion that workers are, ultimately, competitive with each other and a potential threat to the other workers whom they can replace. The introduction of the industrial revolution into the workplace, and the mechanisation of labour, diminished the difference in skill levels among workers and increased their ability to be replaced.
This lowering of skill differentiation meant that there was greater discretion for the factory owner to choose his workers. As one famous American entrepreneur was quoted “Why should I hire a man for a dollar when I can hire a kid for a dime?” In many of the mines, mills and factories small children were hired to do long hours of toil. Women were also engaged in the factories and both women and children were paid less than the men. The ability to supply cheaper child and female labour as a substitute for men’s labour was used as a constraint against radicalism or demands for better wages and working conditions.
The high levels of production of this mechanised industrial system yielded large quantities of goods to be sold and demands for greater supplies of raw materials. These were in volumes much greater than the nation, on its own, could consume or supply. The owners of the factories began to engage in the expansion of international trade and created the engine of colonialism and imperialism.
The success of the capitalist system was boosted and entrenched by the development of colonialism and imperialism. The explorations of the Europeans into Asia and Africa led to their claiming exclusive rights to the lands they had captured. Like many before them, in the Roman, Persian, Alexandrine empires, or the Chinese and Aztec empires these acquisitions were mainly for trade and exploitation of goods or raw materials which were available in the colonised countries.
The colonial system was supported by the Europeans for a number of reasons; political, religious, and economic. It opened new supply routes for raw materials for the factories. There was also the façade of bringing the word of the Lord to the Heathen and preventing other colonial states from access to the claimed territories. Colonialism dealt, primarily, with the construction of colonial states whose administration was controlled and directed by the colonial power. It was, essentially, a government project. Concurrently this colonial administration was accompanied by an imperialist effort to exploit the resources of the colony. This imperialism was often ‘farmed out’ to a mandated authority which had the blessing and support of the government. Companies like the British East India Company, the Danish East India Company, and the Dutch, French, Swedish and Portuguese East India Companies were given charters to exploit their respective colonial states. Most created their own mercenary armies which were backed up by regular troops from the metropole.
While they prospered, initially they had difficulties in persuading the local inhabitants to become integrated in the capitalist system. The imperialists used their charters from their metropole to force the locals to join in their entrepreneurial schemes. The essence of that plan was the widespread introduction of the “Hut Tax”, pioneered by the British. The British colonisers imposed a tax on their host population based on a fee which had to be paid for every hut. This hut tax had to be paid in currency; either directly as currency or in a currency-valued commodity which could include grains, livestock, or hours of labour at a fixed price. This tax forced the local population to participate in the economic process to earn money by forcing them to work in the colonial economy and to build new towns and railways, and in southern Africa, to work in the rapidly developing mines. In Natal, under Law 13 of 1857, the system stipulated 14 shillings per hut occupied by natives; but natives that lived in European style houses with only one wife were exempt from the tax. In Mashonaland (Zimbabwe) the hut tax was introduced at the rate of ten shillings per hut in 1894, payable to Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company who were also busy commandeering African cattle. This led to the First Chimurenga (Second Matabele War).
There were rebellions in many of the colonial states as a result of the Hut Tax, the most famous of which is the great Temne Revolt in Sierra Leone. When the British took over the Protectorate of Sierra Leone in 1885, the 24 major chiefs protested against a very high Hut Tax imposed by Governor Colonel Cardew. The British went ahead anyway and then moved to put down a rebellion by the Temne chief, Bai Bureh, whom they captured and exiled in 1898. They also convicted and hanged 96 of his comrades. The South was also in rebellion and the Mende and Sherbro warriors battled the British and their Krio civil servants for five months before the rebellion was put down. A U.S. later supported a Hut Tax which was the source of another rebellion, in Liberia in 1915; the Kru Revolt.
The French engaged labour in their African colonies using the rachat system which they used to fill the ranks of their colonial armies and civilian work brigades erecting the colonial apparatus. These were drawn from the ranks of the ex-slaves and social outcasts who were sold to the French by the local African chiefs. From 1857 to 1905 the main recruiting of these soldiers was the rachat (repurchase) system in which slaves were purchased from their local owners by the French and turned into mercenary soldiers or labourers. The practice of buying slaves by the French was ended officially in 1882 but it was observed more in the breach than the observance. The Portuguese and the Germans did the same in their colonies.
Recruiting was only the beginning of the problems; retaining labour became a challenge. The European settlers, especially in the Western Cape wine-growing regions introduced a “Tot” system in which impressed farm workers would receive payment in the form of reduced wages with a daily measure of cheap wine as a fringe benefit. This practice increased and exacerbated alcoholism among farm workers, which resulted in widespread social damage among communities and which required more effort to acquire capital for the Hut Tax demands. Although illegal, this system has continued. In 2007, the South African Wine Industry banned the 'papsak' (an Afrikaans word meaning 'soft sack' referring to cheap wine sold in a foil-lined plastic bag) which the workers would purchase for their alcohol dependence.
In Mozambique, the Companhia da Zambezia produced tobacco, coffee, peanuts, and cotton. Many laborers were forced to work, and they were whipped if they refused. Wages were often paid in alcohol, with the same devastating effects that were witnessed in Sao Tome and Principe and in Angola. As elsewhere in its African empire, Portugal exported wine to Mozambique but attempted to exclude Africans from the commercial production of liquor. It also tried to prevent Africans from selling home-brewed alcohol distilled from the sap of the cocoa-palm. Ironically, Africans often used homemade cocoa-palm alcohol to pay part of their taxes, only to have it handed back to them as wages.
One of the features of the colonial expansion into Africa and Asia was the ability of the colonialists to send slaves and indentured labourers to the new colonies of the Caribbean and America. This phenomenon opened a new chapter in the economic development of America.
Captive Labour in North America
Since the mid-17th century the colonial powers and several religious orders engaged in the Slave Trade, which was primarily focussed on the transatlantic transport of African slaves to the plantations of the North America, South America, and the Caribbean. European trading ships would set sail from Europe with cargos of manufactured goods to the west coast of Africa. There, these goods would be traded, over weeks and months, for captured people provided by indigenous African traders. These slaves were provided by the African traders by raiding settlements far away from the African coast and brought those young and healthy enough to the coast to be sold into slavery. Part of the reason for this is geographic. The West coast of Africa is a narrow, low, and fertile plain, but behind that relatively narrow coastal plain there are escarpments, rising to a much higher plateau and a savannah leading to the Sahel. This interior plateau was rife with a variety of diseases (malaria, tsetse fly, inter alia) and snakes and wild animals. For centuries it was known as the White Man’s Grave. The rounding up of African slaves was left to the Africans; In North Africa and in South-Central Africa the slave trading was done by Arabs of the Gulf with the assistance of the Somalis. The syncretic language, Swahili, was the slave-trading language spread by the Arabs in their pursuit of slaves. The Arab slave trade was most active in West Asia, North Africa, and Southeast Africa. Muslim traders exported as many as 17 million slaves to the coast of the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and North Africa.[i][i]
In West Africa, once the slave ships were full, they would sail the “Middle Passage” to the plantations of Brazil, the Caribbean and North America. There they would sell the slaves and return home with cargoes of sugar, rum, tobacco, and other 'luxury' items. - the Triangular Trade. The key to this was the availability of plantation goods produced by the African slaves on the plantations.
Despite the calls for the abolition of the slave trade, the plantation owners of the Caribbean and North America resisted the abolition of slavery. One of the key arguments made by the colonial powers was that they needed African slaves because the native American and Caribbean Indians refused to work on plantations or, later, in factories. While there were relatively few African slaves in America, there were plenty of Native American Indians; armed and bellicose Indians who were willing to fight against the colonialists. After European contact in the 1500s, white Europeans persuaded some Native Americans to enslave members of other Native American tribes, but this was local and temporary.
The Native American slave trade was phased out in the early to mid-18th century. An important factor in its decline was the Yamasee War of 1715-1717. After colonists in the English colony of Carolina began defaulting on some of their trade agreements and enslaving even members of their ally tribes, the Yamasee Nation began to question its own alliance with Carolina. Along with the Lower Creeks and the Savannahs, the Yamasees declared war on Carolina, killing 400 colonists, approximately seven percent of the white population. The Carolinian colonists put together a force of black slaves, militiamen, volunteers, and friendly Native American nations, which defeated the Yamasees and their allies. The end of the Yamasee War left the colonists in charge but convinced that engaging the Native Americans as slaves was not a wise course to follow.
The colonists preferred imported African slaves. In fact, so did the Native Americans. Members of five Native American nations, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole Nations (known as the Five Tribes), owned black slaves. They took them with them when they were moved to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). By the time of the Civil War black chattel slavery had been an element of life among the Five Tribes for decades. A separate treaty with the Federal Government freed their slaves because they were not covered by the 13th Amendment or the Emancipation Proclamation.[ii][ii]
The 13 British colonies that became the United States absorbed around 320,000 African slaves. At the time of the Civil War, black slaves accounted for about three percent of the population, concentrated in the slave-owning states south of the Mason-Dixon line.
The Rise of “Coolie Labour”
As the pressure for the emancipation of the African slaves and the constraints on the international slave trade grew, many nations began to ban the slave trade. That is, they banned the international trade in slaves, not the institution of slavery. The most notable of these bans, “An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade” received the Royal Assent in Britain on the 25 March 1807. “In the decade between 1791 and 1800, British ships made about 1,340 voyages across the Atlantic, landing nearly 400,000 slaves. Between 1801 and 1807, they took a further 266,000. The slave trade remained one of Britain's most profitable businesses.".[iii][iii]
Other nations joined in the process. By the 1810 Anglo-Portuguese treaty Portugal agreed to restrict its trade into its colonies; in the 1813 Anglo-Swedish treaty Sweden outlawed its slave trade; and in the 1814 Treaty of Paris France agreed to abolish the slave trade; and in 1814 the Anglo-Dutch treaty the Netherlands outlawed its slave trade, and in 1817 the Anglo-Spanish treaty, Spain agreed to stop the slave trade the next year.
In the United States the Founding Fathers had enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1 which forbade the closing of the slave trade for twenty years. As that clause was coming to an end, in 1807, the U.S. Congress passed a statute prohibiting the importation of slaves as of the first constitutionally allowable moment of January 1, 1808. This act was signed by President Jefferson and entered into force in 1808. It didn’t end slavery in the U.S. (that took a Civil War) but ended the international trade of slaves into the U.S.
The ending of the importation of slaves into the U.S. was a blow to the labour-intensive plantations of cotton, sugar and tobacco who needed a constant supply of labour. At that time, a large-scale policy of subjugation of local populations by the colonial states in Asia led to a slavery-like practice of forced indenture of workers. In the 1820s the Asian colonial powers (Britain, France, Dutch and Portuguese) began to sign contracts of supply with local purveyors of able-bodied labourers to fill the vacuum. These local labour staffing entrepreneurs used everything they could think of to obtain their labour pools. They used debt-collectors to force workers to sign contracts; they kidnapped people off the streets; they fostered clan warfare where they took the losers into custody; and they signed misleading two and five year agreements with unwitting volunteers. These indentured labourers were rented out to the plantation owners in the Caribbean, North America, and colonial Asia. This trade became known as “Coolie Labour”. The main labour supply came from China, the Indian subcontinent, Japan, and the Philippines.
These coolies were sent out to the plantations on five-year contracts. The coolies were paid a small sum per day for their labour (some of which was paid to their families at home) and their fares were paid to their place of employment. Using this system of indentureship created a substitute for slavery and created a new kind of “debt slavery”. British companies were the first to experiment with this potential new form of cheap labour in 1807, when they imported 200 Chinese men to work in Trinidad.
Workers from China were mainly transported to work in Peru and Cuba. However, soon Chinese labourers worked in British colonies such as Singapore, New South Wales, Jamaica, British Guyana, Malaya, Trinidad and Tobago, British Honduras as well as in the Dutch colonies within the Dutch East Indies, and Suriname. The same ships that used to carry slaves now carried coolies, mostly men but with small numbers of women They worked on the plantations and mines. They were stamped on their backs for identification purposes. At the end of the Opium Wars there were large supplies of Chinese available and the Portuguese port of Macau became their main entrepot.
By the mid-1820s, the Chinese were only one source of coolies. There were many Indians who were voluntarily enlisting to go abroad for work, in the hopes of a better life. European merchants and businessmen quickly took advantage of this and began recruiting them for work as a cheap source of labour. The British began shipping Indians to colonies around the world, including British Mauritius, British Fiji, New South Wales, British Natal, British East Africa, British Tanganyika, British Somaliland, British Bechuanaland, British Seychelles, British Uganda, British Northern Rhodesia, British Rhodesia, British Nyasaland, British Guiana, British Trinidad and Tobago, British Jamaica, British Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, British Honduras, Saint Kitts and Nevis, British Barbados, the rest of the British West Indies, and British Malaya. The Dutch shipped workers to labour on the plantations on Dutch Surinam, the Netherlands Antilles, and the Dutch East Indies. The French shipped laborers to Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, the rest of the French West Indies, and Reunion.
While coolie labour in the U.S, plantations and mines was limited, the Chinese who were traded as an industrial commodity had acquired many more skills than the Africans brought to toil on the slave plantations. The Chinese coolies were brought to the U.S.as immigrant labour to work on the construction (along with Irish immigrants) of the First Transcontinental Railroad in the U.S. and the Canadian Pacific Railway. These Chinese coolies worked under harsh conditions and without any access to justice or care.
Hundreds died from explosions, landslides, accidents, and disease. There were between 15,000 and 20,000 Chinese working on the railway. They were employed because the railroad could not find U.S. workers to do such backbreaking and dangerous labour. The Chinese workers hired in 1864 were paid $26 a month, working six days a week. The Chinese received 30-50 percent lower wages than whites for the same job and they had to pay for their own food stuffs. They also had the most difficult and dangerous work, including tunnelling and the use of explosives and faced physical abuse at times from some supervisors. They protested these and the long hours and they used their collective strength to challenge the company. They eventually held an eight-day strike in June of 1867. The strike ended without pay parity after Central Pacific cut off food, transportation and supplies to the Chinese living in camps. Conditions improved slightly.[iv][iv]
One of the key problems for the Chinese was that the Central Pacific used the presence of the coolies to bring down the wages of the white workforce by threatening to replace the white workers with Chinese. There was a considerable animus against the Chinese fostered by the railroad owners which had political implications and the growth of a deeply racist ideology based on the workplace. This was manifest in 1862 when California passed the California's Anti-Coolie Act of 1862. Titled AN ACT TO PROTECT FREE WHITE LABOR AGAINST COMPETITION WITH CHINESE COOLIE LABOR, AND TO DISCOURAGE THE IMMIGRATION OF THE CHINESE INTO THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA April 26, 1862. California's Anti-Coolie Act of 1862 levied a monthly tax on Chinese immigrants doing business in the state.
Resentment against and fear of the Chinese coolies was magnified in 1868 with the signing of the Burlingame Treaty between the U.S. and the Emperor of China, which secured US access to Chinese workers by guaranteeing rights of free migration to both Chinese and Americans. This enabled the Union Pacific to pressure the white workers with the threat of replacement. Despite attempts to restrict the influx of cheap labour from China, beginning in the 1870s Chinese workers helped construct a vast network of levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. These levees made thousands of acres of fertile marshlands available for agricultural production.
Chinese settlement was discouraged after completion of the construction. California's Anti-Coolie Act of 1862 had levied a monthly tax on Chinese immigrants doing business in the state, and the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited immigration of Chinese laborers (repealed 1943). The March 1879 Constitution of the State of California declared that "Asiatic coolieism is a form of human slavery, and is forever prohibited in this State, and all contracts for coolie labour shall be void." It went on “No corporation now existing or hereafter formed under the laws of this State, shall, after the adoption of this Constitution, employ directly or indirectly, in any capacity, any Chinese or Mongolian. The Legislature shall pass such laws as may be necessary to enforce this provision.”[v][v]
The Geary Act went into effect on May 5, 1892. It reinforced and extended the Chinese Exclusion Act’s ban on Chinese immigration for an additional ten years. It also required Chinese residents in the U.S. to carry special documentation—certificates of residence—from the Internal Revenue Service. Immigrants who were caught not carrying the certificates were sentenced to hard labour and deportation, and bail was only an option if the accused were vouched for by a “credible white witness.”
This anti-Chinese agitation was symptomatic of a deepening problem across America, the rise of the industrialists and the increasing nativism of American labour. After the Civil War, the U.S. government followed policies of immense benefit to the industrialists. There were four key measures passed during the war which set the pattern. In 1862, Congress gave a vast grant of land and loans to a group of promoters to build the first transcontinental railroad. The next year, Congress passed a national banking act which undermined the local banks and established a national banking system-essential to the new corporate order. By 1864, the tariff on foreign manufactured goods - designed to protect American producers from competition - reached forty-seven percent, and remained so high in the following decades that the government was often embarrassed to find it- self running a budget surplus. Also, in 1864, Congress authorized employers to import foreign workers under contracts which forced them to work for the employer who imported them until their passage was paid off. Immigration provided a cheap labour force for the growing industries; 28.5 million immigrants came to the United States from 1860 to 1920.[vi][vi]
U.S. Unionism and The Struggle for Black Participation:
Trades unionism in the U.S. was spurred on by these new European immigrants. The disappearance of Marx’s First International did not mean that trades unionism was dead or retarded. It reached a high pitch of activity across both Europe and North America in the 1880s, following the Paris Commune in 1871. It was in this period that the often-disparate national unions began to join to form national labour centres. A prime area of growth was the United States where the Knights of Labour were particularly important in that, for the first time, a labour organisation was formed which accepted into membership both skilled and unskilled workers. The Knights became a potent political force within the US and began organising international branches. In the mid-1880s the Knights of Labour set up assemblies in England (Sunderland), - Belgium (Charleroi, Jumet and Brussels), in Australia, New Zealand and in Ireland.
The success of the Knights in building a strong national organisation in the US was viewed as a threat by the American craft unions and their municipal assemblies. These craft union bodies followed the political lead of Adolph Strasser and Samuel Gompers and united to form a Federation of Organized Trades and Labour Unions (later the American Federation of Labour-AFL) in 1866. This new organisation was anti-socialist, anti-Knight, anti-immigrant and careful to remain non-partisan in political activities.
The AFL rejected socialism and revolution, not only on ideological grounds, but also for the immensely practical reason that the socialists, and revolutionary socialists in particular, were competing with the AFL unions for control of US labour. The peaceful growth of the craft unionism of the AFL contrasted sharply with the increasingly bitter battles of the emerging industrial unions forming outside the AFL in brewing, coal mining, metal mining and the railways. These industrial unions were considered a threat to the AFL. At the turn of the century the AFL was the recognised spokesperson of US labour although it represented only about 5 per cent of the wage labour force. There were almost as many workers organised in non-AFL unions.
The battle for recognition by these non-AFL unions was frequently a battle not only with the employer but also with the forces of the state, in the form of the armed forces or the police force. The battle at the Homestead Steel strike in 1892 saw armed clashes between locked-out workers and armed Pinkerton guards. Later the same year, at Coal Creek, Coeur d’Alene and Tracy City armed strikers fought armed company guards. The most significant battle which had the effect of radicalising large sectors of the US workforce was the struggle by Eugene Debs’ American Railroad Union (ARU) and the Pullman Company in 1894. Their attempt to use union muscle to prevent the railroads from using struck Pullman carriages led to Federal intervention with troops: an intervention that left over thirty strikers dead in one day in Chicago. When Debs asked the AFL railroad unionists for support and asked the AFL to call a general strike, Gompers told Debs that the AFL was neutral. In the aftermath of the radicalisation of many workers in the turmoil of 1894, a new labour organisation was formed as a rival to the AFL: The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
In 1905 the labour radicals of the Western Federation of Miners, the leaders of its parent union the American Labour Union (ALU) and the two socialist party factional leaders, Debs and Deleon, met to form the IWW, a militantly radical union dedicated to continuous confrontation with the capitalist system. Its radicalism contrasted sharply with the AFL’s policy of ‘rewarding our friends and punishing our enemies’. The conflict between the IWW and the AFL was intense as each accused the other of dual unionism and unfair tactics. The AFL maintained its power by restricting membership along craft lines. The IWW and other industrial unions gathered in as many workers (skilled, unskilled, white, Black, immigrant and native-born) whose universality gave them greater power in dealing with their employers.
The IWW did not restrict its organising to the US alone. It was very successful in Canada where it set up the ‘One Big Union’ movement. It sent its organisers around the world in an effort to assist radical unionists in their efforts to build industrial unionism. These foreign workers who immigrated to the U.S. often were employed in ethnic groups by the industrialists which allowed them to pressure the other factory workers with threats of their replacement by these ethnics. Strikes and agitations for better wages and working conditions were met with scabs and blacklegs who replaced the striking workers. In the Pennsylvania coal fields there were Irish, Welsh, Hungarians, Ukrainians, and Italians in the mines supervised by the brutal Coal and Iron Police, a parallel police force created by the mine owners to brutalise and control their workforces. The Irish miners created the ‘Molly Maguires’ to protect their interests and the mine owners hired the Pinkertons to disabuse them of such ambitions. The problem facing American workers seeking the 8-hour day and other reforms was the industrialists’ determination to apply the Iron Law of Wages to keep wages and working conditions down to a subsistence level by playing off the notion of competition for jobs among the workers. As Jay Gould, the railroad magnate, was fond of saying “I can hire one half of the working class to fight the other half”.
These pressures had erupted earlier in the Great Uprising of 1877 which became a national strike, led by the rail unions, after a long period of depression in the economy. It was fought by the troops of the National Guard, using cannon and machine guns, and private armies hired by the industrialists. The Great Uprising fell but there were important changes politically which allowed greater progress in industrial relations.
Unfortunately, despite these gradual reforms, racism and nativism continued, especially for the newly enfranchised African Americans. During the Great Strike of 1877, rallies and marches in St. Louis, Louisville, and other cities brought together white and black workers in support of the common rights of workingmen. By 1894 Eugene Debs, leader of the American Railway Union in a strike against the Pullman Company, was unable to convince members of his own union to accept black railroaders. Blacks in turn served as strike-breakers for the Pullman Company and for the owners of Chicago meatpacking companies against whom stockyard workers struck in sympathy with the Pullman Company employees.[vii][vii] In 1909 white employees of the Georgia Railroad, represented by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, walked off their jobs, demanding that lower-paid black firemen be replaced by higher-paid whites.
The introduction into the workforce of immigrant workers to the U.S. in the 1860-1920 period brought a more ideological focus to industrial relations as many of these immigrants were Socialists, Anarchists and, later, Communists. They came to the U.S. and found that it was not the land of milk and honey. They came to live in wretched tenements in the big cities, in mining and logging camps, and in factory dormitories. Life was very hard, conditions awful and the factory owners worked them as hard as they could. As one new immigrant wrote in his classic book of immigrant life in the tenements, “I got over my greenhorn idea that there was nothing but fun in America. I learned to work like everyone else. I grew as thin as my cousin. Soon I came to understand that is was not a land of fun. There was no gold to be dug in the streets here…I worked! With my liver and sides, I worked”. [viii][viii]
It wasn’t until John L. Lewis led his mineworkers out of the American Federation of Labour to found the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935 that the new industrial unions included as equals many African- American workers. Although racism and nativism have been a hallmark of craft unions, the pressures for a fully inclusive workforce became the watchword of the industrial unions; although the struggle to get there has been marked by problems and inhibitions.
The shining light of that struggle was the career of A. Philip Randolph, (born April 15, 1889, Crescent City, Fla., U.S.—died May 16, 1979, New York, N.Y.). He was a trade unionist and civil-rights leader who fought for justice and parity for the black American community. He moved to the Harlem district of New York City in 1911 and attended City College at night. With Chandler Owen he set out to organise black workers. In 1917, following the entry of the United States in World War I, the two men founded a magazine, the Black Worker, that called for more positions in the war industry and the armed forces for Blacks. Randolph lectured at New York’s Rand School of Social Science and ran unsuccessfully for offices on the Socialist Party ticket. He was successful in forming and becoming president in 1925, of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, whose membership was almost entirely Black workers. He joined Brotherhood to the AFl, at a time when half the affiliates of the American Federation of Labour (AFL) barred Blacks from membership. Despite opposition, he built the first successful black trade union; the brotherhood won its first major contract with the Pullman Company in 1937. The following year, Randolph removed his union from the AFL in protest against its failure to fight discrimination in its ranks and took the brotherhood into the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) formed by John L. Lewis. He then returned to the question of Black employment in the federal government and in industries with federal contracts. He was successful and engaged the Brotherhood in the heart of the civil rights struggle.
American Nativism and the Struggle Against Foreigners
The American workplace has always been a challenge to immigrants and minorities. Because of the implied threats of the management to replace recalcitrant workers with foreign workers and partially because the political climate of America has always been resistant to ‘foreign ideologies’, the notion of equal rights and equal justice among working people has rarely been observed.
In the earliest days of the American Republic, the Founding Fathers sought to protect the new nation from foreign interference by passing the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), four internal security laws passed by the U.S. Congress, restricting aliens and curtailing the excesses of an unrestrained press. These laws raised the waiting period for naturalization from 5 to 14 years, permitted the detention without due process of subjects of an enemy nation, and authorized the chief executive to expel any alien he considered dangerous. The Sedition Act banned the publishing of false or malicious writings against the government and the inciting of opposition to any act of Congress or the president—practices already forbidden in some cases by state libel statutes and the common law but not by federal law.
They then passed the Naturalization Law of 1790 (1 Stat. 103, enacted March 26, 1790) which set the first uniform rules for the granting of United States citizenship by naturalization. The law limited naturalization to "free white person[s] ... of good character", thus excluding Native Americans, indentured servants, slaves, free Blacks and later Asians, although free Blacks were allowed citizenship at the state level in a number of states.
With the discovery of gold in California in 1850, after the Mexican-American War of 1848, which ceded Alta California to the U.S, the great California Gold Rush began. There was an influx of miners into California, both from within the United States, and from other regions, primarily Europe, China, and Latin America (including Mexico, Peru, and Guatemala). The competition from foreign miners lead to fear and resentment among the white miners. They demanded limits on foreign miners allowed into the new U.S. territory. The new government of California passed the Foreign Miners’ Tax Act (1850) which was modified by the Foreign Miners’ License Tax Act (1852). The Foreign Miners’ Tax Act stated that all miners in the state of California who were not citizens of the United States, had to pay a monthly fee of $20 in tax. Of this, the tax collector would keep $3 and the rest would be remitted to the state. The Irish, English, Canadian, and German miners complained and the act was modified to exempt any miner who was a "free white person" or any miner who could become an American citizen under the 1790 Naturalisation Act. This was later magnified by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
This nativism was not only discernible in the prohibition of foreign labourers. There was a pervasive political struggle with mainstream American culture and the radical political ideologies which accompanied the stream of foreign immigrants into the U.S. The success of the Russian Revolution in 1917 led to a concerted effort by federal and state governments to suppress socialist and communist radical organisation in the country. Particularly, many of these organisations were opposed to the U.S. entry into the First World War and protested against the entry and published numerous tracts calling for the opposition of U.S. participation.
When the U.S. joined in the First World War it immediately passed the Espionage Age (1917) which made it a crime for any person to convey information intended to interfere with the U.S. armed forces prosecution of the war effort or to promote the success of the country’s enemies. Anyone found guilty of such acts was subject to a fine of $10,000 and a prison sentence of 20 years. The next year they passed the Sedition Act (1918) which imposed similarly harsh penalties on anyone found guilty of making false statements that interfered with the prosecution of the war; insulting or abusing the U.S. government, the flag, the Constitution or the military; agitating against the production of necessary war materials; or advocating, teaching or defending any of these acts.
To enforce these acts the U.S. Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer, with assistance from J. Edgar Hoover, began raiding socialist, anarchist, communist and union homes, offices and places of business, rounding up and deporting those who criticized the government or opposed the war. The Sedition Act set into motion an effort to monitor radicals, especially labour union leaders, with the threat of deportation looming over them. Anyone who was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World union was particularly at risk. The Palmer Raids arrested well-known anarchist figures, like Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. Police raided locations like the Russian People’s House in New York City, where Russian immigrants often gathered for educational purposes. Department of Justice agents stormed a meeting room and beat the 200 occupants with clubs and blackjacks.
The police conducted these Palmer Raid without any warrants. One thousand people were arrested in 11 cities. Seventy-five percent of the arrestees were eventually released, except for the unionists.
In Hartford, Connecticut, 100 men were held for five months, during which time they were not allowed lawyers and were not informed of the charges. Many of the alleged Communist sympathizers that were rounded up were deported in December 1919. The boat utilized for this, the USAT Buford, was nicknamed the Soviet Ark and the Red Ark. A total of 249 radicals were deported aboard the ship, including Goldman.[ix][ix]
It is more than a bit ironic that among the first victims of this “Red Scare” was the attempt by the police force of Boston to form a union. On September 9, 1919, over 80% of the Boston police went on strike for the right to form a labour union and the right to join the AFL. There had been pressures on the police to change their brutal policies (like those seen in the Palmer Raids and the battles against the IWW). Police were expected to act more professionally. Some of their previous practices were no longer countenanced. Explanations such as that later given by the Dallas chief of police in defence of their unorthodox tactics, “Illegality is necessary to preserve legality” was no longer acceptable to the public. Police forces were brought within the civil service framework and even received training for the first time. Soon, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) began to create local police unions. When they sought recognition, they were branded as socialists and communists. Without police protection, the city was quickly experiencing robberies and riots. Mayor Andrew J. Peters called in Boston companies of militia, restoring order, and breaking the strike. Later, Governor Calvin Coolidge sent in the entire Massachusetts militia even though the situation was then under control. The troops fired on a mob, killing two people. The strike failed.
This Red Scare is a recurring feature of U.S. political and economic life. The approach of the Second World War led to a similar excitement about the presence in the U.S. of foreign agents from countries with which the U.S. might suddenly be at war. The Congress passed the Alien Registration Act (better known as the Smith Act) on June 28, 1940. It set criminal penalties for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government by force or violence and required all non-citizen adult residents to register with the federal government. Approximately 215 people were indicted under the legislation, including alleged communists, anarchists, and fascists. Prosecutions under the Smith Act continued until a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 1957 reversed a number of convictions under the Act, as unconstitutional. By then, the Red Scare of McCarthyism had also taken its toll.
The Exclusion of Back People in the Economic Struggle
Despite the new freedoms opened to Black people by the period of Reconstruction to take jobs outside of plantation work their rights were not supported by Congress. During the Great Migration of 1916-1930, over one million Blacks moved from the south to the north in search of better lives. More than 400,000 left the South during the two-year period of 1916-1918 to take advantage of a labour shortage created by the First World War. African Americans made significant gains in industrial employment, particularly in the steel, automobile, shipbuilding, and meatpacking industries. Between 1910 and 1920 the number of Blacks employed in industry nearly doubled from 500,000 to 901,000.[x][x]
Because trade unions organized by white workers generally excluded Blacks, Black workers began to organize on their own. In December 1869, 214 delegates attended the Colored National Labor Union convention in Washington, D.C. They petitioned Congress for special relief from their restrictions, but Congress ignored them. In January 1871, the Colored National Labor Convention again petitioned Congress, sending a "Memorial of the Committee of the National Labor Convention for Appointment of a Commission to Inquire into Conditions of Affairs in the Southern States.” Congress ignored them.
With the arrival of the Great Depression, Roosevelt created his “New Deal” with a wide variety of economic programs designed to put people back to work and increase purchasing power. The participation of African-Americans in these programs was limited by a hierarchy of demand in which African-Americans had the lowest priority. The government created the United States Housing Authority, established in the Department of Interior by the U.S. Housing Act of 1937. The act authorized a system of loans, grants, and subsidies to assist local housing authorities develop low-rent housing projects. Local Housing Authority boards from across the nation sent in reports detailing their progress toward setting aside a portion of the public housing construction work for African Americans. The portion was to be based on the size of the Black population in a particular locale. The Housing Administration generally observed local racial customs, and neither the administration nor the Housing Authority proposed, advocated, or supported legislation to specifically assist Blacks.[xi][xi]
New Dealers sought to institute the collective bargaining process by guaranteeing labour the right to organize and to designate representatives for collective bargaining purposes under the auspices of the National Labor Relations Board. African American leaders were disappointed that the Wagner Act of 1935 did not contain prohibitions against union race discrimination. In 1930 no more than 50,000 out of 1,500,000 black workers engaged in transportation, extraction of minerals, or manufacturing were members of any trade union. Furthermore, the AFL remained adamant about not enforcing equality. A large number of member unions did not permit African Americans to join their ranks, and the AFL leadership showed little apparent interest in organizing black and white laborers in mass-production industries.
Despite the efforts of the CIO to enrol African-American workers, they were impeded by Congress, despite attracting thousands of African-American workers. The protective labour legislation of the 1930s, such as the Social Security Act, the National Labour Relations Act, and the Fair Labour Standards Act, did not extend to agricultural workers, although 31.8 percent of the African American population in 1940 was employed in agriculture (40.4 percent in the South). It wasn’t until the number of African-Americans became so numerous in industrial production during the Second World War that change could be made to happen. Early in 1941, A. Philip Randolph announced the creation of a March on Washington Committee, promising that unless President Roosevelt issued an executive order ending racial discrimination in hiring by unions and employers and eliminating segregation in the armed forces, ten thousand Americans would march through Washington demanding an end to segregation. The number of threatened marchers grew from 10,000 to 50,000, and then to 100,000. Despite the entreaties of Roosevelt and his intermediaries, Randolph made it clear that nothing less than a presidential executive order would stop the march. Roosevelt gave in and issued Executive Order 8802.[xii][xii] In June of 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, banning discriminatory employment practices by Federal agencies and all unions and companies engaged in war-related work. The order also established the Fair Employment Practices Commission to enforce the new policy.
Although the merger of the AFL with the CIO in 1955 diminished the drive towards promoting civil rights advocated by the CIO, individual unions, like the UAW, AFSCME, AFT and the Packinghouse Workers, inter alia, joined in directly with the African-American groups supporting the civil rights struggle. They also were key in supporting the Chicano farm workers in their efforts.
Racism, Nativism and Xenophobia Still Prevail
With a history like this it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Racism, Nativism and Xenophobia still prevails in the U.S. The current efforts by U.S. companies to drive down wages and “bust unions” have a long heritage. Just as the companies expanded within the U.S. to areas where the labour laws were least supported (largely in the Southern ‘sun states’) they later also exported these jobs overseas. They fractioned the production process to the production of smaller sub-assemblies which they could switch from plant to plant as a deterrent to militants at any one plant. Transfer pricing between subsidiaries and the ‘leads and lags’ of payment from one subsidiary to the other made the administration of taxation systems farcical for almost every country or state in which they produce goods.
Because modern international corporations are so powerful in their ability to ignore the strictures which seek to bind them, nation states, municipalities and regions competitively devalue their living standards to accommodate the needs of the corporations. As they do so, they shut the door on organisations seeking a fair wage, healthy working conditions, and the provision of social services like health care and retirement. Unfortunately, an inevitable concomitant of this is the continuation of racism, nativism and xenophobia which emerges in the competition for secure jobs.
Until these corporations and the politicians who are sponsored by them are controlled, the racism and nativism of the working populations will continue. They are inevitable consequences of the lack of constraints in modern industry.
[i][i] BBC News | AFRICA | Focus on the slave trade". May 25, 2017.
[i][ii] Alaina E Roberts, Al Jazeera, 27 Dec 2018
[i][iii] Meredith, Martin ,"The Fortunes of Africa." PublicAffairs, 2014.
[i][iv] Lesley Kennedy, "Building the Transcontinental Railroad: How 20,000 Chinese Immigrants Made It Happen", History, 30/5/20
[i][v] Supplement to the Codes and Statutes of California, Vol. III, 39 (1880)
[i][vi] Jeremy Brecher, Strike, Straight Arrow Books, 1972
[i][vii] Alan Dawley, "Paths to Power After the Civil War," in Working for Democracy: American Workers from the Revolution to the Present, ed. Paul Buhle and Alan Dawley (1985), pp. 44-45; William M. Tuttle, Jr., "Labor Conflict and Racial Violence: The Black Worker in Chicago, 1894-1919," in Black Labor in America, ed. Milton Cantor (1969), pp. 88-90.
[i][viii] Michael Gold, Jews Without Money, Carol & Graff, 1935
[i][ix] History Today, 21/8/18
[i][x] William H. Harris, The Harder We Run: Black Workers Since the Civil War (1982),
[i][xi] Labor Records, boxes 1-20, Records of the Intergroup Relations Branch, 1936-1963, RG 196
[i][xii] James Gilbert Cassedy, "African Americans and the American Labor Movement", Federal Records, Summer 1997