- Strikebreaking and Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century America
Stephen H. Norwood’s Strikebreaking and Intimidation is a wonderfully readable, evocative, and economical work of history. Focused and well-crafted, the book draws the reader quickly and engagingly into the central issues and cultural processes at stake. Strikebreaking in the first three decades of the twentieth century, Norwood argues, was not merely or only an instance of class conflict. It was also an exceedingly important social and cultural terrain for the production of masculinity—and for conflicts over the proper form and content of masculine behavior. A highly organized and profitable industry in these decades, strikebreaking drew the nation’s workers and opinion-makers into contests over whether anti-union activity represented a deviant or heroic form of working-class rough masculinity. These contests involved both rhetorical salvos—the pen over the sword—and physical trials of fist and flesh and, far more consequentially, bullets and bombs. The twentieth-century’s long history of anti-unionism, Norwood suggests, opens up an equally compelling history of American manhood.
There are two principal pivots around which Norwood’s analysis turns. The first is the early twentieth-century’s Rooseveltian “strenuous life,” a prescription for masculinity advanced in an age when the nation’s middle class men stood at greater and greater remove from raw physical labor. Strikebreaking afforded the sons of this mushrooming class—most prominently college students and Boy Scouts—an opportunity to enact a “muscular” version of manhood by longshoring, operating street cars and subway trains, loading trucks, and, on occasion, engaging in direct confrontation with strikers. “Employers considered students to be the most reliable strikebreakers of the era,” Norwood insists, drawing an apt parallel between the muscular rituals of college football and the temporary descent into working-class physicality that strikebreaking provided (p. 16). Evincing little sympathy for the nation’s workers, college students from Columbia, Yale, Berkeley, and other prominent elite training grounds sought to prove that they were not “rah rah sissies” by invading and overturning the province of laboring men. Like football, strikebreaking for this emergent class of bourgeois managers, corporate bureaucrats, accountants, and attorneys represented the perfect dialectic: they could enjoy the class benefits of distance from demanding physical labor and poor wages while simultaneously enjoying access to the heroism of manly combat and feats of strength.
The second pivot around which Norwood builds his case is the assembling of mercenary armies of strikebreakers and anti-union saboteurs by industrialists [End Page 277] and private corporations in the first half of the century. Through cases studies in mining and the automobile industry, Norwood demonstrates that trade unionists and their allies attacked strikebreakers on more than just class grounds—they made an argument about gender as well. Working men were family providers, the argument went, upholding a socially conscious standard of manhood and the rule of law in their communities. Strikebreakers, in contrast, represented a kind of twisted and subversive manhood—men who lived outside of families and conventional morality and were likened to rapists and other sexual deviants. Unlike good union men, whose strikes against management stood for community betterment and upward mobility, labor mercenaries, union saboteurs, and company police exemplified a masculine individualism that threatened the social order. These charges were undergirded by racism when the strikebreakers were African American, but were also commonly anti-fascist (or, more accurately, anti-czarist), as when eastern European strikers likened the company police in the Pennsylvania coal fields to “Cossacks.”
All of this is done with a dispatch and rhetorical efficiency more historians should emulate. Additional chapters on African American strikebreakers—who had their own reasons for pursuing the “manhood” symbolized by good industrial jobs long denied black men—and strikebreakers as gun-slinging cowboys fill out Norwood’s portrait of industrial relations as a masculine battleground in the first half of the twentieth century. Strikebreaking and Intimidation is a necessary companion to the sizeable literature of the new...