- The Great Cowboy Strike: Bullets, Ballots, and Class Conflicts in the American West by Mark Lause
London: Verso, 2017
xii + 304 pages. $29.95 (cloth); $9.99 (e-book)
Mark Lause's The Great Cowboy Strike promises to reveal fascinating, hitherto unexamined connections between labor organizing among western US cowboys, oppositional politics, and the wrenching violence of the Reconstruction-era western range. Yet while the book proceeds to explore each of these themes to varying extents, it never manages to pull them together into a coherent narrative or compelling analysis. The result is a work that will undoubtedly interest some labor, political, and western scholars while leaving most other readers with their curiosity piqued but unrequited.
The strike of Lause's title unfolded in 1883, just before the spring roundup, a season when large cattle operations in the Texas Panhandle were rendered especially dependent on skilled cattle workers. The cowboys' strategy of withdrawing their labor during this critical period, Lause shows, helped many of them secure wage concessions. The "great cowboy strike," in sum, "was short, well planned, well timed, and well executed such that it won a quick victory and seems to have inspired a wave of strike activity that continued to shape labor relations in the more isolated corners of the American West for years" (103).
Veterans of the 1883 strike, Lause suggests, sometimes hgured centrally in the strikes and other struggles that emanated outward from West Texas in succeeding years. Big cattlemen, for their part, swiftly schemed to undermine the capacity of cowboys to organize while dictating how western newspapers would tell the story of the strike. When the roundup season of 1884 approached, Panhandle cattle kings used blacklists, thuggery, and other means to reestablish authority over the cowboys on whom they depended.
No one could have known it at the time, but a succession of searing droughts and killing winters was already underway—not just in Texas but throughout the Great Plains. Between summer 1883 and spring 1888, "nature," Lause quips, "began launching its own series of general strikes" (138). The most notable of these, the Big Die-Up of 1886–87, killed an estimated 75 percent of beef cattle on the northern plains.
Ranching, meanwhile, was fast becoming a rich man's game. The consolidation of the industry into ever-larger units of production, Lause convincingly shows, hinged on the intensihcation of violence. The West's biggest ranchers established and maintained their dominance over smaller livestock producers through bloody conflicts that included the Panhandle's Fence-Cutter War, southern Arizona's Pleasant Valley War, and Wyoming's infamous Johnson County War as well as through their ongoing manipulation of a fundamentally corrupt American party system. The details of these dynamics differed from place to place. The overall outcome, though, was everywhere the same: big ranchers, along with their counterparts in railroad, mining, and manufacturing firms, effectively [End Page 185] solidified the state's role as capital's handmaiden, armed enforcer, and legitimator. In the wake of the 1883 strike, then, it is little wonder that hired hands throughout the West faced increasingly grim choices: accept work at prestrike rates; hold out hope that greener pastures might still exist in some other corner of the western range; seek out political alliances with urban labor organizers, agrarian protesters, and third-party schemers; wage armed resistance against the new order; or hit the road to play cowboy with Buffalo Bill or one of the other Wild West traveling shows that so enthralled fin-de-siècle audiences in the United States and Europe alike.
Curiously enough, Lause devotes only about a quarter of his book to his titular conflict. This leaves the balance of the The Great Cowboy Strike to a loose, often bewildering succession of seeming digressions. Gunslinging, the formation of national labor organizations, radical politics, Reconstruction violence in the western South, and sporadic efforts to establish third parties to rival the Democrat-Republican duopoly: each in turn receives extensive attention. While most of these threads eventually manage to illuminate the reader in some way or other...