All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1991

Unions Drop Their Mask

Dr. Baird is Professor of Economics at California State University at Hayward.

The New York Daily News strike that began on October 25, 1990, has been characterized as “an old-fashioned labor-management blowout, the likes of which are rarely seen anymore.” Extreme overt violence and threats of violence by strikers and union hooligans against replacement workers, news vendors, newsstands, and delivery trucks have attracted national and international attention, including that of London’s Economist. Elaborate and expensive strike preparations by the Chicago-based Tribune Company, owner of the Daily News, which included secret training sessions for management personnel in Florida, a fenced and guarded “phantom newsroom” in New Jersey, and a nighttime guarded caravan transporting editors to the New Jersey site along a roundabout route designed to foil union spies, have added intrigue and even some entertainment value to the tale. But the level and character of violence in this strike give one pause. It is unique in recent history. It is a return to the tactics of the bloody union battles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Violence in Labor Disputes

There is nothing unusual about violence in labor disputes. For example, in the recent Pittston Coal strike, which lasted from April 1989 to February 1990, $65 million in fines were levied against the United Mine Workers for such activities as obstructive mass sit-down demonstrations, “rolling roadblocks” to stop coal trucks, spreading spikes on roads, and occupying a production plant for four days. Although the strike settlement included amnesty for all union acts of violence, the Virginia judge who imposed the fines has thus far refused to lift 80 percent of them.

Violence against buses and replacement drivers has been widely reported in the ongoing strike by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) against Greyhound. In May 1990, National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Jerry Hunter authorized a complaint against the ATU in which he cited specific acts of violence, mass picketing for the purpose of intimidation, and miscellaneous picket line misconduct.

In 1983 the Wharton School published Armand Thieblot’s and Thomas Haggard’s massive study of union violence in contemporary labor disputes. The 20 unions most frequently involved in violence had a total of 1,844 cited incidents from 1975 through 1981. The authors state that “Labor laws and their interpretations by the courts have failed to curtail or circumscribe overt violence, and application of criminal law is hampered by the collective nature of much of it and the inability to fix blame on particular individuals. The end result is that violence continues, and can occur in a modern strike or organizational drive just as easily as it did at the turn of the century.”

Unionists would have us believe that a strike is merely a collective withholding of labor services in the face of unacceptable terms of employment offered by an employer. But that is not all there is to it. A strike is a collective withholding of labor services, but it is also an attempt to shut down an employer by cutting off his access to replacement workers, suppliers, and customers. It is one thing for a group of like-minded workers to withhold their own labor services from an employer. It is quite another thing for them to attempt to force other workers, suppliers, and customers to refuse to do business with the struck firm. Such attempts are acts of trespass—in broad terms, acts of violence—against the voluntary exchange rights of non-strikers and the strike target.

Yet the sine qua non of every strike is the picket line, whose only purpose is to interfere with exchange activities between non-strikers and the strike target. As the United States Supreme Court recognized in the 1921 Tri City case, even a peaceful picket line is inherently intimidating. The Court’s solution to protecting the rights of non-strikers in that case was to limit picketing to one picket per entrance. This may seem to be merely a particularly benighted ruling by a pre-New Deal Supreme Court, but the activities of the Daily News strikers demonstrate where the opposite view can lead. If “peaceful” acts of interference with the exchange activities of non-strikers are permissible, then strikers cannot be blamed if recalcitrant non-strikers must be convinced of the folly of their ways by using more “persuasive” tactics. The 1940 Apex Hosiery decision shows that even the Supreme Court can be seduced into approving acts of extreme overt violence on the grounds that the offenders are pursuing legitimate union objectives.

The Norris-La Guardia Act (1932) and Wagner Act (1935) gave unions legal privileges and immunities that were specifically designed to eliminate violence in labor disputes. Congress reckoned that if employers couldn’t fight back, there would be peace. As it turned out, violence didn’t abate, but it did become largely limited to the picket line, and it seldom involved third parties. With the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) and landrum-Griffin Act (1959), unions lost some of their privileges and immunities and were forced to adopt a mask of civility and reasonableness.

Daily News Violence

In the Daily News strike, however, violence took to the streets to an extent unheard of in recent memory. The striking unions dropped their mask. News vendors have been intimidated, beaten, bombed, and shot. Newsstands and their inventories have been looted, bombed, and trashed. Delivery trucks have been bombed and torched, and their drivers have been beaten. Members of the general public who have been imprudent or unlucky enough to be close to acts of sabotage have been injured, and even more of them have been endangered. As Michael Gartner has aptly pointed out, this no-holds-barred attack against the newspaper amounts to thugs’ attempting to tell us what we can and cannot read.

James Hoge, publisher of the Daily News, has alleged that there had been, as of November 26, some 700 serious acts of violence. The New York Police Department claimed knowledge of only 229 such incidents, and discounted any union conspiracy behind them. Apparently the police don’t want to antagonize the unions in one of the most pro-union towns in America. The Daily News had to hire protective services from private security companies.

On November 14, at a union rally in front of Daily News headquarters, AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland blamed all of the violence on the newspaper. According to him, “the economic violence of stealing people’s jobs—that’s the root of anything that might be called violence.” If anyone other than a union spokesman had made such a claim he would have been laughed off the stage. To suggest that hiring willing workers to do the jobs that strikers refuse to do is justification for violence against people and property is ludicrous. Strikers do not have property fights to jobs they refuse to do. The employment relationship is one of contract between willing employees and willing employers. If one group of employees is unwilling, the employer has a moral and legal right to make contracts with others. Yet Brooklyn Assemblyman Frank J. Barbaro, in response to the Daily News strike, has introduced a bill in the New York State Legislature to outlaw the hiring of replacement workers. Only unions can practice violence with the blessing of politicians.

It Has Happened Before

The Daily News strike is very reminiscent of the 1892 Homestead strike. Today there is a 10-foot-high gray slab monument in Homestead, Pennsylvania, that commemorates “the iron and steel workers who were killed . . . . on July 6, 1892, while striking against the Carnegie Steel Company in defense of their American rights.” In fact, the Homestead strikers were violently attempting to deny the “American rights” of non-strikers.

Like the Tribune Company, Carnegie had undertaken elaborate preparations for an expected strike. There had been a violent strike at the plant in 1889, during which the strikers drove out the Allegheny County sheriff and his deputies who were trying to maintain order. In preparing for the 1892 strike, Carnegie manager Henry Frick had a nine-foot board fence, topped with barbed wire, constructed around the perimeter of the Carnegie property. Mindful of the impotency of the sheriff three years earlier, he also arranged for 300 Pinkerton guards to be brought in, should the need arise, to protect plant property and non-striking workers.

On July 6, 1892, after the strike began, Frick tried to land the Pinkerton men at the fenced-in Carnegie dock along the Monongahela River. The strikers tore down the fence, charged the dock, and fired on the tow boat and barges that were carrying the Pinkertons. At least one Pinkerton guard was killed. The tug escaped, leaving two barges filled with Pinkertons behind. They fell under siege, complete with cannon and dynamite. There were additional deaths on both sides. At one point there was an unsuccessful attempt to burn the barges to drown the occupants. In the end, the Pinkertons surrendered. They were savagely beaten and incarcerated in a local theater. The strikers’ advisory committee then proceeded to usurp all the governmental functions in the town. Like Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety in the French Revolution, the Homestead Advisory Committee policed all movement and activities of people in the town, especially members of thepress. The press was censored, and several people were incarcerated simply because of what they had to say about the strike. The only thing missing was the guillotine. On July 10, Governor Robert E. Pattison activated the National Guard and took the town back from the strikers, who offered no resistance. Peace was restored, replacement workers went to work, and eventually striking workers crossed the picket line. On November 20 the union officially called off the strike. The strike was lost.

In Conclusion

History has been kind to the Homestead strikers. Their actions have been excused by most labor historians as extreme but necessary measures of serf-defense in a just war against an oppressive and exploitative employer. But there is no romance left in such a view. Today, most people recognize that the employment relationship is not one of exploitation, it is one of contract. In today’s competitive environment, if mutually acceptable collective bargaining contracts cannot be implemented, mutually acceptable individual contracts—i.e., union-free operation—will take their place.

1.   The Wall Street Journal, November 2,1990.

2.   Armand J. Thieblot. Jr. and Thomas R. Haggard, Union Violence: The Record and the Response by Courts, Legislatures, and the NLRB, University of Pennsylvania, The Wharton School, Industrial Research Unit, 1983, p. 55.

3.   Ibid., p. 4.

4.   Michael Gartner, “Nation Shrugs as Thugs Firebomb Freedom,” The Wall Street Journal, November 29, 1990.

5.   The New York Times, November 15, 1990.

6.   This section is based on my “Labor Law Reform: Lessons from History,” Cato Journal, Spring/Summer 1990, pp. 175-209.

  • Charles Baird is a professor of economics emeritus at California State University at East Bay.

    He specializes in the law and economics of labor relations, a subject on which he has published several articles in refereed journals and numerous shorter pieces with FEE.