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Monday, September 10, 2018

September 10, 2018: MassacreStudying: Lattimer

[On September 10th, 1897, striking coal miners at the Lattimer mine near Hazleton, PA, were attacked by a sheriff’s posse, killing at least 19 and wounding many more. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy historical massacres, leading up to a special weekend post on contemporary hate crimes.]
On one pessimistic and one optimistic takeaway from the anti-labor massacre.
I’m gonna turn this first paragraph over to Erik Loomis, who as I highlighted in that tribute post is one of our most prolific and important labor historians. His post on the Lattimer Massacre is, as usual, a must-read. So check that out and I’ll see you back here after!
Welcome back! As Erik likewise traces at length in this piece for Bill Moyers’ website, Lattimer was only one of many such episodes of brutal violence directed at American workers by police, corporate hired guns, and other such authoritarian mobs. (For two powerful cultural representations of such violence, both focused on the 1920 West Virginia coal wars, check out John Sayles’ film Matewan [1987] and Diane Gillam Fisher’s poetry collection Kettle Bottom [2004].) Indeed, while the Haymarket Square bombing might be the most famous single act of violence connected to the American labor movement, the telling irony is that the vast majority of such violence was directed at laborers, not emanating from them (if, as I wrote in that May series, the bombing even emanated from them at all). You can’t tell the story of labor in America without remembering such acts of violence, not only because they happened and happened so often, but also and especially because they reflect the lengths to which corporations and their allies would go to oppose strikes and protests and other labor activisms. That’s not a happy lesson, but it’s a vital one, and Lattimer helps us better remember it.
Lattimer also helps us challenge another set of dark histories too often tied to the labor movement: narratives of ethnic and racial division and opposition. It’s true that corporate interests often tried to divide groups of workers along such lines (as Matewan portrays quite well), and of course also true that the labor movement was in no ways immune to the prejudices and bigotry that have been part of every community and moment in American history. At Lattimer, mining boss A.S. Van Wickle tried to capitalize on these histories by bringing in Slavic workers (who had historically been kept out of the United Mine Workers union) to break the strike; but the workers joined the strike instead, helping add their voices to a truly multi-ethnic community of striking laborers. Over the next few years, UMW membership surged dramatically, making the union far more powerful and successful in its activisms and negotiations, and there’s quite simply no way to understand that shift without considering the role of multi-ethnic workers and communities. As with so many of our darkest histories, Lattimer also featured moments and threads of hope, representations of the best of American communities that make it that much more important to better remember this historic massacre.
Next massacre tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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