Past/Prelude

A General Strike Against Trump? Here’s a Dark History Lesson

It was November 1919, during the Red Scare, and a radical labor leader in Pennsylvania took to the barricades. What did—and didn’t—happen may prove instructive for today.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Jim Maurer stood before a meeting of 500 union bosses in November 1919 and declared it was time to bring Pennsylvania to its knees.

“Get ready for the last grand struggle of all,” Maurer said. “Fight with every weapon at your command.”The union bosses pledged that if the governor didn’t rein in the state police’s systematic harassment of steel strikers, every single organized worker in Pennsylvania would walk off the job. All Jim Maurer had to do was give the word.

By the end of the month, a mob of demobilized soldiers had hunted Jim Maurer through midnight streets; the attorney general of the United States had denounced him by name; and the Philadelphia Inquirer had warned him to leave the state. The old Civil War veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic sang a song about him: “Hang Jim Maurer on the Sour Apple Tree.”

Maurer, a broad-shouldered plumber, had been a prominent radical for years; an enemy to militarists, industry, and the U.S. government. But it wasn’t until he threatened a general strike that someone wrote a song about lynching him.

There has been serious talk in recent weeks about a new wave of anti-Trump general strikes. Activists called one strike on Feb. 17, with others to follow on March 8 and May 1. What that means is not entirely clear, but the idea, with its whiffs of Red Emma and Big Bill Haywood, has captured the imaginations of leftists looking to escalate a growing protest movement.

But general strikes, in which all workers across industries strike in mutual solidarity, haven’t happened often in American history. General strikes that make political demands, like the ones the anti-Trump activists are planning, are even more rare. Jim Maurer is one of the few Americans to have seriously tried it. It nearly got him killed.

Maurer was 55 at the time, a former member of the Pennsylvania legislature and a onetime Socialist Party candidate for governor. In 1919, he was president of the statewide federation of labor unions, which was why, in late August, he was among the first to learn that sheriff’s deputies in Brackenridge, Pennsylvania, had murdered a union organizer named Fannie Sellins.

The details of the incident remain sketchy. In his 1938 autobiography, Maurer writes that he got a telegram from a United Mine Workers leader reporting that armed deputies from Pittsburgh had rolled into town on a Tuesday afternoon, intending to harass miners striking at the Allegheny Coal and Coke Company. While manhandling workers, the deputies clocked a 58-year-old union member in the head, and then “pumped bullets into him.” When Sellins protested, they shot her, too.

“This butchery was performed in broad daylight,” Maurer wrote.

Maurer was incensed, and he sent letters to Washington demanding an investigation. It was a small incident in a year of bloody labor battles, but it hit close to home, and it meant that when a quarter-million steelworkers walked off the job across the nation on Sept. 22, Maurer was already angry and ready for a fight.

The big steel strike was one of the largest the country had ever seen. In Pennsylvania, local governments responded by going to war on behalf of the companies. State police busted up union meetings, beat up picketers, and skirmished with strikers. Unable to organize or even demonstrate, the strike’s organizers stumbled, and the effort quickly began to falter. Hoping to forestall defeat, Maurer called a convention of the heads of all of Pennsylvania’s unions for Nov. 1. A New York Times reporter asked Maurer the day before the conference if there would be “action taken” by the delegates.

“There’ll be action, all right,” Maurer shot back.

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By the end of the meeting’s first day, the union bosses had pledged to combine their efforts against the state government’s assault on the steel miners’ rights. In a vote of 498-2, representatives of all of the unions of Pennsylvania agreed to a statewide strike for “free speech, free press, and free assembly.”

It was framed as an ultimatum: If Governor William Sproul would not call a special session of the state legislature“for the purpose of aiding to restore constitutional liberty in Pennsylvania,” all 500,000 union members in the state would stop work.

“If the order is given to go out, stick,” Maurer said. “It will be better for the state to go down with us into the grave than to remain as she is.”

Maurer “wants to make the strike a political weapon,” wrote the New York Tribune. “He wants to use the economic power of the unions to overthrow existing forms of government.”

It was an idea that had long fired the imaginations of radicals — and haunted the nightmares of the establishment.

The general political strike was a particular obsession of A. Mitchell Palmer, the attorney general, who hurried to Pennsylvania as news of Maurer’s threat spread.

It was when Palmer got to Harrisburg that things got ugly.

Palmer had a pathological hatred of communists and radicals, which may have had something to do with the anarchist bombers who had blown up his house a few months earlier. On Nov. 7, Palmer launched the first in a series of raids in which federal agents rounded up and deported hundreds of anarchists. But on Nov. 6, he took time out from the planning to visit Harrisburg and deliver a jeremiad against Jim Maurer.

“It was in his attack on the radical labor leaders of the country that the Attorney-General grew bitter,” the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote in its report on Palmer’s address. Palmer called political strikes “one of the most insidious attacks upon our government,” quoted liberally from speeches Maurer had given years before, and called on the union men to reject his influence.

The press piled on. “Palmer Flays Radicals,” read The Sun’s headline. “Says Radical Leaders Real Foes of Worker,” read the Los Angeles Times. The Washington Post wrote that Palmer was “rallying the loyal and patriotic people of the country to the government’s standard.”

And so they rallied.

Two secret societies in Reading, where Maurer lived, launched a “drive” to “free Reading” of Maurer. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an editorial titled, “Move On, Maurer, Move On,” and called him a “radical agitator and a dangerous man.” In his autobiography, Maurer says he uncovered a plot to have him tarred and feathered and dragged out into the mountains.

On Nov. 23, a parade of thousands of men, most of them recently demobilized members of the American Legion, massed outside of Maurer’s Reading headquarters, ready to riot. At the hour that The New York Times’s correspondent filed his report on the incident, Maurer and another socialist were “being sought by the Legion men… further trouble during the night is feared.”

All of this without the general strike even being called.

In fact, Maurer never made good on his threat. It turns out he never intended to. In his autobiography, Maurer admits that the whole thing was a ruse. The state labor federation didn’t even have the authority to call any strike, never mind a massive one. It “was nothing but a bluff,” Maurer wrote. “But it worked, scaring the uninformed captains of industry and their political and journalistic allies into a blue funk.”

Maurer knew the power of the act he was threatening; knew the depths of the fear it would inspire. He had heard the rhetoric accusing the steel strikers of Bolshevism, and he capitalized on it, letting frightened officials get lost in their fearful imaginings.

As a short-term tactic, it was something of a bust: The steel strike, it turned out, was beyond help, and by January it had been thoroughly put down. In the long term, however, there may have been some benefit to terrifying the attorney general: Palmer started seeing general political strikes everywhere. The following April, he warned that radicals were planning a nationwide general strike coupled with an assassination campaign for May Day. They weren’t, and when they didn’t, Palmer was humiliated. His opponents pressed the advantage, effectively ending the Red Scare.

Still, the fear of the general political strike never really dissipated. Since 1947, Congress and the courts have generally barred unions from calling political strikes of any scale. Two generations later, it’s hard to know whether the tactic still bears the power to terrify, and to mobilize. Over the next few months, we might find out.