Voltairine de Cleyre, “A Study of the General Strike in Philadelphia” (1910)

A “CONDITION” is always more interesting than a “theory.” The general strike of organized labor in Philadelphia has been the most interesting and instructive phenomenon in the economic struggle which any American city has offered since Chicago in 1885-6. It has revealed many things, both to its friends and its enemies, which no amount of theorizing could have foreseen. Its direct consequences, while considerable, have been insignificant compared with indirect results. As I wrote in my last month’s article, it was called some ten days later than it should have been; it was fixed for Saturday morning, March 5th,—Saturday being a blunder in itself, since most trades quit work at noon on Saturday anyhow. The general expectation was that the next Monday would be the test day, opponents contending it would collapse by Tuesday morning, while friends generally expected the manifestation of solidarity to be greatest on that day. Both, however, were mistaken. The number of organized workers out began with 50,000 on Saturday, rose to 60,000 or 70,000 on Monday, increased Tuesday and Wednesday, the ranks of the strikers swelling by appeals to the unorganized until 135,000 workers were out, according to the figures of the general strike committee, though some reports fixed the number at 160,000. The height of the strike was probably either Wednesday or Thursday, March 9-10. From then on the balance was about maintained by some going back and new ones going out for a week. Then the return tide generally set in, and at the end of three weeks the general strike was declared off.

Let us inquire what happened. The natural feeling, both on the part of friend and enemy, was that with the withdrawing of 100,000 people from the factories, the hostility of the city toward the car company would manifest itself in open demonstrations,—car-smashing, scab-smashing, parading, demanding, etc. Unfortunately, the fatal policy of procrastination which had originally delayed the calling of the general strike, had given the company and their agents at City Hall, the Mayor, the Director of Public Safety, the Superintendent of Police, and above all the courts which had been sentencing rioters to merciless punishments, an opportunity partially to denature the vital principle of the general strike, viz., active, open, and determined assertion of its demands.

Something, however, has to be said in extenuation, or at least in explanation, of this blunder of waiting. It was the policy of some of the participants in the car strike to play for public sympathy; to make it apparent to the half-awakes and the indifferents that they had no desire to inflict undue hardship upon anyone; that they waited as long as possible for the company to recede from its position; and that all blame for the general strike must rest with the P. R. T., which refused every overture for arbitration. It must be admitted that in this they succeeded. All newspapers, while attacking the principle of the general strike as tyranny, and, of course (word of conjuration) “un-American,” contended that right-thinking citizens must agree that the car men were right in the matter of being willing to arbitrate. That the support so gained was dearly bought by the devitalizing of the spirit of the people, is probably apparent to them now. If not, they need the lesson again.

Another explanation, however, and even a more important one, is that, “They didn’t because they couldn’t” call the strike sooner. At least officially. Herein lies the great and fundamental problem for organized labor: Is it to go on trying to meet the conditions of industrial warfare with the old inadequate weapon of the isolated union? Here was a case where the spirit of the people had gotten out of control of its narrow bonds, and human nature was clamoring to “go out with the car men,”—ten or twelve days before. But the Central Labor Union had no power to make the declaration. Each union must vote on the question at its own special or regular meeting. And the days ran away. The police were clubbing and shooting. The cars were running. The generous spirit was already beginning to evaporate; men calculated. They said: “How can we afford to go on strike, when according to the Constitution of our Union it will be an illegal strike, and we shall receive no benefit from the international? We would believe in striking, if we could receive the support of our own treasury; but the consequence of striking in this way will be that those who cannot stand the financial strain will scab it; our own organization will be disrupted, there will be victimizations; men will suffer for years for the action of a few days; and no one will be benefited.” Nevertheless, when the C. L. U. passed the resolutions calling for the strike, the wave swept up again. Ardent spirits talked, and careful spirits kept their mouths shut,— which is a way careful spirits have, and then of blaming the other side for talking afterwards. Nevertheless, what the careful spirits foresaw, is precisely what has happened. Within two weeks some of the most ardent strike-talkers were scabbing it,—resting secure in the knowledge that any union man has a right to scab it in an illegal strike, and furthermore that the only way for them to atone to the bosses for their mischief- breeding talk was to get back to their jobs first. And a good many of the careful souls have been victimized along with the rest. From all of which two things must be apparent:

I.—That the unions must either break away from their old forms, to organize industrially; or they must devise some special means of responding to the call for the general strike in the future, by which they may order themselves out quickly, and maintain their members while on strike.

2.—That wholesale enthusiasm is a straw-fire which burns out quickly; therefore it must be utilized at once, if at all; therefore, those who seek to burn barriers away with it, must direct it to the barriers at once.

Now, the fact is that those who called for the general strike had very much mixed ideas of what they were going to do with it after they got it. They did call for a mass meeting, having secured the Ball Park (private property) for the occasion. The police closed the Ball Park. The people then marched, 50,000 strong, down Broad Street. You would think this was an occasion to express their convictions concerning the P. R. T., the rights of the car men, the rights of union men, the rights of workingmen, the rights of people, their detestation of the “dummy mayor,” the tsarism of Director Clay, the thuggery of “cop”-ism! Fifty thousand are a good many! But so little idea had anybody of saying or doing anything at all, that a few hundred cops (slightly more than were detailed to keep Emma Goldman from entering Odd Fellows’ Temple last September) waded into the marchers with their clubs, drove them right and left, knocked some of them down, arrested a few more, and—“the ball was over.” By the eternal gods, Dominique Donelli did better than that two years ago!

Strikers of Philadelphia! When the unemployed Italians marched to City Hall to ask for work, and received the club and the revolver, a lot of you said, “It served them right; they are dagoes.” When the Anarchists appealed to the Central Labor Union to support the right of free speech, denied by Director Clay to Emma Goldman, Ben Reitman, and Voltairine de Cleyre, you refused to protest against Clay’s action, because we were Anarchists.

Have you had a lesson now? Do you know now that you are no more to Clay than the “dagoes” and the Anarchists? Have you learned what a police club is for? Do you see whose “right of private property” is respected and protected? Do you know now who is allowed to hold meetings and march on the streets? Do you know now that your place is with him whose liberty is attacked, be he who he will?

Now, a glance at unorganized labor, and a feature of the strike which is more gratifying. From personal conversations with a number of unorganized workers who struck, I have learned that in the mass they struck very inconsciently. Supt. Vauclain, of Baldwin’s Locomotive Works, where the most satisfactory strike of the unorganized element took place, was right when he said that “the men could hardly help striking,—it was sort of in the air—they would come back in a few days.” Unfortunately this was true, though not so much in his particular case. However deficient the unions, one thing is sure,—a union strike has more stamina than a non-union strike. Another reason to direct it quickly. People walked out of the shops with the sound of feet in their ears, pretty much as horses commence to mark time when they hear a band of music. Had they walked out with any definite purpose in their heads they might have accomplished it, and remained heroes in their own eyes ever afterward. I suspect that the Bastille was taken by some such a sleep-walking crowd. However, these had no intentions, and three days afterward they went apologetically to the boss and told him they didn’t know why they had quit; and now they will remain foolish in their own eyes ever afterward. And the boss’s too.

Notwithstanding this, and as a splendid offset to occasional disruption and victimization, there has been a net gain of many thousands to the ranks of organized labor, as a side result of the strike. The Committee of Ten reports it as 20,000. This may be figuring too high, but it is certain that it approaches that number. The organization of Baldwin’s alone, with two-thirds of its skilled employees enrolled, is a great piece of work. Moreover, one element of the unorganized has been attracted, of which I have not spoken: that class of workers who were not in the unions because they were superior to the unions; because the narrowness and meanness of the trade union spirit disgusted them. Numerically, of course, these are few, but they are active and valuable spirits; and it was the sympathetic strike, the recognition of solidarity, which won them.

The failure of certain associations, such as the brewers, the typos, the musicians, and actors, to join in the strike, because of their contracts made through the national or international unions, puts another problem to labor men for settlement: How to modify the contract system so as to leave the local free in case of a local sympathetic strike? The bricklayers and builders stood by their class and broke their contracts; the brewers, etc., stood by their contracts and played traitor to their class. Of musicians and actors it was rather to be expected; they are, after all, hangers-on of the bourgeoisie; but the brewers and typos have disgraced themselves.

Well, Philadelphia has set the first example,—a feeble example, lacking in purpose, wasting itself by reason thereof, and by reason of lack of organization and delay. However, it forced the company to the semblance of compromise; it made the Mayor and the City representative on the Board of the P. R. T. do what they had loudly proclaimed they would not do, confer with the officers of the car men; and while the terms were not accepted by the car men, as being deceptive and a mockery, and they are still out, there is no doubt that the enemy recognizes that the weapon of industrial warfare in the future will be the general strike,—and dreads it.

Do they perceive, do the workers perceive, that it must be the strike which will stay in the factory, not go out? which will guard the machines, and allow no scab to touch them? which will organize, not to inflict deprivation on itself, but on the enemy? which will take over industry and operate it for the workers, not for franchise holders, stockholders, and office-holders? Do they? Or will it take a few thousand more clubbings to knock it into their heads?

Philadelphia began a certain other fight one hundred and thirty-four years ago; she didn’t win it on that 4th of July either. She was held by the British after that. But the fight went on, as this one will. What transportation company will be the next to precipitate the battle? Six different companies in as many cities have raised the trolleymen’s wages since this strike began. Evidently they decline the battle, and are more after immediate profits than crushing: unions. But in a year or two some other city will have the fight. Let them profit by our mistakes.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “A Study of the General Strike in Philadelphia,” Mother Earth 5 no. 2 (April 1910): 39-44.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.