Sept 20, 2020 – The Boston Police Strike of 1919 – Arsenal For Democracy Ep. 325

Description: In September 1919, a poorly-planned strike by the newly formed union representing Boston Police collapsed immediately and ended organizing of police for decades. But did they belong in the labor movement at all?

Links and notes for Ep. 325 (PDF):

Theme music by Stunt Bird.

Should we have a Bread and Roses holiday?

I think it would be nice to have a state holiday in March since we don’t have one; my suggestion is one honoring the Lawrence Massachusetts textile strike victory from March 1912 because it was a strike of Italian, French-Canadian (and simply French), various Slav, Hungarian, Portuguese, & Arab (Syrian/Lebanese) workers together in solidarity.

This strike is also known as the Bread and Roses strike. We talked about it on our podcast episode from August 2019 about the history of anarcho-syndicalism in the United States. I summarized the history of that strike using the book The Wobblies: The Story of Syndicalism in the United States​ (1967, Patrick Renshaw) and I am repeating that summary here with some additions…

In 1912, the Industrial Workers of the World’s focus began to shift with the Lawrence Massachusetts textile mill strike. This nine-week strike coincided with a wave of strike action across the entire English-speaking world of the British Empire, some of which the IWW was actually advising on.

Lawrence had 86,000 residents, 60,000 depending directly on mill wages, and 30,000 men and women working themselves in the mills. Overwhelmingly, the town was either immigrant or first-generation American, representing 25 or more nationalities. A pay cut in the second week of January 1912 also happened as the pioneering Massachusetts minimum wage and maximum hours law for women and children was rolling out. 10 or 15,000 workers walked out immediately, triggering a citywide general strike, although many immigrant groups did not join until later, and the small IWW local wired for emergency help from the national leadership, who arrived quickly on the scene.

A couple of those national advisers/organizers would later be arrested and held without trial for months. One – Italian immigrant, union organizer, poet, and orator Arturo Giovannitti, age 29 – became globally famed for his role in the strike and this imprisonment on false charges by Massachusetts authorities for being too inspiring (allegedly inciting murder through his speeches). His closing arguments in his successful defense on false charges of inciting murder, one of his first public speeches in English, were so passionate – imploring he be allowed to live because he loved being alive – that the trial audience was said to have been reduced to tears. Another famous line: “this mighty army of the working class of the world…which out of the shadows and the darkness of the past is striving towards the destined goal which is the emancipation of human kind, which is the establishment of love & brotherhood & justice for every man and every woman in this earth.” Both of Giovannitti’s co-defendants were also Italian, including the key IWW figure Joseph James Ettor, the multi-lingual first-generation Italian-American, who had helped usher in a new era of IWW focus around Eastern US industrial immigrant workers, including Italian, Polish, and Russian workers among others.

But before Giovannitti’s and Ettor’s arrests in late January, the situation had escalated without much help from radical left rhetoric alone. The Massachusetts militia fired water hoses into the strikers on January 15, a few days in, and the workers became so enraged that they committed to following through on the general strike in progress.

French and Belgian syndicalists were very active in the strike (including their bakery keeping people fed), while the city’s Irish and English communities tended to undermine the strike, especially since the Irish were now in control of city government (some of whom even purchased and planted dynamite to frame IWW leaders unsuccessfully). The Italians were divided with many serving as the core of the strikers but also quite a few siding with management and the city.

An aside: It is critical to remember that Italian unification was only completed by the northern monarchy in 1871 and Italy remained heavily regionally fragmented, with different dialects, politics, and rural vs urban industrial backgrounds. 1880-1900 Italian immigration in particular tended to be from the impoverished former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in Southern Italy as opposed to industrial northern Italian cities. Not all politically active Italians who came to the US shared the views of the anarchist or communist Italian immigrants. Moreover, as early as the 1890s, large numbers of Italian-Americans had already moved into the public sector roles in places like New York City and Chicago with which they are now “stereotypically” associated. Also many rural Italian immigrants opted to remain in American cities in more transient manual labor jobs and avoided settling down to continue to farm. They were overwhelmingly male and usually did not bring the rest of their families with them during this period (although of course the women working during the prior year’s (1911) Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire were Italian or Jewish women or girls active in the trade-union movement inside the factory.)

The Massachusetts militia that hosed down and otherwise harassed the picketers consisted largely of anti-immigrant nativists, multi-generation Americans, and young professionals/college students – drawn heavily from Harvard. Supposed anarchists from Boston, possibly actually agents working for management, brought signs with atheist slogans that alienated many workers.

The IWW had to evacuate thousands of starving children to supporter homes across the northeast as the privations grew, but this emergency dispersal of children proved to be such an effective propaganda tool to demonstrate more widely the abusive siege against the workers going without wages that the militias and police began trying to stop the evacuations and arresting mothers on neglect charges. The US Solicitor General condemned the intervention, saying it was any parent’s right to send their child to a home where they would be safer and better fed, and at this point American middle class opinion turned in favor of the strikers despite misgivings about the revolutionary rhetoric and descriptions of syndicalist tactics of sabotage and so on.

Soon there were newspaper editorials across the country raising questions not only about the millowners in Lawrence but about the entire US textile industry which was heavily benefiting from a federal tariff regime.

To avoid a much more serious review of US policy on their industry that could cost them far more money, the American Woolen Company decided to raise wages in 33 cities, then bumped pay for 125,000 millworkers in six states, and soon after a number of other textile companies announced pay rises, overtime pay, and worker protections. The strike ended and a wave of smaller textile strikes across New England quickly ended with similar surrender to worker demands.

Unfortunately, as elsewhere, the IWW was unable to capitalize on a major victory by putting down roots and building infrastructure, and the hard-won gains fizzled away quickly.

Guest Appearance on Left Anchor podcast

I made a guest appearance on last week’s episode of the show “Left Anchor.” Listen here:

Episode 146 -American City Government with Bill Humphrey

Today we’ve got an interview with Bill Humphrey, a city councilor for Newton, Massachusetts. We ask him about how he got into politics, how he ran his successful campaign, and what it’s like being a leftist in government during pandemic times. Enjoy!

Sept 11, 2018 – Arsenal For Democracy Ep. 241 Extended


Topic: Lessons from the recent Massachusetts and Delaware primary elections. People: Bill, Jonathan Cohn, Paul Blest. Recorded: Sept 9th and 10th, 2018.

Episode 241 (34 min):
AFD 241

This version includes a longer discussion of Massachusetts than what we aired in Delaware.


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Music by friend of the show Stunt Bird.

For the many, not the few

An excerpt from the spring 2017 Labour Party manifesto

So yes, this election is about what sort of country we want to be after Brexit. Is it one where the majority are held back by the sheer struggle of getting by? That isn’t the Britain Labour is determined to create.

So let’s build a fairer Britain where no one is held back. A country where everybody is able to get on in life, to have security at work and at home, to be decently paid for the work they do, and to live their lives with the dignity they deserve.

Let’s build a country where we invest our wealth to give everyone the best chance. That means building the homes we need to rent and buy, keeping our communities safe with more police officers, giving our children’s schools the funding they badly need, and restoring the NHS to its place as the envy of the world.

Don’t let the Conservatives hold Britain back.

Let’s build a Britain that works for the many, not the few.

Creating An Economy That Works For All

Labour’s economic strategy is about delivering a fairer, more prosperous society for the many, not just the few.

We will measure our economic success not by the number of billionaires, but by the ability of our people to live richer lives.

Labour understands that the creation of wealth is a collective endeavour between workers, entrepreneurs, investors and government. Each contributes and each must share fairly in the rewards.

This manifesto sets out Labour’s plan to upgrade our economy and rewrite the rules of a rigged system, so that our economy really works for the many, and not only the few. Britain is the only major developed economy where earnings have fallen even as growth has returned after the financial crisis. Most working people in Britain today are earning less, after inflation, than they did ten years ago. Too many of us are in low-paid and insecure work. Too many of us fear our children will not enjoy the same opportunities that we have.

Labour will turn this around. We will upgrade our economy, breaking down the barriers that hold too many of us back, and tackling the gender pay gap. Our National Transformation Fund will deliver the investment that every part of Britain needs to meet its potential, overcoming years of neglect. Our industrial strategy will support businesses to create new, high- skilled, high-paid and secure work across the country, in the sectors of the future such as renewables. We will stop our financial system being rigged for the few, turning the power of finance to work for the public good. And we will put small businesses at the centre of our economic strategy.

The growth created by our national investment plan, underpinned by the responsible economic management embodied in our Fiscal Credibility Rule, will create good jobs, drive up living standards and improve the public finances.

It is a plan that will deliver Labour’s vision of an economy that works for the many, not just the few – a Britain in which no one is held back.


The Bill Humphrey Agenda

What I seek:
For democratic empowerment tools to be brought into existence or revived with an application toward social amelioration, social inclusion, and social justice along overlapping axes.

What I believe:
A. You have a right to housing, a right to food, a right to health, a right to clean water, a right to a clean & safe environment & biosphere, a right to a living wage & a living allowance if unable to work, right to organize the workplace, a right to free & fair elections, a right to free public education from pre-Kindergarten through university, and a right to regional and local public transportation where possible.

B. You have a right to freedom of expression & religion, a right to racial & gender equality, a right to live safely & equally as a gender or sexual minority, a right to reproductive freedom, and a right to participate equally & accessibly with a disability in society. These protections apply regardless of citizenship.

C. Systems of democracy and economics should be harnessed toward and subordinated to the advancement of these 15 social aims and more.

Every person has a part they can play to lift up, liberate, and defend a society that lifts up, liberates, and defends everyone.

The Battle of the Bulge in 2017

My theme this week, and especially today with the healthcare vote in the US House, is about late battles that went the opposite direction of an overall war.

History is written largely as a linear flow, and by the victors. Certain points of the US Civil War or World War II are declared to be the point at which it was “inevitable” that eventually the US would prevail, even if it took a while. But at the time, in the moment, you have no way to know.

Maybe the next big counteroffensive by the enemy will actually turn the tide in their favor and deprive you of victory that seemed inevitable so recently. Until it doesn’t — and you realize it was just the horrid last gasp. It is ferocious and massively fatal to those bearing the brunt of it, but then it’s over and the war winds down.

What if we’re currently experiencing our version of the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944? That was when the Nazis made one last overwhelming push with the possibility of encircling four Allied Armies and forcing an armistice on the Western Front (which might have allowed the Nazis to win the war at least as far as remaining in power within Germany, even if not all across Europe).

In 2017, it would be the Republicans making one last massive counteroffensive that will claim a lot of lives and cause immense damage but ultimately be defeated. Ideally also leading to their annihilation, aided by a resurgent left. Maybe that’s pure fantasy, but it’s a dark hope that is better than no hope.

During the Battle of the Bulge, many U.S. units sacrificed to the last man to block certain roads and critical access points that prevented the German armored divisions from making the planned rapid encirclement. Every point the Nazis failed to take immediately then stalled their advance on other points, saving lives there, and ultimately they failed completely.

Today it is our duty to hold every defensive point to the last person, knowing that even if it falls, that sacrifice will have stalled the Republican counteroffensive from advancing on five, ten, twenty, or fifty other points of policy by which they would kill millions if they ultimately prevail. Eventually, we will stall them long enough in enough places to break their final effort and turn the tide.

But let me be clear: This will come at a severe cost and it will not happen without a ferocious, pitched battle.