The Unknown Committees: Refusal of Work During the WWI Wildcat Strikes
Robert Ovetz

This is excerpted from Ch. 8 of When Workers Shot Back (Brill 2018). See the original book for the full citations.

Strikes are not the only form of working class struggle. Often strikes are preceded by what have been called everyday forms of resistance to express a refusal of work. While few have attempted to identify the refusal of work as a form of class struggle, there is a rich episode of US history in which it was both studied and served as the IWW’s starting point for recomposing working class power. As explained earlier in the chapter, there was a wildcat strike wave in the US arms industry during WWI. One of the most important developments of the wildcat strike wave was the capacity of workers to self-organise not merely to resist Taylorism but to impose their own ‘counter-plan’ on the shop floor. It wasn’t the fledgling labour planning state that spurred the rapid growth of union membership during the war assert but the self-organised struggles of the workers. If the wildcat strikes made the union, it was the ‘unknown committees’ of self-organised workers who made the wildcat strikes to impose their own plans for work. It was these unknown committees that coordinated the wildcat strikes that fed unionization and disrupted the war effort. But even once WWI ended and capital attempted to roll back working class gains the unknown committees continued to disrupt capital’s plan even during the bleak period of the 1920s.

Counter-Planning on the Shop Floor

A small informal group of craft workers could function as a beachhead against management prerogatives. ‘The resistance of [of labourers and operatives] to speed-up and management’s authority tended to take the form of continuous, covert, self-organization by small informal groups at work’.1 Sometimes these obstacles were motivated by individualism or the need to preserve privileges and sometimes by worker solidarity.2 At other times these beachheads were caused by everyday forms of resistance, sabotage, and strikes. Either way they were seen as a threat to management prerogatives.

The disruptive power of such small informal groups grew alongside the concentration of capital. The integration and concentration of production created choke points because ‘the new forms of production are more integrated, not less, and as a result smaller groups of workers now have greater power than ever before’.3 This was evident during the 1902 coal strike which threatened to shut down the economy when the reserves the company had built up in advance of the strike began to run out. Similarly, even the limited WWI strikes in the war industries threatened to block the flow of raw materials or parts crucial to the war economy. Concentrating and integrating production can allow even smallscale disruption at a strategically vital location of the production process to bring an entire industry or the economy to a stop.

These small self-organised groups engaged in a hit and run type of guerrilla war, or what Watson called ‘counter-planning on the shopfloor’, that mucked up management’s plan for speed, productivity and organisation.4 Their modus operandi was ‘defiance of the management’s will and instructions, as sabotage. The small informal work group persisted, not as an agency of explicit control, as it had been under craft unionism, but as a submerged, impenetrable obstacle to management’s sovereignty.’5 The study of the rationalisation of work can provide insight into the emergence of new forms of class struggle out of the small, informal, self-organised groups of workers who use the various tactics of ‘striking on the job’ to undermine management prerogatives. The IWW called such everyday forms of underground struggle ‘sabotage’.6 IWW member Walker Smith provocatively protrays sabotage as having a ‘revolutionary, economic end’, while organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn explains it as simply an ever-changing tactic used to shift the balance of power on the shop floor. ‘Sabotage is to this class struggle what the guerrilla warfare is to the battle. The strike is the open battle of the class struggle, sabotage is the guerrilla warfare, the day-by-day warfare between two opposing classes.’ According to Flynn, sabotage is a non-violent ‘means of strik-ing at the employer’s profit for the purpose of forcing him into granting certain conditions, even as workingmen strike for the same purpose of coercing him. It is simply another form of coercion.’7

Sabotage may take a variety of tactical forms. Affecting the quality, quantity and service, sabotage may entail ‘losing’ forms or parts, misassembling or omitting parts, cracking machines, or wrongly machining parts causing a backlog of unusable parts. Workers may also use what Flynn called ‘open mouth sabotage’ by being honest about the poor quality of goods or services to customers and adulterating or refusing to adulterate products with the intent of eating into profits.8 By gumming up the production process, workers use sabotage to also create breaks that allow them to temporarily halt production in order to give themselves them time to rest, socialise and organise across internal class divisions including race.9

While some workers may resort to sabotage after losing the above-ground struggle, it may also proceed open class warfare. According to Mike Davis, ‘these struggles marked the entry of the “submerged” majority of industrial workers into open class conflict’.10 In his classic treatise Emile Pouget described sabotage as ‘The most important part of a strike, … precedes the strike itself and consists in reducing to a powerless condition the working instruments’. He found that it is the preferred weapon of the working-class, the ‘dark, invincible, terrible Damocles’ Sword that hangs over the head of the master class, [that] will replace all the confiscated weapons and ammunition of the army of the toilers’.11 The increasing prevalence of sabotage may inversely correspond to the closing of access to the polity to address and resolve grievances.

For Flynn, Smith, and Pouget sabotage is the ideal tactic because it is difficult to identify and suppress. For Pouget it is nearly impossible to counter or defeat because

In vain may they invoke old laws and make new ones against it – they will never discover it, never track it to its lair, never run it to the ground, for no laws will ever make a crime of the ‘clumsiness and lack of skill’ of a ‘scab’ who bungles his work or ‘puts on the bum’ a machine he ‘does not know how to run’. There can be no injunction against it. No policeman’s club. No rifle diet. No prison bars. It cannot be starved into submission. It cannot be discharged. It cannot be blacklisted. It is present everywhere and everywhere invisible.12

While some labour historians have documented the resistance to rationalisation, few have seen within these tactics the germ of new types of worker selforganisation with which workers directly confront the source of their grievances and see an immediate impact to their efforts without union intervention, collective bargaining, or grievances. But the dividing line between ad hoc self-organisation and new organisational strategies is blurry. ‘It is difficult to judge just when working-class practice at the point of production learned to bypass the union structure in dealing with its problems, and to substitute (in bits and pieces) a new organizational form’.13 Because sabotage is subterranean and opaque it is difficult to asses the organisational capacity of the workers who use it.

Nevertheless, the prevalence of sabotage has corresponded to periods of new forms of worker self-organisation at the point of production outside of and beyond the existing union structures. This was the case for both the period preceding the WWI wartime wildcat strikes, the 1930s, and the 1960s. Writing about auto workers between the 1930s and 1960s, League of Revolutionary Black Workers organiser Bill Watson saw counter-planning as ‘the building of a new form of organization today by workers’. These were ‘the outcome of attempts, here and there, to seize control of various aspects of production. These forms are beyond unionism …’.14 Counter-planning is most pronounced in the absence of organised unions because it violates the assumption of management’s total control over the production process. Counter-planning creates what Holloway calls ‘counter-power’ wielded by insubordinate workers using covert forms of organisation.15

As Watson and Davis would later argue, Flynn observed that ‘sabotage’ is merely a tactic which workers come to from their immediate knowledge and experience in the class struggle. A good organiser would ‘see what the workers are doing, and then try to understand why they do it; not tell them its [sic] right or its [sic] wrong, but analyze the condition and see if possibly they do not best understand their need and if, out of the condition, there may not develop a theory that will be of general utility. Industrial unionism, sabotage are theories born of such facts and experiences.’16

For this reason such tactics are not fixed. As she argued,

sabotage is in the process of making. Sabotage itself is not clearly defined. Sabotage is as broad and changing as industry, as flexible as the imagination and passions of humanity. Every day workingmen and women are discovering new forms of sabotage, and the stronger their rebellious imagination is the more sabotage they are going to invent, the more sabotage they are going to develop. Sabotage is not, however, a permanent weapon.17

Although there is little historical documentation of such covert forms of organisation, management’s persistent efforts to reorganise work would not have taken place if resistance were absent. The level of repression, automation, displacement, deskilling and outsourcing can be read as indicators of the level of threats to the prerogatives of capital.

Stanley Mathewson’s unique study of so-called ‘unorganised’ workers demonstrates that the continuing need to innovate and remain vigilant in the implementation of Taylorist rationalisation was driven by the persistent resistance on the shop floor even in the absence of a formal union. Interviewing 65 managers of companies employing more than 500,000 workers, Mathewson found counter-planning to be widespread and practised by workers and low level ‘straw’ bosses, former workers promoted to foremen, alike. He showed that workers were resisting more than just low wages. They also took action to set wages, assert power over production, protect other workers, undermine management’s authority, and to stretch out work to avoid unemployment.18

In his analysis of Mathewson’s findings, Leiserson even went so far as to suggest that Taylorism was defeated by unorganised workers using everyday forms of resistance to capital’s plan. ‘In spite of the widespread adoption of more scientific methods in industry since the war, the evils of restriction, which was the starting point of Taylor’s activity, continues unabated. Management has not been able to abolish the conditions which bring it about.’19

Mathewson’s work illustrates that workers were already self-organised, even if they lacked formal organisation, and had the capacity to pursue a strategy of tension. Non-violent sabotage might emerge above ground in various forms of tactical violence as their attempts to organise openly are repressed and their access to the polity is blocked. As Grant observed in his unpublished report for the Commission on Industrial Relations on the ironworkers’ dynamite campaign,

Repressive measures adopted by employers to prevent their employes [sic] from organizing, usually lead sooner to later to a revolt. In recent years some of the most violent outbreaks in the industrial field have occurred where there was no previous organization among the employes [sic]. Such outbreaks invariably are followed by more violence than is the case where the employes [sic] are organised in an established labor union.20

Grant’s study of the dynamite campaign not only confirmed Mathewson’s findings, but warned of further escalation by unorganised workers that threatened the system of production. In this way, the prevalence of sabotage and other forms of tactical violence corresponded more to the political conditions and class composition than ideology or forms of organisation. Grant’s observation was intended to strengthen the argument for normalising unions as a means to manage and regulate class conflict. As others like Gompers argued at the time, unions can serve to tamp down the ability of self-organised workers to escalate their tactics and disrupt production.

One union, however, provided an organisational vehicle for unorganised workers to deploy a strategy of tension. The IWW gained a reputation in part for articulating a strategy by which workers could use sabotage to counter-plan on the shop floor. Flynn and Smith demonstrated how apparently unorganised workers could engage in the kinds of tactics found by Mathewson.

The IWW’s embrace of sabotage was preceded by many other tactics along the trajectory. Many IWW organising campaigns began with and were limited to presumably accepted forms of First Amendment-protected free speech campaigns which were soon tested in the courts. In Tacoma and San Diego, for example, the IWW protested against the combined repressive power of local owners of capital and government using marches and parades, open air meetings, publishing newspapers, pamphlets and flyers, organising strikes, and establishing local offices and stores. The IWW didn’t start with sabotage but it was a key tactic in their repertoire.

To dismiss Flynn and Smith’s essays on sabotage as criminal, violent, or hyperbole would be to under-appreciate how deeply the IWW validated the existing tactics and strategies of self-organised workers. As a sometimes latecomer to strikes already self-organised by the workers, the IWW could articulate and circulate submerged everyday forms of class struggle that often escaped the public spotlight, capital’s control, and union support. As Flynn and Smith described it, sabotage merely meant the actions of fluid informal groups of workers contending for relief from the daily oppressive exploitation of work by contesting and undermining management’s plan. Too weak to strike openly, they covertly struck on the job. As Smith observed, ‘… Sabotage is coined from the slang term that means “putting the boots” to the employers by striking directly at their profits without leaving the job’.21

Sabotage is used by workers to assert counter-power to confront the arbitrary power of a foreman, to stretch out a nearly completed job when other work was not forthcoming, or simply to compensate for low wages.22 According to Smith,

The labor power of the workers is a commodity. In selling their merchandise the workers must sell themselves along with it. Therefore they are slaves – wage slaves. In purchasing goods from a merchant one receives an inferior quality for a low price. For a low price – poor products. If this applies to hats and shoes, why not equally to the commodity sold by the laborer? It is from this reasoning that there arises the idea: For poor wages – bad work.23

For the IWW, class power begins on the shop floor.Tactics that have an immediate impact on efficiency, productivity, sales, and profits provide what Flynn called the necessary ‘coercion’ to extract concessions not otherwise obtainable through open tactics.24 What made the IWW most threatening was not its public advocacy of sabotage but its ability to read the everyday forms of resistance in a workplace, region or industry, teach these tactics to other already self-organised workers, and facilitate the circulation of their struggles for more control over their work, lives, and ultimately society.

As a strategy for recomposing working-class power sabotage is woefully inadequate. Absent a recomposed working-class, sabotage can only soften exploitation by slowing or stalling it on isolated shop floors. It does not dismantle or seize power as an objective but wields it to tilt the balance of power as a strategy of counter-power. As Flynn noted, sabotage is not a strategy for getting beyond capitalism.

Sabotage is not, however, a permanent weapon. Sabotage is not going to be necessary, once a free society has been established. Sabotage is simply a war measure and it will go out of existence with the war, just as the strike, the lockout, the policeman, the machine gun, the judge with his injunction, and all the various weapons in the arsenals of capital and labor will go out of existence with the advent of a free society.25

During WWI, the IWW managed to successfully carry out this strategy in key wartime industries such as mining and spruce timber. By refusing to negotiate contracts, they taught workers how to strike at key weak links in a wartime economy, apply leverage to achieve their objectives, and use counter-power to retain them. For the IWW, disruption was a tactic that moved them towards their revolutionary goal of worker self-control of the economy. ‘The main concern to revolutionists is whether the use of sabotage destroy [stet] the power of the masters in such a manner as to give the workers a greater measure of industrial control’.26 Disruption was virtually costless because it was covert and nearly anonymous. It avoided the need for bargaining by directly reducing the intensity of work exploitation and imposing concessions workers wanted.

As a tactic of disruption sabotage was a vehicle for a longer-term objective of reconstituting the power of the working-class and imposing it on the means of production. Sabotage tactically served to create disruption at key chokepoints but these needed to be replicated and generalised to shift power to the working class.

As Smith explained, sabotage is simply one of the many weapons in labour’s arsenal. It is by no means the greatest one. Solidarity action is mightier than the courageous acts of a few. Industrial class formation gives a strength not to be obtained by mere tactics.27 Foreseeing the Italian autonomists of nearly a half-century later, Smith asserted that ‘No analysis of the labor movement is complete where sabotage is not accepted as a weapon’.28

But the tactic of sabotage is insufficient for recomposing working-class power. Smith’s strategy was control of work as the terrain of struggle. ‘Armed with a knowledge of sabotage the workers return to their task, more terrible in defeat than in victory’.29 Since alienation and exploitation were experienced by millions of workers in their everyday lives, the struggle to assert their own humanity as something more than just a reified appendage was likely to assert itself again and again. While it might be hard to identify from the outside, the statistical output, earnings, staffing, and profit reports by employers and the state provided sufficient coded evidence of the give and take struggle over and against work that awaits class analysis.30 Such contention was endemic, continuous, corrosive, directionless and potentially explosive, disruptive, and transformative. Even in the absence of overt organisation or action, workers still managed to express wilful disobedience. ‘Sabotage is a direct application of the idea that property has no rights that its creators are bound to respect’.31

Smith’s whimsical, if not explosive, essay offered employers and the state sufficient ammunition to justify not only the passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts but to use local and state police, the new FBI, and the federal courts to suppress and shatter the IWW as an organised movement.32 Attention was given to some of his most provocative passages.

What is more civilized than for the workers to create powder that refuses to explode? What is more civilized than to work slow and thus force employers to give a living to more of the unemployed? What is more civilized than to spike the guns when they are trained on our working class brothers in other countries? … Sabotage will put a stop to war when resolutions, parliamentary appeals and even a call for general refusal to serve are impotent. But, as stated before sabotage is but one phase of the question. Anti-military and anti-patriotic agitation must also [stet] carried on.33

Whether intended literally to advocate active resistance to the prosecution of the war, these passages were widely cited to justify the relentless assault on the IWW.

The IWW drew from what non-IWW and unionised and non-unionised workers were already doing in active resistance to Taylorism. The target of workers’ counter-planning illustrated the objectives of their soldiering. Time itself became a terrain of contention. Mathewson also described how lumber workers changed the way they picked up wood to undermine the time study.34 Machine workers banked excess production, did not turn in completed work tickets, and then drew from the ‘bank’ in order to set the pace of production.35 Sometimes resistance to Taylorism escalated into a strike or direct action. When the Starrett Tool company attempted to install clocks in the shop in 1910, machinists struck pledging to treat them as part of the furniture. Another strike occurred at the Norfolk Navy Yard in 1915 with the appearance of time clocks and work tickets.36 Many of the war industry strikes during WWI included among their demands an end to Taylorist premium pay schemes.

During the long decade of the 1920s, when most labour historians wrote an obituary for the organised working-class, pervasive small informal struggles on the shop floor attempted to recompose working-class power. Workers learned how to turn Taylorist techniques into a means to restrict work output.

Mathewson found that unorganised workers cleverly turned the very logic of rationalisation in on itself, covertly restricting output. ‘Payment plans, designed as incentives to increase production … turn out to be incentives to restriction’. Montgomery recounted how the ‘mere intimation that the time-study man is to make his appearance will often slow up a worker, a group or a whole department’ in order to shift the baseline measurement.37 The union craft worker’s control of the pace of production was defeated, dismantled, and went underground to re-emerge as what the IWW called ‘striking on the job’. IAM International Vice President Conlon confirmed this in his testimony to the Commission on Industrial Relations,

… we believe that it (scientific management) builds up in the industrial world the principle of sabotage, syndicalism, passive resistance, based on economic determinism. We did not hear of any of these things until we heard of scientific management and new methods of production … we find that when men can not help themselves, nor can they get any redress of grievances, and are forced to accept that which is thrust upon them, that they are going to find within themselves a means of redress that can find expression in no other way than passive resistance or in syndicalism.38

Unknown Committees

The presence of counter-planning on the shop floor illustrates the workers’ dual system of power in which, regardless of the presence of a union, workers, and management contend for control of production. Planning and counterplanning in the plant creates contending dual power. A regular phenomenon in the daily reality of the plant is the substitution of entirely different plans for carrying out particular jobs in place of the rational plans organised by management. The IWW successfully identified locations where dual power existed and provided its expertise to parlay it into above-ground struggle.

The IWW built upon existing informal ethnic and shop floor networks and groupings already engaging in counter-planning to form the core of a strike group. The eruption of resistance to rationalisation into overt class warfare was evident in several of the most high profile strikes of the time such as McKees Rocks. As Davis noted, ‘It is particularly significant that the storm centers of these strikes were located in the industries being rationalized by scientific management and the introduction of new mass-assembly technologies’. The Pressed Car Company had used a piece wage system to engineer a deadly speed up in which an estimated one worker a day was killed on the job. Workers were paid by a pool in which all the workers were collectively punished for the worker with the lowest productivity. Worker was pitted against worker in an effort to use them to discipline one another. The system backfired when the workers rejected the system and struck in 1909.39

The nucleus of the strike emerged out of a small informal self-organised group of immigrant workers, the ‘Unknown Committee’, which asserted leadership over the strike from the weak union of exclusively native skilled workers.40 The Unknown Committee included experienced agitators from at least nine countries, some of whom were reportedly involved in the failed 1905 Russian Revolution.41

Several years later, rationalisation again prompted workers to self-organise and call in the IWW for help to fight the premium system, speed-up, and a wage cut in Paterson, New Jersey. Davis explained that Taylorism had the opposite effect than was intended since ‘the silkworkers were driven to desperate rebellion by the introduction of the multiple-loom system, an especially fatiguing variety of speed-up which made weavers responsible for twice as many looms as before’.42

The IWW’s organisational tactics at McKees Rocks and Paterson was an outgrowth of its highly developed ability to closely study the current composition of capital and devise a strategy to recompose working-class power by using direct democracy by all ethnic groups to generalise the tactics they were already using in isolation.

The Wobblies were particularly adept at turning the weaknesses of immigrant strikers into sources of strength. Ethnic cohesiveness, traditionally so divisive, became a wellspring of unity when strikes were organised on a radically democratic basis with strictly representative committees that could be recalled. Leaflets, speeches, and songs were presented in every language, while in each strike every conceivable parallel was found with the historic struggles of various European nationalities.43

At McKees Rocks and Patterson, the IWW helped the workers transform their ethnic communities into integrated forms of counter-power. This created a system of ‘dual power’ in which ‘two distinct sets of relations, two modes of work, and two power structures in the plant … is the object of constant turmoil and strife’.44

The focus on the recomposition of working-class power at the centre of the IWW’s organising strategy led to its rapid growth. The success at McKees Rocks led the IWW to organise locals in Hammond, Woods Run, Pullman, Hegewisch, and Lyndera which helped spark a strike wave throughout key railroad car assembly plants. At the 1911 convention the IWW had grown to 21 voting locals in addition to the national textile union, two-thirds of which were based in the western mining states. At the convention two years later, there were 89 voting locals along with the textile union. 38 of the locals, most of the biggest in membership, were based in the east, proving that the IWW was growing rapidly into new areas of the country.45

Dual or counter power is a threat to the disciplinary role of unions as well. The unions became the object of derision by workers in a system of dual power, who flaunt the limits and controls set by the contract. Soldiering and wildcat strikes are instances by which workers are ‘experimenting with new forms of organization to bypass the restraining force of the union’.46

By shifting actual decision-making over work and pay to themselves, counter-power lessens the drudgery of work by allowing workers to assert their humanity.

A distinct feature of this struggle is that its focus is not on negotiating a higher price at which wage labor is to be bought, but rather on making the working day more palatable. The use of sabotage … is a means of reaching out for control over one’s own work. … we can see it extended as a means of controlling one’s working ‘time.’47

The point of identifying counter-power is not merely to organise and institutionalise it, but to circulate its transformatory power, perhaps the greatest threat posed by this strategy. Watson stressed counter-power as a new social form of working-class struggle. … Within these new independent forms of workers’ organization lies a foundation of social relations at the point of production which can potentially come forward to seize power in a crisis situation and give new direction to the society. I would urge, in closing, that our attention and work be focused on the investigating and reporting of the gradual emergence of this new mode of production out of the old. ‘Like a thief in the night’ it advances relatively unnoticed.48

Counter-power points to another vision of life beyond work. The focus of counter-planning tactics is to disrupt the production process to reduce or escape work and thus the reduction of the people to being merely workers. The ‘sabotage of the rationalization of time’ is not some foolery of men. In its own context it appears as nothing more than the forcing of more free time into existence; any worker would tell you as much. Yet as an activity which counteracts capital’s prerogative of ordering labor’s time, it is a profound organised effort by labour to undermine its own existence as ‘abstract labor power’.49

Counter-power contests management’s plan in the form of a cooperative game, the workers’ playfulness as an indicator of their resilient vision and passion for life – the direct antithesis of rationalisation which is predicated upon deleting human will and subordinating the person to the machine.

Not only does it demonstrate the feeling that much of the time should be organised by the workers themselves, but it also demonstrates an existing animosity toward the practice of constantly postponing all of one’s desires and inclinations so the rational process of production can go on uninterrupted. The frequency of planned shutdowns in production increases as more opposition exists toward such rationalization of the workers’ time.50

The assertion of humanity on the shop floor grows in inverse relation to the growth of the accumulation of capital. Such counter-power exists, though it is difficult to observe and comprehend.

Understanding the contestation between management and workers suggests that we see the strike waves of this period as not triggered spontaneously by frustrated workers, as relative deprivation theory suggests. Rather, they may be understood as persistent efforts originating in small informally self-organised groups circulating resistance to management’s plans that periodically erupt into publicly visible organised class struggle. Taylor was well aware of workers’ use of everyday forms of resistance to counter capital’s control on the shop floor, calling it ‘soldiering’ to refer to the conscious ‘restriction of output’. ‘The natural laziness of men is serious but by far the greatest evil from which both workmen and employers are suffering is the systematic soldiering which is almost universal …’.51 Soldiering was targeted because of its potential to become a much more disruptive organised threat.

In vivid contrast, the response to Taylorism by the craft unions was to retain their power to control the work process by banning piecework by their members. In July 1901, the IAM banned members from accepting piecework, though the leadership considered revoking this in 1904. This strategy illustrated the ways which

craft unions stood as a rigid barrier to the full utilization of the labor market. The dramatic expansion and recomposition of the workforce – enhanced by the high rate of immigration and internal migration of those years – made it imperative for employers to enjoy a free hand so they could mold the expanding work force according to the technical requirements of production. Craft unions, however, undermined this possibility.52

As long as the craft unions used their leverage to inject rigidity over hours, productivity, etc. they threatened the process of capital accumulation. Their opposition to industrial unionism as a capitulation to mechanisation and an increase in relative surplus value turned out to be self-defeating. Once the craft unions negotiated contracts to protect their own narrow sphere of control within the production process, they had relinquished such leverage over the rapidly expanding industrialised sphere and relegated themselves to irrelevancy. Bans on piecework by skilled workers meant less and less as they became an increasingly smaller proportion of the workforce. The tactic of holding onto their rapidly shrinking sphere of control evaporated in their hands as their skills became rationalised and made obsolete by a new division of labour.

This was undergoing a vast challenge from the rank and file. In 1911, 16,000 workers on the Illinois Central Railroad (Chicago to Kentucky) and Harriman lines (linking Chicago to New Orleans) line struck in reaction to the introduction of a Taylorist time-motion study in the repair shop. Harriman was in the spotlight at the time, especially with Florence Harriman as a member of the Commission of Industrial Relations. Crossing craft lines, shopmen met unofficially in Memphis where they formed a ‘system federation’ which spoke for a range of skilled and unskilled clerks. The system federation demanded the end of premium pay, time-motion studies, and even the keeping of personnel records – an insightful demand that reflected their awareness of the danger of human relations to workers. The railroads would only negotiate with each craft union separately, which the system federation wisely refused to agree to. The strike lasted four years, gunfights were common, 553 people were jailed, and 1,069 lost their homes before the union called it off.

Although the strike was defeated, everyday forms of resistance began to happen openly. Engaging in white-collar sabotage, clerks hid records and swapped and removed cards from railroad cars to create chaos on the lines. The workers had studied the new composition of capital in the railroad sector and devised new tactics to disrupt the accumulation process at its weakest links with the least cost. ‘The strike had revealed a readiness among some craft unionists of long standing to fuse all grades of workers in open confrontation with scientific management’.53 Out of this a Federation of Federations was created that laid the foundation of the general railroad strikes in the 1920s.

A Temporary Solution

Many of the WWI strikes weren’t just over wages, but also challenged management’s control over work, particularly the rationalisation and the speeding up of the pace of work.54 The 1914 and 1916 Westinghouse strikes demanded the abolition of premium pay and slowing the pace of work. The wartime emergency provided an opportunity of greater gain with lower costs for workers who were able to escalate their tactics. This leverage allowed some strikers to push back against the rationalisation of work, shorten their work hours (absolute surplus value) and slow the pace of production (relative surplus value) although as we’ve seen their gains were short-lived once the war ended.55 By attacking both hours and productivity simultaneously, the workers exhibited an understanding of the relationship of the two in their struggle, a lesson lost today in union tradeoffs between higher wages and higher productivity. Their strategy countered what Marx had observed decades earlier:

So soon as the shortening [of the working day] becomes compulsory, machinery becomes in the hands of capital the objective means, systematically employed for squeezing out more labour in a given time. This is effected in two ways: by increasing the speed of the machinery, and by giving the workman more machinery to tend.56

By doing so, counter-planning and strikes put the struggle over work at the centre of their objectives, an objective the temporary emergency of WWI could neither manage nor defeat with the labour-planning state. As Conner concluded, ‘the war had neither solved the problem of labor relations nor left organised labor in a position to deal equally with management, even though labor had greatly increased in numbers’.57 What it had done was tamp down on disruption, expand government authority into managing class struggle, and bring the unions deeply into the Democratic Party coalition and harness them to the state.


  1. Montgomery 1974, p. 520; and Montgomery 1979, pp. 101–2 and 106. 

  2. Mathewson 1931. 

  3. Glaberman and Rawick 1977, p. 215. 

  4. Watson 1971. 

  5. Montgomery 1980, p. 518. 

  6. Smith 1913. 

  7. Flynn n.d.. 

  8. Flynn n.d. For Flynn sabotage is a non-violent weapon in workers’ tactical repertoire that provides leverage and power. 

  9. Watson 1971. 

  10. Davis 1975, p. 356. 

  11. Pouget 1913, pp. 35–6 and 93–4. 

  12. Ibid. 

  13. Watson 1971. 

  14. Ibid. 

  15. Holloway 2002. 

  16. Flynn n.d.. 

  17. Ibid. 

  18. Mathewson 1932, p. 131. 

  19. Leiserson 1931, pp. 174–5. 

  20. Grant 1915a, p. 11. 

  21. Smith 1913. 

  22. Leiserson 1932, pp. 165 and 167. 

  23. Smith 1913. 

  24. Ibid. 

  25. Ibid. 

  26. Ibid. 

  27. Ibid. 

  28. Ibid. 

  29. Ibid. 

  30. Cleaver developed a methodology for reading the class content of such data and reports as what he calls the ‘inversion of class perspective,’ see Cleaver 1992. 

  31. Smith 1913. 

  32. Flynn n.d.. 

  33. Flynn n.d.. 

  34. Mathewson 1932, p. 25. 

  35. Ibid., pp. 78 and 80. 

  36. Montgomery 1979, p. 115. 

  37. Montgomery 1979, p. 116. 

  38. Commission on Industrial Relations 1916, pp. 874–7. 

  39. Davis 1975; and Ingham 1909, p. 356. 

  40. Foner referred to the German workers group as the ‘Kerntruppen’, 1965, pp. 287–8. 

  41. Ingham 1909, pp. 363–77. 

  42. Davis 1975. 

  43. Ibid. 

  44. Watson 1971, pp. 77 and 82–5. 

  45. See St. John 1911 and 1913. 

  46. Glaberman and Rawick 1977, p. 208. 

  47. Watson 1971. 

  48. Ibid. 

  49. Ibid. 

  50. Ibid. 

  51. United States House of Representatives 1912, p. 1430. 

  52. Ramirez 1978, p. 91. 

  53. Montgomery 1979, pp. 107–8; and Montgomery 1974, pp. 523–4. 

  54. Bucki 2009, pp. 200–1. 

  55. Montgomery 1979, pp. 120–1. 

  56. Marx 1867b, p. 450. 

  57. Conner 1983, p. 180.