When Workers Shot Back: Class Conflict from 1877 to 1921


The United States looks today much like it did in the late 19th to early 20th century. Open class conflict is disappearing, strikes are becoming rare, unions are declining, corporate power is growing, and work is insecure and contingent. When Workers Shot Back: Class Conflict from 1877 to 1921 explores one of the most tumultuous times in United States history. Self-organised workers recomposed their power by devising new strategies and tactics to disrupt the capitalist economy and extract concessions. Mine, railroad, steel, and iron workers pursued a strategy of tension that sometimes erupted into militant class conflict and general strikes in which workers took over and ran a number of cities. Turning common wisdom on its head, When Workers Shot Back argues that the escalation of working class conflict drives rather than reacts to the consolidation and reorganisation of capital and economic and political reform of the state. Studying the class composition of this period illustrates why workers escalated the intensity of their tactics, even using tactical violence, to extract concessions and reforms when all other efforts to do so were blocked, coopted or repressed.

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Robert Ovetz has a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Texas-Austin. His work focuses on contingent labor and worker self-organisation at the turn of the 20th century. He is a lecturer in political science at San José State University in California USA.
When Workers Shot Back is a revelatory and illuminating account of the uses of political violence by workers in American history that contributes to understanding a crucial historical and social legacy of the American labor movement.”
Immanuel Ness, author of Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class (Pluto), Professor, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

“Ovetz shows us how to answer the question of when and why have workers taken up arms, providing us with an essential methodology for thinking through our own situations, past and future.”
Harry Cleaver, author of Reading Capital Politically and Rupturing the Dialectic (AK Press)

“The ticking time bomb of revolt is percolating just beneath the surface of this surprisingly fragile social order. When it finally detonates, as it inevitably will, Ovetz’s book will be prescient. I’d recommend getting acquainted with it and its enormous implications well before that imminent explosion.”
Chris Carlsson, author of Nowtopia (AK Press) and co-director of Shaping San Francisco, Foundsf.org

"An indispensable book for understanding the violent nature of the capital-labor relationship during the late 19th and early 20th century."
Andrew Kolin, Professor, Hilbert College
List of Figures and Tables ... ix

Introduction ... 1

Part 1
The 1877 Railroad Strike

1 Suppressing a Volcano: The 1877 Railroad Strike ... 35

2 ‘We Shall Consume Their Shops with Fire’: Working-Class Recomposition in the 1877 Railroad Strike ... 114

3 Putting Out the Class on Fire: A New Capital Composition ... 148

Part 2
The 1894 Railroad Strike

4 The Nineties Dripped with Blood: The 1894 Railroad Strike ... 193

5 Government by Injunction and Bayonet: Working-Class Recomposition in the 1894 Railroad Strike ... 252

6 Managing the Class Struggle: A New Capital Composition ... 298

Part 3
Revolt of the Rank and File

7 The Dynamite Conspiracy: US Steel vs. the Iron Workers ... 325

8 War in Europe, War on Capital: The WWI Wildcat Strike Wave ... 369

9 Revolt of the Rank and File: The Steel and Seattle General Strikes ... 455

10 The Redneck Army ... 485

Conclusion ... 555

Bibliography ... 563
Index ... 583
All interested in labor history, working class conflict, the role of technology in the workplace, armed conflict, and why reform happens.
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