We were discussing a certain local union the other evening and the word "militant"
was very quickly applied. I had a hard time visualizing these people with axe handles. Seriously. Elementary school teachers militant? I can't even imagine high school teachers raising their voices. Militant? It's ridiculous. Stubborn, maybe. Determined. Possibly strident, aggressive, assertive, even unreasonable. Militant? No. But the term is useful because it automatically stigmatizes the labor side of any disagreement.
Strange how the word militant is always applied to the labor side of the dispute and only to the labor side. Whether there is anything remotely violent or militaristic about the union behavior. But the label "militant" automatically alienates anyone reading about the dispute because it implies violence.
History paints a vivid picture of organized violence directed by employers against workers. It was the owners' side which sent in armed Pinkertons and the National Guard and armed street thugs in the early days, who infiltrated organizing efforts, fired, blackballed and otherwise intimidated workers trying to form unions, etc. In Colorado and Chicago and the Appalachian and western coal fields it was striking miners who were shot down and killed in the hundreds. But it's only workers who are labelled "militant". Hired armies, sometimes uniformed, sent to intimidate workers trying to organize were never called "militant". Why?
There is the Ludlow Massacre
in Colorado where a tent city of coal workers and their families was attacked for 14 hours by hired police with bombs and machine guns. Militant?
There was the Memorial Day Massacre in 1937
, when unarmed steelworkers and their families were gunned down by Chicago police after attending a rally on the south side. Militant?
The history of official police in this country begins with gangs of vigilantes sent out to discourage uprisings (the perpetual fear of the minority white population who lived off slave labor) and to hunt down fugitive slaves but also to intimidate the slave population who might just be thinking of escaping or might "need a little encouragement" to work harder. Sometimes it was simply sport.
The term "militant" stems from the word "militia" which was regularly applied to both ad hoc and official band or posses of armed uniformed men organized for the purpose of intimidating the low paid and unpaid and slave workers who always outnumbered their employers. But "militant" is never applied to the employer side in a labor dispute. Why?
Today, the most dangerous subversive organizations in America tend to be well-armed white right-wing groups who adopt the label of "militia" or "posse", but militant is seldom applied to the rightward side of the political spectrum, just as little attention and very little news coverage is directed there. Why?
To this day, "militant" is an adjective blithely, unquestioningly, automatically attached to nonmilitant and nonviolent workers. Workers who have the nerve to ask for more and seem determined to get it. Often they are receiving as little as their employer can get away with paying them, so this more they are asking for is ordinary fairness. And the determination they show towards gaining satisfaction is usually proportionate to the patience they've shown waiting to receive fairness. Fairness is seldom offered willingly, but that recalcitrance by management is never called militant. Why?
We've been reading about the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. Which side is more "militant" here? Certainly the orchestra management is more militant than the violinists and cellists. A lockout is far more militant behavior than anything the players have demonstrated, but militant is never applied to management. Why?
We can call the owners' side selfish, arrogant, greedy. (Although the word "greedy" is usually applied to workers who tend to earn a lot less than the people they are negotiating with. These days workers who are working several jobs to patch together less than a living wage are routinely called greedy.) But we don't call the owner/management side of any labor disagreement "militant". Why? Does it violate the Chicago Style Book? Did Strunk and White outlaw this usage?
Why does militant always apply only to the side of the underclass, usually in cases where there is no whiff of violence, no threat of violence, no suggestion "if we don't get this we might do that", not even implied violence. Why not use the word "firm" or "resolute" or "stubborn" or "uncompromising"? Militant is always the label, and we are instructed to visualize muscular angry men with axe handles and burning torches.
Why do we even picture axe handles? There's a history there. In Pennsylvania in 1877, mine workers trying to organize were confronted by state police augmented by hired thugs armed with pick and axe handles. Violent mobs that were sent out to intimidate blacks trying to assert their rights in the South were often armed with axe handles. Where did you get a sufficient supply of axe handles? From factories producing axes and axe handles. Supplies of uniform weaponry were always on the side of management and authority. But it has always been workers who are labelled militant. Why? Why are we obediently following the same bias today?
Labels: bias, civil rights, employees' rights, labor history, militant, organized labor, police violence, vigilantism, violence, workers' rights