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Swinton’s Silver Lining: Taking Comfort in the 1892 Strikes

To many in the labor movement, the year 1892 brought only a string of defeats, as labor editor John Swinton said in this speech to the December 1892 convention of the American Federation of Labor. But Swinton managed to rally union members with an optimistic message. Although defeated, the workers who struck at Homestead and elsewhere prevented further attacks on labor in other places. Swinton, a former abolitionist, drew an analogy from the North’s ultimate victory in the Civil War.

I salute the officers of this Federation, the delegates in this Convention, and your multitudinous membership in all the States of the American Union. May you work here with wisdom and in concord, with energy and in manly style, with buoyant heart and in the spirit of fraternity, for the promotion of those beneficent principles which are announced in your Constitution, and the establishment of which would be of immeasurable advantage to American industry, American life and the whole body of the American people.

I am happy to appear here, by your invitation, in this Convention of the American Federation of Labor, an organization that has more men in its ranks than were in the ranks of any army with which Napoleon ever took the field during his career of conquest—an industrial organization the membership of which is composed of workers in nearly all the great industries of our country—an organization which is imbued with intelligence, which seeks objects that are practical and attainable, which promotes the welfare of those who belong to it and of those who do not, which has rendered immense service to labor during the ten years of its existence, and which, we have reason to believe, will grow in power, usefullness and merit, until its work and its worth are the pride of America and the world, until the day upon which it was founded shall be celebrated by exultant millions. Let this Federation march in the van with steady step, bear aloft its flag with stalwart arm, and keep a stout heart in all weathers, under any emergency, upon every field.

Now, my friends, I do not mean to raise any surprise here by saying that there is cause for congratulation in the sombre history of the year 1892. The battalions that fought this year at Homestead in Pennsylvania, at Buffalo in New York, at Coeur d’Alene in Idaho, at the mines in Tennessee, at New Orleans in Louisiana, and also in the city of New York, rendered heroic, productive and memorable service to the industrial hosts of the United States-aye, they did. Honor to them forever! Thrice honor to these brave men, who, by their courage, saved millions of their brethren from attack, and who prevented the enemy from ravaging other fields which he would surely have ravaged if they had not taught him that his encroachments were both costly and dangerous to himself. “But,” cries some blear-eyed on-looker, “labor was defeated in all these fields and fights, from Buffalo to Coeur d’Alene, from Homestead and New York to New Orleans.” Halt! I answer. Halt thou driveler! We must take a broad view of the warlike operations of which these strikes were incidents. Skirmishes may be lost by a regiment which may win. Regiments may be defeated in the battles of a triumphant campaign. Campaigns may end in dismay for the army that conquers in the war. Be not in haste, ye blear-eyed blockheads! This thing is not yet over. The forces of the advance have but begun to learn their drill. Serious revolutions move in large arcs, along a course which is orderly, though it may appear to be zig-zag. The war of the Union began at Bull Run, but closed elsewhere.

I repeat, then, that the 50,000 brave men who, in the six great strikes and the many lesser strikes of this year, stood the enemy’s onslaughts, rendered a service of incomputable worth to the working masses of the United States. If they had not thus stood out, if they had been cowed by dangers that confronted them, if they had succeeded without resistance, if they had failed to strike a blow before they fell—what do you think would have happened elsewhere? Do you doubt that cowardice would have invited further reprisals, that the conditions of labor would have been made harder in other places and other industries, that there would have been numberless attempts to reduce wages, to lengthen the working days, to crush out Unionism, to deny the right of organization, to enforce conspiracy laws and to take all sorts of mean advantage of hirelings who were at the mercy of their employers? I tell you that those men who think that such exactions would not have been made by capitalism, if labor had refrained from giving evidence that it would resist them, must be numskulls who cannot see the signs of the times, who did not hear of the schemes that were hatched, who do not know the nature of the skinflint, who never look at the plutocratic papers or listen to the harangues of the mouthpieces of capitalism. They must be greenhorns who are unacquainted with the devil.

If, therefore, many of the hostile schemes of the enemy were checked or balked this year, if the workers in many industries have been able to hold the ground upon which they stand, due credit for this must be given to the men in the breach, to the strikers who resisted aggression, set their comrades on the watch by raising the alarm, and who warned the insolent aggressors that they were entering upon a dangerous course, a course in which the Carnegie-Frick gang alone have sunk not less than $4,000,000, and have cut their names upon a gibbet that will cast its shadow over their tombstones.

I ask you to bear it in mind, to hold it in grateful memory, that American labor in general has been benefited by the action of the brave strikers of Homestead, Buffalo, New Orleans, who took the field in its defense and fell while battling for a few of the items of its rights. The labor of this country has been paid millions of dollars this year which it would not have got without the help of these striking brethren, which it would surely have lost if they had surrendered without a struggle, or had fought with less pluck and perseverance, or had failed to shiver the treasury of the assailant. Through them many of you have been saved from the risks of the times; and how then can it be said that they strove in vain? Foul is the tongue of the workingman who would say it while reaping the advantages that they secured to him! My, friends, you would do well to pay to your defenders at least a part of the debt which you owe to them. As nearly every man who wore the blue in the war for the Union is now drawing a pension from the Federal pocketbook, so every man who has served faithfully or been disabled, in the wars of labor, should be indemnified for his services or his sufferings, should be honored evermore by all his comrades, and not the least by those who drew their daily role in peace while he was in the Camp.

Besides all their other services to the country, the Homestead strikers rendered an especial service when they confounded the slave-hounds of Pinkerton; and yet another when, upon returning to work, they somehow caused Frick to drive out the blacklegs whom he had hired and perhaps again still another, when their movement was the means of starting thumb-screw Streator upon his everlasting march in the ranks of that awkward squad upon which history puts the brand of shame. Away with Frickism, which is cruel, scrubby, churlish, insolent, truculent and mordacious. Shame upon Carnegieism, named after the beggar on horseback who builds poor houses with the bones of his victims, and boasts of the dollars which he wrings from the hearts and hands of his fellow men. Blasted be Pinkertonism, the enemy of freedom, fair play, man’s rights and manly honor, the cut throat of Americanism! Pitied be—aye, delegates of the Federation—pitied be the outcast blacklegs of Homestead, doubly deceived blacklegs, twice victimized by the cold-blooded Frick, taken on in dishonor under false promises, driven off in disgrace under broken pledges, held in contempt by their fellow workingmen whom they injured, treated with contumely [contempt] by their ungrateful beneficiary. Surely they are in a direful plight; truly their doom is hard They have got a lesson which others of their kind have often got, a lesson in perfidy as gross as their own, in double dealing fouler than that practiced by themselves. Surely there ought now to be an end of blacklegism. What blackleg can ever hereafter believe the word of an employer who, after asking him for protection against an outraged lion, casts him into a den of hungry tigers? What blackleg can ever again put himself in the hands of a marplot and ingrate like Frick? And there be many other capitalists of the Frick breed. It seems to me that if the Homestead Unionists be forced into another strike, they ought not to need to apprehend that they will be over run by a swarm of blacklegs, or, for that matter, by a horde of Pinkertons. I suppose that even a blackleg must have some regard for his own interests, must dislike to be kicked out of a workshop into which he has been cajoled, must spurn all advance; from a quarter which he knows to be infested with vampires.

I am disposed to guess that, in this year of 1892, stunning blows have been given to blackleging and Pinkertonism, if not to Frickery.

Source: John Swinton, Address to the American Federation of Labor, Philadelphia, December 1892.