State of the Debate: The Other American Dilemma


J. Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America (Simon & Schuster, 1997).

couple of hundred pages into the rich and sprawling narrative of Big
, Anthony Lukas quotes an Irish-born union president named Ed Boyce
who, one day in 1902, was moved to lay down the facts of life for his members:
"There are only two classes of people in the world," Boyce told a convention of
the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), "One is composed of the men and women
who produce all; the other is composed of men and women who produce nothing, but
live in luxury upon the wealth produced by others."

That statement evokes much of the meaning and drama Lukas wants to convey.
The "big trouble" of his title stemmed from a history of class violence in the
silver mines and mining towns of the intermountain West. The drama began in
Caldwell, Idaho, on a snowy evening in late December 1905. Frank Steunenberg, a
former governor, opened his garden gate and was blown apart by a bomb attached
to the gatepost. Almost immediately, his family and business associates
suspected the miners union. While in office in 1899, Steunenberg had requested
troops to battle the WFM's sway in the silver and lead mines of the Coeur
D'Alenes, a rugged region of northern Idaho; hundreds of union workers were
incarcerated in several boxcars and a barn. Forced to subsist on bread and water
and without blankets to protect them against the mountain cold, several miners
perished. "We have an account to settle with you," the union paper warned the
governor at the time.

Days after Steunenberg's murder, Caldwell authorities arrested a drifter
named Harry Orchard for the crime. They were immensely pleased when he fingered
the WFM's top leaders for suggesting and bankrolling the murder. To make the
case stick, Idaho's governor turned to the Pinkerton Detective Agency, the
premier union-busting force of its day. Crack Pinkerton agents captured a trio
of union officials—Charles Moyer, William "Big Bill" Haywood, and George
Pettibone—near their Denver headquarters and spirited them across the Idaho
border in a closed train. After the U.S. Supreme Court found the "extradition"
constitutionally acceptable, the first trial—of the charismatic Haywood (who was
also leader of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, remembered as the
"Wobblies")—began in Boise, the state capital. Clarence Darrow was chief counsel
for the defense.

So began a judicial drama that captivated the nation. "The Haywood case,"
writes Lukas, "may have been the first trial in American history in which the
real target wasn't so much the jurors in the box as the larger jury of public
opinion." President Theodore Roosevelt publicly branded the WFM trio
"undesirable citizens" and rooted for Haywood's conviction. His epithet brought
tens of thousands of workers into the streets of New York and other cities to
protest. If even a "progressive" chief executive was calling for labor's blood,
Ed Boyce's polarized worldview seemed indisputably accurate.

But Boyce himself was not among the demonstrators. His fiery remarks in 1902
were given during a farewell address to his union. By the time of Haywood's
trial five years later, Boyce had tiptoed across the great divide. He was
managing an exclusive hotel in Portland, Oregon, and, as befit the post, wore
tailored suits and dined in the best restaurants. As far as one can tell, he
never looked back.

Introducing his book, Lukas writes, "I hope that in telling this big story
I've helped illuminate the class question at a time when the gap between our
richest and poorest citizens grows ever wider." But the little story of Ed Boyce
suggests one reason why through most of U.S. history class inequality has been,
to paraphrase Gunnar Myrdal, the other American dilemma.

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ince Tocqueville deemed it our ineradicable national curse, race has haunted
Americans by its permanence. Our very skin reminds us of slavery's legacy. But
class changes. If an immigrant worker like Boyce could vault the social ladder,
seemingly throwing aside both his grievances and his poverty, why couldn't
others do the same? Millions of wage earners in Boyce's day lived close to
destitution, but they knew the story of Andrew Carnegie, the foreign-born son of
an unemployed handloom weaver, who saw his chance to rise and seized it. Few
Americans, then or now, embraced a tradition of loyalty to the working class.
Without such a tradition, historical narratives about class allegiance and
conflict have a difficult time gaining a large audience.

This reality should give pause to contemporary intellectuals and activists
who want to place class in the center of the story that liberal activists and
politicians tell ordinary Americans. Academics and activists like Jeff Faux,
Joel Rogers, and Michael Tomasky have argued that progressives can revitalize
American politics by setting aside race and gender and concentrating on class
issues. Over the last two decades, Tomasky argues, "the country has been engaged
in class warfare. But it hasn't been working people against the owning class—
instead, it's been the other way around."

It is true that, notwithstanding the sunny state of the macroeconomy since
the mid-1990s, class awareness has increased of late. Fear about the damage that
globalization does to American workers helped to sink fast-track authorization
for trade agreements. Last spring, a majority of Americans supported UPS
strikers who were demanding the kind of secure, full-time jobs that fewer and
fewer corporations now provide. Almost 90 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist
fire, abusive sweatshops are again in the news, this time with greedy employers
paying famous black athletes to push products churned out in Ho Chi Minh City.
And last fall the New Yorker, aspiring voice of the hip and well-heeled,
ran a lengthy defense of Marx's theories about capitalism in a special issue
dedicated to future trends.

But class must compete in a cultural environment filled with words and images
about the primary American dilemma of race. Countless talk shows and films,
memoirs and novels testify to the importance of racial identity. In contrast,
class rings oddly impersonal, left to the business section (where a pro-labor
view is seldom found) rather than the Oprah show. During O. J. Simpson's
murder trial, there was little discussion of the millionaire's capacity to hire
the legal "dream team" that won his release. The main argument was whether the
trial was about racial prejudice or wife abuse; class seldom got mentioned.
After all, Simpson had earned his money, performing in front of cameras, on and
off the gridiron. Whether or not they believed his story, most Americans felt O.
J. should be able to hire the best help he could afford.

America's ongoing fascination with race bespeaks a view of the world at odds
with traditional notions of class consciousness. With whites cast as the largely
contented majority and blacks as the perpetually abused minority, the guilt of
one race and the rage of the other serve as the primary motivations of social
change. Other divisions that betray the American dream remain in the shadow of
that essential divide.

o can liberals craft a compelling story about class? Lukas tests this
question on fertile historical terrain. Beginning in the late 1870s, "the labor
question" jostled to the front of the American agenda and stayed there through
World War I. Massive industrial strikes regularly punctuated the growing but
inegalitarian economy, and even prosperous unionized building tradesmen called
for "the emancipation of the working class by and for themselves from the
thralldom of competitive ex ploitation." Populists and Socialists won hundreds
of local elections and threw a scare into both big business and the major

It was the golden age of class narrative. In the late nineteenth century,
best-selling books by Edward Bellamy and Henry George boosted popular support
for socialism and radical tax reform, respectively. In the early twentieth
century, radical muckrakers like Upton Sinclair and Lincoln Steffens exposed the
venality of corporate rule and spurred reform movements to curb it. John Dewey,
the nation's most influential philosopher, openly hoped that liberalism could
give way peacefully to socialism. And Charlie Chaplin persuaded audiences to
root for a tramp in his endless struggles with the selfish and the pompous.

The Haywood trial highlights the era's polarization. Local mine owners
secretly, and illegally, paid the prosecutors' salaries. Idaho prison
authorities invited the press corps to interview Harry Orchard in his cell but
excluded reporters from left-wing papers. And Haywood would not have been on
trial at all if the elected officials of two states, and the justices of the
Supreme Court, hadn't approved his virtual kidnapping.

Only the defendant's surprising acquittal mitigates the grimness of the tale.
And the result would likely have been different if the Boise judge had failed to
instruct the jury that, under Idaho law, a person could not be convicted on the
word of a single (alleged) accomplice. The Pinkertons had alternately bullied
and cajoled some of Orchard's erstwhile associates in the WFM. But, in the end,
none agreed to corroborate Orchard's elaborate story—which, ironically, Lukas
suspects (on ambiguous evidence) was true.

Lukas, who committed suicide after completing the book, was a brilliant,
indefatigable reporter. Big Trouble demonstrates his talents to the full.
Besides untangling a complex drama, Lukas offers lingering portraits of many
characters, famous and obscure, whose lives coincided with the courtroom
theatrics. Providing relief from the class war, the author lavishes 14 pages on
the baseball immortal Walter Johnson, who was then starting his career in a
hamlet near Boise. Throughout, Lukas is scrupulously fair to actors from both
sides. As in Common Ground, his widely read book about the Boston busing
crisis of the 1970s, he does not allow his sympathies to cloud his

In particular, Lukas unflinchingly addresses the racial animosities of
turn-of-the-century Idaho. The soldiers sent to the Coeur D'Alenes in 1899 were
mostly black. Both their commanders and Governor Steunenberg knew that African
Americans would be unlikely to view their adversaries as fellow workers, while
white servicemen of the day often fraternized with strikers. Years later, this
blatant reversal of the racial order still burned in the hearts of WFM
activists. In 1912, Haywood claimed that, while union miners were suffering in
makeshift prisons, "black soldiers were at home insulting, outraging, ravishing
their wives, mothers, sisters and sweethearts." The period of most intense class
feeling in U.S. history was also the era when a lynching took place, on average,
every four days. Class struggle was supposed to be a war fought exclusively
between two groups of white men.

This began to change in the 1930s, when economic conflict became prominent
again. The industrial unions of the CIO welcomed workers of every race. The new
movement also encouraged the flowering of a multiracial, pro-labor culture.
Writers and artists as different as John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson, Richard
Wright, Orson Welles, and Billie Holiday spun stories about haves and have-littles
and lent their considerable talents to the CIO left.

But the Depression-era upsurge, unlike the one that forms the background of
Big Trouble, would likely have failed without the support of powerful
outsiders—New Deal officials and liberal intellectuals alarmed by the rise of
fascism. This gave the period's activism a patriotic quality that merged easily
into a nationalist consensus behind World War II, even though wartime
governments supported labor only intermittently. The consensus continued after
the war and through labor's support of the Vietnam War and Ronald Reagan.

ven a powerful writer like Lukas cannot make labor history seem relevant to
mainstream audiences by simply detailing it. More than intellectual dedication
is required to make class a big story again. Most people are drawn to grand
narratives that echo and synthesize experiences and reflections they have
already had. Because of its prominence in the public imagination, race lends
this advantage to its narratives. Common Ground compellingly described
three families in a cauldron of racial strife (although Lukas did not scant
their class differences). It was a best-seller, won numerous literary prizes,
and became a TV docudrama. Big Trouble has received lengthy and laudatory
reviews in all the right places, but its hardcover sales are quite modest.
Sadly, it will probably not gain the author much posthumous honor.

Lacking the cachet of race, class does not set its tales aflame. Liberal
academics and activists have talked cogently about wage gaps, corporate
irresponsibility, and the unmet needs of working families for some time now. But
their ideas will catch fire only in tandem with a social movement that sparks
the imagination of working Americans of different races, convincing them to take
risks in the service of a better future.

As Lukas shows, this kind of movement was once sustained by a rich working-class
culture that, however, seldom crossed the racial barrier. Writers and
artists could nudge it along only after the culture had already emerged from a
thicket of neighborhood, ethnic, and workplace groups that gave shape to wage
earners' lives.

In the Coeur D'Alenes a century ago, a cavalry officer named R. V. Walsh
glimpsed the binding power he and his troops were ordered to demolish. Unionism,
Walsh wrote, "pervaded the entire population, everybody was subject to it. . . .
[T]he burning question was not wages. It was 'The Union.' This was everything to
them, wages, politics, religion. The subject had been discussed and brooded over
so long that they were fanatics on the subject."

t isn't easy to recreate such zeal in an age of computerized capitalism,
when a variety of pleasures and, more importantly, cultural identities, are
available to even the ardent unionist. The WFM's militant faith now sounds
hopelessly outdated, in part due to the victories that it and later unions won.
What is more, given the violence and intolerance that attended the early labor
movement, it is probably a good thing that we cannot relive the past.

Yet it is difficult to imagine organized labor regaining the influence it
enjoyed 50 years ago without stirring an analogous depth of commitment in
twenty-first-century Americans. To do so, labor and its intellectual supporters
must learn to integrate the story they want to tell with ones ordinary people
already tell each other—about both racial justice and the shared ordeals of
their working-class ancestors.

This would mean reviving the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a fierce
foe of both economic injustice and of racial inequality. It would mean
recovering the decisive role of organized workers in winning the five-day week,
the eight-hour day, and the minimum wage—not to speak of Medicare and the 1964
Civil Rights Act. It would mean talking about the right of all workers, not just
the well-educated professional minority, to a measure of control over the jobs
that shape much of their lives. The multicultural realities of today's working
world should enhance the appeal of such stories.

In the past, unions and their allies grabbed the public's attention when they
put forth a moral vision, and suffered when they seemed to be merely competing
with other "interests." In the 1930s, unions marched under the rallying cry of
"industrial democracy" and tripled their numbers. A generation later, Dr. King
helped bring workers into the black insurgency by criticizing a system of
"selfish ambition inspiring men to be more concerned about making a living than
making a life."

That legacy needs to be recaptured. Many Americans may be ready for an
anticorporate politics that acknowledges race and gender but transcends them—"a
politics centered on the struggle to prevent the rich from ripping off the rest
of the country," as Richard Rorty so bluntly puts it. But most people are
understandably cynical about another round of politics as high-finance
electioneering and spin-doctoring, in which "class" is just another barbed
projectile in the campaign consultant's quiver. There is really no short cut to
building a movement that practices the same democratic vision it preaches. As in
every reform era since the 1890s, the chance for a liberal revival hinges on the
participation of ordinary Americans who care little about government policy but
care a great deal about improving their own lives.

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