Today’s union-busters owe much to the bosses of the Progressive Era, who refused to recognize unions and fired labor organizers. Employers have never been “enlightened,” instead fighting tooth and nail to maintain their dictatorial powers.
Chad Pearson teaches history at the University of North Texas. He is the author of Capital's Terrorists: Klansmen, Lawmen, and Employers in the Long Nineteenth Century.
Historians have often depicted late 19th-century American business elites as agents of progress at a time of rapid economic and social change. Through their work organizing groups like the Ku Klux Klan, many of them could also be called “terrorists.”
The KKK should be understood not just as a white supremacist organization, but as an employers’ organization: it violently resisted the revolutionary gains of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and sought to keep the black masses toiling in submission.
The far-right violence that Donald Trump has stoked has deep roots in US history. Kicking him from office won’t change that — but it would deal a blow to right-wing vigilantism.
Why are unions so weak in the US? Because for well over a century, employers have used every tactic in the book to crush them.
Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine’s forebears aren’t the New Deal’s labor liberals. They’re the Progressive Era’s anti-union reformers.