Industrial Police, Private Detectives, and Vigilantes: Labor Repression in Europe and in the United States, 1870–1914

AHA Session 280
Monday, January 6, 2020: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Gibson Room (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Kim Phillips-Fein, New York University
The Audience

Session Abstract

In the late-Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, Europe and the United States experienced a series of strike waves, unprecedented in their scale and intensity. In this context, fears of revolutionary strikes, which would culminate in social anarchy and in the overthrowing of the social, economic and political system, never ceased to haunt governing and propertied classes. Although much work has been done on the socialist movements, trade unions and revolutionary organisations, the scholarly community has paid far less attention to the self-appointed or privately employed defenders of the existing relations of power. The purpose of this panel is therefore to analyse the diverse spectrum of right-wing patriotic leagues, paramilitaries, parapolice corps, vigilantes and the vast array of private security services, which autonomously or in support of public police forces and agencies, sought to counter the dual dangers of industrial militancy and revolutionary action.

The panel includes four scholars with expertise across a broad geographical and chronological range. The first presentation will place labor repression in a comparative perspective. It will address the forms of private and private/public industrial policing in Austria-Hungary, France, Germany and Italy during the Belle Epoque (1880s-1914). By focusing on paradigmatic cases of strikebreaking, the presentation will seek to make a contribution to the understanding of private security through the restructuring and redefinition of the limits of the State’s monopoly of violence in societies under crises of cohesion. The second presentation will investigate how the most aggressive anti-union industrial forces in Britain looked at the American practices of labor repression as an operative model to emulate in order to cope with the extraordinary rise of working class militancy in the Edwardian years. The paper intends to show the proclivity of certain employers’ associations and industry groups, particularly in the engineering, shipping, railway and metallurgical industries, to consider forms of industrial self-defence and vigilantism. The third presentation will be devoted to an investigation of the use of American soldiers and militiamen as strikebreakers during the massive strikes of the Gilded Age. Using a vast array of archival sources, the paper will provide an innovative assessment of the evaluative and emotional orientations of these servicemen in their new position as protectors of industrial and corporate interests. The panel will conclude with an examination of employer-organized kidnapping of labor activists in the United States, which regularly occurred in anticipation of or during industrial disputes and dramatic political events. The paper allows us to penetrate into one of the less-known and more curious practices of labor oppression in the pre-1914 period.

The panel aims to provide a valuable framework to understanding the development of private security in the field of industrial relations and the fragmentation of public order in conditions of social strain and crises. It also hopes to bring a new dimension to the analysis of the social and political shocks and tensions which marked Europe and the United States during their transition to mass politics.

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