Plus ça change...? Alienation and Violence from Both Sides of Labor's Rise and Fall

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tags: violence, labor history, Irish American history, Molly Maguires, Pinkertons

James Ottavio Castagnera holds a JD and PHD (American Studies) from Case Western Reserve University.  His 50-year career in labor relations and HR compliance included 10 years as a labor & employment attorney with Philadelphia’s Saul, Ewing, Arnstein & Lehr, and 23 years as the associate provost & legal counsel for academic affairs at Rider University.

Hanging of Six Convicted "Molly Maguires", Pottsville, PA 1877. Leslie's Weekly.




During the summer of 1968, when I was a rising senior at Franklin & Marshall College, the circus came to my hometown of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.  Specifically, Paramount Pictures filmed a movie called “The Molly Maguires.”  The film starred Scottish superstar Sean Connery, aka, the first James Bond, and Richard Harris, also a hot Hollywood property.  Most of the filming occurred at Eckley,  a tiny mine-patch town in Lackawanna County to the north.  Eckley, comprised of a single street, was owned by a single mine operator until it was acquired by the Commonwealth and incorporated into an anthracite-preservation project that included mines and other artifacts of the near-dead industry that had once dominated and defined the region.  It was tailor-made to be a movie set.


The only things Eckley lacked were a courthouse and a jail.  Jim Thorpe had both.  In fact, my hometown boasted the selfsame courtroom and jail cells where four of the Molly Maguires had been tried and hanged in the 1870s.  Consequently, Paramount brought its Hollywood circus to Thorpe for two weeks… two weeks in which I got to work as a traffic controller for the movie company, and got to drink beer alongside (well almost alongside) Connery and Harris in a local saloon.


So who were the Molly Maguires?  Let me start with a synopsis of the film, which came out in 1970.  Richard Harris portrays James McParlan, a Pinkerton detective working undercover as Jamie McKenna, a small-time criminal hiding out in one of many mine-patch communities.  McParlan’s task is to infiltrate a secret society of Irish coal miners, led by Black Jack Kehoe (Connery), expose them and break them up.


Connery portrays Kehoe as a militant coal miner, who leads a small band of like-minded miners in a campaign of murder, arson and mayhem against the mine and railroad interests.  The plot is painfully predictable:  Kehoe and McKenna come to like and respect one another; McKenna becomes romantically entangled with the daughter of a lovable retiree whose health was ruined in the mine pits. Faced with conflicted emotions, McKenna and McParlan, like Jekyll and Hyde, engage in the tug of war for their single soul.  In the end, ambition overcomes friendship and love.  McParlan betrays Kehoe and his little band of terrorists, testifies against them, and watches as they mount the gallows.


The film, although directed by the well-respected Martin Ritt, leaves a lot to be desired.  It is a simplistic morality play that glosses over a complex story from a complex era.


To begin, though John Kehoe had mined some coal in his time, he was a tavern owner, high official of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and small-time politician in Girardville, Schuylkill  County when he was indicted, arrested, tried and hanged as the so-called “King of the Molly Maguires.” His execution surprised him, since he had played an important role in winning the anthracite coal counties for the sitting governor.  He expected a pardon and might have gotten one if Franklin Gowen, president of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad hadn’t publicized the possibility… this after having served as acting prosecutor in winning Kehoe’s conviction in the first place.  (Kehoe did eventually win a pardon, 100 years too late, in 1979.)


Even the film’s fundamental premise --- the existence of a secret society called the Molly Maguires, tucked inside local lodges of the national benevolent society the Ancient Order of Hibernians --- has been sharply questioned in the decades since 10 “Mollies” were hanged in Carbon and Schuylkill Counties between 1877 and 1879.  The “hoax” theory has it that Gowen and his capitalist colleagues, as well as the Democratic Party they controlled in Pennsylvania, were smarting from the rise of the Workman’s Benevolent Association, an early labor union, the so-called “Long Strike” led by the WBA in 1875, and the defeat of their Democratic gubernatorial candidate at about the same time.  In league with Alan Pinkerton and his detective agency, Gowen and his minions conspired to insert an instigator into the AOH.  McParlan’s mission was never to unmask the Mollies.  His task was to incite violence, incense the non-Irish populace of the coal region, and thereby help smash the WBA and the Irish political machine before it could rival Tammany.


If this was the plan, Irish history was a helpful ally. 


In Ireland’s west, where landlords’ oppression, periodic famine, and abortive uprising were the hallmarks of Gaelic history, the secret society was woven into the fabric of resistance.  Whiteboys, Ribbonmen, and, yes, Molly Maguires resisted evictions and cottage burnings and meted out erratic but oft times effective retribution.  A turn toward such a secret vigilante organization in the no-less oppressive mine-patches of central-eastern Pennsylvania was too easily believable. 


On the other hand, an ascendant Irish-American-led labor movement in league with gathering political strength posed a greater threat to the entrenched capitalist cabal that controlled the mines and rails of post-Civil War central-eastern Pennsylvania. 


And so the debate, partisan for the most part, continued down to the summer that Paramount came to Carbon and Lackawanna Counties, and sputters sporadically to this day.  What is beyond debate is the utter unfairness of the Molly Maguire trials.  The fix, as they used to say, was in from the get-go.  In an era when private counsel occasionally occupied the county prosecutor’s chair at trial, railroad and mine magnate Franklin Gowen led the successful prosecutions of the alleged Mollies.  McParlan was an effective star witness, despite occasionally vigorous cross examinations by defense counsel.  To wit:


Atty. L’Velle:  “Did you directly assist in the crimes?”

McParlane (sic): I seemed to but it was not a fact that I did.”

L’Velle:  “Did you or did you not? I want an answer.”

McParlane: “Of course I did not, so far as I was concerned; so far as the members are concerned, they thought so.”

L’Velle:  “Then you were not the party that Jack Kehoe authorized to get the men to kill Bully Bill Thomas; were you or were you not?”

McParlane: “Certainly I was.”

L’Velle: “Did you deem that participation?”

McParlane: “No.  I went down for the purpose of finding out what they are going to do.”


The jurors, non-Irish to a man, bought the conspiracy theory and hanged the “Mollies.”  Of course, even if the organization was mostly a fabrication, the violence had happened and the defendants probably were guilty. 


Organized Labor’s Bell Curve


Whether or not the Molly Maguires were a secret terrorist society, or the Pinkertons wove a persuasive conspiracy theory out of the whole cloth of the inevitable but random violence endemic to oppressive working conditions, we may never know.  We do know that the bell curve of organized labor rose unsteadily but inexorably from Samuel Gompers’ founding of the AFL in  1886 to Big Labor’s apex in the 1950s, when one in three private-sector workers was represented by a labor union. 


Major milestones along the front side of that curve included the enactment of New Deal legislation in the 1930s.  These federal laws included the Norris-LaGuardia Anti-injunction Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the National Labor Relations Act.  Encouraged by the Roosevelt Administration, workers flocked to join unions and organize American industry.


However, to borrow another famous aphorism, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[1]  An early warning sign came in 1943, when John L. Lewis broke labor’s no-strike pledge and took half a million UMWA miners to the picket lines in the middle of WWII.  The immediate post-war years saw waves of major strikes across business and industry.  Allegations of mobster and communist influences in organized labor, and the lack of enforcement against unfair labor practices by unions in the National Labor Relations Act, contributed to the momentum to curb Big Labor’s power.  The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act did just that, adding a list of unfair labor practices aimed at unions, such as the outlawing of closed shops and secondary boycotts. Twelve years later, the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, sometimes called the union member’s bill of rights, further circumscribed organized labor’s claims to absolute power. 


But legislation can’t be blamed for American Labor’s gradual but inexorable slide down the back side of the bell curve.  When I was a lad in the Fifties, the label “Made in Japan” on a product branded the item as junk.  The portable transistor radio probably was the first Nipponese product to shatter that image.  The rest, as they say, is history.  As the Datsun and the Volkswagen stole a march on America’s Big Three automakers, and the Rust Belt earned its name, union membership --- particularly in the private sector --- declined.  From 1:3 in the Fifties to fewer than 1:10 today, union presence in our service and information economy is anemic. 


During most of the long declination, “Big” Labor was propped up by public-sector unions.  The first two decades of the new century have witnessed a concerted conservative assault upon the great public labor unions.  In many states --- Wisconsin being a notable example ---- GOP legislators and governors have worked energetically to rescind organizing and collective bargaining rights.  The ultimate blow to date is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus v. AFSCME decision that public-sector unions no longer can require free-riders in their bargaining units to make fair-share contributions into union coffers.  Two years out, the data is too thin to predict whether Janus will send the public-sector unions down the same slippery slope that private-sector labor has slid.  That certainly was proponents’ intent.


Full Circle in 2021?


Two weeks before the November 3, 2020, general election, my wife and I drove from suburban Philadelphia to hard-coal country to visit her mother’s grave.  As we drove through Carbon and Schuylkill Counties, we were struck by the predominance of “Trump-Pence” yard signs, which dominated “Biden-Harris” placards by a ratio of about 25 to one.  Donald Trump’s more than 70 million votes confirm an America, once the AFL-CIO’s oyster, that has turned hostile to Samuel Gompers’ labor movement and FDR’s Democratic Party. 


As I write these reflections in late November 2020, Joe Biden appears to be the president elect, though President Trump fights on, seeking a reversal of fortune.  Who is inaugurated on January 20, 2021, and how he gets to the podium, may mean much to the future of free and fair elections in America.  I fear it may mean far less to the future of the Labor Movement.  A moderate President Joe Biden, even if Georgia gives him a razor-thin Senate majority on January 5th,   is unlikely to expend precious political capital on major pro-union legislative initiatives.  Even if he surprised me and did, Trump’s post-election “Stop the Steal” campaign and his looming presence on the national stage during Biden’s term in office seem to ensure that his constituency will remain largely hostile to pro-orgainized-labor initiatives.


Substitute “Proud Boys” for “Molly Maguires.”  Both names signify a violent, indeed terrorist, element of a much larger demographic.  “Molly Maguire” was the fiery fringe of a seething mass of exploited and oppressed industrial laborers of the Gilded Age.  Most had yet to see unionism as their solution. Indeed, violence remained on the fringes of the Labor Movement well into the 20th century, as exemplified by the anarchists of post-WWI, when bombs occasionally rocked Wall Street.  By 1932, America was teed up for a turn toward violent revolution.  Instead, a crucial election resulted in the invigoration of the legitimate Labor Movement.


 “Proud Boys” signifies a similarly violent, terrorist element of another, much larger demographic.  This demographic is (as in 1870) overwhelmingly white, and sees itself as deprived and betrayed… by Big Business, Big Labor, and Big Government, the three elements of what economist J. K. Galbraith called “The New Industrial State” in his 1967 paean to what he mistakenly perceived to be a permanent state of prosperous equilibrium in the United States.


This demographic was being fashioned by globalization, automation, and the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy long before the rise of Donald Trump and will persist whether or not he remains its demi-god.  While the 1870s counterpart had yet to perceive unionism as a solution, this 21st-century demographic views unionism as a failed solution, if not an outright betrayal.


In the 1870s Molly Maguireism lacked the clout to threaten the powers that were and was crushed.  Legitimate labor unionism held on and matured.  In the 1930s, the ballot box placed in power a charismatic leader, who turned his constituency toward legitimate organized labor and away from radical movements and solutions.


The Proud Boys, like the Mollies, symbolize and personify another junction in America’s meandering path.  Like the Gilded Age, 2021 America is an historic moment, when a gap yawns between the haves and have-nots.  When Black Jack Kehoe climbed the gallows steps, Samuel Gompers waited in the wings, ready to build his American Federation of Labor.  When Gompers died in 1924, he left an institution ready to embrace the New Deal eight years hence.


A second gap now separates Americans… the gap personified by Biden and Trump supporters. Are the AFL-CIO and Change-to-Win[2] the institutions poised to bring these two camps together on their side of the socio-economic chasm?  Or will 21st-century Molly Maguireism be the persistent, violent flailing on the fringe of an angry, alienated but impotent mass?


“Plus les choses changent, plus elles restent les mêmes.”  As in the 1870s, Americans are divided by a yawning and widening economic chasm.  As in the 1870s, organized labor is weak and unloved by many lawmakers, many courts and a large swath of our society.  As in the 1870s, fringe elements espouse violent responses to wide-spread frustrations. 


And, as in the 1930s. an election has signaled a possible turn away from violence and toward a solution that could include an invigorated Labor Movement.  But while much is the same, much too is different.  Mr. Biden’s win was no landslide.  And while Herbert Hoover was uncooperative with FDR, he did nothing during the transition to rival Mr. Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign.  A wounded presidency may lack the heart and the vision to join with a wounded Labor Movement to repeat the story of the 1930s.  And the Proud Boys may persist, or even flourish, in sharp and disturbing contrast to the Molly Maguires.   


[1] Attributed to John Dalberg-Action, First Lord Acton (1834-1902)

[2] Comprised of the Teamsters, Service Employees International Union, United Farm Workers, and Communication Workers, Change-to-Win describes itself as, “a democratic federation of labor unions representing more than 4.5 million working men and women. We believe in the power of collective action to serve as a counterweight to corporate interests, and big money in Washington.” []