Toni Gilpin on Her New Book "The Long Deep Grudge"

Historians in the News
tags: racism, labor history, Haymarket Riot

Randi Storch is a professor of history at the State University of New York, in Cortland. She received her PhD in 1998 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Your book on the “long deep grudge” between International Harvester and the Farm Equipment Workers Union is a rich and multilayered history of the rise and fall of American labor and industry where history itself plays a recurring role. Why did you choose to start your book in the late nineteenth century with Cyrus McCormick and the events of Haymarket, and why is the “long deep grudge” an effective metaphor for understanding the epic battles for labor rights you describe in the book?

As labor historians we take it as a truism that present-day struggles have been shaped by past conflicts. We also know that understanding history, as it illuminates the mechanisms by which ordinary people have improved conditions for themselves, is crucial to building and sustaining working class power. But these things are not at all self-evident to everyone else. How we might draw clearer links between past activism and present possibility seems to me one of our more important tasks, and that’s what makes so compelling the conflict between International Harvester (IH), one of America’s founding industrial empires, and the Farm Equipment Workers (FE), which emerged in the 1930s with the rise of the CIO. Both the company and the union remained acutely conscious of the past, though of course the FE leadership and IH management clashed over the interpretation of it. Moreover, as I argue in my book, “no other union was as animated by its own history as was the FE, or more cognizant of how struggles from distant decades laid the groundwork for later triumphs.” It’s thus perceptive to say, as you do, that history is itself a recurring character in The Long Deep Grudge.

Because I also believe it crucial to focus on capital as well as labor, I wanted to explore the contours of class war from both sides of the battle lines. American history offers up no better case study for that than the bitter, deep-rooted contest between IH – once the fourth-largest corporation in the world, controlled through its existence by the McCormick family of Chicago – and the radical, Communist Party-influenced FE.

To get at the deep roots of this grudge match required a big sweep. I thus took the story back to the 19th century, to the McCormicks’ pioneering first factory in Chicago and to the transformative events that took place inside it, as skilled craftsmen were stripped of their autonomy, and outside it, as revolutionary rhetoric rang through the city’s streets. During the massive nationwide general strike that had begun on May 1, 1886, it was police violence outside McCormick Works that prompted a demonstration in Haymarket Square. Young Cyrus McCormick II proved instrumental in ensuring that a group of anarchist labor activists were executed for the bombing that took place there that night. In the national crackdown following what came to be called the Haymarket “riot,” the eight-hour day movement collapsed, unions – including those at McCormick Works – were decimated, and radical workers’ movements were utterly destroyed.

But anarchist August Spies, at his trial, vowed “if you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there and there, and behind you and in front of you, flames blaze up! It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which stand.”

Read entire article at Labor and Working Class History Association

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