Via John K. Wilson, I came across a fascinating 1994 article by historian Stephen Norwood, “The Student as Strikebreaker: College Youth and the Crisis of Masculinity in the Early Twentieth Century.” It’s published at JSTOR but the full text is also available at findarticles. (Norwood was in the news last year for more controversial research on the 1930s Nazi-friendly attitudes of various universities like Columbia, but I haven’t read that yet.)
Basically, the article tells a disturbing story about the labor politics of early 20th-century American college students. In essence, college students from such places as Columbia, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Berkeley, Univ. of Minnesota, Univ. of Chicago, Tufts, Brown, Univ. of Michigan, Stanford, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Univ. of Southern California, and various engineering schools volunteered to serve as strikebreakers in a large number of labor disputes. It’s not news that college students of that era were elite and conservative, but their extreme hostility towards organized labor is nonetheless striking. Some 9 of 10 of Yale students, we’re told, “subscribed ‘to anti-labor attitudes with fervor’” as of 1910 (334); but the heart of their anti-labor sentiment was expressed less in political statements — as they were apparently too frivolous on the whole to articulate any clear political philosophy — than in the sheer violence of their physical confrontation with striking workers.
Norwood explains that not only did elite college students (a redundant expression, by the way, given the times) replace striking workers at their posts, they also relished the brawls that often broke out as they crossed picket lines. In New York in 1905, “Stories circulated around Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute that ‘Poly’ students working on subways had ‘bested roughs [ie, workers] a dozen times’ ” (331). Two years earlier, “hundreds [of students] answered the Minneapolis flour millers’ call for strikebreakers. Among the first to volunteer were varsity athletes from the University of Minnesota, who with a ‘lusty Shi-U-Mah’ (the Minnesota cheer) formed a wedge, and blasted through the picket line” (338). In 1912, students “joined the militia companies sent in to quell the Lawrence [Mass.] textile strike… students enjoyed the opportunity to precipitate violence, as they enthusiastically disrupted picketing and strike parades” (339). A few years later, in 1919, students were themselves victims of retributive violence. “In riots in the streets of Boston, Cambridge, Providence, and Malden, which were sparked by the strikebreaking of students from Harvard, MIT, Tufts, and Brown, the working class took its revenge on the collegians, badly mauling several. In Boston, for example, some student strikebreakers were beaten unconscious and one had his teeth knocked out” (339).
Norwood proposes a joint explanation for this strikingly physical form of class warfare. First of all, he argues that the antipathy of the rich towards the working classes made the students particularly suited for strikebreaking. While students themselves alternated between familial conservatism and sheer festive indifference to anything serious, their administrators, athletic coaches and trustees held clear anti-labor doctrines. “Columbia’s president Nicholas Murray Butler,” for instance, “denounced the strike in general as an ‘act of war’ ” (334). Students’ involvement in strikebreaking, apparently, was catalyzed by the active encouragement of these campus leaders. Moreover, because students were wealthy elites, they afforded businessmen the chance to hire a more publicly “presentable” group of scabs — the alternative being to hire lower-class, less seemly “riff-raff” and “slum dwellers” as substitute workers (332).
Now for the second piece of Norwood’s explanation: he suggests that involvement in strikebreaking was in large part a response to what he calls a turn-of-the-century “crisis of masculinity.” He argues that, as upper- and middle-class men were increasingly decoupled from physical work, they found themselves having more trouble performing the “muscularity,” violence, “daring deeds,” and “strenuous life” that were stereotypical characteristics of manhood. Violent sports, according to Norwood, were hence increasingly valorized as a sort of substitute site of masculinity pageants. However, the increasingly bloody and ridiculous rites of passage that emerged at elite colleges themselves became too unseemly, and administrators eventually banned them as “relic[s] of barbarism.” “Strikebreaking,” Norwood goes on to argue, “was the perfect replacement for the banned violent rituals. It provided students with the opportunity for mass participation, denied in organized college athletics, and satisfied their pressing need for a ‘test of masculinity’ ” (338).
As one would expect from this somewhat heterogeneous cluster of motivations, students’ experiences of strikebreaking were complex: they seemed to live it as a gigantic “lark” (333); as a test of physical prowess; as a sort of break from campus (some even got course credit!); but also as something that satisfied a certain craving for heroism. While this craving for heroism was no doubt essential to the masculinity complex of the day, it strikes me that these idly rich students may also have harbored fantasies of doing something less useless than drinking and making fools of themselves on a daily basis.
In the end, the period of strike-breaking (from 1901-1923) came to a close, Norwood argues, above all because campuses became more co-educational in the 1920s, and the frivolous pursuits of college boys were redirected towards “heterosexual activities.” It’s a ridiculous ending to a ridiculous bit of history.