Student strikebreaking in early 20th-century America

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.

4 thoughts on “Student strikebreaking in early 20th-century America

  1. I find this quite interesting, and if taken at face value, quite surprising. The gist is that wealthy college students take blue collar jobs, primarily because they take joy in breaking strikes. I can’t imagine this happening today, unless you found a few truly unrepresentative individuals. How representative is this of the broader culture of the time? (not that your summary implies that it was) I’m sure there are many pieces of evidence that would be good to bring together. It would be nice to have repeated survey data with people’s attitudes towards organized labor, and strikers. Or if this was the culture at some colleges, and not others, some analysis of why that was.

  2. I don’t think it’s that they took blue-collar jobs per se; it’s that they did the work long enough to break the strike. (A strike is of course not much good if the work is still being done.) And my sense is that the author thinks this was a rather widespread practice among (elite) college students of the era, but this is historical research, not sociology, and I don’t think we’re ever going to find the kind of survey you want. What was representative of the broader culture of the time, I suppose, was intense class antagonism and inequality, and not so much this particular practice… when Norwood does give figures, by the way, he typically says that between a couple hundred and a few thousand student strikers were involved in a given labor conflict. That would probably have been a large proportion of a given student body but a small fraction of the whole population.

    Norwood talks a fair bit about why this didn’t happen at women’s colleges; I’d encourage you to take a look at the (fairly short) paper if you’re still curious about his analysis of some campuses vs. others.

  3. hi Eli,
    Thanks for this, that article looks good and I look forward to reading it. I know I’ve seen reference in labor history books to ivy league students serving as strikebreaking thugs, I believe in one of the standard histories of the IWW (Dubofsky, I think, or maybe Foner, it’s been a while). I don’t recall if this was tied to the national guard or not but there were quotes from young elite men about how much they enjoyed beating picketing workers. I could probably find the reference eventually if you like.
    take care,

  4. Nate, hmm, I don’t know if I truly need any more confirmation of these people’s ludicrous class politics (and this isn’t my research topic), but if you happen to come across the quotes one day you should certainly post them here, if only for our collective dismay/amusement!

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