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).

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