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Strikebreaking and Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century America

Author(s):Norwood, Stephen H.
Reviewer(s):Sundstrom, William A.

Published by EH.NET (August 2003)

Stephen H. Norwood, Strikebreaking and Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. xii + 328 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2705-3; $19.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-8078-5373-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by William A. Sundstrom, Department of Economics, Santa Clara University.

Strikebreaking was a popular and often successful strategy for U.S. employers prior to the federal labor legislation of the 1930s. Replacement workers, as they are known these days, were used in more than 40 percent of late nineteenth century strikes, and strikebreaking had a strong, positive correlation with the likelihood of the employer winning the strike (Rosenbloom 2002, chapter 6). Strikebreaking often plays a central role in accounts of the violence in the struggles between labor and capital in American history. Striking workers had to keep “scabs” out to shut down production, and they resorted to a range of persuasive and coercive tactics to do so. Employers, for their part, sought out strikebreakers who would be resistant to persuasion or coercion, and who could give as good as they got.

In Strikebreaking and Intimidation, Stephen Norwood, professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, examines several episodes and aspects of strikebreaking during the early twentieth century. The book has something of a split personality, which is revealed in its title and subtitle. On the one hand, it provides vivid, if not unbiased, accounts of the ruthless tactics pursued by American employers in their efforts to break strikes and weaken unions, with a special emphasis on entrepreneurial thuggery and espionage. These stories will not be entirely unfamiliar to students of American labor history, but Norwood has added some fascinating and often disturbing details. On the other hand, the book aspires to a more ambitious interpretation of strikebreaking, linking it with a putative crisis of American masculinity as the country entered the twentieth century. The evidence in defense of this provocative thesis is uneven and ultimately unconvincing.

The alleged connection between strikebreaking and the crisis of masculinity is most clearly presented in the first chapter, which explores the employment of college students as strikebreakers early in the century. Citing some other studies, Norwood argues that social and economic change had by the late nineteenth century undermined the props of preexisting norms of masculinity in American culture, particularly among the elite. The cultural response was the rise of a “cult of masculinity,” which in the collegiate setting was epitomized by football and violent “cane rush” rituals. Norwood documents several strikes during which brawny college football players were recruited by local employers to replace striking workers, usually with the blessings of their coaches and college administrators, and sometimes with violent results.

That college students sometimes cut class to bust unions was new and interesting to me, but Norwood urges the reader to see a deeper significance: “Strikebreaking was the perfect replacement for the banned violent rituals [e.g. cane rushes]. It provided students with the opportunity for mass participation, denied in organized college athletics, and satisfied their pressing need for a ‘test of masculinity'” (p. 24). The claim is a functionalist one, and difficult to prove. Too often Norwood adds his own gendered spin to evidence that might be given other interpretations. For example, during a 1903 Great Lakes shipping strike, University of Chicago track and field athletes were recruited as strikebreakers. Norwood notes that “One of the students summed up his manly adventure by declaring, ‘It was more fun than a track meet'” (p. 25). The phrase “manly adventure” is Norwood’s; what the student was thinking, beyond that it was fun, is hard to tell. Was he happy for an excuse to avoid homework? Was he slumming it with his mates? Was he fulfilling the expectations of his dad, perhaps a Great Lakes shipper or other anti-union capitalist? Was he ordered to do it by his coach, and then making the best of it? Nothing in the book allows us to distinguish among these motives, and this is not an isolated example.

Subsequent chapters recount episodes of strikebreaking in specific industries, with a focus on the entrepreneurs and companies that specialized in recruiting and protecting strikebreakers or company managers put in charge of strikebreaking and labor espionage. Chapter 2, for example, explores the genesis and operations of such national strikebreaking companies as Bergoff Bros. and Waddell, which recruited and transported replacement workers on a contract basis, most notably during the numerous urban transit strikes of the early twentieth century. Whatever one’s views of scab labor, Norwood establishes that replacement streetcar workers had a tough job. The lack of a centralized work site made it difficult or impossible to protect them from the guerilla tactics of striking transit workers and their supporters, who sometimes resorted to blocking or blowing up streetcar rails and beating or stoning the strikebreakers. Norwood suggests that the strikebreakers often carried firearms and were not afraid to use them. Given the circumstances, it is not hard to understand why.

Journalistic accounts of the strikebreaker often compared him with the frontier gunslinger popularized in the westerns of the time. Norwood finds great significance in this metaphor, and even embellishes it with his own, comparing strikebreakers with modern-day fighter pilots (p. 48). But this reader was left wondering what had been demonstrated here. The inclination of journalists to dramatize or even sensationalize events by appealing to icons of popular culture is with us still and may ever be; but can we infer from these accounts the motivations or interpretations of the participants in the events? Was it the strikers and strikebreakers who suffered a crisis of masculinity, or merely their journalistic observers? Similarly, when striking coal miners impugned the strikebreakers’ masculinity or portrayed themselves as defenders of virtuous womanhood against immoral and barbaric scabs, were these rhetorical tactics or genuine reflections of how the miners understood their struggle? A proper understanding of the connection between mercenaries and masculinity would seem to demand answers to such questions, but Norwood is often surprisingly uncritical of the reliability or context of his primary sources.

The book is on more solid ground, in my view, in documenting the centrality of violence and espionage as anti-union tactics prior to the Wagner Act. Outside of the skilled trades, unions had difficulty monopolizing the labor supply, and strikes were often a necessary tactic in gaining union recognition or a closed shop. Thus in many strikes, much more was at stake than just the terms of a contract. To mobilize and protect strikebreakers and spy on or infiltrate unions, employers often hired outside agencies such as the Pinkertons, the Bergoff Brothers, or the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. Some firms, including Ford Motor Company, handled union-busting internally. Harry Bennett, the head of Ford’s notorious “Service Department,” may have been driven by a “lifelong need to affirm his masculinity” (p. 175), but such pop psychology aside, it is remarkable that during the 1920s and 1930s this immense, technologically progressive, and much-admired American company left its personnel management largely in the hands of a thug with mob connections.

Norwood relies extensively on accounts of pro-union journalists and interviews with former union activists, and there can be little doubt that these are necessary sources for reconstructing these events. Still, at times he treats union polemics with more credulity than they deserve, and one is left wondering how often violence was instigated or exacerbated by strikers, who from a position of weakness may have acted “with the folly and extravagance of desperate men,” as Adam Smith once put it.

Once strikes turned violent, local or state authorities often entered the picture, more often than not on the side of the employers. State militias and state police played a role in many strikes, and the militias were responsible for some of the most infamous incidents of strike-related violence, including the so-called Ludlow massacre at a strikers’ tent colony during a 1914 Colorado mining strike. Private enterprise may have played a uniquely important role in American, as compared with European, union-busting, but time and time again the state became involved even in the United States, and often decisively.

It would be asking too much of the author to expect a full-blown comparative study of strikebreaking, but a little more attention to the contrast between U.S. and western European strikes would have been informative. In particular, U.S. employers may have been less reluctant to threaten, employ, or provoke violence during strikes because they could have some confidence that the state would intervene on their behalf if violence erupted. By contrast, labor’s greater influence in European politics made it less certain that the state would take the employers’ side, as Gerald Friedman (1988) has pointed out. Such differences in the political context of labor struggle may be more important than the insecurities and yearnings of the American male psyche in explaining the violent character of American labor relations.

Strikebreaking and its associated violence became much less common after World War II. By creating a legal and bureaucratic route to union representation and contract negotiations, the National Labor Relations Act largely obviated recognition strikes. Prohibitions of unfair labor practices constrained the anti-union tactics available to employers. Norwood acknowledges these factors but also attributes some of the change to evolving norms of masculinity. As he puts it, “By the 1960s the conflation of masculinity with physicality and aggression was less pronounced than in the early twentieth century, even in the working class” (p. 229). The consequence was a decline in both the demand and the supply of physical violence on both sides of labor disputes. Perhaps so (although a scan of the Hollywood blockbusters of recent years suggests that the old machismo may have made a comeback); still, one wonders whether the timing of these alleged cultural changes is consistent with the regularization of labor relations as early as the conservative 1950s.

Unions have been in decline in the U.S. private sector for several decades, and Norwood like many observers sees a renewed aggressiveness in corporate anti-unionism as a significant contributing factor. But how significant is it, relative to the broad industrial, occupational, technological, and ideological shifts that have taken place in the United States over the same period? The last line in the book approvingly quotes a union official, who states that “intimidation and interference by employers is such a standard practice in today’s workplaces that the freedom to form a union doesn’t really exist at all” (p. 247). Anyone who has read the book’s harrowing accounts of strikebreaking — state militiamen setting fire to tents occupied by strikers’ families at Ludlow in 1914, Harry Bennett’s thugs kicking the daylights out of UAW organizers in 1937– is likely to question the author’s sense of perspective.


Gerald Friedman, “Strike Success and Union Ideology: The United States and France, 1880-1914,” Journal of Economic History 43 (1988): 1-26.

Joshua L. Rosenbloom, Looking for Work, Searching for Workers: American Labor Markets during Industrialization, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

William A. Sundstrom is professor of economics at Santa Clara University. His current research interests include internal migration in the United States and the labor-market effects of New Deal policies.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII