Labor Spies - A Historical Overview

A Historical Overview

As early as 1855, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency provided "spotters" to expose dishonest and lazy railroad conductors. However, the program unraveled when, after a train accident in November 1872, papers found on the body of a Pinkerton operative revealed that the agency had been using deceitful practices.

In 1869, garment workers formed the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor as a secret labor organization, largely in response to spying by an employer. The resulting blacklist had been used to destroy their union.

At an 1888 convention of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers that was held in Richmond, Virginia, delegates organized a special committee to search out hiding places that might be used by labor spies. They discovered a newspaper reporter, and determined to hold meetings behind closed doors. Note-taking was forbidden. Their concerns were justified, but the effort failed; two Pinkerton operatives had infiltrated the convention as delegates from Reading, Pennsylvania. They composed elaborate reports on all the issues and discussions and recorded all the minutes of the meetings at the convention.

Beginning in the latter decades of the 19th century, agencies that supplied security and intelligence services to business clients were essentially private police forces, and were accountable only to their clients. The private police agencies declined with the development of professional public police departments, but they continued to be employed by mine owners in "frontier environments" well into the 20th century.

The earliest, largest, and best known private police force was Pinkerton's Protective Police Patrol. The organization's early reputation was marred by a string of killings; on April 9, 1885, Pinkertons shot and killed an elderly man at the McCormick Harvester Company Works in Chicago. On October 19, 1886, they shot and killed a man in Chicago's packinghouse district. In January 1887, Pinkerton agents fired upon and killed a fourteen year old bystander during a Jersey City coal wharves strike. The whole city was outraged, and the mayor described "Pinkertonism" as medieval barbarism. An article in The Nation magazine gave the killing national exposure. There was a growing outcry about Pinkertonism, although no concrete steps were taken to control such agencies.

It was not until after the Homestead Strike of 1892, when a shooting war erupted between strikers and three hundred Pinkerton men arriving on three river barges, that both houses of Congress established subcommittees to investigate the battle on the Monongahela River. But the overriding concern for private property influenced Congressional thinking. Federal legislators were reluctant "to step between employers and their mercenaries." The federal Anti-Pinkerton Act (still in force) was enacted in 1893 to prohibit an "individual employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, or similar organization" from being employed by "the Government of the United States or the government of the District of Columbia."

States also took their cues from the federal investigation. By the end of the 19th century, twenty-six states had passed "anti-Pinkerton" type laws. Yet even with state laws intended to prevent the importation of armed men, private policing agencies flourished.

By the dawn of the muckraking era, employers increasingly turned to espionage services. E.H. Murphy once told a midwestern industrialist,

We have the reputation of being several jumps ahead of the old way of settling capital and labor difficulties... Our service aims to keep our clients informed through the medium of intelligence reports.

In 1904, Samuel Gompers observed that progressive liberal public opinion was prompting employers to become more clandestine in their anti-union activities. Delegates to the Massachusetts state AFL convention concluded that private detective agencies not only had "assumed formidable proportions," they threatened to "Russianize" American society. Captain B. Kelcher of the C.B.K. Detective Bureau in New York informed prospective clients that his firm did "not handle strike work," but rather "prevent strikes."

Bill Haywood, a leader of the WFM and the IWW during the period 1899–1918, offered an opinion indicative of the growing frustration of union leaders:

A detective is the lowest, meanest and most contemptible thing that either creeps or crawls, a thing to loathe and despise. ... That you may know how small a detective is, you can take a hair and punch the pith out of it and in the hollow hair you can put the hearts and souls of 40,000 detectives and they will still rattle. You can pour them out on the surface of your thumbnail and the skin of a gnat will make an umbrella for them.

When a detective dies, he goes so low that he has to climb a ladder to get into Hell— and he is not a welcome guest there. When his Satanic Majesty sees him coming, he says to his imps, "Go get a big bucket of pitch and a lot of sulphur, give them to that fellow and put him outside. Let him start a Hell of his own. We don't want him in here, starting trouble."

In 1918, the American Protective League (APL) was focused on disrupting the activities of the Industrial Workers of the World, primarily because of that union's opposition to the First World War. The APL burgled and vandalized IWW offices, and harassed IWW members.

"In December ten important officials of the Labor unions of Akron, Ohio, were exposed as confessed and convicted spies of the Corporations Auxiliary Company, a concern whose business is the administration of industrial espionage."

By the 1930s, industrial espionage had become not just an accepted part of labor relations, it was the most important form of labor discipline services that was provided by the anti-union agencies. More than two hundred agencies offered undercover operatives to their clients.

During the 1930s, thirty-two mining companies, twenty-eight automotive firms, and a similar number of food companies relied upon labor spies. A member of the National Labor Relations Board estimated that American industrialists spent eighty million dollars spying on their workers. General Motors alone spent nearly a million dollars for undercover operatives fighting the CIO during a two year period. In addition to the Pinkertons, General Motors hired thirteen other spy agencies to monitor workers in its factories, and then used the Pinkertons to spy on operatives from these other agencies.

Between 1933 and 1935, the Pinkerton Agency employed twelve hundred undercover operatives and operated out of twenty-seven offices. The agency assigned agents to three hundred companies during the 1930s. In 1936 Robert Pinkerton announced a change of focus for the Pinkerton Agency. The days of strike-breaking agencies marshalling large numbers of strike-breakers to defeat strikes were over. The Pinkerton Agency was determined to "place emphasis on its undercover work which, being secret, created less antagonism."

While more overt forms of labor control often led to violence, the undercover operator or missionary was able to destroy unionization efforts without alarming the public.
Robert Michael Smith, From Blackjacks to Briefcases, 2003.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 outlawed spying on and intimidating union activists, provoking violence, and company unions. However, spying on workers and harassing them continued, according to testimony before congress in 1957. Other abuses by labor consulting firms included manipulating union elections through bribery and coercion; threatening to revoke workers' benefits if they organized; installing union officers sympathetic to management; and, offering rewards to employees who worked against unions.

In 1944, historian J. Bernard Hogg, surveying the history of labor spying, observed that Pinkerton agents were secured "by advertising, by visiting United States recruiting offices for rejectees, and by frequenting water fronts where men were to be found going to sea as a last resort of employment," and that " labor they were a 'gang of toughs and ragtails and desperate men, mostly recruited by Pinkerton and his officers from the worst elements of the community.'"

As the relationship between business and labor became more institutionalized after World War II, labor relations consulting agencies, attorneys, and industrial psychologists began to displace the older union busting agencies. Modern union busters employ professionals to utilize national labor laws, and to influence their clients' employees. Not only are their efforts more subtle, such modern anti-union practices can be "disguised as constructive employee relations." The new breed of union-busters, with degrees in industrial psychology, management, and labor law, proved skilled at sidestepping requirements of both the National Labor Relations Act and Landrum-Griffin.

By the mid-1980s, Congress had investigated, but failed to regulate abuses by labor relations consulting firms. Meanwhile, while some anti-union employers continued to rely upon the tactics of persuasion and manipulation, other besieged firms launched blatantly aggressive anti-union campaigns. Although the general direction of professional union-busting has been toward greater subtlety, strike-bound employers have turned once again to agencies that supplied replacement workers, and professional security firms whose operatives "have proved to be little more than thugs." At the dawn of the 21st century, methods of union busting have recalled similar tactics from the dawn of the 20th century.

Read more about this topic:  Labor Spies

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