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by William H. Benson

September 17, 2009

     At noon on September 16, 1920, a horse-drawn cart pulled up near J. P. Morgan’s headquarters at the corner of Broad and Wall Street at the south end of Manhattan. The driver quickly dismounted and dissolved into the crowd, but the wagon was loaded with dynamite and iron sash weights that exploded, sending flames shooting toward the sky as chunks of heavy metal rained down upon the people walking on the streets

     Thirty-eight people were killed, and 143 wounded. It was the worst terrorist action on American soil until the Oklahoma City attack in 1995, and the worst in New York City until the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. The explosion left a dozen or so pockmarks on the marble walls of the building, and those can be seen today. And yet the blast killed only one person inside the building, a 24-year-old clerk.

     Who would do such a despicable thing? J. P. Morgan’s bank had come under increasing attack in recent days for arranging a sizeable loan to help the Allies fight the Great War in Europe, but the public tended to think that it was the work of anarchists, radicals, Communists, foreigners, or labor officials. The public lumped together those segments of society and were incapable of differentiating between any of them.

     A crew of lawmen and detectives dug into the crime scene and found nothing. “But years of investigation yielded nothing—no indictments, no trials, no culprits. No one ever came forward to take responsibility for the crime, or to state what it was to accomplish.”

     Beverly Gage, a history professor at Yale, has recently published a book, The Day Wall Street Exploded, in which she argued that this New York City attack must be understood “in the wider history of industrial warfare that proliferated in America.”

     It was truly a war, one fought between management—the owners of the businesses—and their employees—the workers. Decades of brutal labor policies and governmental repression had forced employees to resort to violence to draw attention to their plight.

     Between 1881 and 1905, there were 37,000 labor strikes in the U.S., and many of these were bloody, bitter struggles. Management met all attempts to unionize “with clubbings, shootings, jailings, blacklistings, and executions, perpetrated by company goons, police officers, deputies, and soldiers. Dozens were killed in these conflicts.”

     There was the strike in 1877 against the B & O Railroad in 1877 that killed 26 people, the Homestead Steel strike in 1892, the Pullman railroad car strike in 1894, and the Boston police strike in 1919.

     The federal and state governments often sided with management. Calvin Coolidge, governor of Massachusetts, sent a telegram to Samuel Gompers, the unionizer, that read: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” 

     What did the strikers want? They wanted the 8-hour working day instead of the typical 12. They wanted a decent wage, rather the pittance that management tossed their way. They wanted safer working conditions, and also the right to unionize, to strike, to collective bargain, and to address grievances. They wanted vacations with pay, and the elimination of child labor.

     Above all else, employees wanted respectability and a diminishment of the hopelessness, humiliation, and degradation that accompanies a man or woman who had hoped to provide a good life for a family but cannot when surviving on subsistence wages. Employees caught up in such a deplorable situation are paralyzed by the fear of losing their jobs, and so downtrodden, beleaguered, cornered, and desperate they will strike or turn to violence.       

     Samuel Gompers said it best: “If you wish to improve the condition of the people, you must improve their habits and customs. The reduction of the hours of labor reaches the very root of society. It gives the workingmen better conditions and better opportunities, and makes of him what has been too long neglected—a consumer instead of a mere producer.”

     A peace between management and labor was concluded at some point during the mid-years of the twentieth century, and “to no one’s astonishment civilization was not destroyed, nor did American industry collapse. Employees turned out as much as they had under the longer hours, and the businesses made as much and more profit.”