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Understanding Labor, Capital & Violence

Less than two weeks after his arrival in Los Angeles, and having met with dozens of people, plus several times with Darrow, Lincoln Steffens had a better feel for the situation in Los Angeles, and understood that conviction of the McNamara brothers followed by a public hanging would do little to find peace between organized labor and organized capital. Steffens also saw that his friend was deeply discouraged and decided that the two of them needed the advice of someone they both admired.

Edward Willis “E.W.” Scripps was the person who introduced mass production into journalism, starting a chain of newspapers at about the same time Henry Ford was creating assembly lines for cars. Born in 1854, Scripps got his start in the newspaper business while still in his teens, working as an office boy at the Detroit News. Eventually, he owned more than 25 daily newspapers. In the process, he became wealthy at the level of a robber baron, yet his views on capital versus labor were a far cry from those of General Otis. Scripps had carefully followed the events in Los Angeles through several of his daily newspapers from his 2,000-acre ranch outside of San Diego.

Though they hadn’t spoken, Scripps’ views on the McNamara brothers were equivalent to those of Steffens. He assumed they were guilty. Yet as Scripps saw things, given the brutish behavior of organized capital over the prior two decades, the brothers’ bombing campaign was an understandable response. To Scripps’ way of thinking, capital had started the war and labor had counter-attacked. Although “unlawful” by conventional legal standards, Scripps believed that the brothers’ deeds were morally justified.

Steffens and Darrow left Los Angeles at the end of the court’s week and took a sleeper car to San Diego, arriving on a Saturday morning. They were greeted at the train station by Scripps himself. Once settled into his grand ranch house, among friends of like mind, they were presented with a dissertation by Scripps entitled Rights of Belligerents.

According to Scripps, “There is actual war going on for the purpose of destroying one government and setting up another…the government being attacked is the government of plutocracy which at present governs the government…the warfare is between the employees of capitalistic institutions and capitalists and their institutions.” Continuing, he argued that “in the narrow political sense, this warfare is neither legal nor illegal; it is extralegal,” that is, rightly beyond the province of the U.S. legal system according to Scripps.

Scripps’ assessment was that the individual players in the “war” were acting in furtherance of their own financial interests as they saw them, without regard to society’s law. Yet because the robber barons controlled the legislators, judges and police, employers knew that when the law was enforced, it would be to their favor. Workers on the other hand were at a severe disadvantage. They correctly viewed police, judges and legislators as interlopers to their battle who always took the side of employers. Scripps equated lock-outs and refusal to negotiate with strikers as akin to a “siege” of a city by an army, which knew that people would die as a consequence. The same was true for the manufacturers, contractors, and railroads that refused to make safety upgrades, resulting in dead and crippled workers.

Despite denouncing dynamite as a “holy horror,” the leaders of the organized labor knew that their members engaged in all sorts of violent tactics.  This included everything from sucker-punching scabs, breaking windows, and petty theft, to arson, bombings and assassinations. As for the McNamara Brothers, Scripps saw them as “soldiers” of organized labor. They “had nothing to gain personally” by dynamiting the Times’ building. It could not be said that they were “malicious criminals committing murder.” They were not deranged bombers or arsonists.  They were acting on behalf of thousands of other people who supported what they did. The employees of General Otis “that were killed should be considered what they really were – soldiers enlisted under a capitalist employer whose main purpose in life was warfare against the unions.”