American Labor on the Docks
The Miles Archer character in Gores's novel has earned his tough-guy reputation by helping quell labor unrest on the docks of Seattle, in part by outing "Wobblies." For the unfamiliar, this plot line may be a bit confusing, but it is historically accurate, and adds welcome color to the novel's setting.
The history of American labor is one of conflict and compromise, and nowhere has this been more true than on the docks. Port cities were among the primary engines of economic growth in the country's early industrial period, and some of the first attempts to build labor unions were carried out by dockworkers (also called longshoremen and stevedores). The Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor, and the International Workers of the World (these are the "Wobblies" Gores refers to) all had a hand in dock-side organizing, though their tactics differed.
As the film On the Waterfront so eloquently narrates, the structure of longshoremen's work lends itself to corruption, collusion, and often violence. This is true in large part because before cargo loading was mechanized, ships could not be emptied or replenished without the sweat of many laborers. Industrialists needed a large and willing workforce to keep goods moving and profits flowing, which gave workers significant leverage to bargain, and employers and organized crime ample reason to break all the rules in an effort to control them.
Especially in the period before World War I, labor strife was often the consequence of worker power on the docks. The power of work stoppages, and the strong incentive for industrialists to prevent them, meant that the docks were hotly contested terrain, and as the Great War approached, some of these conflicts grew ideologically charged. These were brought to a temporary standstill through 1918, as strict controls were placed on the bargaining choices of labor and management, in the name of war-time national unity.
In 1919, the artificially imposed labor peace erupted in a general strike that began at the Port of Seattle and ultimately mobilized a large proportion of the city's working class. While a wide array of labor organizations were active in the city at the time, the Wobblies were viewed by public authorities as a particularly serious threat to the prevailing industrial order.
Private detectives play a colorful and unsavory role in the history of labor unrest; in many cases they were hired to break strikes by any means necessary, and it is fitting that Gores connects this legacy to one of our most celebrated fictional detectives.
This article was originally published in February 2009, and has been updated for the
March 2010 paperback release.
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