The U.S. has a reputation, mostly deserved, for competent government that maintains order while protecting the rights of citizens. And so, students in a labor-management course I taught last semester at George Washington University's business school reacted with astonishment when we watched the film "Matewan."
During the several classes it took to finish the lengthy movie, students — native-born as much as those from such places as Ukraine, Brazil, South Korea and Switzerland — voiced surprise at how coal-company executives strode into the small West Virginia mining town in 1920 and informed the mayor they were now in charge.
If boosting company profits meant paying workers in scrips redeemable only at company stores, then that was just smart management. If curbing union strength as workers began to demand changes required bringing in black workers to spark ethnic conflict, so be it. If scaring workers into submission necessitated kidnapping a miner here and there and brutally murdering him in ways that would make a jihadist proud, then that was a part of doing business.
"Where was the government? Where were the local officials? How about the police? If state authorities wouldn't defend the law, why didn't the federal government intervene?" Those were the questions I heard from students incredulous that these events had occurred within the lifetime of millions of Americans.
What this reflects in a broad sense is the stunning lack of knowledge even well-educated Americans have about a critical part of U.S. history: the part that involves workers, employment, unions and — heaven forbid — class. Class struggles and the fight for social and economic justice have been an integral part of the nation's experience. Yet, they are rarely taught in the schools, mentioned in the media, discussed by public officials or chronicled by Hollywood.
The civil rights struggle gets the attention it merits. Anniversaries of the Edmund Pettus Bridge march in Selma, the "I Have a Dream" speech, or the Birmingham church bombing are observed.
But who knows of the Pullman railroad strike of the early 1890s, or how it was broken up by U.S. Marshals and 2,000 Army troops, resulting in the killing or wounding of 70 workers?
Or of the Haymarket riot in Chicago on May 4, 1886, which began as a rally on behalf of striking workers and led to the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of civilians? Eight anarchists were tried for murder, four were put to death, and one committed suicide in prison.
Or of the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, where a miners' strike was called because the company refused such union demands as enforcement of the eight-hour workday and Colorado's safety laws? The National Guard attacked the workers' tent colony with machine-gun fire before torching it. Two women and 11 children suffocated in the fire, while three union leaders, two strikers, a child, a passerby and a National Guardsman were shot. In response, labor leaders called on Colorado union members to arm themselves, and a large-scale guerrilla war — the Colorado Coalfield War — followed, lasting some 10 days during which strikers attacked dozens of mines, sometimes killing the guards and setting fire to the buildings. At least 75 people died.
Such struggles led to reforms we now take for granted, such as the five-day workweek, paid vacations, safety regulations, bans on sweatshops or child labor and much more.
Why the collective amnesia by our national institutions? I think it basically comes down to the provocative notion of class and how it is fraught with danger, both for a capitalist system and for a society that prides itself on offering upward mobility. "Class": that's something the old Soviets or those crazy French worry about.
But ignoring these developments has consequences. It creates gaps in our knowledge of our country's history. It limits our understanding of our evolution as a society; why, for example, some labor unions felt the need to acquire their own muscle. It detracts from appreciation for the progress we have made and why we have certain laws on the books and policies in place.
To understand where we are as a nation we must know how we got here, and that includes the accomplishments and failures of American labor, the skirmishes fought between businesses and unions. All the more, in a period when working and middle-class people find themselves, once again, in challenging situations.
• Philip Dine, author of "State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence," is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.