labor under siege


Pinkertons and Baldwin-Felts


During the 1800s and early 1900s, it was common practice for the owners of mines and factories to hire private detective agencies to spy on and intimidate workers in order to prevent the workers from unionizing. The operatives (the term used for “private detective”) for these agencies were also heavily armed and part of their job was to attack striking workers, sometimes on the picket line, sometimes in their homes or on a lonely road. Workers were also shot and even killed by private detectives during strikes and other labor organizing activities.

The two largest detective agencies most commonly used by the owners of factories, mines, and other businesses were the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the Baldwin-Felts Agency.

Barge carrying armed Pinkerton operatives arriving at Homestead, Pennsylvania, to attack striking workers and end the Homestead Strike in 1892. The workers were ready and fought back, eventually overcoming the Pinkertons and burning the barge.1

Both of these companies provided a wide range of services including surveillance, intimidation, infiltration, and security. Because their operatives were heavily armed and hired as additional security forces to supplement local police and the National Guard, they were also considered to be private militias.

Baldwin-Felts operative used to evict striking workers and their families from company housing during the Paint Creek strike of 1912 in West Virginia.2

The practice of using private detective agencies has come back into popular use by corporations across America. For example, in 1994, the Fred Meyer’s supermarket chain used a private detective agency to intimidate workers by videotaping them on the picket line in Portland, Oregon. As a result, community activists (including myself) made it a point to block the videotaping by standing between the striking workers and the hired thugs.

The use of private investigators by corporations has become so commonplace that the online continuing education company, Learning Shop USA, has a separate course for detectives in handling strikes and striking workers.3 According to the course description:

In a strike situation, Private Investigators may be called upon to supplement the local police and non-striking workers and may be asked to perform extraordinary duties such as involvement in personal conflicts, picket line disturbances, and violent confrontations with employees or others.4

The Learning Course also makes it clear that striking workers are the enemy and should be considered dangerous. They teach detectives to treat unions and union workers like violent criminals: “A unionized labor force always poses a threat of damage to the client’s employees, property and premises during a strike.”5

Their course also includes instructions on using videocameras and other surveillance equipment and on dealing with bombs because, according to them, “Bomb threats are commonly used during strikes to create a work stoppage and interrupt operations.”6

Another private security company, Strike Force Protective Services, includes dealing with labor issues (as well as “Downsizing Enforcement”) under the services offered for their “Corporate Governance.”7

A particularly large private security firm, ICS World, provides “Strike and Labor Unrest” services which include “keeping your company doors open” and “putting covert operations in place.” ICS promotes their services as essential because “Business downsizing’s and the recent shift to a pro-business Congress have created a climate more conducive to labor unrest than at any time during the past 20 years.”8 [The random apostrophe is theirs.]