Many major strikes were characterized by violence, and used military personnel during the struggle. Do you think this was fair? Was it ever neutral? Do you think it was ethical? Explain why or why...

Many major strikes were characterized by violence, and used military personnel during the struggle. Do you think this was fair? Was it ever neutral? Do you think it was ethical? Explain why or why not. Provide historical evidence to support your answers.

Asked on by dragones

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In my view, the use of military forces to stop strikes is not the issue.  The issue is the laws that allowed this to be done.  The military was, at that time, used mainly as a law enforcement tool.  It was not much different than using the National Guard to quell the disorder in Ferguson, MO, this year.  What we should really ask is whether it was right or fair for the government to have the laws that the military was called out to enforce.

I would argue that it was possible for the use of the military to be neutral.  In the Railroad Strike of 1877, for example, the military was not specifically used to break the strike.  Instead, it was used to prevent violence that went along with the strike.  We can argue that the military was not neutral because it prevented the strikers from accomplishing their goals, but we can also say that it was neutral because it only acted against those who were engaging in violence. 

Of course, actions like this that seem neutral will actually end up working in favor of those with power.  In this sense, the use of the military was not fair.  The strikers felt that they had to resort to violence to win because they had to, in some way, stop trains from running.  By contrast, all the railroads had to do was to protect their property from destruction or disruption.  The laws acted in favor of the railroads and any enforcement of the laws (which would seem neutral) would actually help the railroads.  The strikers had to break the law to win while the railroads only needed the law to be enforced.  It may be that the laws were unfair, but it is hard to fault the idea of bringing out the military to uphold the law.

I would argue that the issue of the ethics of the situation is similar to the issue of fairness.  It seems to me that it is always ethical to use force to make sure that people obey the laws.  The only time it is not is when the laws are manifestly unjust.  For example, it would have been unethical (at least in my view) to have used the military to prevent African Americans from attending schools that were reserved for whites in the time before Brown v. Board of Education.  But this is not because of the use of military power.  It is because the laws are bad.  So, you have to decide if the laws on labor were manifestly unjust in this time.  Were the laws so unjust that people were justified in breaking them?  Were they so unjust that it was clearly wrong to try to enforce them?  Your answer to these questions should determine whether you think it was ethical to send the military out to stop these strikes.

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