This week we return to our ongoing series on the Green Lantern/Green Arrow collaboration from the early 1970s. The conceit for this story line was set up in the aftermath of issue # 76, in which Green Lantern and Green Arrow worked together to bring down a corrupt landlord. Hal Jordan, working for the Guardians of the Universe as the Green Lantern assigned to Earth, is a law-and-order type temperamentally inclined to side with the authorities and the status quo. But Green Arrow is largely concerned with social injustice and perceived oppression, i.e., where the legal conflicts with the moral. So when the two meet, and Jordan gets it into his head that there might be something to the idea that what is legal is not always what is just, the Guardians decide to send Jordan off with Green Arrow and a Guardian observer to find the “real America” and maybe learn a thing or two in the process.
In issue # 77, the trio arrives in the fictional town of Desolation, located somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Desolation is a mining town which still seems to operate on something approximating the company town model, wherein the town’s largest employer is not only a business, but essentially owns and operates all of the businesses in town. In some instances, the operating company became the de facto or even the de jure government for a town.
This issue is a mess. It’s both legally and historically problematic, but even worse, it seems to get the basic ethics of its central lesson arguably wrong. Let’s take a look.
I. The Setup
Desolation is apparently some kind of mining town, and the owner of the mine, the fancifully-named Slapper Soames, treats the local population like slave labor. The locals have seemingly lived there for generations, not entirely content with their lot, but not really knowing anything else. Recently, Soames seems to have brought in some outsiders (possibly German WWII veterans) to serve as his private, heavily-armed security force. The locals didn’t like that either, but they didn’t see any obvious way of doing anything about it. Soames had assumed control of the local legal system, the locals didn’t really know how to do anything but mine, and no one could really afford to leave.
But a little while before the comic begins, one of the boys picks up a guitar and starts singing blues songs about their lives. In a delightfully hippie move, this makes the locals suddenly realize that their lives suck (I might be with Cracker on the viability of folk music as agent of political change, but whatever). Soames doesn’t care much about that, as there isn’t anything the locals can do about it. But he recognizes that the boy’s got talent, and with talent like that, he’s going to leave town, get noticed, sign a record deal, and focus all kinds of unwanted attention on Desolation. Can’t have that, now can we? So Soames has his bully boys arrest the kid, sets up a kangaroo court, and acting as judge, sentences him to hang. The locals take up arms and begin preparations to assault Soames’s compound.
A few days later, our heroes are driving through the area on their little road trip when they’re suddenly, and with neither warning nor explanation, attacked from ambush by locals with rifles. That’s where the story begins.
II. Intro to Company Towns
Company towns were a real thing. They emerged in both the US and the UK a few decades into the industrialization process, something like 1850 in the UK and 1880 in the US. The idea was that a company—generally a manufacturer or mining company—would both ensure an adequate labor pool and save on labor costs via economy of scale by providing compensation in ways other than just wages. Wages, the employees can spend on whatever they like. This means two things. First, it can lead them to spend money on things which the company might prefer they didn’t, either in kind or in amount. Spend too much on booze and you get a bunch of drunkards, for example. Second, by permitting employees to buy whatever they liked from whomever they liked, the company would have to pay not only the cost of those items, but the merchants’ profit margins as well. Much cheaper to capture that profit for the company. So the company would essentially set up a town, providing all of the services normally provided by governments and small businesses. This was sometimes accompanied with the truck system, paying employees wages’ in scrip only redeemable at the company store, to tie the labor pool to the company even more closely.
Things went so far, and the nineteenth-century sense of paternalism was so strong, that many company towns actually got recognized as municipal governments. Eventually this resulted in company towns—even ones that were not de jure municipal governments—being hemmed in by the Constitution in the same way as regular governments. Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501 (1946) (holding that the First Amendment, via the Fourteenth, limits privately owned company towns). But most of the time they operated as unincorporated areas, so the town officials could be company employees rather than elected officials.
Basically, from the perspective of labor, the whole arrangement sucks.
Note that while there are still some towns which are occasionally called “company towns,” and there were presumably more in the 1970s, these aren’t “company towns” of the sort we’re talking about here. Rather, they’re simply towns whose economy is dominated by a single employer without that employer exerting anything like the kind of control or paternalism which characterize true company towns. For instance, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania suffered immensely with the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s, and South Bend, Indiana has never really recovered from the closing of the Studebaker plant in 1963. But both municipalities had always had governments which were independent of the corporation and were about as functional as municipal governments tend to be.
Given all of that history, it’s probably best to think of this as a clumsy retelling of earlier labor disputes. Conflicts between labor and management frequently resulted in violence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We’re talking about large-scale clashes between the National Guard and private security forces like the Pinkertons on one side against well-armed union forces on the other. This story seems to be a retelling of the Colorado Labor Wars in 1903-04 or the 1919 Coal Strike, also called the West Virginia Mine Wars in 1919-21. The latter actually resulted in the governor of West Virginia declaring martial law and President Harding sending in federal troops.* But even assuming that, it’s still hard to make work in any credible way. There are at least three easily-identifiable problems with the way things go down.
First, where the heck are the labor unions? It’d be one thing if this story were spun as a classic example of the suppression of union activism, but they don’t even get mentioned. The mining industry was, and still is, more heavily unionized than most other industries. Even now, something like 42% of mine workers belong to a union, whereas, according to the BLS, the rest of the private sector is only about 6.6% unionized. Even the public sector is less than 40% union. But as unionization rates were considerably higher in the past, the UMWA deserves at least an analog, if not an actual name-check here.
Second, and related to that, is the idea that anything like this could have even happened in the 1970s. These sorts of major outbreaks of violence had largely disappeared by the 1950s. Today, it’s news if anyone is hurt during a labor dispute. This may in part be due to the fact that the legal environment regarding the regulation of union activities has completely changed since 1900. Between the 1919-21 miners’ strike and this story’s publication in 1970 three major federal statutes affecting labor unions were enacted: the National Industrial Recovery Act or 1933, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (which created the National Labor Relations Board, an agency which has been in the news recently), and the Labor Management Relations Act, 1947, better known as the Taft-Hartley act. Every single one of these had a major effect on the structure and scope of labor organization, and they were all immediately controversial. Taft-Hartley is still something of a sore subject with labor organizers, who rightly feel that they had a better deal under the NIRA and NLRA. Without getting into the details, it suffices to say that in 1970, workers had a legal right to organize whereas they did not in 1900, and the union-busting activities engaged in by the coal operators in 1900s Colorado and 1910s West Virginia which Soames seems to be intended to represent were legal in the 1910s but illegal long before 1970. Regardless, by 1970 company towns no longer really existed. The heyday of company towns was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Great Depression sent a lot of these companies into bankruptcy, turning many company towns into ghost towns. So this entire incident seems half a century too late.
But third, the way this particular story goes down isn’t even arguably legitimate, or even legitimately corrupt. Soames has set himself up as what amounts to a dictator, and his exercise of the judicial power is completely out of bounds. In incorporated municipalities, all government officials are elected (or appointed by elected officials) as a matter of state law. In unincorporated areas there is no local municipal government, so company employees could operate as the private equivalent of the town council. But courts are only very rarely part of local municipal governments (as opposed to municipal branches of county courts), and those are mostly large, incorporated cities. So Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City, these municipalities all have courts, but they’re all incorporated, so the judges are either elected or appointed by other elected officials, depending on how each state selects its judges. There are some smaller, incorporated towns with municipal courts, but they’re the exception, and the vast majority of municipalities simply don’t have a judicial branch. And no unincorporated areas do, as they don’t even count as governments. Unincorporated areas fall under the jurisdiction of the government one step higher than municipalities, usually counties, so that’s where the court would be.
“But,” one might say, “Isn’t that the point? Soames is the bad guy! Of course the trial was problematic!” True. First, the story doesn’t say that Soames bribed the judge. That would at least be pretending to comply with the system of local government. There’s a difference between a corrupt but otherwise legitimate official and an outright usurper, and Soames is the latter. He may be exercising the powers of a pseudo-mayor, but it’s implied that this role never involved that of judge.
But more than that, this is another place where the history of the labor conflicts of the early twentieth century are important. When miners in West Virginia rebelled against their employers, it rapidly became a matter of concern to both state and federal governments. A private individual setting himself up to exercise the judicial power illegally would immediately attract the wrath of superior governments. If the governor of the state in which Desolation was located got wind of the “trial,” we’re talking about the possibility of sending in the National Guard. If there’s one thing governments can’t stand it’s people edging in on their turf. So the idea that the miners in Desolation either had to take matters into their own hands or suffer under Soames’ oppression forever strains credibility to the breaking point.
Alternatively, the idea that armed rebellion by labor would be ignored by state and federal governments is likewise unbelievable. Ringleaders in the 1919 labor conflict were indicted for treason, for crying out loud. So depending on how the writers felt like playing it, the state government could actually have come in to support Soames! Or, more realistically, to arrest Soames, the workers, and pretty much everyone in a ten mile radius of Desolation, including our heroes. But it’s pretty much a certainty that they would have gotten involved somehow. Heck, pitting the Brothers Green against the National Guard might have made for a pretty interesting story. Talk about a missed opportunity. . .
So because the writers botched the basic premise, the message of the story gets lost. The whole story line is predicated on a conflict between what is legal and what is just. But if we’re working with the assumption that Soames is intended to represent the brutal union suppression activities of the sort engaged in by the West Virginia coal operators in the 1910s, we run into a problem. In 1970, those activities would probably have been illegal! So whereas last time we concluded that the conflict between legality and justice was perhaps a bit forced, this time both justice and law are on the side of the workers.
Except that they completely blow any moral or legal high ground they may have had by engaging in blatantly illegal conduct. For good or ill, labor taking up arms against capital has always been illegal. But even if one adopts the position that it is morally justifiable to engage in armed resistance against unjust laws and the oppression of the worker, firing at unidentified strangers would still be a problem. The locals fire on our heroes as they’re just driving through the area without making any effort to identify them first. But the writers imply that because they thought they were firing on Soames’ new thugs, that everything is okay. Even if taking up arms is legitimate here, firing on unidentified individuals without bothering to even try figure out who they are is always problematic, no matter who is doing the shooting.
Further, Soames has usurped the role of judge—which was never available to company towns—and built a fortified compound armed with machine guns and artillery. The idea that state and federal governments would be uninterested in at least investigating this turn of events is simply unbelievable. So the miners’ conclusion, unquestioned by our heroes, that the only option was armed resistance rather than, I don’t know, calling the state police, is likewise unbelievable. The state was going to get involved in this story one way or the other.
It’s a shame really: labor/capital conflicts are a rich vein of material for anyone concerned with matters of social justice, as the creators of this story line explicitly are. But rather than come up with some plausible labor conflict, they’ve yanked the outline of an actual historical conflict fifty years into the future. Devoid of their original context, the events just get kind of bizarre. This undermines any message that might otherwise have been gleaned from the setting.
Given the ongoing disputes over unions and labor rights in the present day, might it be time for comics to revisit the issue? Or the writers over at Arrow? Certainly, one can see one of the wrongs Oliver sets out to right being abuse of employees and suppression of union organizing efforts. . .