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The Pinkertons Still Never Sleep

The notorious union-busting agency has resurfaced in a telecommunications labor dispute, revealing how it has adapted to the 21st century.

Wikimedia Commons

Workers at the telecommunications company Frontier Communications have been on strike for 20 days in West Virginia and Virginia. Their grievances are familiar ones: Workers want more protection from layoffs, better health care coverage, and the return of contracted work to the bargaining unit. The workers’ union, Communications Workers of America, says the company is refusing to meet workers even part-way and has brought in replacement workers, or scabs. Furthermore, Frontier has hired some muscle: the Pinkertons.

Frontier has alleged that some of its cables have been cut with an axe or shot with a shotgun, and that striking workers have driven “recklessly” around work sites. The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that Frontier has offered a reward of $10,000 for information about the identity of the vandals, and the company took out a temporary injunction that it said it needed to keep the strike peaceful. In Frontier’s legal complaint was the news that the company was employing Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations for “security services,” and that the Pinkertons claimed that striking workers had “abused” them, according to the West Virginia Gazette-Mail.

Workers dispute Frontier’s accusations. In fact, a scab committed the strike’s only threat of violence when he pulled out a gun to intimidate strikers. Pinkerton’s appearance in the Frontier saga makes sense for a number of reasons, chief among them the fact that the strike is a particularly heated one. In the history of organized labor, Pinkerton is a regular foe.

Founded by Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish immigrant, in 1850, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency provided intelligence to the Union Army during the Civil War—a reflection of Pinkerton’s abolitionist beliefs. But Pinkerton’s abolitionism didn’t exactly make his agency progressive. In the late 19th century, the emergence of an empowered labor movement provided lucrative opportunities for any agency willing to defend the interests of bosses. Pinkerton detectives sided violently with capital. Pick a bloody labor conflict—the massacre of miners in Ludlow, Colorado, the Homestead battle, the Coeur d’Alene strike of 1898—and the Pinkertons played an active role in instigating hostilities. Agents infiltrated unions, spied on their activities, and reported back to company owners. “We never sleep,” they promised.

The agency’s logo is still a lidless eye, sleepless, ever-vigilant. And while the Pinkertons no longer shoot striking workers, violence is part of the Pinkerton allure. Bosses once hired the firm because its agents would do just about anything to break a strike. Pinkerton agents would lie and kill if necessary; they could do things and go places law enforcement could not. The agency had resources, too: At the time of the Homestead strike, Pinkerton’s active and reserve agents outnumbered the standing army of the United States. Companies hire Pinkertons now because the firm’s very name still implies a threat.

Erik Loomis, a labor historian based at the University of Rhode Island, told me that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of private investigative firms took on roles as the fists of capital. “While the Pinkertons are the most famous of these union-busting firms, they were by no means the only one. They were actually a really common theme during these years,” said Loomis. ”The other agency that should be thought of here is the notorious Baldwin-Felts Agency, which were basically the West Virginia coal companies’ hired assassins,” he added. Baldwin-Felts agents killed striking miners at the battles of Matewan and Blair Mountain.

Outside the world of organized labor, history has been kinder to the Pinkertons. If the agency is publicly known for anything, it’s for pursuing the bank robber and bandits of the wild, wild West. That image is often reinforced in the media. The Pinkertons, a now-cancelled Canadian television show officially licensed by the Pinkerton agency itself, emphasized Allan Pinkerton’s abolitionist sympathies and his unusual decision to hire a female detective, Kate Warne. Warne was the subject of a 2015 biography, and she did—to her eternal credit—successfully infiltrate Confederate circles. She later played a key role in uncovering an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln.

But in its depiction of the Pinkertons, the show veers propagandistic: The Pinkertons support the Union and are good. The agency’s enemies are outlaws and Confederate bushwhackers and are obviously very bad. The truth is that the agency can’t even claim to have waged a righteous war on outlaws. In their zeal to capture Jesse James, agents raided his family home. They also blew one of his mother’s arms off and murdered his eight-year-old half-brother by accident. James, meanwhile, was not present.

This presaged the violence they would inflict on striking workers. “They became notorious,” Loomis said. “They would literally hire thugs off the street. There was a case in a town in Ohio where 25 Pinkertons were arrested for concealed weapons.” On other occasions, the Pinkertons functioned as a sort of domestic Blackwater, working alongside law enforcement to surveil workers and break strikes. When Baldwin-Felts and Pinkerton agents teamed up with National Guardsmen in Ludlow, Colorado, in 1914, the consequences for workers were particularly deadly. Agents evicted workers and attacked their camps; National Guardsmen, meanwhile, set fire to the camp, which included a women’s infirmary. As The New Yorker noted in a 2014 retrospective, the Rockefeller family had paid the Guardsmen’s wages. Sixty-six people died, many of them women and children.

Pinkertons no longer kill workers. As the 20th century progressed, they concentrated more of their resources in surveillance and corporate espionage. When the U.S. Senate convened the LaFollette Civil Liberties Committee in 1936, senators found that the Pinkertons had not only infiltrated General Workers, whose workers were then attempting to organize with the United Auto Workers—their agents had also destroyed evidence before the government could complete an investigation of their activities.

The Pinkertons survived, and entered the 21st century intact largely on the strength of their ability to intimidate, surveil, and gather intelligence about workers. On its website, the company (which was bought by Securitas USA, a Swedish security company, for $384 million in 1999) advertises “global protective intelligence” produced in part by agents who are “embedded or on-call.” Corporate clients can access the Pinkerton Vigilance Network, which consists of the firm’s agents, government agencies, and “+1,000 private sources.” The goal is to help corporations manage risk on all fronts, from natural disasters to political events.

Pinkerton’s hardly the only firm to advertise such services. But its history sets it apart, and the company embraces its legacy. “With one call to Pinkerton you gain access to our global network of resources, providing ‘boots on the ground’ when and where you need them,” it promises. A Securitas ad for the firm lists “labor demonstrations” among the risks it can monitor. “Trouble can happen anywhere, anytime,” a narrator intones.

The Pinkerton promise is attractive to some Silicon Valley firms. The Guardian reported on March 16 that Google and Facebook have both retained Pinkerton to monitor staff for leaks. “Among other services, Pinkerton offers to send investigators to coffee shops or restaurants near a company’s campus to eavesdrop on employees’ conversations,” Olivia Solon reported. A Pinkerton representative told Solon that its agents typically focus on IP theft and insider trading, but the firm’s reach may not end with those concerns. “Through LinkedIn searches, The Guardian found several former Pinkerton investigators to have subsequently been hired by Facebook, Google, and Apple,” Solon wrote. (Facebook and Google, fittingly, are now in the process of building their own physical communities. Apartments in Willow Village and Alphabet City will theoretically be available to all but the parallels to company towns of old are obvious.)

In West Virginia at least, the Pinkerton presence has not deterred workers from continuing their strike. Ed Mooney, the international vice president of Communications Workers of America District 2-13, sounded nonplussed when I asked him about Frontier’s decision to retain Pinkertons. “We have no time for that. That’s a way to distract the public from what’s going on,” he said. “The real issue is at the bargaining table and in the company’s refusal to invest in good jobs in West Virginia.” Mooney says that the Frontier bargaining unit has lost 400 to 500 jobs since 2010.

The story of the Pinkertons has changed since the 19th century, but there are important continuities. Corporate takeovers, layoffs, stagnant pay, surveillance: Threats don’t need to come at gunpoint to be threats. The eternal vigilance of the Pinkertons should spur the same posture in response. Watch out. Don’t sleep.