Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Something for Labor Union/Legal History Nerds

Several people have expressed curiosity about my Labor Day Facebook post regarding my maternal grandfather, Alexander Cournos, so here's a bit more detail for any labor union and legal history nerds out there:

My grandfather died of a brain tumor in 1948 at age 56, when my mother was three years old. Prior to that, he had been a union organizer of copper miners at the dawn of the labor movement in World War I. My mom did not discover any of this until, as a young adult, she began researching his life at the Labor Archives in Detroit, Michigan, where his complete "file" is kept. Between then and now, there's been a lot more information made available online.

This article, for example, gives a decent summary of my grandfather's trial and its context. In short, he was convicted in Chicago following a four-month federal jury trial with 100 other defendants--the largest number ever tried collectively in federal court. Presiding over the trial was a notoriously mean judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis, (who later became the Commissioner of Baseball during the whole Shoeless Joe/White Sox World Series-throwing mess). On August 17, 1918 the jury returned a verdict of "guilty for all" in less than an hour and a half.

My grandfather was part of a group called the Industrial Workers of the World ("IWW"), which was nicknamed the Wobblies and characterized as "a radical industrial union headquartered in Chicago." He and his co-defendants were prosecuted under the federal Espionage Act, accused of undermining the war effort and advocating industrial sabotage by organizing the copper miners who unearthed this valuable war materiel.

Here is what a book titled American Political Prisoners: Prosecutions Under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, by Stephen M. Kohn said about my grandfather: 
Alexander Cournos, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was convicted at the mass IWW trial in Chicago, sentenced to ten years in prison and fined $30,000. He served in the Cook County Jail and Leavenworth Penitentiary from September 29, 1917 to October 21, 1919, and from April 25, 1921, to December 22, 1923. At Leavenworth Penitentiary, Cournos was cited for twenty-one separate disciplinary infractions and was placed in "isolation on restricted diet" on numerous occasions. Grounds for discipline included "riotous conduct" (i.e. "rattli[ing] his dishes" to demand more rice), "loafing," improper possession of a "chocolate bar," participation in a work strike, "talking in mess hall" and "wasting food."
According to his file in the Labor Archives--which included typed correspondence between him and his mother--my grandfather had rejected a plea deal from the government that included a promise to cease union organizing, and contracted tuberculosis while incarcerated. In the letters, he tries to explain to his mother his principled stance on labor unions. After being released from prison, he went on to lead an inconspicuous existence as a night-time proofreader for the New York Times.

I'm impressed by this man, but my favorite thing by far is the description of his (mis)conduct in jail, especially the part about "improper possession of a chocolate bar," "loafing," and his 20 other disciplinary citations. For some reason, I find that to be the most awesome part of a very awesome story. 

Loafing and improper possession of chocolate, I'm afraid, appear to be the dominant traits I've inherited from my grandfather.


My grandfather's mug shot and the only known existing photo of him. The expression on his face is sort of priceless, I think.

1 comment:

  1. What a great story! My own grandpa owned the 'Democrat Supply Store' in Briar Hill, PA in the middle of republican country. Lots of stories there too, but none so remarkable. Thanks for sharing.

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