Radical Unions (Issue)

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Anti-labor commentators in the nineteenth century would have argued that all unions are by their very nature radical because they make "unreasonable" demands upon the owners of property. But in the era of the domestication of most labor organizations we can more closely define "radical" labor unions as those unions that espoused the goal of working towards the final collapse of the capitalist system.

One important precursor to radical unions was the Knights of Labor, led by Terrence Powderly and dedicated to the abolition of "wage slavery." The Knights of Labor organized on a geographic basis, forming "local assemblies" that included workers from different employers (or even different sectors of industry) within the same organization. This furthered the cause of labor solidarity, but it complicated the process of winning strikes and securing contracts.

The most famous of these radical unions was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) whose members were generally known as the "Wobblies." This union was organized in 1905 in direct opposition to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), an association of skilled trades unions organized in 1886. Whereas the AFL was a business union, the IWW was a revolutionary union. IWW leaders wanted to organize all the workers of the world to take control of all the means of production and abolish the wage system.

Among the founders of the IWW were Daniel DeLeon, leader of the Socialist Labor Party, Eugene V. Debs, leader of the Socialist Party of America, and William D. "Big Bill" Haywood, head of the Western Federation of Miners. The latter group was formed in Colorado in 1898 to oppose the hard conditions experienced by miners in all the western states. At first Haywood had hoped to redress the grievances of his followers through the law and the courts, but he soon became disillusioned and concluded that direct action would be the only feasible approach.

IWW strategy was to organize its members into 13 departments representing the 13 major industries of the country. When the moment was ripe, the "Wobblies" intended to call "one big strike" and seize control of all the industries. The nation's economy would then be in the hands of the workers, and socialism would replace capitalism.

The IWW opened its membership to those workers in the most oppressed industries. These included lumberjacks, textile workers, agricultural workers, long-shoremen, construction workers, and meat packers. It also welcomed women workers, the unskilled as well as the skilled, and workers of all races. However, its main strength was among the immigrant workers of the East, the mine workers, and the migratory farm workers in the West.

The IWW never had a membership of more than 60,000 because it did not emphasize the building of permanent unions. It did not even believe in negotiating contracts with management. They said that a contract signified labor peace, and that there could be no peace between workers and capitalists. Instead, the IWW sought to attract people to its philosophy by means of winning strikes. The "Wobblies" would step into a dangerous situation, help win a strike against an oppressive employer, and then withdraw hoping that the workers had been won over to their socialist views.

A number of the "Wobblies" strikes were very successful. In 1906 they won wage increases for sawmill workers in Portland, Oregon, and in 1907, they similarly aided the textile workers in Skowhegan, Maine. However, their most famous effort was the strike of textile mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. Thousands of workers walked off the job in response to pay cuts. Joseph J. Ettor, an IWW organizer from New York, came to Lawrence to lead the strike. He worked effectively and called for peace, but violence broke out anyway. Many strikers were arrested. Then a worker was killed in a riot and Ettor along with Arturo M. Giovannitti, an Italian newspaper editor who was assisting him, were arrested. There was no evidence against them but they were freed only after massive demonstrations orchestrated by the IWW.

Because of its openly radical agenda the IWW was constantly under attack and its leaders were mercilessly persecuted, but it survived until World War I (19141918). When the United States entered the war in 1917, Wobblie leaders called upon the workers to oppose it and to refuse to serve in the military. Imperialists and profiteers, they said, were conducting the war. In response the government cracked down on the union and arrested many of its leaders. Haywood was one of them. He jumped bail and fled to Russia.

By the end of the war the IWW was nearly defunct. Many of its leaders had fled or were in jail and many of its members joined the newly formed Communist Party of America (CPA). The IWW never ceased to exist, but its active period was over after the Lawrence strike.

The IWW had many weaknesses. It neglected to undertake political action, it failed to build stable unions, and its extremist philosophy left it vulnerable to attack. Nevertheless it was important. It influenced the thinking of many workers and won gains for thousands who had no other advocate. It also forced the AFL to be somewhat more progressive by focusing attention on the needs of the unskilled workers.

In 1920 the CPA formed the Trade Union Education League (TUEL) to be used as a vehicle for infiltrating main line (conservative) unions. The TUEL had relatively little success although for a time they were active in the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), the furriers' union, and a few others.

Meanwhile, the Socialist Party of American (SPA) had for years been working to establish control of such unions as the Brewery Workers, the Boot and Shoe Workers, the International Ladies' Garment Workers, the International Association of Machinists, and the United Mine Workers (UMW). For varying periods between the 1890s and the 1920s, the Socialists experienced some successes, but never gained permanent control of these organizations.

The Great Depression (19291939) initially seemed like a catastrophe for labor. How could you organize unions when a high percentage of the workers are unemployed? After the labor movement began to recover from the seemingly hopeless obstacles associated with the high unemployment during the 1930s, the attitude of existing labor organizations seemed to toughen and unions began to confront their situation and to organize in a more aggressive manner.

The more combative union leadership (like John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers) broke from the conservative trade unions associated with the AFL and in 1936 formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). As the labor movement confronted the problem of organizing unions when the demand for labor is low, some of the most gifted organizers came from the ranks of the radicals. For one thing, they understood that organizing had to take place in the communities as well as on the job. Members of the Socialist Party and of the Communist Party understood the need to coordinate organizing among the employed and the unemployed workers. In Toledo, Ohio in 1934 a strike at an automobile parts plant won a contract when the Lucas County Unemployed League walked on the picket lines with the strikers. For a decade or more, a portion of the labor movement was led by members of the CPA. These unions included the International Fur and Leather Workers Union (IFLWU); the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU); the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE); the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMUSW); the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA); the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers (FTA); the Farm Equipment Workers (FE); the United Office and Professional and Workers of America (UOPWA); the United Public Workers (UPW); the American Communications Association (ACA); the International Fishermen and Allied Workers of America (IFAWA); and the National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards (NUMCS).

The left-led unions frequently advocated racial integration in their unions and in their strikes. As one historian writes, this effort to build labor solidarity across race lines could have significant outcomes for organizingeven as early as the 1930s: "Black workersonce their initial doubts about white-dominated unions had been overcomeespecially in the South, were the first to join, were the most steadfast of members, and were the most militant. . . ."

In 1947 the Taft-Hartley Law stipulated that unions whose officers refused to sign an affadavit that they were not members of the Communist Party would not have recourse to the National Labor Relations machinery. This law was a severe blow to the radical unions, which were expelled from the CIO in 1949 and 1950, in spite of an estimated membership of 750,000-900,000. Thus, the CIO lost somewhere between 17 and 20 percent of its total membership. Eventually some of those expelled unions merged with others, passed out of existence, or, in a few cases, re-affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Their separation, however, brought an end to any significant influence of the U.S. labor movement's left wing.

See also: Eugene Debs, Industrial Workers of the World, Knights of Labor, Labor Movement, Labor Unionism, John Lewis


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