This site is a static archive. Visit the current IWW website at ▸
Skip to main content

Revolutionary Tendencies in American Labor - Part 1

In his classic analysis, The IWW: A Study in American Syndicalism, Paul Brissenden quotes from an editorial in the June, 1910 issue of the Industrial Worker (official organ of the IWW, Industrial Workers of the World) to substantiate his conviction that all

" . . . the main ideas of modern revolutionary unionism as exhibited in the IWW may be found in the old International Workingmen's Association (IWMA, founded 1864)

. . . many items in the program originally drafted by the famous anarchist Michael Bakunin for the International in 1868, were very similar to the 20th century slogans of the IWW....

Brissenden stresses that it is not to be inferred that the ideas of the revolutionary labor movement in general and the IWW in particular, were imported from Europe and grafted on to the American unions. The same principles and tactics grew out of the living experience of American workers on American soil. They were accepted because they corresponded to American conditions. The revolutionary libertarian concepts of class-struggle, federalism, direct economic action, local autonomy and mutual aid--are all deeply rooted in American labor traditions.

Our labor movement has a long and honorable record of heroic struggles: The great railroad strikes of 1877, the movement for the eight hour workday which culminated in the hanging of the Chicago anarchists and the general strike of May 1st, 1886 (now commemorated throughout the world as International Labor Day), the Homestead Steel strike in 1892 and the epochal battles of The American Railway Union in 1894, the anthracite miners' strike of 1902, the monumental strikes under the banner of the IWW, "Bloody Ludlow" in 1914, the great steelworker's strike of 1919, the southern textile strikes in 1929, the inspiring "sit-in" strikes in the 1930s--these are milestones on the onward march of the working class. It is these, and countless other revolts that have been responsible for all the gains made by labor. For example: the great railroad strikes of 1877 inspired Peter Kropotkin to write two articles in the Bulletin of the Jura Federation (Switzerland anarcho-syndicalist organ) from which we extract the following:

. . . This movement will have certainly impressed profoundly the proletariat of Europe and excited its admiration. Its spontaneity, its simultaneousness at so many different points, communicating by telegraph, the aid given by the workers of different trades, the resolute character of the uprising from the beginning, call forth our sympathies, quicken our hopes....

. . . would that this flowing of noble blood will prove once again the blindness of those who amuse themselves and the people with the playthings of parliamentarianism when the powder is ready to take fire, unknown to them, at the least spark....

Revolutionary unionism and socialist ideas developed in the course of these struggles. The workers came to realize that behind the boss stood the whole capitalist system--the courts, the state, the army, the police, the clergy, the schools and the press. They came to realize that these institutions must be abolished to be replaced by a free, just society.

Many militants, understandably preoccupied with economic struggles have underestimated the impasse of the deeper strivings which inspire the oppressed to revolt. Behind the struggle for bread lies the cry for justice. Behind the struggle for better working conditions, lies the demand for individual freedom and human rights. Solidarity on the job and on the picket-line is the economic expression of the inborn feeling for mutual aid.

True socialism is much more than an economic doctrine. It is an ethical ideal. It cannot be imposed from above. It grows out of the feeling of brotherhood and is forged in the common struggle for noble aims.

The direct economic action tendency in the American labor movement rejected parliamentary action in favor of economic struggle. It rejected the idea of state control of industry in favor of worker' self-management and the replacement of the state by the economic organizations of the workers themselves.

Libertarian Spirit and Structure of Early American Labor Movement

Like all genuine people's movements the unions could be built only in one way--from below--by the organization of the workers on the job. Hence the labor movement at its inception took on, naturally, a decentralized federated form with the autonomous organization of the workers in the various workplaces, localities, trades and industries bonded together in solidarity for mutual support. Within the local groups there was direct personal contact between the members. Decisions were arrived at by free agreement in open discussion. Most of the organizational work was voluntary and the few paid officials received no more than the average wage of the workers. Terms of office were limited and paid officials were in many cases required to go back to work in production for a definite period before being allowed to qualify for office again.

Whether on the union payroll or not, all officials and delegates had to carry out the instructions of the membership, by whom they could be recalled if they failed to do so. Decisions affecting large groups of workers were made by referendum vote. Negotiations with employers, calling and settlement of strikes, were decided by the rank-and-file workers on the job. Terms of the agreement were enforced directly by the workers themselves and grievances settled, if necessary, by means of sit-downs, slow-downs, boycotts or whatever other means the workers deemed most effective. These, and other safeguards against usurpation of power were developed by the workers in the course of their struggles.

The growth of the labor movement corresponded to the growing need of the workers for solidarity against the bosses and the boss-controlled state which opposed them at every turn. As local unions multiplied, they federated with each other to form larger groupings, while still retaining their autonomy and freedom of action within their own spheres. It was realized that all trades must cooperate if strikes were to be effective and workers demands achieved. Inter-city, state and national federations were formed to fill the need for greater coordination in the interests of all the workers.

The labor movement grew naturally into a vast interwoven network of local communities throughout the country, exercising a growing influence in their respective areas. And this early movement did not confine itself solely to immediate economic issues. Humanity is a social being. Cooperation, synonym for solidarity, is indispensable for survival and development. The mutual-aid functions of the unions expanded to keep abreast of the growing needs of the members. Neither the state nor the employers were concerned with the wants or feelings of the human beings whom they treated as mere commodities. So, the workers helped themselves by helping each other, spontaneously and as the need arose.

They created a network of cooperative institutions of all kinds: schools, summer camps for children and adults, homes for the aged, health and cultural centers, insurance plans, technical education, housing, credit associations, et cetera. All these, and many other essential services were provided by the people themselves, long before the government monopolized social services wasting untold billions on a top-heavy bureaucratic parasitical apparatus; long before the labor movement was corrupted by "business" unionism.

The impact of these early unions was not limited to their own members. They also fought bureaucracy, racketeering and the class collaboration of the conservative unions, whose leaders were constantly being exposed and were forced to make concessions to the opposition. Over their heads there hung the ever-present threat of "dual unionism."

Erosion of Libertarian Spirit

As these libertarian tendencies evaporated, as the unions became "respectable," many of them became electioneering agencies for political parties. Others became increasingly centralized and, with the crystallization of a bureaucratic crust, the cancer of business unionism took over. Then as a reaction to this, the libertarian tendency again made itself felt. The workers were compelled to establish new organizations that would be more responsive to their needs. For example, it was the failure of the AFL to organize semi and unskilled workers, its capitulation to the employing class and its insistence on creating an aristocracy of skilled workers, which created an artificial division in the ranks of labor and led to the creation of the IWW. In this connection, Mary K. O'Sullivan (who in 1892 became the first woman organizer of the AFL) commenting on the great IWW Lawrence strike in 1912 stresses this point:

. . . Nothing was so conducive to the organization of the IWW as the methods used by the three branches of the AFL . . . Catholics, Jews, Protestants and unbelievers--men and women of many races and languages--were working together as human beings with a common cause. The AFL alone, refused to cooperate . . . as a consequence, the workers came to look upon the Federation as a force almost as dangerous to success of their strike as the employers themselves....

. . . before the strike ended the American Federation of Labor organizations, by openly refusing to give help to anyone who refused to return to work, came to be looked upon as a trap designed in the interests of the mill owners to catch any workers who could be induced to desert their cause....

Notwithstanding their achievements, there is no point in idealizing the rank-and-file as if they were infallible. In addition to the massive opposition of the employers and the state, a great or even greater obstacle to development of revolutionary unionism was the gullibility and apathy of the membership.

"Mother Jones," one of the most selfless, militant figures in the history of American labor dedicated most of her long life (over ninety when she died) to the organization of the miners. She was also one of the founders of the IWW. Her life span covered the most important period in the development of American unionism. In the closing chapter of her auto-biography she sums up her impressions:

. . . as l look back over the long, long years. I see that in all movements for the betterment of men's lives, it is the pioneers who bore most of the suffering. When these movements became popular, when they became established, others reaped the benefits . . . thus it has been with the labor movement . . . many of our modern leaders have wandered far from the thorny path of these early crusaders. Never, in the early days of the labor struggle would you find leaders wining and dining with the aristocracy. The wives of these early leaders took in washing to make ends meet . . . they shared the heroism and privation of their husbands.

. . . the rank-and-file have let their servants become their masters and dictators ... the workers have now to fight their own leaders who betray them, who sell them out, who put their own advancement ahead of the working masses, who make of the rank-and-file political pawns.

The American labor movement as it exists today, is the result of the interaction, over many decades, of business unionism and the revolutionary libertarian tendencies. Its major defects stem from the former and its constructive achievements come from the latter.

To better assess the path that should be followed for regeneration of the labor movement it is necessary to trace, in broad outline, the development of these constructive, potentially revolutionary tendencies.

Revolutionary Tendencies in American Labor: The 1830's

The revolutionary-syndicalistic coloration of the early union is aptly summarized in this passage from Mill's and Montgomery's Organized Labor:

. . .The principle that economic power transcends all other kinds of power found substantiation in the experience of the American workers as well as in socialist theory, and the logical deduction from this principle was the principle of economic methods; while decades of alliances between the wage earners and the [capitalist classes] had engendered the conviction that the workers must have their own distinctive organization, that the fiction of harmony of economic interests with the [employing class] must be sternly rejected. Moreover, organization for economic--not political, or uplift, or broadly humanitarian, or "educational"--action must be spontaneous and voluntary.' (p 76)

The labor historians John R. Commons and Mill's and Montgomery indicate the surprising scope of the movement. In the 1830's a federation composed of local unions into city councils, and the affiliation of various trades into national trade unions was already far advanced. An attempt was even made to federate all labor organizations into "One Big Union." As early as 1833, fifteen trades were federated into city councils (Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and elsewhere). And the local federations repudiated active politics and concentrated their efforts on economic solidarity.

In the 1830's, Thomas Skidmore, a self-educated mechanic and a disciple of Thomas Paine, published a journal, Friend of Equal Rights, and a book, Right of Man to Property. A typical passage reads:

. . . inasmuch as great wealth is an instrument which is uniformly used to extort from others their property, it ought to be taken away from its possessors ... as a sword or pistol may be wrested from a robber....

. . . the steam engine is not injurious to the poor when they can have the benefit of it . . . instead of being looked on as a curse, it could be hailed as a blessing . . . let the poor lay hold of it and make it their own . . . let them also in the same way appropriate the iron foundries, the cotton factories, the rolling mills, houses, churches, ships, goods, steamboats, trades of agriculture: as is their right. . . . (quoted--Philip Foner, History of Labor in the United States, Vol.1, p.169)

Skidmore was not alone in these views. The feeling that not even election of labor candidates would change the situation was widespread. As far back as 1832 the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics and Other Workmen anticipated the IWW industrial union principle of the "One Big Union." Foner declares that the Association " . . . made the first attempt to include all workers in a single association--factory workers, common laborers, and skilled mechanics.... " (p. 105)

Although some groups favored petitions and legislative action, other important groups advocated strike action, including the General Strike. The New England Association, for example, urged the unions to accumulate strike funds. In 1839 a General Strike shut down all New England shoe factories (see Foner, p. 211, 240).

Revolutionary Tendencies: 1840-1860

All interested in this topic should consult Norman Ware's The Industrial Worker: 1840-1860. We itemize his main points and summarize his comments:

  • The labor movement of the 1850s achieved the emancipation of the workers from the tradition of "community of interests between employer and employee."
  • Federated trade unionism was characterized by reliance on economic organizations and trade associations.
  • The experience of American labor preceded and: anticipated socialist theory.
  • Neither benefits nor wages agreements would be considered final. They would not stop short of complete reorganization of the economic system.
  • Labor will no longer sell itself to the capitalists, but become its own employer, to own and enjoy itself the fruits of its labor.
  • The wage system must be abolished and labor will be rescued from the domination of capitalism.

This idea of the antagonistic interests of the workers and their employers was of slow growth. But it is one of the characteristics that divided the workers and their point of view from the bourgeois non radical reformers. It was against their despotism--paternalistic or malevolent--that the industrial workers were in revolt. Ware notes that:

  • . . . the American worker was not actually opposed to machinery. He was opposed to the method of introduction for exploitative purposes, in the hands of a group alien to the producers. For every protest against machine industry, there can be found a hundred against the new power of capitalist production and its discipline . . . like the other workers of the period, the factory operatives--men and women--felt that they were losing something of their dignity and independence . .

    "to find the real spirit of the times, [writes Ware] it is necessary to read the labor papers and resolutions of the newly formed workers organizations.... " From the mass of such material we itemize, a few typical examples:

  • 1845: We see a moneyed aristocracy hanging over us . . . threatening annihilation to every man who dares question their right to oppress the poor and the unfortunate....(The Awl, organ of the Shoemaker's union)
  • 1842 . . . strikers in a mill took possession of the mill in spite of the opposition of their conservative fellows and the Mayor. The striker's wives were the most violent....
  • 1845 . . . prepare and adopt measures . . . to secure the rights and interests of the workers and hasten the accomplishment of the great industrial revolution ... the interests of capital and labor are opposed . . . the profits the capitalists reap from the labor of the workers must belong to the workers . (resolution of the New England Worker's Federation).
  • 1848 . . . those who work in the mills should own them . . .

Precursor of AFL Job Trust Unionism: the 1850s

Mill's and Montgomery deplore the reactionary trend which set-in in the 1850s. They note that there is an impressive difference between the "pure and simple" job trust unionism of the mid-1850s and the unionism of the 1830s and 1840s:

. . . stripped of universal and glowing ideals, without establishing a single labor paper to carry on the appeal to the country, the skilled trades settled down to the cold business of getting more pay for themselves by means of permanent and exclusive organizations . . . here begins the separation from common, unskilled labor, which eventually was to raise the pay of skilled mechanics far above the level of immigrant competition (Organized Labor- Vol.1, p.575-576).

Degeneration of Libertarian Unionism

As indicated in the introduction, the pattern of the labor movement is marked by severe recurrent setbacks of the revolutionary tendency. (After protracted struggles, it re-emerges under another form.)

Lipsit, Trow and Coleman's study, Union Democracy: The Internal Politics of the International Typographical Union (ITU) recapitulated how the libertarian structured rank-and-file unions lost their independence and gradually degenerated into bureaucratic dictatorships. It is worth quoting at length:
. . . in 1850 printers joined together to form a national trades organization The ITU is the oldest national union in USA . . the formation of the national, and later, international [Canadian] organization did not mean the establishment of a powerful central office with power over the local affiliates . . for a long time the union was a loose confederation of cooperating, but wholly autonomous locals . . . which did not require a central office or field staff....

. . . no full time officials were employed during the first thirty years of the ITUÍs existence Each local operated more or less as an independent entity, with international cooperation secured through correspondence and annual conventions . . . the President of the ITU continued to work at his trade and secured a small honorarium (wage) for his services. With few exceptions, the President stepped down after one year terms . . . organization of the new locals was left largely in the hands of the existing locals, which were assigned responsibility for neighboring areas....

. . . but from the beginning of 1884, however, the character of the national union changed drastically . . . the 1884 convention hired fulltime national organizers . . . the official functions and revenues of the ITU increased rapidly since the international officers continually sought greater control over organizing and strikes....

. . . by the first decade of the 20th century, the International Executive Council had the right to appoint an ever growing number of organizers without sanction, and could suspend or otherwise penalize locals who went on strike without permission of the international officers . . . the international officers and representatives were also authorized to take part in collective bargaining, negotiating on all local levels . . . since strikes could only be called with permission of the international officials, the ITU gradually became a virtual dictatorship....

. . . the administration of welfare, union printers homes for the sick in Colorado, old age pensions and mortuary benefits, etc., greatly increased the number of persons on the ITU payroll, and contributed greatly to the increase in the power and the prestige of the ITU officers

. . . the increasing centralization of the ITU was followed by withdrawal from the ITU of thirteen pressmen's locals in 1889, and in the next two decades, the bookbinders, typefounders, and photo engravers also seceded from the ITU.... (p.18,19, 20)

It should be noted also, that the first 1850 convention of the ITU adopted a radical preamble to its constitution which read, in part:

. . . it is useless to disguise the fact that there exists a perpetual antagonism between capital and labor--one striving to sell its labor for as much and the other side for as little as they can....

By 1878, the ITU had deteriorated into a reactionary pro-capitalist "business union." Its president, Bodwell, made this abundantly clear:

. . . the working men desire no division of property or overthrow of the social system . . . printers have no truck with the communist cutthroats. . . .(quoted--Philip Taft, The AFL in the Time of Gompers, p 4)

The history of the ITU actually depicts the tragedy of the American labor movement from its libertarian beginnings to its ultimate degeneration .

Distorting History: The Case of William H. Sylvis and the Moulder's Union

William H. Sylvis (1829-1869) one of the most prominent labor leaders of the Civil War period, despite his sincerity and dedication, does not merit the extravagant praise heaped upon him by Marxist and other authoritarian historians.

The pro-communist labor historian Philip Foner, deifies Sylvis because Sylvis obliterated the United Federation of autonomous locals and reorganized the Iron Moulders' Union into a despotic " ... centralized national organization. . . " The constitutions and by-laws of the local unions " . . . were to be subjected to the authority of the national organization . . . "

Sylvis " . . . fought against outlaw strikes even though MANY LOCAL LEADERS OPPOSED HIM . . . all strikes must be authorized . . . " and locals who disobeyed would get no support from the nationally controlled treasury. Foner notes with evident satisfaction that " . . . no other union had so concerned itself with setting up such a highly knit ... centralized form of organization ... " (my emphasis).

According to Foner, centralization was necessary because the loosely organized federations of locals had to be disciplined by a rigid form of organization. But no one could possibly better refute Foner's arguments that he--unintentionally--does himself, as the following collection of quotes abundantly proves:

. . . it was to LOCAL ASSEMBLIES RATHER THAN THE NATIONAL TRADE UNION that the workers turned for a solution of their problems . . . a strong federation of city center labor and trade bodies grew out of the strike movements ... each trade organized itself.... (my emphasis)

. . . to the TRADE ASSEMBLIES goes the honor of being the organizing centers of the surging union movement during the Civil War . . . [my emphasis] before the end of the war the locals constructed a network extending from New England to California to which many trade and industrial organizations created a feeling of cooperation among workers by aiding any organization on strike....

. . . the Rochester Trades Assembly formed of carpenters, typographers, iron moulders, cutters, and painter's unions, set up an organization committee to help any trade to organize . . . in 1864 the San Francisco Trade Assembly helped the striking iron moulders by going all the way down to the Panama Isthmus to stop strikebreakers....

A good illustration of Foner's authoritarian-statist attitude is his reason for criticizing " . . . the most influential labor paper of the Civil War era Fincher's Trade Review . . . " which he greatly admired:

. . . its great weakness was opposition against political activity on the ground that political action creates a fraternal feeling between two antagonistic classes and restrains the workers from asserting and maintaining the rights so essential to themselves and their families.... (all the above quotations on pgs.346-347,348,350,351)

How Foner, despite his own massive evidence to the contrary could possibly reach diametrically opposite conclusions is primarily due to the inability of Marxists, and Marxist sympathizers to understand organizational forms and the nature of order in society. It is their authoritarian-statist orientation that enmeshes them in massive and insoluble contradictions.

The obsession that centralization--the monopoly of power--is an indispensable form of order is a dangerous illusion. Centralization is an artificial, imposed form of organization, born of the lust for power. Federation is a natural form of organization which emerged gradually, out of the constant daily practice and experience of living together in society. Federalism is born of the ineluctable interdependence of mankind.

Federalism means coordination and self-management through mutual understanding and free agreement. All the groups and associations belonging to the federation, enjoy the benefits of unity while still exercising self-management in their own spheres. Centralization springs from the compulsion to dominate. Federalism, on the contrary, springs from the will and the necessity for harmony and solidarity. Federalism means the organization of freedom in one of his most striking aphorisms, the great social thinker, Proudhon, declared: "He who says 'freedom' without saying at the same time, 'federation,' says nothing."

Revolutionary Tendencies: The 1880s

Professor Paul Brissenden, (The IWW: A Study in American Syndicalism) writes that:

the labor history of the 1870s and especially the 1880s teems with evidence of the radical temper in labor organizations....

The constitutions of scores of unions (and of the AFL itself) reflect, in various degrees, revolutionary tendencies. Thus, the original 1886 constitution of the AFL reads:

. . . Whereas a struggle is going on in all nations of the civilized world between oppressors and oppressed in all countries, a struggle between capitalist and laborer, which grows in intensity from year to year, and will work disastrous results to toiling millions, if they are not combined for mutual protection and benefit....

The Declaration of Principles of the Metal Workers of America

The Declaration of Principles of the Metal Workers of America is most explicit:

... the entire abolition of the present system of society can alone emancipate the workers to be replaced by a new system based on cooperative organization of production in a free society. Our organi-zation should be a school to educate its members for the new con-ditions of the new society when the workers will regulate their own affairs.... (quoted, Justus Ebert's pamphlet, The IWW in Theory and Practice)

Norman Ware notes that:

. . . the reluctance of the labor movement to accept collective bargaining as its major function was largely due to the fact that it involved an acceptance of the wage system.... (Labor Movement in the United States: 1860-1895, p.143)

Willis and Montgomery emphasize that ... failure to recognize the background in socialism of some of the trade union leaders would be to ignore one of the real and vital constituents of unionism in the decades after about 1890. (Organized Labor, p. 59)

AFL leaders Adolph Strasser--a cigarmaker, P.J. McGuire, a founder of the carpenters union, and Samuel Gompers, President of the AFL were, among others, all socialists. In his autobiography, Seventy Years of Life and Work, Gompers recalls how:

. . . the cigar makers in the shops on the east side of Manhattan, developed the practice of designating one of their number to read Marx's Capital or the various other socialist tracts, while the others worked. I he group as a whole, contributing the wages of the reader for the hours lost from work....

The 1880s marked a profusion of spontaneous uprisings of workers for shorter hours, more pay and better working conditions. In the five years between 1881 and 1886, the number of strikers rose from 130,000 to 500,000 and enveloped major industrial centers throughout the whole country. The direct economic action strike movement took on a syndicalistic coloration, thus rendering many workers receptive to revolutionary ideas. Even the Federation of Organized Trades Unions of the United States, (founded 1881) forerunner of the AFL, came to realize that:

. . . economic action would be far more effective than a thousand laws whose execution depends upon the good will of aspiring politicians and psychophantic department heads . . . the workers, in their endeavor to reform the prevailing economic condition must rely on their own power exclusively....

Next page: Revolutionary Tendencies in American Labor - Part 2.