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Mr. Fletcher is President of the TransAfrica Forum, and a longtime activist in the labor movement. He gave the following speech at the 25th Anniversary Conference of Labor Notes, in Detroit, September 12. The conference slogan was “Troublemaking in Troubled Times.”

My hope is to present some lessons from an earlier period in US history, the 1920s and early 1930s in particular, when the working class was facing most difficult challenges. These are questions many of us have been grappling with for years. I became radicalized in high school and entered the labor movement after college, some 25 years ago. At that point too many of us all too often glamorized and romanticized the past rather than truly understood it. The implicit question in looking at the period of the 1920s and early 1930s is this: how was trade union organization able to survive? How was it that in the 1920s the death of organized labor was regularly predicted, but several years later there was nothing short of a labor renaissance with the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the organizing of millions of workers? Answering this question has great relevance to our current situation where the working class, and organized labor in particular, exist in nothing short of a de facto “state of siege.”

Consider, for a moment, some of the features of the 1920s. This was the era of what was referenced as “welfare capitalism.” Unions appeared to be demonstrating themselves to be useless to workers as capitalists advanced various paternalistic schemes.

Labor peace was the watchword. Employee-involvement programs and organizations were created in order to give workers a sense of involvement in the system. By 1929, David Brody reports, industrial disputes involved less than 1/6 the number of workers involved in 1916, and 1/17 the number of those involved in the peak year of 1919. In the 1920s, and contrary to popular wisdom, there was a demonstrable trend of children breaking with their parents and ceasing to identify with the working class in general, and trade unions in particular. Workers were moving further and further from their places of employment. I reference this because we act as if this is a new phenomenon. It has been in the makings for nearly a century.

The 1920s was a period of severe political repression. The infamous Palmer Raids of 1919 led to the jailing and deporting of thousands of anarchists, socialists, communists and other leftists. Much like the activities of Attorney General Ashcroft and the crackdown on alleged terrorists, anyone on the political Left was in jeopardy of imprisonment, irrespective of cause or evidence, with the soon to be incarcerated being led through the streets of Boston like Gallic prisoners following Caesar's chariots. The Garvey Movement, the largest that Black America has ever seen which aimed at Black awareness and a return to Africa, was repressed, eventually leading to the jailing and deportation of Garvey himself. The Industrial Workers of the World, otherwise known as the Wobblies, weakened during World War I due to a massive government crackdown and the arrest of its key leaders resulting from their anti-war stand, was essentially finished off in the early 1920s.

In a phrase, the 1920s represented a period of an offensive of capital. This offensive took various forms, but two important lessons we have to keep in mind is that when capital occupies state power it, by definition, has the advantage. In other words, when those who control the gold rule either directly or indirectly, they are in the driving seat. We are always playing catch up, but this does not mean that we cannot win. We can have no illusions about the situation, however. The so-called "Open Shop Offensive" during the 1920s was aimed at making that point to the working class.

The second lesson is one that is much more difficult for progressive activists to accept. Most workers, and most people for that matter, want social peace. They desire quiet and stability. They are not looking for upsurges, even though an upsurge might alleviate the pain that they feel on a daily basis. Capital offers the illusion of labor/management peace to the worker, at least peace on their terms. This can take the form of the illusion of upward mobility or the myth of rugged individualism. In the 1920s through various schemes associated with welfare capitalism, capital seemed to offer – much as it did in the 1980s and 1990s – a place in the sun for individual workers, at the same time that they were crushing workers and their organizations. The notion of a partnership with capital, and I mean that in a strategic sense rather than a tactical sense as is often found in collective bargaining agreements, is seductive. The 1920s demonstrated that this appeal had a resonance among many workers, particularly those that were fortunate enough to be employed by larger corporations. But it was not only them. The problem that was faced at that time, and which we continue to face, is equally illustrated by the fear many workers have of tax increases on the wealthy, i.e., yes, these are the wealthy today, but…hold on…I might be wealthy tomorrow!  Any illusion, accepted by workers, can become a material obstacle to the development of class consciousness and the blocking of forward motion.

In such an inhospitable world, what could be done? What was done?

Contrary to the wishes of the capitalists, the 1920s was a period of great turbulence. The problem, from the standpoint of progressives, is that this turbulence did not ignite into a mass conflagration. Take, for instance, the Garvey movement. The Universal Negro Improvement Association organized millions of African Americans as well as West Indian immigrants. Yet, the Garvey movement was not, primarily, a confrontational movement. Garvey hoped that he could achieve some sort of detente with white supremacy resulting in the peaceful exodus of African Americans from the USA, returning to Africa. This did not happen, but the experience and organization of the Garvey movement not only laid the foundation for subsequent nationalist movements, but it, as well, provided many of the seeds for pro-CIO organizing that would take place in the 1930s. Some explicitly Black worker organizing did take place in the 1920s and early 1930s through A. Philip Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and through the American Negro Labor Congress, organized at the initiative of the Communist Party.

Organizing took place in the Southwest, particularly among miners. This included the work of IWW affiliates or influenced groups, but it also included work by independent Mexican and Chicano labor unions, in some cases affiliated with labor bodies in Mexico itself. The American Federation of Labor, of course, regularly ignored such workers as un-organizable.

In Hawaii, significant organizing took place led, originally, by the Japanese Federation of Labor and the Filipino Federation of Labor, ethnic-based organizations within Hawaii itself. By 1920 both groups decided that organizing on ethnic lines was problematic and moved to merge into the Hawaii Labor Association.

On the mainland, real possibilities for a breakthrough by progressives took place when long-time radical trade unionist and later Communist Party leader William Z. Foster helped form the Trade Union Educational League. What was particularly interesting about the TUEL was that it was not a separate union or union federation.  Though it had chapters, it was more of a network, at least as we use the term today. In some respects similar to Labor Notes and a group out of the 1980s called the National Rank & File Against Concessions, this organization brought together activists from various AFL unions who were committed to transforming the union movement. It had an explicit program for the renewal of the trade union movement and, for a while, had substantial ties not only within the left wing of labor but as well among more middle or Center forces. Foster's notion of a "militant minority, " at least originally, was not a sectarian notion, but included the possibility for a relationship between the Left and the Center. Unfortunately, for progressives, due to sectarianism on the part of the Communist Party, and an unrealistic assessment of the period, the TUEL isolated itself and lost its effectiveness.

The TUEL underestimated the need for united fronts; overestimated the political consciousness of most AFL workers; underestimated the resiliency of the AFL leaders, regardless of their being decrepit; and, much like many of us to this day, the TUEL failed to acknowledge that reactionary union leaders do have a social base within the memberships of their unions (that is, these leaders are not floating on the surface without some ties to the base). While it is true that the right wing of the AFL did everything that they could to destroy the TUEL and the Left, the TUEL made that job easier through its poor tactics and often misguided strategy. Thus, the late 1920s decision by the CP to essentially abandon work within the AFL in favor of the creation of its own federation, the Trade Union Unity League, was both the logical extension of this sectarianism, but as well the result of active purges by the AFL bureaucracy. Let me hasten to add, that separate and apart from the national efforts, such as the TUEL, there were in this pre-CIO period, locally based initiatives, particularly in the period from 1932-1935. Staughton Lynd calls them forms of alternative unionism, and while I do not necessarily agree with Lynd on his conclusions about the role of these formations, I think that it is critical that we keep in mind that there were a myriad of forms of organization that were taking place in the fight to save trade unionism from oblivion.

If I had more time I would love to have the chance to delve into this period in far more depth. This evening that will not work, so in the interest of time I would like to suggest to you some concrete lessons from the pre-CIO period that we should reflect upon when doing our work in the struggle against capital and reactionary politicians:

  • Social movements are not willed into existence: This is critically important for us to keep in mind. As I mentioned earlier, most people are looking for security and stability. It takes a number of different factors to influence a social eruption.  Social movements, at the scale of what we saw in the 1890s with the Populists and labor movements, 1930s, 1960s/early 1970s, tend to result from the coming together of different influences and different movements. The 1960s was not just the Civil Rights movement, or the anti-Vietnam war movement, but was a series of movements that came to influence one another. It is much like the igniting of an atomic bomb. There has to be critical mass in order for the explosion to take place. That critical mass, when it comes to social movements, may be struggles taking place in different sectors that come to influence one another. Organizing in one sector demonstrates to others that organizing, and success, is possible. Civil Rights organizing influenced anti-war organizing, and the women's movement, which influenced the development of rank & file reform movements in organized labor and ultimately revolutionary caucuses in unions.

  • Mass campaigns are critical as training grounds for activists as well as forces for influencing public opinion: In addition to the Garvey movement, which was not exactly a campaign, there were two significant campaigns initiated by the Left that helped to lay the foundation for the eruptions of the 1930s. The campaign in support of the trade union anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, accused of a murder during a robbery, was a mass campaign that united Italian immigrants, trade unionists, civil libertarians and the Left. While the campaign was unsuccessful in preventing their execution, it was in many respects an earth-shattering experience for those who participated in it, and for the country as a whole. In the early 1930s, the Scottsboro Boys case, which was led by the Communist Party in defense of Black men accused of raping a white woman, played a similar role. I would suggest to you that the Scottsboro case should also be seen as part of the embryonic elements of what came to be known as the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Organization & Vision: I want to make a general point here and another point at the end of my remarks. The general point is that the pre-CIO period was not about the good activity of individuals. Organization, through various forms, was essential. Whether the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Wobblies, the TUEL, the Hawaiian Labor Association, each such organization was not simply a structure, but contained within itself a vision of a different world. In 1985 I had the honor and opportunity to interview Harry Bridges, the legendary founding leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the split-off from the East Coast-based International Longshoremen's Association. My interview was 5 years prior to Bridges' passing. It became very clear to me in listening to him, that what sustained Bridges during the difficult times prior to the 1934 SF General Strike that he led and which shut down San Francisco, was a vision of what could be different, but as well feeling part of an international movement. In some sense I think that one can see this as grounding him at a point when virtually everything in his environment mitigated against success. This grounding for Bridges was in Marxism and his alignment with the Communist Party. Other great leaders and many unknown greats were equally grounded, albeit within any number of groups.
  • The fight for legislation should be an integral part of our struggles, and such victories help to provide us with legitimacy: There has been a debate for years about whether the passing of Section 7 of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, and later the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 ignited a movement or were the results of a movement. I think that the honest answer is both. Clearly, sections of the ruling class aligned with Franklin Roosevelt sought an arrangement with organized labor. Section 7 was part of the deal. It was also the case that the agitation and organizing that had preceded Section 7 made its passing and that of the NLRA, possible. But I would ask you to recall my earlier remarks about consciousness. Section 7 and the NLRA gave legitimacy to the workers' demands for self-organization and collective bargaining. One need only remember that famous FDR quote that many a CIO organizer used where the President said: "If I were to go to work in a factory, the first thing I would do would be to join a union." As my friend, AFSCME Regional Director Jose La Luz reminds us, why could we not get such a quote out of Clinton? What did it mean that the movement could get one from FDR?

  • My final point: Please forgive me if I step on toes or if I go beyond my mandate. It seems to me that many of us who are progressive in the labor movement attempt to construct a strategy for renewal by drawing selectively on lessons from the past. We discuss organizing the unorganized, for instance, and reference the 1930s without acknowledging that the demand or insistence on organizing the unorganized was part of a larger demand or struggle for democracy. The movement in the 1930s was not simply insisting that labor needed to grow, but it connected this growth directly to the need for a broad democratic social movement to combat fascism and to construct a different USA. It also contained the seeds of what came to be the early Civil Rights Movement. This is just as true when it comes to questions of organization. Were it not for the existence of the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the Muste-ites, the Trotskyists, I think that it is fair to say that the sort of labor renaissance that we witnessed would not have taken place. It was not just that the Left provided the best organizers, a point that John L. Lewis was regularly prepared to admit. It was that during the difficult times, organization and vision kept members and supporters going. Strategies were developed, in some cases erroneous, in other cases brilliant, which pointed in the direction forward.

Too many of us today act as if we need no such organization and no such vision. We act as if it is enough to plow away in our fields by ourselves or with a few friends. We act as if the existence of an organized Left, and specifically an organized Left anti-capitalist political party is a nice idea but not particularly essential in order to carry out our tasks. We act as if we expect that spontaneously the dispossessed and oppressed in the USA will somehow come together and unite for social justice, perhaps through the use of Merlin and his magic wand! We act as if we can influence coming generations through force of personality rather than through organization and struggle.

We are missing the mark. What the organized Left brought to the pre-CIO period was not simply trade union strategy but a connection between what was going on in the trade union movement and what was taking place in other movements. The former African Blood Brotherhood, through its merger with the Communist Party, ended up influencing not only the African American movement, but as well the trade union movement. This is only one of countless examples.

Thus, I would suggest to you that in learning the lessons of the pre-CIO period, let us truly learn the lessons. Let us understand that we need more than fighting overtime grievances; more, indeed, than organizing the unorganized. We need a vision of a different USA, and indeed a different world. We need an organized Left which challenges activists to look beyond the borders of the USA and see allies, rather than charity recipients. We need an organized Left that challenges activists to reformulate our strategies such that we incorporate issues of race and gender, not as afterthoughts, but as the kernels of our process. We need, in other words, a Left-wing framework in order to both understand the world, but more importantly, to change it.

Labor Notes describes itself as “the voice of union activists who want to ‘put the movement back in the labor movement.’” The non-profit organization also publishes a magazine of the same name.

Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.



October 2, 2003
Issue 58

is published every Thursday.

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