‘Origin and Structure of the T.U.E.L.’ by James P. Cannon from Trade Unions in America, Little Red Library No. 1. Daily Worker Publishing, Chicago. 1925.

‘Origin and Structure of the T.U.E.L.’ by James P. Cannon from Trade Unions in America, Little Red Library No. 1. Daily Worker Publishing, Chicago. 1925.

FOR the first time in the history of the American labor movement the left wing is acting as an organized body, and is carrying on its work within the trade unions according to a systematic and centrally directed plan. The name of this organization of the left wing is the Trade Union Educational League. It is led by Communists, but it is not strictly a Communist organization since it unites under its banner radical and revolutionary workers of all kinds for the common struggle against the capitalistic bureaucracy which dominates the American trade unions.

There has always been a strong radical element amongst the organized workers of America. Indeed, in the decade prior to 1890 the whole movement was dominated by a militant spirit. The revolutionaries of those days attached themselves to the established trade unions and made their influence felt upon them. The tremendous “eight-hour day movement of that period, accompanied by colossal strikes, fought with great bitterness and militancy, was the fruit of their work. The Chicago anarchists who were hanged in 1887 were trade unionists and the real crime for which they were foully murderers was not bomb throwing, but revolutionary agitation in the labor unions. A study of their literature shows that they were much closer to the present day Communists in their outlook and methods than to the anarchists.

But after 1890, a fundamental error crept into the tactics of the revolutionaries. Revolutionary impatience, combined with a false theory of the trade union movement, gave rise to the idea that the class conscious workers should leave the old conservative trade unions and found an entirely new movement on socialistic principles. The socialist labor party adopted this policy and in 1895 sponsored the organization of the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance, a socialist trade union organization. The I. W. W. founded in 1905, into which the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance was merged, is an embodiment of the same idea. This doctrine of separatism completely dominated all branches of the radical movement until very recently.

These new unions, formed by the enthusiastic militants, did not succeed in replacing the old conservative organizations. On the contrary, their ultimate result was to isolate the class conscious workers from the main body of organized labor, and to leave the old unions to the unchallenged control of the blackest reactionaries. The fact that the trade unions of America today are dominated by men who openly declare their partnership with capitalism and who do not even pretend to stand on the platform of the class struggle can be attributed, in a large measure, to this mistaken policy of the revolutionary workers in the past.

Early Formation of Left Wing.

The break with this tactic dates in reality from the latter part of the year 1921, when the Trade Union Educational League began to develop its activities on a widescale, with the full support of the Communist Party. But years of pioneer effort preceded the flourishing movement of today. As far back as 1911 William Z. Foster returned from a trip to Europe, where he had gone as the delegate of the I. W. W. to the International Trade Union Congress, an ardent convert to the syndicalist principles of the “militant minority,” and began a campaign in the I. W. W. for the new idea. He urged the I. W. W. to transform itself into a propaganda organization and called upon the militants to return to the old unions and fight within them for revolutionary principles. The I. W. W. was then at a very low tide and his arguments found a sympathetic hearing. For a time it appeared possible that the campaign would be crowned with success, but the outbreak of a number of strikes in 1912 and 1913, under the leadership of the I. W. W., gave that body a new lease on life and shattered all prospects of changing its course.


Thereupon, Foster and his supporters withdrew from the I. W. W. and organized the Syndicalist League of North America for the purpose of propagating revolutionary principles among the craft organizations. Some success attended its first efforts, and groups were organized in a number of the principal centers. The work was stimulated by several publications, The Syndicalist in Chicago, The Unionist in St. Louis, The International in San Diego, and The Editor in Kansas City. In the last named city the Syndicalist group soon secured a strong footing and the movement registered in several other places; but eventually it disintegrated. The radical workers could not be won over in large numbers to the idea of working inside the old unions. In a few years the Syndicalist League was only a memory.

With the organization of the International Trade Union Educational League in 1916, another attempt was made to start systematic work for the radicalization of the unions. But it, also, was short-lived. The response of the militants to the new organization was poorer than before, and, after a brief existence, it disappeared.

When the present Trade Union Educational League was first organized in 1920, under the leadership of Comrade Foster, tremendous changes were already at work in the radical movement which were preparing the ground for its success. The Communist Party had entered the field and was enticing the most advanced and energetic militants under its banner. At first the young Communist movement had committed itself to the policy of leaving the old unions and building new ones on revolutionary principles. By the spring of 1920, a minority was fighting for the new policy at the convention of the United Communist Party, but the official policy remained the same. Consequently, the Trade Union Educational League, deprived of the assistance of the Communists; was able to make but little headway during its first year. But the new idea was taking hold in the revolutionary ranks. The lessons of the past mistakes, the influence of the Russian revolution, and the policy of the Communist International and the Red Trade Union International were all combining to bring about a complete change in the attitude of the revolutionists toward the trade unions. By December, 1920, the minority in the United Communist Party had become the majority, and at the Unity Convention in June, 1921, the new policy of working within the established mass unions was unanimously adopted. The categorical stand of the 1921 Congresses of the Comintern and Profintern threw the deciding weight into the scale, and in short time the great majority of the radical workers were won over.

This remarkable change of sentiment blew the breath of life into the Trade Union Educational League, and it immediately became a factor of great importance in the labor movement. Comrade Foster, the master organizer, harnessed the energy of the militants to a program of remarkable practicality and drove it with full speed into the trade union movement. The effect was electrical. The trade unions reacted to the Trade Union Educational League like soil to the plow.

The first big organization campaign began in February, 1922. The method employed to establish the league organizationally was a marvel of comprehensiveness and simplicity; a broad, sweeping movement combined with the most painstaking attention to all technical details. All plans were carefully worked out beforehand, and after the most thorough preparation, circular letters were sent to militant workers in all parts of the country, outlining the aims of the league and giving precise and detailed directions as to how to proceed. The militants in every city were called upon to organize a local group of militant unionists on a given date. The response was magnificent. Branches were set up in all principal unions and industrial centers of the United States and Canada. The organizational base of the league was established at one stroke. In March, 1922, the Labor Herald, monthly official organ of the league, was launched.


The capitalists and their labor lieutenants were not slow to sense the danger of this new organization. Gompers denounced it at once as a diabolical plot of the Russians to break up the American Federation of Labor and overthrow the United States government. He declared Foster to be an agent of Lenin who had been supplied with unlimited funds for the purpose of establishing “a thousand secret agents in a thousand cities.” In the fall of 1922 the United States government struck a blow at the league, raiding the national office and the national conference. The attempt to railroad Foster to the penitentiary in Michigan was a boomerang. The jury disagreed, and the case was utilized to the utmost for propaganda purposes. The reactionaries, thoroughly alarmed, are doing everything they can do against the league and against Comrade Foster. The Amsterdam tactic of expulsions is beginning to be employed in several unions and the slander campaign against Comrade Foster has reached a height unparalleled in the history of the American movement. An attempt to assassinate him was made in 1923 in Chicago, during a severe struggle against expulsions in the garment unions. But it is of no avail. The net result of it all is to draw the militant workers in very great numbers around the league.

Structure of the T. U. E. L.

The organizational structure of the league is similar to that of the “Revolutionary Syndicalist Committees,” which existed in the C. G. T. of France prior to the split but it is not an exact duplicate. In all phases of its work the league has borrowed from all hitherto existing left wing trade union movements in all parts of the world and introduced many new features of its own. The old methods and the new ones are blended together into a unified plan to fit the American situation. The league is characterized by a great flexibility of form and method and it is constantly adjusting itself to meet new problems. It has out-maneuvered the reactionaries at every turn so far; mobilizing the full force of the militants for every fight and extracting the utmost advantage from every situation.

In its form of organization, the league represents a bloc of all progressive and militant workers in the unions who are willing to join in the common fight for the betterment of the unions and the overthrow of the Gompers’ machine. It is bringing together the trade union militants of almost every faction of the left wing. The report of its First National Conference shows that there were present as delegates members of the Communist Party, farmer-labor party, socialist party, proletarian party, syndicalists, anarchists, and honest trade unionists unaffiliated to any faction. The leadership is in the hands of the Communists, but this is only because they have as a rule shown the most ability and energy. In many localities the Communists are a minority, and in some places flourishing branches of the league exist where there is as yet no Communist Party organization at all; experience has shown, however, that the leading spirits everywhere gravitate more and more toward the Workers (Communist) Party. The socialists have recently shown a disposition to withdraw from the league and join the fight against it. This is not because the league has narrowed its basis, but because the socialist party is turning more to the right and has ceased to offer any opposition to Gompers. Some of the most bitter struggles of the league are being waged today in the socialist-controlled needle trades union. Of course, as a militant organization, it does not want the affiliation of reactionaries who merely wear a socialist mask. But the fundamental basis of the league is the unification of all honest opposition elements on a broad program.

The local organization of the league has two forms: the general group and the industrial groups. All the members of the league in a given locality, regardless of the union they belong to, are brought together in the Local General Group. This group has general supervision of the propaganda work, it arranges public meetings co-ordinates the activities of the various units and stimulates the formation of new ones. The Local Industrial Group consists of trade union members belonging to unions in the same industry, such as the building trades workers, the metal workers, etc. The work of this group is more specific. Its task is to organize all the revolutionary and progressive forces within the given industry for the practical fight in the unions, on questions which specifically relate to their unions, as well as for the general slogans of the league. League members in each separate union are naturally organized into a nucleus and carry or a systematic and intensive work within it. These nuclei are formed in all unions, independent as well as A. F. of L.

The Local Industrial Groups are united in the National Industrial Conference. In most of the principal industries already National Industrial Conferences have been held to which have come the delegates from the, Local Industrial Groups. The National Industrial Conference plays a role of great importance in the unions of each industry. It unites the movement in the entire industry and gives a lead to its work. It studies the needs and weaknesses of the unions in the industry and lays down a detailed and specific program to improve the situation. The National Industrial Conference binds the movement together on a national scale and coordinates the activities of the various unions and the various localities. It also elects a national committee which directs the national campaign between conferences.

While the league is based exclusively on the unions and, in its main organization, parallels their national structure, it has also, in order to facilitate its work, four geographical subdivisions. They comprise the eastern states, the central states, the western states and Canada. Each of these districts is in charge of a special district organizer who keeps in constant touch with various units in his district and co-ordinates their work.

The whole movement is welded together into one national body by the general conference, which is held at intervals of a year and a half, and to which all the affiliated local groups are entitled to send delegates. This general conference surveys the whole field and gives a general direction to the national movement. It considers all problems of a general nature and adopts a policy in regard to them. It crystallizes the experience of the year and puts it into the form of resolutions for the guidance of the militants. The general conference undertakes to answer every question and deal with every problem confronting the left wing movement. It also elects the national committee of seven members, one of whom is the national secretary.

The league has mastered the problem of realistic revolutionary work, steering clear of sectarianism as well as opportunism. It combines a frankly revolutionary program and a devoted adherence to the Red International of Labor Unions with energetic and practical campaigns on issues of immediate concern to the trade unions. The American labor movement, except for the Canadian section, has developed to the point where the question of affiliation to the Red International can be made the big immediate fighting issue, but, in spite of this, the league, by a steady propaganda, has succeeded in making its principles known to large numbers of workers and in winning their support. The official labor movement is too conservative even for Amsterdam, but the Trade Union Educational League is inspired by the spirit of Moscow. The revolutionary goal runs like a red thread through all the concrete practical activity of the league.

Trade Unions in America by William Z. Foster, James P. Cannon, and Earl R. Browder. Little Red Library No. 1. Daily Worker Publishing, 1925.

A classic Communist Party Trade Union Educational League text by three historic leaders, comrades, and fierce rivals, of US Communism. By 1925, the three together had an enormous amount of experience, and talent, as leaders of the workers’ movement.

Contents: The American Trade Unions by Foster) Membership of Unions, Composition of the Working Class, Structure of Unions, Miscellaneous Features, Origin and Structure of the TUEL by Cannon) Structure of the TUEL, What the Left Has Accomplished by Browder) Economic Conditions of the Period, Officials Betrayed the Labor Movement, The Rise of the Left-Wing Movement, The Sweep of Amalgamation, The Railroad Amalgamation Movement, The Labor Party Campaign, The Bureaucrats Resort to Expulsions, The Progressive Miners, Trade Union Elections, The Red International of Labor Unions, The Pan-American Left Wing. 36 pages.

The Little Red Library was a series of eleven pamphlets published by the Workers (Communist) Party of America in the mid-1920s by the Daily Worker Publishing Company in Chicago.

For a PDF of the full volume: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/lrlibrary/01-LRL-tu.pdf

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