‘The Left Wing Movement in the American Labor Unions’ by Arne Swabeck from International Press Correspondence Vol. 2 No. 79. September 15, 1922.

Arne Swabeck, in 1922 U.S. delegate to the Communist International’s Executive Committee, reports on the founding of the Trade Union Educational League andsurveys the situation of labor in the changed post-war United States; repression, the stagnation of the A.F. of L., the waning of the I.W.W., disunited oppositions. With images from the T.U.E.L.’s ‘Labor Defender.’

‘The Left Wing Movement in the American Labor Unions’ by Arne Swabeck from International Press Correspondence Vol. 2 No. 79. September 15, 1922.

Until very recently the American labor unions have not produced an opposition left wing movement in the sense in which this is known to the European countries, i.e., of two or more organized camps with definite programs struggling for supremacy within the unions. Many attempts to give expression to certain ideas or methods of struggle against the powerfully organized exploiters, through the establishment of such movements, more, or less definite and conscious, as well as progressive or revolutionary in character, have been made in the past. However, due to inefficient leadership, wrong methods, or lack of a fundamental understanding of the natural evolution of labor Unions, they have all failed to accomplish their progressive tendencies which have not as yet become crystalized into a definite movement, they have been localized to certain trades or trade groups. All have lacked the necessary unifying force, and the only ones of any consequence, manifesting a revolutionary tendency, have led outside of the unions. Thus the best elements were withdrawn from their active work in the unions, and the organized masses left completely in the hands of the reactionaries; the result being stagnation and utter backwardness – numerically, structurally, and politically.

With the advent of the Trade Union Educational League, a comprehensive, concrete, revolutionary program with a definite goal, embracing the whole labor movement, has for the first time been furnished the left wing militant elements within the American labor unions. This movement, being in its first formative stage, has not as vet reached the point of a definite opposition. It is rather the beginning of a crystalization of all the scattered militants into an organized movement based upon the program of the Red International of Labor Unions applied to American conditions. Analyzing all the weaknesses of the present organizations, tracing their origin and cause, and offering concrete solutions by way of better forms of organization and better methods of struggle, the Trade Union Educational League is leading the unions directly toward their historical goal, the establishment of working class power. It has already, to a certain extent, succeeded in invigorating the old stagnant unions, in inspiring their members with a new hope, and in giving conscious leadership to the militant, latent forces among the American workers. It commands today a considerable following and has greatly alarmed the reactionary labor union bureaucracy which regards all new progressive movements with fear of losing its job.

Various Opposition Movements

However, it would not be amiss at this point to first briefly mention the various opposition tendencies within the American labor unions. Beginning with the most conservative, the American Federation of Labor, it sometimes occurs, that at its regular conventions, an opposition candidate for the presidency is put forward, as for instance in 1921, when John L. Lewis, president of the Miners’ Union, opposed Gompers, and polled nearly 40 per cent of the total vote cast. A victory for Lewis would not have meant a change in policy; the one being as reactionary as the other. It was merely a case of an official crew belonging to the Knights of Columbus, picking an opposition candidate to Gompers, the Jew.

Government ownership movements of various shades have appeared within the American labor unions and gained a considerable following, especially among the railroad workers. At the Montreal convention of the A.F. of L., in 1920, the Plumb Plan, some sort of a combined government ownership and guild system, with joint control of industries, but providing for the division of the population into so many categories that the workers would always remain in a safe minority, was indorsed, much to the disgust of Sam. Gompers, without any definite plan being proposed for its being carried into effect however. Now this movement has been replaced by a movement for political action by the workers. Although it would be preposterous to say that the official families of any of the American labor unions clearly recognize that the class struggle rages on the political field as well as on the industrial field, a tendency is noticeable which recognizes the necessity of the organized workers to get away from the position of having their cause become a football for every political crook. This tendency, of course clashes with the Gompers policy of “punishing your enemies and rewarding your friends” among the capitalist parties. This policy of independent political action by the organized workers has been indorsed by most of the important railroad unions and others. But so far none of them have shown enough backbone to stand up and work for its actual materialization. The much heralded political Progressive Conference, held in Chicago, in February 1922, at which the leaders of many large unions took part unofficially, produced little outside of a nice declaration and the acceptance of a general “hands off” policy which was readily indorsed by the A.F. of L. Executive Council.

The Howat opposition within the Miners’ Union, which gained considerable momentum at the last convention of this organization, came as a result of Howat’s valiant fight against the loathsome Industrial Court Law, in the state of Kansas, and the consequent clash with the tendency represented by Lewis, to respect the sacred contract, no matter what misery it brings upon the workers, even to submit to this infamous law. Although it was no conscious opposition with a definite program, Howat gained the support of the overwhelming majority of the rank and file, as he represented their rebellious spirit, and Lewis was compelled to resort to the lowest kind of machine manipulation to defeat him at that convention. However, Howat went to jail and Lewis remained in control.

Two opposition movements which have been confined to their particular trade groups are the progressive opposition within the typographical unions which has now gained control of the largest organization within that industry, and the Shop Delegates League within the needle trade unions, mostly organized in the East and active in the International Ladies Garment Workers. At the last convention of this union the opposition was represented by about one third of the delegates but they were led by anarchists who followed the usual policy of hitting blindly at the opponents. They failed to produce any unifying program or concrete progressive measures that could have enlisted a following, and were caught by the official steam roller. Now the Shop Delegate League is being absorbed by the Trade Union Educational League.

Dual Union Movements

Of the opposition movements, which were really inspired by a conscious rebellion against the dominant reaction, but led to the sadly mistaken policy of seceding from the existing unions and the forming of new dual unions, must be mentioned the I.W.W. with a present membership of about 35,000, scattered throughout the country in various industries; the W.I.L.U. which has now dwindled to a few hundred members. The O.B.U., with a few scattered members in various parts of the country; the Amalgamated Metal Workers, with a few thousand members only, in the Eastern part of the country; the Amalgamated Food Workers, with about 15,000 members in the East and Middle West. The Rank and File movement, composed mainly of building trades workers in San Francisco, California, led to the formation of a dual organization which is now rapidly being dissolved and reaffiliated with the old unions.

In a second category should perhaps be put the shoe and textile workers; the former industry having 4 organizations, of which the oldest, the Boot and Shoe Worker’s Union is affiliated with the A.F. of L. and claims a membership of 40,000; the United Shoe Workers, claiming 30,000; the Protective Shoe Workers, 25,000, and the Allied Shoe Workers, 20,000. Between the latter three, unity conferences have been held which at that time showed a fair prospect of success. In the textile industry there are at present at least 15 different organisations, with a total membership of about 125,000.

The Amalgamated Clothing Workers, although it originated as a secession movement from the United Garment Workers, due to the fact that the great majority of the members were denied a voice in the affairs of the union, has now, through the aggressive, militant spirit of its membership, succeeded in organizing practically the whole of the men’s clothing industry, and counts today a membership of about 175,000.

R.I.L.U. conference.

At its last convention, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers took a very progressive stand in favoring amalgamation of all needle trades into one organization, favoring the shop delegate system of organization, starting a million dollar corporation for a reconstruction project in Soviet Russia, and adopting a resolution indorsing the United Front of labor as proposed by the R.I.L.U.

With the organization of the United Labor Council in New York City, composed of independent dual unions from various industries, with a total membership of 25,000, another bad repetition has been recorded of many like attempts in the past history of the American labor union movement, while several organizations, claiming jurisdiction over the whole industrial field, amalgamated, either for the purpose of creating a brand new labor union movement, or at least an opposition to the existing one. Although the membership generally accepts the leadership of the R.I.L.U., the United Labor Council can exist only by expanding at the expense of the existing unions and therefore it is doomed to failure.

Dual Unionism Being Discarded

The influence of all the present dual unions and their importance in the class struggle is waning, and their membership is dwindling rapidly. Although they have all preached the principle of solidarity, in actual practice they have demonstrated the contrary and have definitely proven the failure of such tactics. Their dual position forced them into a constant fight with the already established unions, not with the reactionary leaders who held these unions in stagnation and whom they had originally opposed, but with the organizations as a whole. The militants are rapidly being cured of this disease, and getting down to the hard and earnest work of building a force capable of leading the unions out of their present mire.

The Dominant Reaction

Samuel Gompers has not remained idle during his long incumbency in the presidential office of the A.F. of L. He has used his great organization talents to build up a formidable machine control, which is copied by all the international union district, city and state bodies, and reflected in the local unions. His power is greater than his popularity among the organized workers, and his lieutenants are loyal and highly skilled in the art of defeating the aspirations of the rank and file. Antiquated constitutional clauses were some of the great hindrances of the past, which the militants are now beginning to learn how io overcome. At conventions where such clauses are changed, a well-oiled machine is at work.

At the annual A.F. of L. conventions, delegates often remain in that position for a number of years due to the fact that their particular organizations seldom hold conventions to elect new delegates, and all vote by plurality of their organizations.

While stagnation and reaction hold sway in the American labor union movement, many of the greatest industries remain practically unorganized, as for instance the agricultural, steel, automobile, lumber, big business houses, department stores, the southern plantations, many manufacturing plants and the packing house industry where the organizations are shot to pieces. The main reasons for this are the incompetence of the leadership of the present unions, and their antiquated form of organization based upon craft monopoly among the aristocracy of labor and having little interest in the unorganized fields. The tremendous and aggressive opposition of the well-organized capitalist class, meets labor organization attempts with court injunctions, gunmen, police and military force.

The A.F. of L. has suffered a great loss of membership during the past year. At the 1921 convention it reported a membership of 3,906,528, and in 1922, 3,165,635. The reason must largely be sought in the aggressive and comparatively successful “open shop” drive carried on by the employers, and in the general retreat of the unions, with heavy wage cuts and lengthening of working-hours. The A.F. of L. is composed of a11 autonomous trade unions and a large number of federal unions, including its Canadian affiliations. In addition to the independent unions already mentioned, there are the four independent railway brotherhoods with a total membership of about 400,000.

A New Vigorous Movement

Into this chaos of labor unionism steps the Trade Union Educational League with a program of unification and consolidation of the badly scattered and badly beaten forces of the working class. into a compact mass, capable of coping with the forces of capitalism. Comparatively young, the first unit being organized in 1920, but the real activities not begun before March 1922, when the first issue of the Labor Herald was published, it has established a history which brings the hearts of the militants to beat with enthusiasm, and has forced Gompers to go out of his way to make alliances with the politicians of the decrepit Socialist Party which he formerly held in contempt. The Labor Herald had reached, in August, a circulation of 12,000, and the active membership of the League the same figure. It has established units in 120 different cities throughout the country; the method being, first to establish general groups and then to make the industrial subdivisions.

The Trade Union Educational League has become an active and much adored as well as much feared factor within the American trade union movement. Its program of amalgamation of the present trade unions into industrial unions is being generally accepted by a very large percentage of the rank and file members of these unions, and it has formulated definite, detailed, plans of amalgamation for the various industries.

The trend toward a better form of organization and better methods of struggle is permeating the whole labor movement. Some of the most important city central bodies have gone on record for the amalgamation plans advanced by the League. Four important railroad workers’ organizations have decided to amalgamate into two, and within the needle trades an especially strong amalgamation movement has been set on foot. At the last presidential election in the machinists’ organization, which is conducted by referendum vote, the candidate standing sparely upon the program advanced by the Trade Union Educational League polled more than one third of the total votes cast.

The time of submissive retreat has come to a close in The United States; the organized workers are now offering active insistence to the vicious attacks of capitalism. This the recent great struggles prove. Following the lead of this new left wing movement, the organized masses are beginning to discard all useless weapons, and seek new and better ones – weapons that will bring victory.

Arne Swabeck.

International Press Correspondence, widely known as”Inprecor” was published by the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) regularly in German and English, occasionally in many other languages, beginning in 1921 and lasting in English until 1938. Inprecor’s role was to supply translated articles to the English-speaking press of the International from the Comintern’s different sections, as well as news and statements from the ECCI. Many ‘Daily Worker’ and ‘Communist’ articles originated in Inprecor, and it also published articles by American comrades for use in other countries. It was published at least weekly, and often thrice weekly. A major contributor to the Communist press in the U.S., Inprecor is an invaluable English-language source on the history of the Communist International and its sections.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/inprecor/1922/v02n079-sep-15-1922-Inprecor.pdf

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