William Z. Foster with a look at what remains a central obstacle to working class organizing, the problems of solidarity. With sections on Skilled and Unskilled, American and Foreign-Born, Whites and Blacks, Unemployed and Employed, and Religious Prejudice from the 1926 T.U.E.L. pamphlet ‘Strike Strategy.’.
‘Problems of Solidarity’ by William Z. Foster from Strike Strategy. Labor Herald Library, No. 18. 1926.
A FIRST consideration in strike strategy is the development of unity and solidarity among the workers involved in a given action against the employers. Potentially the workers constitute a tremendous force. The 26,000,000 or more organizable workers, when once united, will be irresistible. They will eventually sweep away the capitalist system.
But the obstacles to this unity are many and deep-seated. It is more than a problem of simply bringing the masses into the unions and strikes. There are fundamental divisions in the ranks of the workers themselves that have to be overcome. The working class is far from being a homogeneous mass. It is divided against itself in regard to race, nationality, color, creed, age, sex, skill, etc.
The differences among the workers in these matters are of themselves great obstacles to the complete unification of the working class in its struggles against the employers. But the problem is still further complicated and rendered more difficult because the employers have learned skillfully to play upon these differences and to split up the workers disastrously on the basis of them.
Moreover, the employers are ably assisted in this policy by the reactionary trade union bureaucracy, who divide the workers’ ranks by cultivating craft interests, betraying the unskilled, playing one nationality off against another, excluding from the unions Negroes, young workers, and women, etc. All these tendencies are fatal to success in strikes.
Our strike strategy must be skilled in checking and counteracting all such splitting tendencies and in uniting the workers, in spite of race, creed, color, nationality, skill, etc., into one unbreakable proletarian mass. To do this we must, briefly stated, have a three-phased policy, as follows:
(1) Education; we must carry on an intensive educational propaganda among the strikers or prospective strikers to acquaint and convince them of their common interests and to infuse them with a fighting solidarity against the employers. (2) Organization; we must insist upon a labor organization broad enough to take into its folds all the various working class elements involved in the struggle. (3) We must have a policy in the struggle which protests the interest of all these elements and which does not allow of any of them being sacrificed for the benefit of the others.
Skilled and Unskilled.
Employers are widely awake to the tremendous advantage to them of playing off the skilled workers against the unskilled. Especially during these days of a flourishing American Imperialism, when they are flush with super-profits wrung from exploited peoples all over the world, are they able and willing to bribe the skilled workers with a few concessions in order to have them betray the unskilled.
The reactionary labor leaders are willing tools in furthering this employer strategy. Indeed, their traditional policy is to support the interests of the skilled labor aristocracy at the expense of the great masses of unskilled. This is their program before, during, and after strikes. They refuse to organize the unskilled; they refuse to support their demands in strikes; they systematically sell them out at the settlement conference table to the advantage of the skilled workers. Such an organized system of betrayal is the very essence of craft unionism. The left wing, on the other hand, must base its main strategy upon the unskilled and semi-skilled.
This betrayal of the unskilled by the skilled (and of one group of skilled workers by another) is an ever-present and menacing danger at all stages of a strike struggle. It must be combatted by applying the above-stated three-phased policy of education, organization, and a defense of common interests.
The skilled workers must be taught the utter folly of their short-sighted policy, for the history of the American labor movement goes to show that this policy in the long run also sacrifices the interests of the skilled workers. They must be shown their identity of interests with the unskilled. The masses of unskilled must be brought into the unions in spite of the opposition of the right wing bureaucrats. Their interests must be loyally defended.
The demands of the strikers must fit the needs of all groups, and this must be adhered to at all costs. Uniting the skilled and unskilled workers, under present conditions in American industry, into an unbreakable unit of strikers is one of the greatest tasks of our strike strategy. But it must and can be accomplished by systematic application of the foregoing principles.
American and Foreign-Born.
To unite the many nationalities employed in American industry, with their maze of different languages, religions, national prejudices, etc., into a solid, rebellious proletarian mass, constitutes a major problem in strike strategy. The most difficult phase of it is to unite the American-born workers with those who are foreign-born. (For practical purposes we will state the problem thus although, to be more accurate, it is to unite the Americans and the foreign-born workers of the earlier immigrations with those workers of the later immigrations).
The Americans are mostly skilled workers. They commonly hold the best jobs and are favored in many ways by the employers. They are the element most bribed by imperialism. They are hard to organize. They strike badly and they scab easily. Their role in the struggles in the basic unorganized industries has been to shamelessly betray the militant foreign-born workers. This is the history of many great strikes in the textile, rubber, steel, packing, and other industries.
The Americans rationalize their class treason by a nationalistic contempt for the foreign-born, by charges that the latter are maneuvering to get the Americans’ jobs, etc. The employers do all possible to intensify this nationalistic scabbery, and the ultra-patriotic trade union bureaucrats feed its chauvinistic maw.
This grave problem is a diminishing quantity. The barriers between the foreign-born and native workers are breaking down. Immigration is practically shut off and few new foreign-born workers are coming into the industries. Those there now are learning the language and winning their way to the skilled jobs. In many cases Americans are entering the industries en masse as unskilled workers. Still more important, the children of the immigrants are growing up and going into the industries. Thoroughly Americanized, they are a real bridge between the American and foreign-born workers.
But the problem is still an exceedingly difficult one. It must be boldly met and solved. Educational propaganda and a loyal defense of the economic interests of the various language groups are the foundations of a successful policy. While adopting every technical device for meeting the special needs and difficulties of the respective nationalities among the strikers, such as language speakers and publicity, nationalistic demagogy must be ruthlessly eliminated and the whole strike shot through with a true spirit of internationalism capable of shattering all national antipathies and prejudices and of uniting the strikers into an ideological whole so far as the strike aims are concerned.
The splendid international spirit of the Lawrence, Paterson, Passaic, and many other strikes conducted by the left wing show that the language and nationality difficulties can be overcome.
The strike strategist must especially understand the role of the young workers in great struggles in present-day American industry. As stated above, they are the bridges between the American and foreign-born workers. They are destined to play a continually more important role in mass strikes. In the strikes of the Passaic textile workers and the New York furriers they were the deciding factor. A successful strike strategy must include the systematic development of the youth. as strike leaders.
Whites and Blacks.
The unification of the Negroes and white workers into common struggles against their employers is an urgent task of our strike strategy. The Negro workers are a growing factor in the industries. In the packing industry they are a decisive element, and they are fast becoming so in many other industries.
The policy of the employers is to develop the Negroes as a great reserve army of strikebreakers. They refuse to give the Negroes employment in many industries and trades unless they come in as strikebreakers. They force them to accept the lowest wages and the most terrible working conditions. They leave no stone unturned to exploit the deep race antagonism between whites and blacks in order to force the Negro to scab. And in many great strikes, such as for example the 1919 steel strike, where at least 50,000 Negroes were brought into the mills during the strike, they are only too successful.
The Negro intellectuals work hand in hand with the employers in carrying out this policy. So do the reactionary trade union leaders. Their policy of excluding Negroes from the unions, of barring their advance to better jobs in industry, and of generally feeding the race prejudices of the whites, dovetails exactly with the aim of the employers to drive the Negro worker into scabbery.
This program of the employers, the strike strategist must relentlessly combat. At all costs the Negro workers must be united with the whites to make common cause against the exploiters. But this can only be accomplished by complete suppression of race antagonism in the trade unions and by a loyal defense of the Negro workers’ interests. This is easier said than done.
The whites are stubborn in their prejudices, and it is not surprising that, after innumerable betrayals by reactionary trade union leaders and in view of the oppression they suffer from the whites on all sides, the Negro workers are suspicious of even the most sincere white union leaders and slow to hearken to their words. But this is no insuperable obstacle. More and more the Negro workers are realizing the necessity for trade union organization. The formation recently of the Brotherhood of Railway Porters is only one sign of many. Negroes are splendid strikers, as has been demonstrated time and again in the Miners’ and other unions where the whites have given them half a chance to function as unionists. When the white unions refuse to admit Negroes separate organizations must be built for them.
The problem of uniting them firmly with the white workers will never be accomplished until they are admitted freely to all the unions, until the organized white workers remove every bar against their securing the better grades of work, until they are wholeheartedly received by the white workers as loyal proletarian comrades in the great struggle for working class emancipation. The strike strategist must never lose sight of the problem of the Negro worker in American industry.
Unemployed and Employed.
The question of the unity of the unemployed with the employed, especially during periods of deep industrial depression, is a matter of the most vital consequence in the working out of a successful strike strategy. The policy of the employers in this respect is simple and brutal. They try to drive a wedge between the unemployed and the employed, to make the unemployed a hunger-driven mass ready to take the jobs of the employed when they venture to strike in defense of their standards of living.
As usual, the reactionary trade union leaders, with their traditional policy of abandoning the unemployed to their own devices, assist the employers in using them as a weapon against the employed workers. Many a strike has been lost from this cause.
A task of the strike strategist is to unite the unemployed and the employed in a common fight against the employers. But as in the case of so many problems of strike strategy, work on the solution of this task must be started long before the outbreak of a particular strike, and even before the growth of the industrial crisis produces its vast army of unemployed. It must be a settled policy in the unions to identify the interests of the employed with those of the unemployed. There must be a whole series of measures fought for, such as the shorter work-day and work-week, equal division of work, etc., which tends to eliminate the number of unemployed.
The unions must never drop the fight for state relief for the unemployed. And when the industrial crisis comes and mass unemployment develops, the unemployed must be organized to fight for relief. Their organization must be saturated with a no-scab ideology. The trade unions must stay in the closest co-operation with these organizations of the unemployed, joining in their demonstrations and fighting for their demands.
In Great Britain it has been demonstrated how, by the use of this policy, the fight of the unemployed can be linked up with that of the employed, the army of unemployed made “blackleg proof,” and the employers thus robbed of this great weapon in the class struggle. American strike strategists must not neglect to learn this valuable lesson.
True to their policy of leaving no means unused to divide the workers and array them against each other, the employers make free use of the religious differences amongst their employes. They play off Catholic against Protestant, Jew against Gentile. This seldom leads to actual strikebreaking but it always weakens the workers’ forces. The reactionary labor leaders actively assist the employers in these machinations. Ku Klux Klanners and Knights of Columbus, they carry their quarrels into the unions. The willingness of the trade union leaders to further the policies of the employers and the various churches is a chief reason why separate unions along religious lines have never been formed in this country.
The employers use not only the religious antagonisms among the workers to divide them, but they also use the church as a whole against them. In all serious strikes these institutions will be found fighting the strikers in some form or other. The churches are most dangerous when they take a “neutral” or even “friendly” attitude. It is then difficult to make the workers see through their schemes to assist the employers. But when the churches come out squarely against a strike, as they often do, then even the most religious immigrant workers will rebel against them. Many strikes have demonstrated this. In its strikes the left wing must learn to sound such a militant note of solidarity that the unity of the workers rises superior to all religious considerations, whether these are presented under “benevolent” or “hostile” aspects.’
The Labor Herald was the monthly publication of the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL), in immensely important link between the IWW of the 1910s and the CIO of the 1930s. It was begun by veteran labor organizer and Communist leader William Z. Foster in 1920 as an attempt to unite militants within various unions while continuing the industrial unionism tradition of the IWW, though it was opposed to “dual unionism” and favored the formation of a Labor Party. Although it would become financially supported by the Communist International and Communist Party of America, it remained autonomous, was a network and not a membership organization, and included many radicals outside the Communist Party. In 1924 Labor Herald was folded into Workers Monthly, an explicitly Party organ and in 1927 ‘Labor Unity’ became the organ of a now CP dominated TUEL. In 1929 and the turn towards Red Unions in the Third Period, TUEL was wound up and replaced by the Trade Union Unity League, a section of the Red International of Labor Unions (Profitern) and continued to publish Labor Unity until 1935.
Link to PDF of full pamphlet: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/tuel/18-Strike%20Strategy.pdf