‘Seattle’s Shop Steward Movement’ by Walker C. Smith from The Voice of Labor (New York). Vol. 1 No. 3. May 1, 1920.

Workers leaving the ship yards during the general strike.

A bellwether for a class in motion, shop steward movements often accompany rising struggle and consciousness. And rarely in U.S. history was our class in motion like it was in Seattle in 1919. The sharp end of the stick, this fascinating article written by veteran wobbly Walker Conger Smith for the Communist Labor Party’s paper details the workings of the movement just after the general strike. We need to bring this back.

‘Seattle’s Shop Steward Movement’ by Walker C. Smith from The Voice of Labor (New York). Vol. 1 No. 3. May 1, 1920.

WHILE the whole labor movement of Seattle appeared to have been torn with dissension over the question of industrial unionism, or the less clearly defined idea of One Big Union, a development along constructive though not so spectacular lines has proceeded beneath the turmoil. Advocates of the Shop Steward System have pushed their ideas to the front by addressing themselves directly to the workers in the unions.

Where shop stewards already exist the campaign has been to democratize them by instituting direct election from the rank and file, and to strengthen them by adding to their number so as to have each steward responsible for a smaller number of men. Where stewards have been merely for the purpose of collecting dues, seeing that no one in bad standing k could work on a job, and taking applications for membership, there has been a strong effort to have these men take up and adjust the minor grievances of the workers in their respective shops. In all cases the advocates of the movement have emphasized the necessity for industrial unionism and for an understanding of Socialist economics.

All of this has involved various compromises and deviations from the Shop Steward System as it is theorized, but the issue has kept fairly clear on the most vital points. Election by the men themselves regardless of grades of skill in a shop, one steward to represent from 12 to 25 men and no more, adjustment of all grievances peculiar to a shop by action confined to that shop, frequent committee meetings of shop stewards within a plant or industry, and regular meetings of shop stewards of each craft throughout the city, have been the points emphasized.

A Real Shop Steward Movement

Perhaps the cleanest cut example of the Shop Steward System in Seattle is to be found in the Journey- man Tailors’ Union. The reasons are plain. The movement has encountered no opposition from either International or local officials, the union has declared for and is striving toward and industrial form, the local membership is nearly 100 per cent class conscious and is far above the average in intelligence, and the Shop Steward System was set down almost complete within the framework of the union, without the necessity of a compromise with any existing system of representation. Here is a sketch of the system as it exists now, a little more than three months since its introduction.

The union has a membership of about 1,000 distributed in 75 to 80 shops with from 5 to 40 workers employed in each shop. Every shop in the city is thoroughly organized. There is now one steward to each shop who represents alike the skilled, semi-skilled and apprentices, and who is elected by a joint meeting of all employees. In addition to this there is a general grievance committee composed of five stewards elected at the regular fortnightly meeting of all tailor shop stewards in the city.

The initial meetings for the election of shop stewards were called by the business agent of the anion, who went to each shop and announced that on a certain date every employee was to be present in the office of the union. At the meeting of each shop group the business agent explained the workings of the Shop Steward System, but beyond a recommendation that the shop steward be a person possessing both the ability and the courage to meet the foreman or employer on any issue that might arise, he took no part in the elections. Nearly one-fourth of tailors’ shop stewards are women.

What a Shop Steward Does

Decision on any action to be taken is made by the workers, whereupon the shop steward must carry out their wishes or be subjected to immediate recall. Adjustment of local grievances within a shop, if not made at once, is taken up at a meeting directly after working hours, or in extreme cases by a meeting on the job. Failing of an adjustment, appeal is made to the grievance committee of five, by whose decision the foreman or employer must abide or face a walk-out; and should the aggrieved workers dissent they can appeal to the stewards as a whole or the Union direct.

In addition to adjusting grievances the duties of a shop steward are to see that all union regulations are complied with, to initiate new members in an emergency, or otherwise to present their applications to the earliest union meeting; and to collect dues. Stewards from the tailors receive the pay checks of the workers in each shop, and after examining them to see that there is no shortage they pass them to the workers whom they represent. By this means the steward makes sure the apprentices are paid according to grade r and the union is also able to enforce its rule that no more than four hours of overtime shall be worked in any one week.

Workers feeding workers during the general strike.

Additional power has come to the tailors by reason of the Shop Steward System. After a worker has been employed for two weeks the employer cannot discharge him except by the joint consent of the grievance committee and the affected workers in a shop. Layoff of workers on account of slack work is on terms approved by the’ workers in the shop, and the grievance committee, in accordance with union regulations. Seattle is now forcing a wage scale of $44 for 44 hours, with double time for over-time and absolutely no work on Saturday afternoon, helpers to receive $33 straight pay. The old scale was $36 for an 8-hour day with helpers drawing wages ranging from $20 to $26. This scale will probably go into general effect upon the Pacific Coast, and the credit is largely due to the Shop Steward System and the revolutionary spirit of the Seattle tailors.

Thea Boilermakers

Nearly one-half of Seattle’s union members are employed in the shipyards. The largest union in the yards is the Boilermakers. Inability to bring this union into line with the Shop Steward System has been the main stumbling block to the progress of the movement. Shop Stewards exist, but they are answerable to a chief steward and to autocratic union officials, and not to the rank and file, the latter regarding them as a species of private police acting for the distrusted officials. These stewards are known by the wearing of a star not by their name or because of their union activity on the job. No system exists in their selection; some being appointees of the chief steward, the business agent or other officials, some being approved in a general business meeting, but none being elected by the rank and file. Their dues are allowed by the union in return for their services as stewards.

Within the shops, however, the demand for systematization and democratization of the stewards, is gaining ground. Recently in Duthie’s shipyard there was a meeting of shop stewards from every craft, the first meeting of its kind to be held in a Seattle yard, and stewards from the Boilermakers were present.

Spreading Fast

Steam and Marine Pipe Fitters have one steward to each shipyard in addition to a shop committee of five. These men are elected by the members on the job, or if appointed by the members of the committee or by the business agent, it is in default of action by the rank and file. One steward is elected on each job employing more than four men elsewhere throughout the city. This union has a membership of about 600, of whom 200 are employed by the Skinner & Eddy yard.

Both the Machinists’ Union and the Shipyard Laborers, Riggers and Fasteners, are enthusiastic boosters for the Shop Steward System. In the latter union the assistant business agent has charge of the stewards, and makes arrangements for lectures on their duties and functions twice each month. Through the activity of these stewards the initial meeting of all stewards at Duthie’s yard was called, and they are foremost in working out plans to co-ordinate all stewards in all of the yards. The majority of the stewards of both the unions mentioned are class conscious and are well versed in economics.

In the Longshoremen’s union there are more students oi the Shop Stewards System than in any organization; yet there are as yet no shop stewards, due to the fact that no effective plan has been evolved to care for the short time jobs of loading or unloading cargo. A voluntary committee is working on the matter, at this time, and with the present temper of the membership, an almost unanimous adoption of any plan which will leave control of the stewards in the hands of the rank and file can be foretold with complete assurance. Abolition of the business agent by substitution of shop stewards is one of the problems the committee is asked Xo figure out.

How It Works

As a sample of provisions which are now being inserted in various union constitutions, the following from Inside Electrical Workers No. 46 is of interest:

“Art. VIII, Sec. .1. — It shall be the duty of the first journeymen on the job to act as Steward until such time as there are five men or more on the job, when a vote must be taken to elect a Steward, which shall re- quire a majority vote of the journeymen members on the job. The foreman to have no vote. No foreman or assistant foreman shall act as Steward.

“Sec. 2. — The Steward will be held responsible to the Executive Board and to the Local for the enforcement of the working rules and By-Laws.”

Electrical worker stewards appoint assistants whenever there are so many workers on a job as to render It necessary, and they call in the business agent on any problem which they think is too large or too. important to the entire union for the men on the one job to handle. The provision regarding votes of journey- men members is quite generally ignored, and helpers participate in the election of stewards. Weekly meetings are held of all shop stewards of this craft.


Ten thousand pamphlets on the Shop Steward tern have been distributed in Seattle within six months. These have not been street sales; pamphlets have gone directly into the union or have been quietly passed to workers in a shop prior to a call for the election of a steward. In addition to this there has been wide publication of articles dealing with the movement, and two men making the rounds of the unions delivering half-hour talks on the subject.

Having completed much of the preliminary propaganda work, a plan is now being mapped out whereby given yards will be called upon to elect stewards from the office employees, the various shops, the yard sweepers, etc., so as to affect a permanent organization of shop, department, yard and then finally of the entire industry in this district.

The death knell has sounded for craft unionism; the A.F. of L. belongs to the past. But that does not mean that the millions of members of the craft unions must be ignored, or that we must face the task of taking them one by one into the I.W.W. We know that a craft union crash is coming. When it comes we hope to have in the autonomous and more or less unofficial Shop Steward System a means of holding together the productive units, so that One Big Union will arise from the wreck of the autocratic A.F. of L.

The Voice of Labor was started by John Reed and Ben Gitlow after leaving Louis Fraina’s Revolutionary Age in the Summer of 1919 over disagreements over when to found, and the clandestine nature of, the new Communist Party. Reed and Gitlow formed the Labor Committee of the National Left Wing to intervene in the Socialist Party’s convention, eventually forming the Communist Labor Party, while Fraina became the first Chair of the Communist Party of America. The Voice of Labor’s intent was to intervene in the debate within the Socialist Party begun in the war and accelerated by the Bolshevik Revolution. The Voice of Labor became, for a time, the paper of the CLP. The VOL ran for about a year until July, 1920.

PDF of full issue: https://archive.org/details/v1n3-sep-15-1919-voice-of-labor-opt

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