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U.S. Unions in the 1920s and 1980s

by Frank Lovell

From Bulletin IDOM No. 28, March 1986

Discussion of various cures for the ailing unions has dominated the organized labor movement recently. There were some militant strikes and a few partial victories in the last year or so, but the weakened condition of the unions remained unchanged and this is what continues to prompt reassessment of their prospects for survival. Unavoidable comparison is made to the similar decline of the unions in the 1920s.

A few random examples will suffice to indicate the scope and character of this discussion to date.

* Last September, when the AFL-CIO Executive Council was holding its annual meeting in Florida, a television interviewer observed that according to all reports “an almost tangible feeling of depression” pervaded the meeting of top union officials. One reason, he said, was the “shattering defeat” of Walter Mondale, their choice for president in 1984. Another reason was the relative decline of union membership from 32 percent of the work force in 1953 to 20 percent in 1983.

The question under discussion was: “Can organized labor survive in an economy that is changing? From low tech to high tech. From producing goods to delivering services. From brawn to brains.”

Lane Kirkland, AFL-CIO president, appeared on the program. He responded evasively. “We find that the labor movement has demonstrated notable resilience during a period of especially rapid and destabilizing change,” he said. “Somehow, something mystical maybe tells me that when the vultures are circling, most out amongst the seagulls, that is the moment in which we are on the threshold of resurgence, revival and growth.”

The question for the labor movement, of course, is how resurgence, revival, and growth can be achieved. Since August 1982 the AFL-CIO Executive Council has been seeking answers to this question, with the assistance and advice of a host of labor historians, economists, sociologists, and other experts.

* In August 1983 a preliminary report was issued, titled “The Future of Work.” This report found that “the United States is a labor surplus society....” It warned of a labor surplus of four to six million unemployed workers. “This labor surplus underclass,” it said, “threatens the stability of the nation’s economic, social, and political institutions and weakens the U.S. competitive position in the world economy.”

* A second report in February 1985, “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions,” recommended “new approaches” to union problems. These included ways to increase membership participation in their unions, better communication with the public, and improving organizing techniques.

The new recommendations were predicated on old premises: the efficacy of the capitalist system and the sanctity of private ownership in the means of production. “Organized labor believes,” declared the report, “that each worker is entitled to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. That pay should include a share in the profits the worker helps to create and, thus, unions seek a larger share of those profits than ’market forces’ might dictate. And we recognize that those profits can only be created in a well-managed enterprise, where both capital and labor contribute to the result.”

This summarizes the traditional class-collaborationist position of the union bureaucracy since the time of Gompers and the 1920s “prosperity era.”

* James L. Medoff, an economics professor at Harvard University and one of the many advisers to the AFL-CIO Executive Council in its search for solutions to its problems, noted in a New York Times Op-Ed page article last September that organized labor was in serious shape in the early 1930s and that it is equally bad off in the 1980s. He said, “Its image is tattered. Its organizing machinery is running poorly. . . . And management is resorting to increasingly aggressive tactics to weaken collective bargaining.” He offered “a prescription for our ailing unions,” consisting of an improved public image, regaining the lost political influence that unions once enjoyed, and “a willingness to work with management and owners who are sincere in their desire to cooperate.”

* Lance Compa, an official of the independent United Electrical Workers (UE), presented (in collaboration with Barbara Reisman, an experienced unionist and active environmentalist) “The case for adversarial unions.” Their arguments against the traditional class collaborationism of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy appeared in the May-June 1985 issue of Harvard Business Review. They reviewed the steady decline of the unions in the 1980s to demonstrate that all attempts to collaborate with the employers by accepting wage cuts and making other concessions had tarnished the image of the unions, contributed to their loss of political influence, and hampered their ability to organize. Compa/Reisman say, “American workers want an adversarial union, if they want a union at all. There is simply no other reason to have one.”

They answered the current labor-management “power sharing” fad by recalling that it is nothing more than a revival of similar schemes promoted in the 1920s, pointing out that the union movement declined steadily at that time and was not revitalized until the unions began fighting back in the early 1930s.

Compa/Reisman see signs of change. “The seeds of organization are taking root now with incipient organizing committees among high-tech, service, and clerical workers and in other sectors of the economy that many see as impossible to organize,” they say. Furthermore, “we can testify to a rising mood among the rank and file to fight back against concessions and collaboration.” They are convinced that “in the long run workers will organize to defend their jobs and improve their working conditions.” They warned the entrenched union bureaucracy and other interested parties that “workers will find other approaches and methods” if existing unions fail to satisfy their needs, as happened in 1935 with the formation of the CIO.

Comparison with 1920s

In the search for cures to the seemingly mysterious sickness that is stripping the unions of their vitality today, there is constant reference to the plague of the 1920s that sapped the strength of the union movement then, and to the subsequent revitalization of the movement in the 1930s.

This comparison of the labor movement today with that of the 1920s is as good as any other beginning. Along with that a better understanding of the transformation in the early 1930s will most certainly help in the organization now of a similar transformation.

Throughout the decade of the 1920s, as now, the union movement was in steady decline. One of the reasons for this was the wartime servility of the union leadership. During World War I the craft unions seemed to prosper. A series of strikes in 1917 prompted the Wilson administration to set up a Mediation Commission which in turn led to the establishment of the War Labor Board in early 1918. Samuel Gompers, as AFL president, endorsed the main objective of the board, which was to prevent strikes. In exchange the government tacitly recognized the AFL unions as collective bargaining agencies in the war industries. As a result the unions gained over a million new members, reaching a peak of more than five million in 1920. Union treasuries swelled commensurately as dues payments increased.

Gompers and other union leaders began to take an active part in affairs of state, serving the government in their capacity as representatives of labor. Gompers became president of the American Alliance for Labor and Democracy (AALD), a “labor front” sponsored by the Wilson administration to drum up prowar sentiment among working people. Later Gompers embarked on a mission to Europe, at the behest of the administration, to bolster the war effort when European workers were showing signs of war weariness. For these and other services to the U.S. ruling class Gompers gained a certain renown among heads of state and captains of industry, but the workers he claimed to represent and the unions he was supposed to serve gained nothing.

This ingratiating performance was repeated in almost exact replica during World War II by the successors of Gompers in the AFL and the CIO unions. Both William Green for the AFL and Philip Murray for the CIO welcomed Roosevelt’s War Labor Board, accepted the wartime no-strike pledge, and fully endorsed the imperialist war aims of the U.S. government. After the war they participated in the stabilization of capitalism in Europe and in the cold war against the Soviet Union. And, of course, the union movement appeared to benefit during and after World War II. When the two labor bodies merged and founded the AFL-CIO in 1955 the new organization boasted a membership of 15 million, and it was growing. Some of the big industrial unions had millions in their treasuries. All this had the appearance of a repeat performance of the unions in World War I, but with one important difference. In the post-World War II period the unions continued to grow and the membership continued to benefit for three decades, until about 1975.

After World War I labor-management cooperation did not last at all. The employers of that time made only modest objections to union representation and the collection of union dues in the war industries during the war, but tolerating unions in private industry during peacetime was another matter. The ruling class in this country in those years strongly favored what they called “the American plan,” meaning no unions allowed.

The AFL craft unions affiliated to the Chicago Federation of Labor sought to organize the packinghouse workers in 1917-18 with some limited success. This was due largely to the extraordinary talents of William Z. Foster, who was the AFL organizer in charge. When Foster, with the endorsement and backing of Gompers, attempted to organize the steel industry in 1919 through the AFL craft union setup, the effort failed. The steel strike was joined by a third of a million steelworkers, who closed the mills in 50 cities in ten states, and it lasted 108 days. But it was eventually crushed by the steel barons, who refused to negotiate, and compliant government agencies.

Thus the decade of the 1920s began. It soon became clear that the employers were determined to destroy the union movement in order to slash the wartime wage standard which was considered far too high, and to increase their already excessive profits. In some instances it appeared that the employers deliberately reduced wages to provoke strikes. They then invoked the police power of the government to break the strike and destroy the union.

What has been called “the greatest strike of the decade,” the railway shopmen’s strike, was provoked by a drastic wage cut in 1922. Almost from the beginning the federal government intervened on the side of the railroad companies. Attorney General Harry Daugherty secured a federal restraining order against the strike. Anyone who was in any way connected with the shop crafts was forbidden to do or say anything in furtherance of the strike. The legal basis of the injunction was the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Any striker or supporter of the strike could be charged with conspiracy against the free flow of trade and commerce. The railroads remained free to dictate wages and working conditions, and to hire strikebreakers and an army of private guards to herd them on the job. The strike was crushed and many strikers blacklisted, never able to get their jobs back. In this way one union after another was destroyed.

When Samuel Gompers died in 1924 his successor as AFL president, William Green, found himself in charge of an organizational structure that was hardly more than a shell. He sought to rebuild the organization through close cooperation with the employers. Less than a year in office, he announced his willingness to cooperate in any joint program to make production more efficient. “More and more,” he said in 1925, “organized labor is coming to believe that its best interests are promoted through concord rather than conflict.”

The employing class was of a different mind. They saw no reason to collaborate with unions. They sought other ways to increase efficiency and improve profits. The textile industry is an example. This industry had been highly organized in New England. In the early 1920s the employers began moving their mills to the South where they found the complete collaboration of local and state officials in the discouragement of all attempts to unionize far more profitable than the proffered cooperation of AFL union officials.

By 1927 67 percent of all U.S. cotton textile production was concentrated in the South where sporadic strikes were frequent but union contracts unknown. Because of overproduction the textile industry was already listed among the “sick industries.” Competition forced wages below subsistence levels. In 1929, as the “open shop decade” came to a close, the average mill wage in the South was $12.83 for a 60-hour week. This condition tended to depress wages in that sector of the industry that remained in the North.

The best organized and most nearly successful strike of the decade was the textile strike at the Botany mills in Passaic, New Jersey, which began in January 1926 as a result of a 10 percent wage cut The AFL United Textile Workers (UTW) and other textile unions had no presence in Passaic at the time. But an organizing committee, calling itself the United Front Committee of Textile Workers, began agitation against the wage cut and soon recruited 1,000 members. When the committee presented demands to the employers to rescind the wage cut, for time-and-a-half for overtime, and no discrimination against union members, the bosses fired all 45 members of the committee. That was when the strike began. Five thousand Botany workers walked out and spread the strike to the other mills in Passaic. Soon more than 15,000 workers were on strike, tying up the whole Passaic textile industry.

The Passaic strike was organized and led from the beginning by a member of the Communist Party, Albert Weisbord. It was endorsed and supported by the CP-controlled Trade Union Educational League. William Z. Foster, who was in charge of CP trade union work at the time, later described the strike in the following way:

“By terrorism and duplicity the bosses were unable to break the strike so, after six months of it, in July, they decided on a maneuver to defeat the workers; they announced that they would deal with the strikers provided the Communist leadership was removed and the strikers were affiliated to the U.T.W. To agree to take out the mass leaders was a difficult condition for us, but the strike was in a hard situation; so, refusing to let the issue of communism stand in the way of a settlement, we called the bosses’ bluff and withdrew the official leader of the strike, and we also affiliated the workers to the U.T.W.

“The employers, seeing that their maneuver had failed, then stated they would not deal with the A. F. of L. either. In consequence, the strike dragged on, bitterly fought (under our leadership —the U.T.W. doing nothing) until December 13, when the big Botany Mills capitulated to the union by restoring the wage cut, agreeing not to discriminate against union members and recognizing grievance committees. The other mills soon followed suit Thus ended almost a year of struggle. It was a hard-won, if only partial, victory, but it produced little tangible results in organization. The union, weakened by the long struggle and neglected by the U.T.W. conservative McMahon leadership, was unable to follow up with a vigorous campaign for organization and against blacklisting.”

In his well-documented book on U.S. workers in the 1920s and early ’30s, The Lean Years, Irving Bernstein summarizes what happened to the AFL. “A significant feature of labor’s decline in the twenties,” he says, “is that it struck especially hard at organizations that were either wholly or predominantly industrial in structure. This was true of the coal miners, of Mine Mill, of the Textile Workers, of the ILGWU, and of the Brewery Workers. At the same time many craft unions either held their own or made gains. The building trades, for example, advanced from a membership of 78,950 in 1923 to 919,000 in 1929, the printing trades from 150,900 to 162,500, and the railway organizations declined modestly from 596,600 to 564,600. This shift in membership strength was reflected increasingly within the American Federation of Labor. Craft organizations, with their conservative outlook on both internal and general matters, came to dominate both the Executive Council and the conventions of the AFL, with the inevitable impact upon policy.”

Similarities and Differences

In comparing the state of the unions in our decade with what happened to the unions more than half a century ago the first question is “What are the similarities and differences?”

The one similarity most harped on is the unions were in decline then and they are in decline now. True.

The reasons for this state of affairs, then and now, are also similar. In both instances— for the period following World War I and the longer period following World War II—capitalism on a world scale achieved an uneasy stability and the U.S. economy benefited. The employers launched an antiunion offensive, which caught the unions by surprise both times.

As in the 1920s so in the 1980s the employing class has acquired a false sense of self-confidence and imagines that it is no longer dependent on the working class. This illusion is propagated so assiduously by all agencies of government, by the educational system, and by the capitalist press that the worker-employer relationship seems to be reversed. Instead of employers being dependent upon workers to produce goods and profits, the workers are said to be dependent upon their employers for their means of livelihood. They are told their future must be bleak unless they can find a kind employer who will give them a job and pay at least the minimum wage required by law. This is not much. But it beats government welfare and charity.

The long time lapse after World War II until the employing class launched its present antiunion offensive is different from the post-World War I period. After World War I the employers launched their antiunion offensive almost immediately. They waited 34 years after World War II before finally reaching a consensus to move against the unions.

It is true that some politically important sectors of the ruling class wanted to repeat in 1946 the union-smashing history of 1919 and all that followed. But the 1946 strike wave led by the CIO unions convinced the employers that head-on union busting was out of date. They decided to use different tactics, to entangle the unions in legal restrictions defined by the 1947 Taft-Hartley law, and in this way tame the unions and live with them as manageable house pets. As history has demonstrated, this worked to the satisfaction of the employers for more than three decades, largely because of U.S. domination in the world system of capitalist economy. That was not the case, certainly not to such an extent, after World War I. And it is no longer the case. The relationship of forces, as well as the world structure of capitalism, had shifted drastically by the early 1970s when the Nixon administration introduced the “new economic policy” of U.S. imperialism.

By 1978 the ruling class had made the necessary adjustment and adopted a new labor policy, their present anti-union policy. The first overt response from the union movement came from Douglas Fraser, then president of the United Auto Workers.

Fraser had served, along with AFL-CIO president George Meany and six other top union officials of that time, on a nongovernmental committee headed by former secretary of labor John Dunlop, known as the Labor-Management Group. It was a very top-level committee, consisting of an equal number of union officials and representatives of the corporate elite. It met regularly to make deals on how each side would handle important social issues of the day, such as energy problems, inflation, unemployment, rising health costs, and other matters, including labor legislation.

The union movement had expected Congress and the midterm Carter administration to enact the Labor Law Reform Bill, and the union officials thought they had agreement with their management counterparts. Instead, the financial and political resources of big business launched an antiunion campaign and defeated the bill.

Fraser then resigned from the Labor-Management Group (July 1978), charging that the capitalists had “chosen to wage a one-sided class war . . . a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society.”

He said, “General Motors Corp. is a specific case in point. GM, the largest manufacturing corporation in the world, has received responsibility, productivity and cooperation from the UAW and its members. In return, GM has given us a Southern strategy designed to set up a non-union network that threatens the hard-fought gains won by the UAW. We have given stability and have been rewarded with hostility. Overseas, it is the same. General Motors not only invests heavily in South Africa, it refuses to recognize the black union there.

“My message,” said Fraser, “should be very clear: if corporations like General Motors want confrontation, they cannot expect cooperation in return from labor.”

For more than seven years now since Fraser’s resignation from the Labor-Management Group, the giant corporations of this country have received nothing but cooperation from the AFL-CIO top officialdom, and from all members of the UAW executive committee including Fraser and his successor as UAW president Owen Bieber.

The long period of labor-management collaboration—from the outbreak of World War II in 1939 until 1978 when the employers openly expressed their innate antiunion nature—may influence the manner of transformation within the unions. When the unions are revitalized, the process may be somewhat different from the transformation of the union movement in the 1930s. At that time an unexpected split occurred within the old AFL bureaucracy and a group led by John L. Lewis formed the Committee for Industrial Organization in 1935.

The present crop of entrenched AFL-CIO officials doesn’t know anything different from what they were taught during the long years of union-management collaboration. By this time they are a second- and third-generation of housebroken “labor representatives.” They think the unions are social institutions created to arbitrate worker grievances. They are supposed to represent the interests of union members but they habitually function as “impartial” arbitrators. They have learned to see both sides of every dispute between workers and employers, and they usually see the employers’ side more clearly because of their training.

Many of them never worked in actual production a day in their lives. Some are lawyers and accountants and the only work they ever did was as employees of some union. Lane Kirkland once belonged to the Masters, Mates, & Pilots union because he got a wartime license as a ship’s officer, but he never stood a dogwatch at sea. His interests lay elsewhere, and he got a fill-in job at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, eventually doing speech-writing for Meany and becoming his assistant. Even if these people wanted to lead a fight, they wouldn’t know how. It is not in their experience. They have no idea of how to organize a class-struggle defense of workers’ rights.

This does not apply to the hundreds of present-day local strike leaders. In the past year alone there have been many militantly fought strikes, organized by local leaders.

* The hotel strike in New York registered partial successes. But there is little hope among the workers involved that their top officials will follow up on the gains.

* The well organized UAW strike against General Dynamics, the nation’s largest defense contractor, for catch-up wages equivalent to pay scales in the auto industry was compromised by top UAW leaders. After eight weeks the strike was settled on terms generally favorable to GD and at least $1.50 per hour below wages in auto. Strikers at the big GD tank plant in Warren, Michigan, were maneuvered into narrowly accepting the agreement on the grounds that other smaller UAW locals had already accepted the company’s terms. James Coakley, president of UAW local 1200 in Warren and the local strike leader, urged a no vote on the contract against pressure from UAW top negotiators.

* After a three-month strike against the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp., 8,000 steelworkers returned to work at wages $5 per hour below the average scale in basic steel. W-P, the nation’s seventh-largest steelmaker, declared bankruptcy in April to scuttle its contract with the United Steelworkers. The strikers returned to work at the urging of top officials of the Steelworkers union.

The best organized strike of 1985, the strike of United Food and Commercial Workers Local P-9 against wage cuts at the Hormel flagship plant in Austin, Minnesota, was opposed from the beginning by UFCWA president William Wynn and his local representative. After five months, the strikers faced a company sponsored back-to-work movement in January of this year. Their ranks remained solid. The company’s December offer containing wage cuts was rejected. Jim Guyette, Local P-9 president, vowed to continue the strike until the company agrees to restore union wages and conditions.

Similar examples of militancy at the local level in contrast to top leadership willingness to give up can be multiplied several times from the record of 1985 strikes alone. It is a long list. This is different from strikes in the 1920s. The bosses were stronger then, and they were able to crush most strikes quickly. Today, even when strikes are lost or settled on unfavorable terms, the workers begin almost immediately to reorganize their ranks.

This is a measure of how the AFL-CIO looks today in contrast to the AFL unions of the 1920s. In proportion to the working class the old AFL was numerically smaller than the AFL-CIO. It was also financially more impoverished. The leadership today may appear more sophisticated but the capitalist-oriented worker-management ideologies of Samuel Gompers and Lane Kirkland are identical. On balance the AFL-CIO would appear to be better off because of its 13.1-million members, plus its other resources. It remains a potentially powerful social and political force. But its future at this juncture is no different from that of the old AFL 60 years ago. It will undergo radical transformation or it will continue to decline and eventually go under.

When comparisons are made between the weakened state of the AFL-CIO unions and the old decrepit AFL craft union structure of the early 1930s it should be remembered that it was the radical wing of the labor movement that initiated the reorientation of the unions and made the struggle for industrial unionism a reality in 1934.

The Decisive Influence

In this connection, two indisputable facts in the history of organized labor must be recognized: 1) Working class radicals, the anticapitalist political wing of the movement, organized the unions initially to involve masses of workers in defense of their elementary legal rights and to raise their standard of living under capitalism, and the revolutionary socialists of each succeeding generation have worked within the labor movement to convert the unions into instruments of struggle against capitalism and for socialism. 2) The scientific laws of capitalist development as first discovered by Karl Marx have provided the basic guidelines for radicals, and the successes and failures of the class-struggle left wing are indicators of the fluctuations in the health of the union movement. When the left wing prospers and wins positions of leadership, the entire labor movement comes to life. But when the left wing suffers defeats, the unions become quiescent and decline. This is the history of organized labor from its earliest beginnings to the present.

The class-struggle left wing in the union movement from World War I to the present will be the subject of a future article.


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