James P. Cannon

Who Can Save the Unions?

Written: 7 May 1921, The Toiler
First Published: 1921
Source: James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism. Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920-1928 © Spartacist Publishing Company, 1992. ISBN 0-9633828-1-0; Published by Spartacist Publishing Company, Box 1377 G.P.O. New York, NY 10116. Introductory material and notes by the Prometheus Research Library.
Transcription\HTML Markup: Prometheus Research Library
Copyright: Permission for on-line publication provided by Spartacist Publishing Company for use by the James P. Cannon Internet Archive in 2005.

The following article by Cannon was published in The Toiler.

The Central Trades and Labor Council of Greater New York has just adopted three recommendations of a special committee of 25 appointed to devise ways and means to combat the “open shop” campaign of the bosses. The unions cannot fight the open shop by the measures proposed; in that respect they have no value. But as striking examples of what not to do they may serve a useful purpose and, from that viewpoint, should be considered and analyzed. This is what the special committee recommended:

1. To organize a speakers bureau which will present the case for unionism to civic bodies, church forums and similar organizations.

2. To amend the constitution of the central body, permitting the seating of fraternal delegates from non-labor organizations interested in unionism.

3. To seek greater cooperation with such bodies as the Interchurch World Movement, and other organizations felt to be working for union labor.[1]

All three of these undertakings are based on a misconception of the nature of the struggle. The impression seems to be that labor’s troubles in the present crisis are mainly due to a “misunderstanding” as to the aims of the labor movement on the part of some pious people who don’t work for a living, but who are “felt to be working for union labor.” But the real misunderstanding is in the minds of the delegates who adopted this program. Civic bodies, church forums, “non-labor organizations”—the elements who go to make up such groupings are poor props for the unions to seek to lean upon. They may “feel” for organized labor, but the organized workers never feel it in the shape of substantial support in their fight.

The “open shop” campaign is one of the manifestations of a state of war that exists in society between two opposing classes: the producers and the parasites. This war cuts through the whole population like a great dividing sword; it creates two hostile camps and puts every man in his place in one or the other. Those to whom the New York unions would turn for aid are beneficiaries of the present system of labor exploitation. Their interests lie with the system and, as a general rule, people do not allow their sympathies to interfere seriously with their interests. They live in the camp of the enemy. Their material welfare is bound up with those who aim to destroy the unions.

No, the labor unions can get no help in their struggle outside of the working class. More than that, they need no other support. The working class has the power not only to defeat the effort to destroy the unions, but to end the system of exploitation altogether. The principal thing lacking for the quick development of this power is the mistaken point of view illustrated by the program of the New York central body.

Let the labor unions put aside their illusions; let them face the issue squarely and fight it out on the basis of the class struggle. Instead of seeking peace when there is no peace, and “understanding” with those who do not want to understand, let them declare war on the whole capitalist regime. That is the way to save the unions and to make them grow in the face of adversity and become powerful war engines for the destruction of capitalism and the reorganization of society on the foundation of working class control in industry and government.



1. The Interchurch World Movement was a Christian social reform organization initiated in 1919 by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a devout Baptist. It functioned in the early 1920s, and among other activities issued an influential report on the 1919 steel strike.