Bankruptcy of the American Labor Movement, William Z. Foster

Published by the Trade Union Educational League


Chapter 3

Ravages of Dual Unionism

Dual unionism is a malignant disease that sickens and devitalizes the whole labor movement. The prime fault of it is that it wastes the efforts of those vigorous elements whose activities determine the fate of all working class organization. It does this by withdrawing these rare and precious militants from the mass trade unions, where they serve as the very mainspring of vitality and progress, and by misdirecting their attention to the barren and hopeless work of building up impossible, utopian industrial organizations. This drain of the best blood of the trade unions begins by enormously weakening these bodies and ends by making impotent every branch of the labor movement as well; for the welfare of all Organized Labor, political, industrial, co-operative, educational, depends upon the trade unions, the basic organizations of the working class, being in a flourishing condition. Dual unionism saps the strength of the trade unions, and when it does that it undermines the structure of the entire working class organization.


Since the dual union program was outlined almost thirty years ago by DeLeon it has wasted a prodigious amount of invaluable rebel strength. Tens of thousands of the very best men ever produced by the American labor movement have devoted themselves to it whole-heartedly and have expended oceans of energy in order to bring the longed-for new labor movement into realization. But they were pouring water upon sand. The parched Sahara of dual industrial unionism swallowed up their efforts and left hardly a trace behind. The numerically insignificant dual unions of today are a poor bargain indeed in return for the enormous price they have cost.

Consider, for example, the Industrial Workers of the World: The amount of energy and unselfish devotion lavished upon that organization would have wrought miracles in developing and extending the trade unions; but it has been powerless to make anything substantial of the I. W. W. Today, 17 years after its foundation, that body has far fewer members (not to speak of much less influence) than it had at its beginning. The latest available official financial reports show a membership of not more than l5,00O, whereas in 1905 it had 40,000. Even its former revolutionary spirit has degenerated until the organization has now become little more than a sort of league to make war upon the trade unions and to revile and slander struggling Soviet Russia. The I. W. W. is a monument to the folly of dual unionism.

The One Big Union of Canada is another example of rebel effort wasted in dual unionism. Four years ago it started out with a great blare of trumpets and about 40,000 members. Its advent threw dissension into the old trade unions and shattered their ranks. They lost heavily in membership, the militants pulling out the more active elements on behalf of the 0. B. U. Yet, today, this organization, despite the great effort put into it, has but an insignificant membership, not, over 4,000 at most, and its constructive influence is about in proportion. It was a costly, ill-fated experiment, and in the main has worked havoc to Canadian labor. The Workers’ International Industrial Union, another universal dual union, has occupied the attention of the Socialist Labor Party’s active spirits for 14 years, but now it can muster only a few hundred actual members. Similar records of disastrous waste of rebel effort are shown by the dozens of dual unions started in the various single industries, all of which literally burned up the energies of the militants. Except for those in the textile, food, and shoe industries, which have secured some degree of success, these dual unions have all failed completely. They have absorbed untold labor of the best elements among the workers and have yielded next to nothing in return. Dual unionism is a useless and insupportable squandering of Labor’s most precious life force. It is a bottomless pit into which the workers have vainly thrown their energy and idealism.


The waste of rebel strength, caused so long by dual unionism, has reacted directly and disastrously upon the trade unions. For many years practically all the radical papers and revolutionary

leaders in this country were deeply tinged with dual unionism. In their program the ideas of secessionism and progressive unionism were welded into one. The consequence was that as fast as the active workers in the trade unions became acquainted with the principles of revolutionary unionism they also absorbed the idea of dualism. Thus they lost faith and interest in their old organizations, either quitting them entirely for some dual union, or becoming so much dead timber within them. The general outcome of this wholesale turning away of the progressive minority was to divorce the very idea of progress from the trade unions. It nipped in the bud the growing crop of militants, the only element through which virile life and development could come to the old organizations. Dual unionism dried up the very spring of progress in the trade unions, it condemned them to sterility and stagnation. It was a long-continued process of slow poisoning for the labor movement.

A disastrous effect of this systematic demoralization and draining away of the militants is that it has thrown the trade unions almost entirely into the control of the organized reactionaries. In all labor movements the unions can prosper and grow only if the progressive elements within them organize closely and wage vigorous battle all along the line against the conservative bureaucracy. The militants must build machines to fight those of the reactionaries. But in the United States dual unionism has prevented the creation of such progressive machines. By its incessant preaching that the trade unions were hopeless and that nothing could be done with them, it discouraged even those militants who did stay within the unions and prevented them from developing an organized opposition to the bureaucrats. Poisoned by dual union pessimism about the old organizations and altogether without a constructive program to apply to them, the militants stood around idly for years in the trade unions while the reactionary forces intrenched themselves and ruled as they saw fit. Because of their dualistic notions the militants practically deserted the field and left it to the uncontested sway of their enemies. If the American labor movement is now hard and fast in the grip of a stupid and corrupt bureaucracy, totally incapable of progress, dual unionism, through its demoralization of the trade union opposition, is chiefly to blame.

During the great movement of the packinghouse workers the indifference of the radicals towards the old unions wrought particular havoc. A handful of rebels, free from dual union ideas, were primarily responsible for the historic movement. Soon they found themselves in a finish tight with the conservatives for control of the newly formed unions. Occupying the strategic position in the organizations, especially in the Chicago stockyards, they begged the dualistic radicals, who worked in the industry, to come in and help them control the unions, offering to place them in secretaryships and other important posts. Had this offer been accepted, it would have certainly resulted in the big packinghouse unions, then numbering over l00,000 members, coming entirely under progressive leadership. But so strong was the spirit of dualism at that time, in 1919, that the outstanding rebels, mostly extreme left-wingers, would not participate constructively in the trade unions even under such exceptionally favorable circumstances. They refused the invitation with insults and contempt. The consequence was that the few militants within the old unions were swamped by the reactionaries, who soon wrecked the whole organization by their incompetence and corruption. It was a splendid opportunity lost. Similar opportunities existed in other industries. It is safe to say that if the radicals had been free of dual unionist tendencies during the war period and had been active in the trade unions, the great bulk of the working class would have been organized, instead of the comparatively few that were gotten together by the reactionaries, who controlled the unions.


Dual unionism’s steady drain upon the vitality of the trade unions by withdrawing and demoralizing the militants piecemeal has been ruinous enough, but the many great secession movements it has given birth to have made the situation much worse. It is the particular misfortune of the American labor movement that just when some trade union is passing through a severe crisis, as a result of industrial depression, internal dissension, a lost strike, or some other weakening influence, the dual union tendency breaks out with unusual virulence and a secession movement develops that completes the havoc already wrought. Exactly at the time the militants are needed the most to hold the organization together is just when they are the busiest pulling it apart. In such crises those who should be the union’s best friends become its worst enemies. This has happened time and again. During the past two years, for example, the longshoremen and seamen have had bitter experience with such breakaway movements. Both organizations had lost big strikes, and both were in critical need of rebuilding and rejuvenating by the progressive elements. But just at this critical juncture the latter failed, and, instead of strengthening the unions, set about tearing them to pieces with secession movements. Four or five dual unions appeared, and when they got done attacking the old organizations and fighting among themselves all traces of unionism were wiped out in many ports. Similar attacks are now being directed against the weakened railroad shopmen’s unions.

A great secession movement, typical for its disastrous effects, was the famous “outlaw” strike of the switchmen in 1920. That ill-fated movement began because of a widespread discontent among the rank and file at the neglect of their grievances by the higher union officials. It was a critical situation, but had there been a well-organized militant minority on hand the foment could have been given a constructive turn and used as a means not only to satisfy the demands of the workers but also to defeat the reactionaries. But the long-continued dualistic propaganda in the railroad industry had effectively prevented the organization of such a minority. Hence, leaderless, the movement ran wild and culminated in the “outlaw” strike. Then, as usual, the secessionist tendency showed itself and a new organization was formed. The final result was disaster all around for the men. The strike was lost, many thousands of active workers were blacklisted, the unions were weakened by the loss of their best men, and the grip of the reactionaries on the organization was strengthened by the complete breakup of the rebel opposition. The “outlaw” strike of 1920 was one of the heavy penalties American workers have paid for their long allegiance to utopian dual unionism.

Likewise typical of the ruin wrought by dual unionism was the movement that gave birth to the Canadian One Big Union in 1918. Freeing themselves for the moment from the dual union obsession, the rebels had raised the banner of industrial unionism in the old trade unions, and the workers, seeing at last an escape from reactionary policies and leadership, responded en masse. Union after union passed into revolutionary control, and the movement swept Western Canada like a storm. It seemed that finally an organization of militants, without which there could be no progress, was about to be definitely established in the trade unions. But just when the movement was most promising the dualists got the upper hand and steered the whole business into the quagmire of secession by launching the 0. B. U. as a new labor movement. Havoc resulted. The new union, of course, got nowhere, and the old ones were split and weakened by dissensions and the loss of many thousands of their very best workers. But, worst of all, the budding organized minority within the trade unions was wrecked, and the organizations passed completely into the control of the reactionaries. The 0. B. U. secession set back the whole Canadian labor movement for years.


One of the great tragedies caused by dual unionism was the smashing of the Western Federation of Miners. This body of metal miners, organized in 1893, was in its early days a splendid type of labor union. Industrial in form and frankly revolutionary, it carried on for many years a spectacular and successful struggle against the Mine Owners’ Association. Brissenden says that its strikes in Coeur d’Alene, Cripple Creek, Leadville, Telluride, Idaho Springs, etc., were “the most strenuous and dramatic series of strike disturbances in the history of the American labor movement.” Time after time the miners armed themselves and fought it out with the gunmen and thugs of the mining companies. Their valiant battles attracted world-wide attention. [The history of the W. F. of M gives the lie direct to the argument that prosperity kills the militancy of the workers. That union was made up mostly of American born workers and operated in what was then the most prosperous section of the country, the Rocky Mountain district.]

But this great organization, unquestionably one of the best ever produced by the American labor movement, has long since been wrecked both in point of numbers and spirit. Insignificant in size, it has also become so conservative as to be ashamed of its splendid old name. It is now known as the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. This pitiful degeneration of the Western Federation of Miners was caused directly by dual unionism. Some detail is necessary in order to show how it happened:

To begin with we must understand that in its best days only a few of the W. F. of M. membership, not over 5% at most [Estimated by Vincent St. John, former W. F. of M. militant.] were active and revolutionary. This small minority, highly organized, occupied all the strategic points of the union. Thus they were able to communicate something of their own revolutionary spirit to the mass as a whole. The organized rebels literally compelled the W. F. of M. to be a virile fighting organization. In 1905, the W. F. of M. was one of the unions that formed the I. W. W. It remained part of that organization for about two years, when it withdrew. The militant elements, the ones who had made the W. F. of M. what it was, were bitterly opposed to the withdrawal. For the most part they stayed in the I. W. W. and allowed the W. F. of M. to go its way without them. Hundreds of the best men, including such fighters as Haywood, St. John, etc., deserted the old organization, either by quitting it altogether or by becoming negative factors in it. The passage of the W. F. of M. through the I. W. W. served to sift out the active workers, to rob the W. F. of M. of its very soul. The W. F. of M. went into the I. W. W. a revolutionary organization ; it came out of it, if not actually conservative, then at least definitely condemned to that fate.

After the W. F. of M.’s withdrawal from the I. W. W. its militants, all become ardent dual unionists, declared war to the knife against it. The organization which had previously absorbed so much of their unselfish devotion was thereafter the object of their bitterest attacks. Once the very backbone of the W. F. of M., the militants now became its deadliest foes. Under these circumstances it was not long until the degeneration set in which has reduced the once splendid Western Federation of Miners to its present lowly status.

Among others, the writer was one who pointed out the folly of rebels destroying an industrial union like the W. F. of M., simply because it had withdrawn from the I. W. W., and who likewise urged that a campaign be started to take control of the union again. But the answer always given was that the Moyer machine, especially because it controlled the big Butte local union, was unshakably intrenched. And when it was proposed to capture the Butte local this was declared impossible. But the fallacy of this objection was made apparent in 1914 when, as a result of insupportable grievances, the rank and file of the Butte organization rose up, drove their officials from town and took charge of the situation. This put Butte, the citadel of the reaction, squarely in the hands of the militants. Had they but stayed in the W. F. of M. and carried on a campaign in the other locals the whole organization would have been theirs for the taking. But they were so obsessed with the dual unionism prevailing generally among rebels, and so blinded with hatred for everything connected with the A. F. of L., that they seceded at once and formed a new union. This went to smash, as such organizations almost always do. The only practical effect of the whole affair was to deal a death blow to W. F. of M., already weakened and poisoned by the desertion of its former militants.

It is one of the saddest facts of American labor history that the Western Federation of Miners was finally destroyed by the very men who originally built it and made it one of the joys of the working class. What the Mine Owners’ Association, with all its money and power, was unable to accomplish, the militants, obsessed by dual unionism, brought about with little or no difficulty. Their allegiance to an impractical theory has broken up all organization among the metal miners. And the ravages that were made upon the W. F. of M. have been visited to a greater or lesser extent upon every other trade union in the United States, for all of them have had to suffer the loss of their most active workers and to confront as bitter enemies those very fighters who should be their main reliance.


A striking example of the destructive influence of dual unionism upon other working class organizations besides trade unions, was the ruin it wrought to the Socialist Party. For many years the S. P. was the chief vehicle for revolutionary thought in this country. Gradually it grew and expanded until, in 1912, it reached a total of 118,000 members. It appeared to be flourishing and destined for a vigorous future. But all of a sudden it began to wither and disintegrate, a process which went on until now the S. P. has less than l0,000 members.

This quick collapse of the Socialist Party was one of the most remarkable events in modern labor history. It seemed that the very bottom fell out of the movement. The first immediate cause was the passage, at the 1912 national convention, of the famous Art. 8, Sec. 6, of the party constitution, stringently prohibiting the advocacy of sabotage, and other forms of direct action. This measure, amounting in effect to an anti-syndicalist law, greatly antagonized the left-wing elements and drove many of them from the party. The next blow came when the United States entered the great war. The party adopted an anti-war resolution, only to find itself confronted with a labor movement and a working class generally stricken by war fever. Result, further great losses in membership and prestige. The final stroke came with the Communist split in 1919. This pulled away at least half of the remaining party membership, and the rest demoralized, have been unable to recover and to rehabilitate the organization. Since then the S. P. has diminished constantly in strengh to its present low level.

The three above-mentioned causes for the breakdown of the Socialist Party, despite their importance, were only of a surface character. The real reason lies deeper. It is to be found in the organization’s faulty economic policy, in the dual unionism which has afflicted it ever since the party’s foundation. All working class political parties, whether Labor, Socialist, Communist, or whatnot, must be organized with the trade unions as their foundation. This is because the trade unions are the basic institutions of the working class. The fact that they carry on the everyday struggle of the workers for better conditions gives them enormous prestige and numerical and financial strength, all of which labor parties must utilize in their political work. It may be accepted as an axiom that whoever controls the trade unions is able to dictate the general policies, economic, political and otherwise, of the whole working class. All over the world the strength of the workers’ political parties is in direct ratio to the amount of control they exercise over the mass trade unions. Such a thing as a powerful labor party, whether conservative or radical, without strong trade union backing, is impossible. Therefore, one of the very first tasks of every working class political organization must be to establish its influence in the trade unions.

The Socialist Party has never understood these cardinal facts. Its working principle, real enough even though unexpressed, has always been a presumption that it could secure its membership and backing from the citizenry generally. It has not realized that all labor parties must have as their foundation not only the masses, but the masses organized in the trade unions. Because of the tendency of its predecessor, the Socialist Labor Party, to split away the rebels from the trade unions, the thing that the S. P. necessarily had to do in order to succeed was to carry on an intense campaign against dualism and to intrench its active workers in the strategic positions of the labor organizations, where they could educate the masses and utilize their industrial, financial, and other strength to further the cause of the whole Socialist movement. But because it did not clearly understand the importance of the unions as such it failed to map out such a positive industrial program, indispensable to its life and progress. It allowed all its industrial work to be thwarted by a dual unionism which infected the party deeply from its inception.

Although when the Socialist Party developed as a split-off from the old Socialist Labor Party one of the issues it dissented upon was the latter’s policy of dual unionism, it was not long until it, too, was in the grip of the same disease. A powerful left-wing, bitter haters of the trade unions and ardent advocates of a dual labor movement, rapidly developed. The right-wing favored active participation in the trade unions, chiefly for vote-catching reasons, while the left-wing proposed the destruction of the trade unions. The party as a whole, seeking a false harmony, straddled this vital question. Its general attitude was to favor industrial unionism, but not to tell its members how to achieve this form of organization, whether through the development of the old unions or the establishment of new ones. [A classic example of this negative policy was the famous industrial resolution adopted in the 1912 S. P. convention. This resolution, accepted unanimously by dual unionists and trade unionists alike, was nothing more than an agreement between the two factions that the party in general should actively support neither the trade unions nor the dual unions, in other words, that it should have no industrial program at all.] As an organization it carried out no serious work to build up the necessary labor union foundation. Each wing of the party applied its own particular industrial policies. For some years the right-wing attempted to capture the old unions, and with considerable success in the Machinists’, Bakers’, Clothing Workers’, Miners’ and other unions, but on the whole, the left wing, by a bitter warfare against the trade unions, sabotaged such work most effectively.

Because of this negative attitude the Socialist Party never won for itself the support of the labor organizations, without which it could not possibly succeed. Its members never were encouraged to occupy the tremendously important strategic posts, such as executive officers, editors, etc., in the trade unions, which could have been used to enormous advantage for the party. On the contrary, these posts remained uncontested in the hands of the conservatives, who used them most effectively to poison the masses against Socialism. When, for example, the party adopted the anti-war resolution it would have been comparatively simple to secure the support, or at least the toleration, of the working class for that measure, had the radicals been strategically intrenched in the unions. But with the Gompers crowd in complete control the latter were able to sway the whole trade union movement, and with it the working class in general, against the Socialist Party and its anti-war attitude. In this instance the party reaped the whirlwind that it had been sowing for so many years by its failure to conquer the trade unions, a task which it could have easily accomplished had it but freed itself from dualism.

In Europe the Socialist Parties of the various countries have suffered many heavy blows since the beginning of the world war. But they have stood up under them far better than the American Socialist Party. This is because, being deeply rooted in their respective trade unions, there is some structure and fiber to them. Consider the Social Democratic Party of Germany, for example. That organization openly betrayed the workers all through the war and the revolutionary period. It forfeited its right to represent the working class. In consequence it was subjected to several great splits and innumerable desperate assaults from without by the left-wing elements. But it has maintained itself with a vigor not even remotely shown by the Socialist Party in this country. The explanation for this was its firm control over the German trade union movement. Having in its hands practically all the executive positions of the unions, it was able to control the masses even under the most trying circumstances. Had the left-wingers been able to break this trade union control, the S. D. P. would have collapsed even as our Socialist Party did. The degree of success of the German Communist Party in its present struggle against the Social Democratic Party is in direct relation to its ability to win the trade unions away from S. D. P. domination.

The Socialist Party in this country collapsed because it was built upon talk, instead of upon the solid foundation of the trade union movement. Because it did not have the labor unions behind it the organization had no real stability. Hence, when it was put to the test, as noted above, in 1912, 1917, and 1919, it went to pieces. Dual unionism kept the Socialist militants out of the organized masses and thus directly prevented the winning of the working class to the beginnings of a revolutionary program. Moreover, it made of the S. P. itself a formless, spineless movement, which was shattered at the first real shock. Dual unionism ruined the Socialist Party.

Further illustrations might be cited almost indefinitely to show the baneful effects of dual unionism upon various working class organizations. By pulling the militants out of the trade unions and wasting their energies on futile utopian separatist organizations, dual unionism has robbed the whole working class of progressive leadership. It has thrown the great labor unions almost entirely into the hands of a corrupt and ignorant bureaucracy, which has choked out their every manifestation of real progress. And in stultifying and ruining the trade unions, dual unionism condemned to sterility every branch of the entire labor movement, industrial, political, and otherwise; for if the workers in general have not been educated to an understanding of capitalism and the class struggle, if they have not developed a revolutionary ideal, if they have not yet organized politically on class lines, if they have not yet produced a powerful cooperative movement—in every instance the cause may be directly traced to the paralyzing influence of the reactionary trade union bureaucracy, which dual unionism intrenched in power. The persistence, for a generation, of the fatal dual union policy is the true explanation of the paradoxical and deplorable situation of the United States, the most advanced capitalist country in the world, having the most backward labor movement.