Bankruptcy of the American Labor Movement, William Z. Foster

Published by the Trade Union Educational League


Chapter 4

New Realism vs. Old Utopianism

But the American labor movement is at last freeing itself from the dual union tendency which has sucked away its life blood for so many years. During the past 18 months whole sections of the militants have undergone an intellectual revolution, repudiating their historic policy of building independent idealistic labor organizations, and turning with remarkable rapidity and unanimity to the work of revamping and revolutionizing the old trade unions. Practically every branch of the radical and progressive movements has been effected by this unprecedented tactical about-face. The Communist groups, viz.: Communist Party, Workers’ Party, and Proletarian Party, have been particularly influenced. Made up of elements to whom dual unionism was almost a religion for many years, they have now turned entirely against that policy and are working diligently within the old unions to revive and re-invigorate them. Quite evidently those parties are determined not to make the fatal mistake, which ruined the Socialist Party, of failing to establish their militants in the strategic positions in the organized masses. The Farmer-Labor Party militants, always active in the unions, have had their work clarified and intensified. The Socialist Party, the I. W. W., the 0. B. U., and the various single industry dual unions have also been greatly touched by the new viewpoint. Large numbers of the latters’ most active spirits have come out openly for consolidation with the trade unions. It is the most complete change of tactics that has ever taken place in any country in the world in so short a time. Dual unionism has been dealt a death blow.


The new movement is crystallizing in the Trade Union Educational League; but before describing this organization it will be well for us to consider the origin of the profound and remarkable tactical reversal and the differences between the old utopian dual unionism and the new realistic industrial program:

The repudiation of dual unionism in the United States and Canada was precipitated as a result of the Russian revolution. When the Communists of the world, shortly after the revolution, organized their political party, the Third International, one of the first great organizational problems to confront them was that of the trade unions. In order to succeed in its immense task of overthrowing capitalism generally, the new International was compelled to have the backing of the masses organized industrially. But the difficulty was how to secure this support. Everywhere the trade unions were in the hands of reactionary leaders, and the question was whether the Communists should stay in the old unions and launch a bitter struggle to control them, or withdraw from them, smash them up, and start dual labor movements in the various countries.

For a time the dualistic conception prevailed, particularly in the programs for Germany and the United States. But the keen Russian leaders at the head of the Third International were quick to perceive the folly of such a course. Zinoviev, Radek, and others began to combat the separatist tendency and to urge penetration of the trade unions. Lenin himself was especially militant in this respect. In his famous booklet, The Infantile Sickness of ’Leftism’ in Communism, he says:

But the German ’Left’ Communists commit the same stupidity when, because of the reactionary and counter-revolutionary heads of the trades unions, they, through some inexplicable mental process, jump to the conclusion that it is necessary to quit these organizations altogether! To refuse to work in them! To invent new workingmen’s unions! This is an unpardonable blunder which results in the Communists rendering the greatest service to the bourgeoisie . . . A greater lack of sense and more harm to the revolution than this attitude of the ’Left’ Communists cannot be imagined . . . There is no doubt that Messrs. Gompers, Henderson, Jouhaux, Legien, etc., are very grateful to such ’Left’ revolutionaries who, like the German opposition-in-principle elements, or as so many among the American revolutionaries in the Industrial Workers of the World, preach the necessity of quitting reactionary trade unions and refusing to work in them.

Losovsky, head of the Red International of Labor Unions and also of the General Council of the All-Russian Trade Unions, was another, who inveighed heavily against dual unionism. In his pamphlet, The International Council of Trade and Industrial Unions, and speaking of the formation of that body, forerunner of the present Red International of Labor Unions. he says:

All this evidence of the invincibility of the trade union bureaucracy (advanced by the I. W. W. dualists) created a curious impression. On the one hand these comrades were preparing to bring about a social revolution in their country—and on the other hand they speak of Gompers with such holy horror as if to drive Gompers and the other traitors out of the trade unions was a much more difficult task than overthrowing the mighty capitalist class of America . . . To leave the trade unions and to set up small independent unions is an evidence of weakness, it is a policy of despair and, more than that, it shows lack of faith in the working class . . . The motto put forth by the Communist International, and which is our motto also, is: ’Not the destruction, but the conquest of the trade unions.’

At the 2nd congress of the Third International, held in Moscow in 1920, heavy blows were dealt the dual unionists by the realistic Russian leaders. Radek in particular waged war against them. He tried, but without much success, to have the American delegation adopt a trade union policy. The congress finally condemned dualism in principle. But a definite stand was not taken on the matter until the congress of 1921. In the year that had passed the problem of dual unionism had become a burning issue in many countries. It had to be settled, and the congress handled it without gloves. As a result the dualists were overwhelmingly defeated and the tactics of participation in the trade unions was endorsed and adopted. In the trade union theses outlining the general policy of the Third International it says:

During the next epoch the principal task of all Communists will be to concentrate their energy and perseverance on winning over to their side the majority of workers in all labor unions. They must not be discouraged by the present reactionary tendency of the trade unions, but take active part in the struggles of the unions and win them over to the cause of Communism in spite of all resistance.

Dealing directly with the industrial program to be applied in America, the theses say:

Communists must on no account leave the ranks of the reactionary American Federation of Labor. On the contrary, they should get into the old trade unions in order to revolutionize them.

Following closely after the 3rd congress of the Third International came the 1st congress of the Red International of Labor Unions. In that body also the advocates. of breaking up the old unions and starting the labor movement all over again were routed completely. The general theses on the subject say:

The task of the revolutionary elements in the trade unions does not consist in wresting from the unions the best and most class conscious workers in order to create small independent organizations. Their task should be to revolutionize the unions, to transform them into a weapon of social revolution by means of the everyday struggle in favor of all the revolutionary demands put forth by the workers within the old trade unions . . . To conquer the unions means to conquer the masses, and these can only be conquered by a systematic campaign of work, setting against the policy of class collaboration that of our steady line of revolutionary action. The slogan, “Out of the Trade Unions” prevents us from conquering the masses for our cause and retards the advance of the social revolution.

The R. I. L. U. program for America says:

The question of creating revolutionary cells and groups within the American Federation of Labor and the independent unions is of vital importance. There is no other way by which one could gain the working mass in America, than to lead a systematic struggle in the trade unions.

This categoric condemnation of dual unionism by both branches of the Communist International, political and industrial, produced a profound effect in America. The left-wing elements who for so many years had accepted industrial dualism as a self-evident necessity, in fact, almost as a religion, were literally shocked into a re-valuation of it. Their eyes were opened all of a sudden to its disastrous consequences. Then they repudiated it and began their present great drive back to the old trade unions. To the Third International, and particularly to the Russians at the head of it, is due the credit for breaking the deadly grip of dual unionism in the American labor movement.


With the repudiation of dual unionism, the militants have also cast aside many of the theories they once held regarding the unions and have adopted new and different conceptions. In the past, blinded by the glittering dual union utopia and embittered by organization chauvinism, they developed many bizarre notions about the trade unions in order to justify the dualist policy. In the light of recent events these theories seem ridiculous. The real meaning of the labor movement escaped the dual unionists altogether. Besides ascribing the most extravagant virtues to their utopian dual organizations, they lashed the old trade unions with criticisms which, for wildness and vitriolic sharpness, have never been equalled in any other country. They looked upon the trade unions as a sort of conspiracy carried out by the employers against the working class, as capitalistic organizations which, yielding no benefits to the workers now and utterly incapable of evolving into genuine labor unions, had to be ruthlessly destroyed. [Dual unionists commonly make the charge that the A. F. of L., backed by capitalist money, was organized to destroy the Knights of Labor, and then, with characteristic inconsistency, they claim the success of the A. F. of L. as proving the feasibility of the dual union program. But the fact is the A. F. of L. was not organized as a rival organization to the K. of L. When the A. F. of L. was founded in 1881 it had 40,000 members (out of a total of 200,000 trade unionists in the whole country) whereas the K. of L. at that period had only 20,000 members. Only for a couple of years, when it was at its peak, did the K. of L. exceed the trade unions in numerical strength. Generally speaking the trade unions represented the skilled workers, and the K. of L. the semi-skilled and unskilled. At first no rivalry existed between the two movements. They maintained friendly relations until 1884, when the K. of L. began its rapid growth and hectic career. Needing the skilled workers in its bitter battles against the employers, the K. of L. embarked upon a militant campaign to absorb the trade unions. This started the fight, John R. Commons, in his History of Labor in the United States, P. 386-411, says: “The conflict was held in abeyance during the early eighties. The trade unions were by far the strongest organizations in the field (Italics ours) and they scented no particular danger when here and there the Knights formed an assembly either contiguous to the sphere of a trade union or even encroaching upon it.” But with the great expansion of the Knights, beginning about 1884, the jurisdictional war began in earnest. “In nearly every instance the Knights were the aggressors.” Finally at their removal Assembly in 1886, the Knights declared war against the trade unions. This aroused the latter to self-defense. They opened peace negotiations with the K. of L., but as these failed, “Thereupon the Federation declared war upon the Knights and announced the decision to carry hostilities into the enemy’s territory.” In view of these facts it is idle to assert that the A. F. of L. was a capitalist conspiracy, or even a dual union, against the Knights of Labor.] The following list of miscellaneous quotations from well-known militants illustrates typically the long prevailing intense hatred and contempt for the trade unions:

The American Federation of Labor is not now and never can become a labor movement. [Vincent St. John, in speeches.]

The United Mine Workers is a capitalist organization just as much as the standing army of the United States. [James P. Thompson, Everett, Wash, 1911 convention of International Union of Shingle Weavers.]

The 28,000 local unions of the A. F. of L. are 28,000 agencies of the capitalist class. [Wm. D. Haywood, in speeches.]

When it comes to strikebreaking the A. F. of L. has Farley beaten 1,000 ways. [James P. Thompson, Everett, Wash., 1911.]

The American Federation of Labor is neither American, nor a federation, nor of labor. [Daniel DeLeon, 1905 I. W. W. convention.]

There is no case in the history of bygone organization in the labor movement where existing organizations have changed to meet new conditions. [Vincent St. John, Why the A. F. of L. Cannot Become an Industrial Union.]

The first duty of every revolutionist is to destroy the A. F. of L. There can be no revolutionary organization so long as it exists. [Joseph J. Ettor, Samuel Gompers Smascherato.]

We simply have to go at them (the trade unions) and smash them from top to bottom. [Tom Hickey, cited by Brissenden, History of the I. W. W., P. 49.]

I would cut off my right arm rather than join the A. F. of L. [Wm. D. Haywood.]

We don’t want to save the Federation any more than to save the nation; we aim at destroying it. [Joseph J. Ettor, cited by Brissenden, History of the I. W. W., P. 303.]

The A. F. of L. never won a strike, the I. W. W. never lost one. [James P. Thompson, in speeches.]

If any officer of a pure and simple trade or labor organization applies for membership in the Socialist Labor Party he shall be rejected. [Socialist Labor Party convention, 1900.]

It has been said that this convention was to form an organization rival to the A. F. of L. This is a mistake. We are here for the purpose of forming a labor organization. [Wm. D. Haywood, 1905 I. W. W. convention.]

This wornout system (trade unionism) offers no promise of improvement and adaptation. There is no silver lining to the clouds of darkness and despair settling down upon the world of labor. [Manifesto of conference forming I. W. W., 1905.]

It might as well be said if the fine energy exhibited by the I. W. W. were put into the Catholic Church (instead of the trade unions) that the result would be the workers’ control of industry. [Wm. D. Haywood, International Socialist Review, March, 1914.]

Through the foregoing intensely hostile criticisms, which truly reflect the viewpoint held generally by rebels for many years regarding the trade unions, run the conceptions that the trade unions are essentially capitalistic in nature, and that they cannot develop into bona fide revolutionary organizations. But the militants of today, since their great change in opinion and tactics, no longer accept these far-fetched and unjustifiable conclusions. They see the trade unions for what they really are, primitive but genuine attempts of an ignorant working class to organize and fight the exploiters that are harassing it. If the organizations are afflicted by all sorts of capitalist ideas and notions it is because the workers as a whole suffer from them also. Timid and muddled trade unions are a logical throwoff of a timid and muddled working class. But as the workers gradually become educated, and especially as a more militant and intelligent element achieves leadership among them, the trade unions will constantly take on higher forms and a more advanced psychology, until finally they develop into scientifically constructed, class conscious weapons in the revolutionary struggle.

In the era just past the militants made much of the fact that the trade unions demanded only “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s, work,” claiming this slogan showed conclusively that they were wedded to the perpetuation of the capitalist system. It was one of the prime reasons why the Socialists did not invade the A. F. of L., depose the Gompers regime, and change the whole face of the labor movement twenty years ago. But the militants are no longer deceived by this and similar slogans. They see that little or no attention is paid to such doctrines in real practice. The unions know no such thing as “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” Consciously or unconsciously, they have used that device as camouflage to conceal from the capitalist enemy the aggressive character of their movement. In reality there is no set limit to their demands. Notwithstanding the hamstringing effects of their conservative bureaucracy, and of their own ignorance and weak organization, the unions constantly improve working conditions and screw up wages as much as they can. Their unwavering method is to seize from the exploiter all they have the understanding and power to take. This is a distinctly revolutionary proceeding. And the modern militant knows that, so far as the industrial part of the class struggle is concerned, his task is to broaden, deepen, clarify, and hasten this natural revolutionary trade union tendency until it culminates in the final abolition of capitalism.


Especially the new movement, as represented by the Trade Union Educational League, repudiates the conception, long a dogma of the dual unionists, that the trade unions are anchored to the principle of craft unionism and cannot develop into industrial organizations. As against the old idea that the inevitable industrial unions have to be created out of the whole cloth, by fiat as it were, the new movement holds that they are coming as a result of an evolutionary process, by a constant building-up, re-organization, and consolidation of the primitive craft unions. This conception is borne out by world-wide labor history.

In the development of industrial unionism out of the original unorganized condition of the working class the labor movement passes through three distinct phases, which may be roughly designated as isolation, federation, and amalgamation. In the beginning the workers almost always organize by crafts. These primitive unions, knowing little or nothing of broad class interests, fight along in a desultory battle, each one for itself. This is the period of isolation, or pure and simple craft unionism. But after a greater or lesser period it finally ends: the crafts in the various industries, seeing that the employers play their organizations against each other and thus defeat all of them, learn something of their common interests and set up alliances among themselves along the lines of their respective industries. This brings them into the second, or federation, stage of development. Their evolution goes right on: for the same forces that necessitated the craft unions federating eventually compel them to consolidate these federations into actual industrial unions. Thus they arrive at the final stage of amalgamation. The resultant industrial unions then pass through a similar process of integration. First they fight alone, then they strike up federations with allied industries, and finally they amalgamate with them. Industrial unionism comes, not as a new system suddenly applied to the labor movement, but as the culmination of a long and elaborate evolution from the simple craft unions to the complex organizations necessary for the modern struggle.

Practically all the great industrial unions in the world have been built by this evolutionary process. In England, the National Union of Railwaymen, the Amalgamated Engineering Union, the Miners’ Federation, and the Transport and General Workers’ Union are amalgamations of many craft and district unions. In Germany, the Metal Workers’ Union, the Building Workers’ Federation, etc., etc., were built up the same way from original craft unions. These big organizations, and dozens more in other countries, have all passed through the three stages of isolation, federation, and amalgamation. That is the normal mode of labor union progress. And despite the efforts of the dualists to prove them static and unchangeable, American trade unions are travelling the same evolutionary route that the foreign unions have taken, although very much slower and more laboriously. At present they are quite generally in the federation stage of development. That is the meaning of the many alliances among them—the railroad federations, the printing, metal, building, and other trades councils—that exist in the various industries. The task of the militants is to develop the trade unions into the next stage, amalgamation; to speed on the present natural evolution until these bodies culminate in industrial unions.


The new movement now crystallizing in the Trade Union Educational League also differs widely in tactical conceptions from those of the dualists. The essence of the program of the latter was to set up labor unions upon the basis of their several political and industrial theories and then to try to educate a backward working class into joining them. This was a violation of the first principle of labor unionism. The workers organize in the industrial field not because they hold certain elaborate social beliefs jointly, but because through united action they can protect their common economic interests. Labor unions are built upon the solid rock of the material welfare of the workers, not upon their acceptance of stated political opinions. In the very nature of things labor unions at present must consist of the many sects and factions that go to make up the working class, Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, Syndicalists, Catholics, Protestants, etc., etc. The natural result of the dualists’ attempt to organize labor unions around their theories was a whole crop of new labor movements. As fast as new conceptions, political and industrial, developed, their proponents organized separate labor unions to give expression to them. In some industries there were as many as five of these dual movements, each representing a different tendency and each engaged in the hopeless task of converting the masses to its particular point of view. Dual unionism, with its program of labor organization along the lines of fine-spun theory, not only devitalized the trade unions by robbing them of their best blood, but it also degenerated the revolutionary and progressive movement into a series of detached sects, out of touch with the masses and the real struggle and running off to all sorts of wild theories and impractical programs.

But the militants in the Trade Union Educational League rigidly eschew this sectarian policy. Their program is the very reverse, to keep the militants in the organized masses at all costs. Instead of setting up intellectual and organizational barriers and then coaxing the worker to break through them, they carry their propaganda right into the very heart of the workers’ organizations and struggles. The Russian revolution has taught them that the great masses will probably never become clear-headedly revolutionary, but that they will follow the lead of an organized conscious minority that does know the way. The League militants conceive the question of labor organization to be largely one of leadership, and they aim to secure the backing of the mass of organized workers by taking the lead in all their battles, by showing in the crucible of the class struggle that their theories, tactics, and organization forms are the best for the labor movement. Thus will be broken the grip of the revolutionary bureaucracy who now stultify and paralyse the labor unions, and the control of these organizations thereby gradually pass into the hands of the militants who will stimulate and develop them.

In the past the militants have voluntarily isolated themselves from the organized masses, which was very convenient indeed for the labor bureaucrats. But now these active spirits fight desperately against such isolation. They realize fully that their place is in the big trade unions. And when the controlling reactionaries, who instinctively know that the rebels are dangerous to them only if in the unions, expel individuals and local unions, the latter must fight their way back in again. Such a policy however, does not mean that the old organizations must be maintained at any price. In extreme cases secession movements may be unavoidable through the reactionaries’ refusing to obey the mandates of the rank and file. But when such splits occur the militants must have so maneuvered as to keep the mass of the membership on their side. Otherwise disaster will come upon them and the labor movement. The winning combination for the rebel movement, the typical situation that the Trade Union Educational League is trying to create everywhere, is for the militants to function aggressively as a highly-organized minority in the midst of the great unconscious trade union mass. The heart of the League’s tactical program is that under no circumstances shall the militants allow themselves to become detached from the unionized section of the working class. “Keep the militants in the organized mass,” is the slogan of the new revolutionary movement.


An excellent illustration of the effectiveness of the “keep the militants in the organized mass” method advocated by the Trade Union Educational League was the birth of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. Characteristic of their general misinterpretation of labor history in favor of their policy, the dual unionists have cited this powerful independent union time and again as the one convincing proof of the correctness of the dual union program, and few indeed have contradicted them. All of which qualifies the Amalgamated so much the better to show the difference in principle and results between the old and the new methods of the militants.

The Amalgamated Clothing Workers was not built by dual union methods. It developed out of the work of an organized minority within the old United Garment Workers. The traditional way of dual unionism and the very essence of its program, is for the handful of militants to devise ideal unions, set them up in competition with the old trade unions, and to engage with the latter in an open struggle for control of the industry, a process which almost always results in simply stripping the old unions of their militants and leaving those organizations in the hands of the reactionaries. But nothing like that occurred in the case of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. The militants in the men’s ready-made clothing industry had no dual union. [The needle trades generally have been unusually free from dual unionism, a fact which no doubt has had a great deal to do with the advanced types of organization prevailing in that industry.] They accepted as their organization the United Garment Workers of America, and they planned to make it into a virile fighting union capable of playing a worthy part in the class struggle. To this end they organized themselves, in harmony with League principles, to defeat the controlling reactionaries and to make their own policies prevail.

The struggle between the progressives and the reactionaries in the United Garment Workers went on for a number of years. The rebel elements, utilizing every mistake or crime of the officialdom, gradually extended their organization and influence with the rank and file. The sell-out by Rickert in the great Chicago strike of 1910 strengthened their grip. Then came the bitter New York strike of 1913, with its record of treason by the old officials. This was the final blow. On the basis of the resultant discontent the militants, now organized nationally through a rank and file committee (exactly the same as the League is at present setting up in the various industries) elected an overwhelming majority of delegates to the approaching 1914 convention in Nashville.

This brought the situation to a crisis. The militants had the rank and file behind them, but Rickert, in a desperate attempt to save himself, ruled out enough of their delegates to leave him in control.

At this all the rebel delegates withdrew and re-organized themselves into another convention. Then they gave an eloquent proof that they were not dual unionists. Even after Rickert’s outrage they refused to secede, but claimed to be the genuine United Garment Workers. It was only when the A. F. of L. convention, shortly afterward, denied this claim and recognized Rickert that they launched out as an independent union. To call such a proceeding dual unionism is nonsense. It had absolutely nothing in common with the customary dual union policy of sucking the militants out of the old unions. The very heart of the campaign cited, and the reason it succeeded, was that it kept the militants in the organized mass and united them there so that they could beat the old machine. The split at Nashville was a minor phase. No matter whether it took place or not, the militants had won the rank and file. Regardless of Rickert’s antics, the organized men’s clothing workers had definitely accepted the leadership of the men who later made their organization such a brilliant success. Instead of being an endorsement of dual unionism, the rise of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers is a striking justification of the “stay with the organized masses” policy advocated by the Trade Union Educational League.