Bankruptcy of the American Labor Movement, William Z. Foster

Published by the Trade Union Educational League


Chapter 5

The Trade Union Educational League

The new movement of militants working within the trade unions is centering around the Trade Union Educational League. This body is the descendant of two forerunners, the Syndicalist League of North America and the International Trade Union Educational League. The first of these was organized in 1912. As its name indicates it was Syndicalist in tendency, and it was largely influenced by the French labor movement, then in its glory. The S. L. of N. A. had the same general working principles as the present T. U. E. L. It flatly opposed dual organization and advocated the organization of revolutionary nuclei in the mass unions. For a time it made quite a stir, securing a grip in the labor movements of many cities. In Kansas City in particular the Central Labor Council fell into the hands of the rebel elements, who actually drove the leading labor fakers out of the city. The organization had four journals: The Syndicalist of Chicago, The Unionist of St. Louis, The Toiler of Kansas City, and The International of San Diego. A feature of the movement was an extended trip through the United States by Tom Mann, who endorsed its program wholeheartedly. Another was an attempt of the Emma Goldman Anarchist group of New York to steal the thunder of the movement by launching a national Syndicalist league of their own. But the Syndicalist League of North America was born before its time. The rebel elements generally were still too much infatuated with dual unionism to accept its program. Particularly was this true because just about that time the I. W. W. made a great show of vitality, carrying on big strikes in Lawrence, Akron, Paterson, Little Falls, etc., etc. After about two years’ existence the S. L. of N. A. died.

The next effort to organize the radicals within the mass unions took place in 1916, when the International Trade Union Educational League was founded. This body set up a few groups here and there, but it found a poor soil to work in. The war situation was at hand and the rebels, still badly afflicted with dualism, would have nothing to do with the ultra-patriotic trade unions. Hence it never acquired even as much vigor and influence as the earlier Syndicalist League of North America. It expired in 1917.

The present Trade Union Educational League was organized in Chicago in November, 1920. For about a year it lingered along more dead than alive, due as usual to the dualistic attitude of the militants generally. But in the latter ,part of 1921, after the Third International and the Red International of Labor Unions had condemned dual unionism so categorically and advocated the organization of nuclei with in the mass unions, it took on sudden vigor and importance. With the hard shell of dualism broken, the militants, particularly those in the extreme left wing, came with a surprising change of front to see in it exactly the type of organization they needed. One after another, the Communist Party, the Workers’ Party, the Proletarian Party, and the United Toilers went on record officially in favor of its general policy. Hence the League rapidly extended its organization and sphere of influence. In the early part of 1922 it put on a drive, sending out an elaborate series of circular letters to hundreds of militants (later blasted by Mr. Gompers as the “1,000 secret agents” seeking to destroy American civilization) in that many towns, calling upon them to organize groups of rebel unionists in their respective localities. As a result branches of the League were set up in all the principal unions and industrial centers of the United States and Canada. In March, 1922, THE LABOR HERALD, monthly official organ of the League, was launched.


The working theory of the Trade Union Educational League is the establishment of a left block of all the revolutionary and progressive elements in the trade unions, as against the autocratic machine of the reactionary bureaucracy. Thus, so that these various elements of the different political persuasions can co-operate together, the policy of the organization must be essentially industrial in character. Except for condemning the fatal Gompers political policy and advocating the general proposition of independent working class political action, the League leaves political questions to the several parties. Its work is primarily in the industrial field.

At its first National Conference, held in Chicago, August 26-27, 1922, the League laid out a broad revolutionary industrial policy, upon the basis of which it is uniting the militants and carrying on its educational work in the unions. Of this program the principal planks are: (1) abolition of capitalism and establishment of a workers’ republic, (2) repudiation of the policy of class collaboration and adoption of the principle of class struggle, (3) affiliation of the American labor movement to the Red International of Labor Unions, (4) wholehearted support of the Russian revolution as “the supreme achievement of the world’s working class,” (5) industrial unionism, (6) combating of dual unionism, (7) shop delegate system in the unions, (8) independent working class political action.

In a statement of its program and principles issued in February, 1922, the aims of the League are stated as follows:

The Trade Union Educational League proposes to develop the trade unions from their present antiquated and stagnant condition into modern, powerful labor organizations, capable of waging successful warfare against Capital. To this end it is working to revamp and remodel from top to bottom their theories, tactics, structure, and leadership. Instead of advocating the prevailing shameful and demoralizing nonsense about harmonizing the interests of Capital and Labor, it is firing the workers’ imagination and releasing their wonderful idealism and energy by propagating the inspiring goal of the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a workers’ republic. The League aggressively favors organization by industry instead of by craft. Although the craft form of union served a useful purpose in the early days of capitalism, it is now entirely out of date. In the face of the great consolidations of the employers the workers must also close up their ranks or be crushed. The multitude of craft unions must be amalgamated into a series of industrial unions—one each for the metal trades, railroad trades, clothing trades, building trades, etc.—even as they have been in other countries. The League also aims to put the workers of America in co-operation with the fighting trade unionists of the rest of the world. It is flatly opposed to our present pitiful policy of isolation, and it advocates affiliation to the militant international trade union movement, known as the Red International of Labor Unions. The League is campaigning against the reactionaries, incompetents, and crooks who occupy strategic positions in many of our organizations. It is striving to replace them with militants, with men and women unionists who look upon the labor movement not as a means for making an easy living, but as an instrument for the achievement of working class emancipation. In other words, the League is working in every direction necessary to put life and spirit and power into the trade union movement.


The Trade Union Educational League is what its name implies, purely an educational organization. It carries on an aggressive campaign of instruction and stimulation in every stage and phase of the labor movement. It is in no sense a dual union. It is an auxiliary of the labor unions proper, not a substitute for them. It collects no dues or per capita tax, nor does it accept the affiliation of any labor organization whatsoever. It issues no membership cards or charters. Those wishing to become members must fulfill the following conditions: (1) belong to a recognized trade union, (2) subscribe to THE LABOR HERALD, official organ of the League, (3) satisfy a local membership committee that they accept the general program of the League. [By “recognised” unions we meant those organizations, independent and A. F. of L. alike, which in the judgment of the League can be adapted to amalgamation. Some, particularly the universal dual unions claiming rights over all industries, will have to be openly opposed as impossible to link up with the general labor movement.] The revenues of the organization are derived from the sale of THE LABOR HERALD and pamphlets, collections at meetings, and donations of members and sympathizers to the Sustaining Fund. The League proposes to hold national conferences yearly. Between these conferences the organization is directed by the National Committee, at present consisting of five members, but which will finally be extended to fifteen, including a Secretary-Treasurer, and fourteen secretaries of the National Industrial Sections of the League, as follows: Amusement Trades, Building Trades, Clothing Trades, Food Trades, General Transport Trades, Lumber Trades, Metal Trades, Mining Trades; Miscellaneous Trades, Printing Trades, Public Service Trades, Railroad Trades, Textile Trades, and Local General Groups.

The organization plan of the Trade Union Educational League is to follow with its militant groupings all the ramifications of the labor union movement. To this end it sets up its educational organizations in all localities, crafts, and industries. The local General Groups are made up of militants from a11 trades. Their function is to carry on the local work generally. They are sub-divided into Local Industrial Sections, one for each broad industry. Then there are state organizations to correspond to the State Federations of Labor. These local and state groups are in turn being combined into four districts, Canada, Eastern States, Central States, and Western States.

A most important part of the League are the National Industrial Sections. These are being organized in all the big industries, as specified above. They are each headed by a National Committee, selected either by correspondence or at national conferences, and representing all crafts, A. F. of L. and independent, in their respective spheres. These National Committees map out educational programs for their whole industries and create Local Industrial Sections to carry them into the local unions everywhere. The effect is that even in an industry with 20 or 30 craft unions the militants function on an industrial basis. No matter whether it is a rebel section hand in San Diego, California, or a militant engineer in Portland, Maine, all railroad members of the League are working upon a common industrial program and seeking in their many organizations to make it prevail. In the amalgamation movement, for example, with the militants in the several craft unions of a given industry definitely agreed upon creating an industrial union and working in unity to break down the walls between their respective organizations so that all may be combined into one body, the get-together effect is irresistable. Gompers and all his reactionary henchmen will never be able to withstand it.


Although the League has been active but a few months and has hardly made a start at creating its machinery, and notwithstanding the fact that the militants, because of their long connection with dual unionism, have but slight prestige in the trade unions and know very little about how to work effectively in them, nevertheless the organization has made wonderful headway. The workers are responding to its efforts in a manner which is a delight to the militants and the despair of the reactionaries. Already the League has demonstrated beyond question that the rank and file of Labor are ready for a radical program of action.

In advocating the various planks of its platform the League has developed a series of movements within the trade unions, all of which have shown a surprising vitality. An important one was the demand for a general strike of all workers throughout the country as a protest against the Daugherty injunction and other tyrannies of the employers. This movement was initiated in Omaha when League militants introduced the general strike resolution into the Central Labor Council. The resolution was adopted and ordered sent to all central bodies, with the result that hundreds of organizations endorsed it. Mr. Gompers himself stated publicly that he had 200 demands for nation-wide action and that never in the history of the labor movement had there been such a wide-spread sentiment for a general strike. The educational effect of the movement was great.

A large body of sentiment has also been created in favor of affiliation to the Red International of Labor Unions. Hundreds of local unions and dozens of central labor councils have endorsed the proposition. The Detroit and Seattle central bodies have sent delegates to Moscow, and District No. 26, United Mine Workers, has voted to affiliate. In the prevailing strike of railroad shopmen and miners the League has also taken an active part, its speakers encouraging and assisting the workers everywhere. In the Miners’ Union the League is particularly effective. At present it is putting up progressive tickets, with excellent chances for victory, in many districts and subdistricts which have been used for years as pawns by the corrupt international administrations. A great service was the League’s checking of the outburst of dual union sentiment that developed through the brutal expulsion of Alexander Howat and the Kansas District. A year before such an outrage would have surely split the Miners’ Union. But as it was, the League, through its constant hammering against secessionism, had been able to drive home to the rebels some understanding of the disaster of dualism, and aided by the splendid, common-sense attitude of Howat, was able to prevent them from organizing breakaway movements. At least two districts were held in the U. M. W. A. directly through the League’s efforts and serious splits were avoided in many more. This work of solidarity was a great achievement for the League and the labor movement at large. It probably saved the whole coal miners’ organization; for had a bad break occurred over the Howat case, and it would have done so without the League’s influence, the union never could have weathered the great storm then about to descend upon it, the national general strike of 1922.

But the issue with which the League has scored its greatest success is that of industrial unionism through amalgamation. This movement to combine all the craft unions into a series of industrial organizations it as present sweeping the country like a prairie fire. The workers realize that the death knell of craft unionism has sounded and that the way to a higher form of organization lies through amalgamation. Men and organizations, who a year ago were entirely untouched by industrial union ideas, are now lining up for the project enthusiastically and in wholesale fashion. The “old guard” of the trade union bureaucracy are alarmed as never before in their experience.

The amalgamation movement proper got under way in the latter part of March, 1922, when the Chicago Federation of Labor adopted its now famous resolution calling for the consolidation of all the craft unions into industrial unions. Led by Mr. Gompers himself, the reactionaries declared war against the movement. But to no avail, amalgamation sentiment ran on like a flood everywhere. Since then (this is being written in October, 1922) thousands of local unions, scores of central labor councils, and five international unions,* Railway Clerks, Maintenance of Way, Butcher Workmen, Fire Fighters, and Amalgamated Food Workers, have adopted and endorsed general amalgamation projects. [At its May, 1922, convention the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America also reiterated more strongly than ever its demand for amalgamation of all the unions in the clothing industry.] The State Federations of labor have been particularly responsive. During the past four months thirteen of them have acted upon the proposition and in eleven instances, viz.: Minnesota, Washington, Utah, Colorado, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan, Indiana, Oregon, South Dakota, and Ohio, the amalgamationists won out overwhelmingly in spite of desperate resistance from the reactionaries. And in the two failures, California and Illinois, the craft unionists secured the victory only by narrow margins. The movement for solidarity is irresistible.

A high point in the campaign was the Detroit convention of the Maintenance of Way, when the 1,500 delegates not only endorsed amalgamation on five separate occasions, but they also cleaned out 19 of 21 of their general officials, including the President, Grable. Even the independent unions have been deeply affected by the amalgamation movement. A year ago the whole tendency was for them to split and split again, but now they are exhibiting strong get-together movements. In the boot and shoe and textile industries amalgamations of the independents are now under way, and further consolidations may be looked for in the near future. The amalgamation campaign, now sweeping victoriously onward, will culminate inevitably in a profound re-organization of the labor movement. It is a veritable triumph for industrial unionism, and the Trade Union Educational League is the heart of it all.


The American labor movement is bankrupt. With its reactionary bureaucracy and antiquated political and industrial policies and organization, it is altogether unfit to cope with the alert, highly-organized capitalist class, Politically it has long been a cipher, and now it is in grave danger of extinction industrially also. During the recent past the capitalist class has discovered a new aggressiveness and developed a powerful organization. It is no longer the same class which, before the war, was semi-tolerant of trade unionism. Now it is determined to root out every vestige of Organized Labor. The “open shop” employers have dealt the unions shattering blows in practically every industry, including printing, building, meat packing, steel, railroad, general transport, coal and mining, etc. Consequently the entire trade union movement has suffered disastrously. During the last three years it has lost fully 50% of its entire membership. The whole fabric of Organized Labor is bleeding. The labor movement is in a most critical state. So critical, in fact, that it will never be able to recover unless it quickly and radically changes its policies. The American working class is now imminently confronted with the tragic menace of having its trade union movement obliterated.

There are still some revolutionaries, unfortunately, who would welcome the elimination of the old craft unions, believing that with them out of the way a new and better movement would speedily take their place. But this is a fatal delusion. We may absolutely depend upon it that should the capitalists, in their great “open shop” drive, succeed in breaking the backbone of the trade union movement they would make all labor organization illegal and repress it with an iron hand. American labor would be reduced to the status of Russian Labor in Czarist days; it would be forced to the expedient of setting up revolutionary nuclei in the industries in preparation for some favorable opportunity when the masses could be stirred to action. Indeed, even as it is, this system will doubtless have to be applied in some of our industries if they are ever to be organized. The mass trade unions are the only protection for the workers’ right to organize; the only bulwark against a general flood of capitalist tyranny. They must be defended and strengthened at all costs.

In this grave crisis of the labor movement no relief may be expected from the trade union bureaucrats in high official place. With the rarest of exceptions, they are dominated entirely by the intellectually dead Gompers. Apparently they would slavishly follow him over the precipice to destruction. They are hopelessly self-lashed to the chariot of conservatism. Even now, in this hour of need, they resist with desperation the mildest reforms in the movement’s policies and structure. The further the capitalists push them back the more timid and reactionary they become. They are mentally frozen over solid. If the labor movement is to be saved the regenerating force must come from the organized rank and file militants. They must surge up from the bottom and compel the static leadership into vigorous, intelligent action, or remove it drastically.

It is fortunate, indeed, that just in this critical situation, when their services are so badly needed, the militants are at last freeing themselves from the dual unionism which has cursed them and the whole labor movement for a generation by keeping the reactionary elements in power. They are organizing for action in the Trade Union Educational League, and they are finding the American working class, naturally militant and aggressive, more than eager to accept their program. Now the key to the situation is for the revolutionaries and progressives generally to rally around the League and to carry on a vigorous campaign for its policies of industrial unionism through amalgamation, independent workers’ political action, affiliation with the Red International of Labor Unions, and all the rest. If this is done it will not be long until the death clutch of the Gompers bureaucracy is broken and the American labor movement, undergoing a profound renaissance, takes its place where it properly belongs, in the vanguard of the world’s workers.