William Z. Foster

Published by the Trade Union Educational League


Chapter III.


A FUNDAMENTAL necessity to a successful strike strategy is the building and functioning of an effective trade union leadership. The workers’ necessity for a firm, courageous leadership is a burning one. The very nature of their struggle against the capitalists and the state demands centralization and discipline, which involves the transference of great power into the hands of those who stand at the head of the unions. One cannot fight the class war on the basis of referendums.

Even as a military army, the workers’ organizations must be headed by a capable general staff. Because of their capitalistic environment, the workers are affiicted with many destructive illusions, political, economic, patriotic, religious. These make them a prey of various breeds of misleaders. Hence, the tremendous importance of developing an honest, well-knit, and thoroughly capable leadership, able to point the way ideologically to the workers as well as give them organizational direction in times of strikes.

The problem of leadership may be considered in two phases. There is the basic question of group leadership, and then the subsidiary question of individual leadership. Let us approach the subject thru the latter phase.


The present-day leaders of the trade unions are cut of one pattern in their colorlessness and insipidity. They are dry-as-dust bureaucrats, ignorant and unimaginative. They are almost totally without idealism and true proletarian fighting spirit. They receive no inspiration from the masses. They are altogether unfitted to lead the American working class in the great struggles lying ahead of it. This is because they are wedded to the capitalist system and are in reality the agents of the capitalists in the ranks of the workers. They are poisoned with graft and petty bourgeois selfishness.

Our strike strategy must aim at the elimination of these misleaders and the creation of a body of militant, fighting leaders. These must be able to sway the masses, to develop their fighting spirit. They must be honest, courageous, resourceful. Especially they must be honest and courageous. Nothing inspires the workers so much as loyal and brave leaders. Note the wonderful popularity of Alexander Howat among the miners because of his unwavering devotion to their interests under any and all circumstances. Though such leaders may make a hundred mistakes the workers will trust them and follow them.

But in developing such a body of militant fighters a menacing danger exists in the tendency of budding left wing trade union leaders to lose themselves in the maze of everyday detail work and to neglect to give themselves the necessary theoretical training. This must be checked at all costs. Only those who understand and apply Marxian and Leninistic principles can hope to be trade union leaders of the highest type.

The future great task of the left wing lies primarily in mobilizing the masses of the now unorganized workers and leading them into battle against the employers. And it is exactly in this work among the unorganized that the greatest demands are made upon individual leadership. Leading strikes of long-organized, highly-disciplined workers is quite a different matter from leading strikes of the unorganized.

In the first case the workers tend to look more to the organization than to individual leaders to conduct the struggle (although the recent spectacular rise of Ben Gold among the New York fur workers illustrates again the power of the militant, dynamic leader even in hide-bound trade unions). But when the unorganized go on strike, untrained and inexperienced, they look especially for inspiration and guidance not so much to their weak union nucleus as to the personalities at the head of their movement.

Usually they dramatize their hopes, aspirations, and fighting spirit in the personality of one man. The case of Weisbord in Passaic is typical. And woe to the situation if the man at the head of their movement is not a real leader. In struggles of the unorganized this tendency must be borne in mind.

The left wing must carefully cultivate and develop the strong, dynamic personalities who are capable of inspiring the unorganized masses in the struggle. The problem of developing the strongest qualities of such individual leadership must occupy our close attention.


An effective strike strategy demands not only strong individual leaders, but especially a firm and well-organized group leadership. Whether the left wing is actually in control of a given strike, or whether it is a minority force seeking to influence the general course of the strike, it must pursue a policy of combining in the Trade Union Educational League and the various other types of left wing organizations, for relief, defense, etc., and knitting together in an effective group leadership, all those militant elements willing to conduct a real struggle.

This, of course, requires as much preliminary organization of these bodies as possible before the actual strike takes place. This organized left wing must be the steel backbone of the strike. Upon it falls the burden of educating, encouraging, and inspiring the masses, of fighting off the many enemies, internal and external, of the strike, and of performing the bulk of the multitudinous detail work of the battle.

The organized left wing must make a scientific study and application of strike leadership. It must study carefully every mass strike or other movement of the workers and learn their lessons. It must be courageous, militant, and flexible in its policies. It must know how to struggle for power in the unions, before, during, and after strikes. It must work consistently for the building up of an energetic and capable trade union leadership, defeating on the one hand, tendencies towards a merely opportunistic scramble for union office, and on the other hand, the ultra-leftism which looks upon all office holders in trade unions, whether good or bad, as parasites and grafters.

It must combat the anarchistic conception that the workers need no leaders and that union officials shall serve not more than one term -- an illusion cultivated by the I. W. W. which has effectively prevented the growth of a real leadership in that body. It must colonize with militants those industries and plants entering into strike conditions which are not producing leaders capable of handling the approaching strikes.

It must know how to practice the principles of democratic centralism: that is, while keeping a firm grip on the strike situation and preserving an iron discipline, at the same time maintaining close contact with the masses and securing their support for every move that is made. Such an organized left leadership must act as a real general staff, conceiving and working out its problems largely in the sense of military strategy.


The present dominant trade union leaders ideologically and organizationally constitute a definite group, a conservative machine that is controlling the labor movement. They are unwilling and incompetent to practice an aggressive and effective strike strategy. They are reactionary, corrupt, and ignorant. They refuse to fight the employers. Their conception is not to build the trade unions into fighting organizations, but to reduce them through the B. & 0. plan and similar schemes into mere instruments to increase the capitalists’ profits by the speeding up of the workers in industry. And the Socialist trade union leaders are hardly one whit better than the old line Gomperites. The bureaucracy tends to discard the strike weapon altogether.

More and more this reactionary leadership is proving its incapacity to lead the workers’ struggle. It cannot organize the unorganized, it cannot conduct strikes successfully. It betrays and sells out every real fight made against the bosses. Under its control the trade union movement loses strike after strike, its membership falls, its morale declines, and the workers are in retreat before the attacks of the militant employers.

A real strike strategy must succeed in defeating this treacherous and incompetent leadership and in replacing it by a militant, fighting left leadership. This means a fight for control all along the line, during, before, and after strikes, by the organized left wing against the organized right wing. This fight manifests itself in a maze of forms and presents the greatest difficulties. How to conduct it constitutes a whole section of the general left wing strike strategy. Let us, for brevity sake, confine ourselves to that part of this fight which actually takes place during strikes.


First, let us dispel the illusion that the left wing cannot and must not fight the right wing during strikes. There are some left wingers who, victims of this illusion, claim that “the workers cannot fight on two fronts at the same time”; that is against the employers and the right wing simultaneously. Hence, when they fight the employers they refuse to struggle against the reactionary bureaucracy, and vice versa.

These workers make the serious mistake of not realizing that the employers and the right wing constitute pretty much one front against the rebellious masses of workers and the organized left wing. If there are two fronts, they are two fronts of the employers’ forces. In the needle trades, for example, when the left wing gets into a violent clash with the reactionary officialdom the latter never fails to call the employers to their support in blacklisting militant workers.

The bureaucracy in the Miners, Machinists, and many other unions use the same tactics. And by the same token, when strikes take place, the employers may always depend upon the active support of the right wing, bureaucrats against the “unreasonable” demands of the masses. Indeed, it is during strikes that the right wing is most dangerous in its treachery and it is exactly then that it has to be fought most skillfully and resolutely. The treason of Thomas and others in the British general strike demonstrates this fact. Failure to fight the right wing during strikes amounts to giving the reactionaries a free hand to betray the workers.

The left wing must always carefully and skillfully expose the machinations of the right wing in strikes. This is strikingly necessary in the present strike of the New York Cloakmakers, when the right wing has carried out the hypocritical policy of going to the masses with revolutionary phrases and more radical demands than the left wing controlling the strike, while at the same time privately knifing the strike and working for a treacherous settlement. The “cannot fight on two fronts” theory is a dangerous illusion which has no place in a militant strike strategy.

The strategy of the right wing is to break up all militant attacks against the employers and to reduce the struggle to a class collaboration basis. The strategy of the left wing must be to make the struggle militant in spite of the counter efforts of the right wing.

The strike sabotage of the right wingers manifests itself in various ways. First, let us consider their attitude towards strikes conducted by independent unions under control of the left wing. In such cases no treachery is too extreme for them. Take the I. W. W. strike in Lawrence. In this historic. struggle the leaders of the United Textile Workers did not hesitate to furnish strikebreakers to the employers. Or take the more recent case of the Passaic textile strike. This was one of the bitterest ever waged in the history of American labor. But the A. F. of L. leaders openly played the employers’ game and denounced it, using the charge of dual unionism as a blind for this attack. They sabotaged the collection of strike relief and they attempted to demoralize the strikers.

In such cases the left wing must maneuver carefully to kill the dual union charge by moving for affiliation with the A. F. of L. In Passaic, affiliation was actually brought about in the midst of the struggle and the A. F. of L. was compelled to endorse openly the strike which for seven months it had shamelessly sabotaged. But in carrying through such affiliation maneuvers the left wing must be careful to maintain its ideological and organizational control over the striking masses and to prevent a sell-out settlement by the right wing, for which the left wing would be held responsible by the workers. This can be accomplished by an intelligent and determined left leadership.

In established unions, where the left wing is in a minority or where its control of the official machinery is weak, the fight against the right wing takes on other forms. The general policy of the right wing leadership is to use its control of the union to dampen the fighting spirit of the workers and to sell them out over the conference table. Hence, the policy of the left wing in strikes of organized unions must be to spur on the masses to fight and, by mobilizing them against the reactionary leadership, prevent the latter from betraying them in the settlement.

This policy proved successful in Illinois during the 1922 national strike of the bituminous miners. The union was in a desperate struggle, fighting for a national agreement. And just at the most critical moment, when its very life was at stake, President Farrington of the Illinois union, who has since gone openly into the service of the mine operators, declared that he would make a state agreement for the Illinois miners.

If he had been able to accomplish this it would have broken the strike. But the left wing, by holding a series of mass meetings of strikers throughout the state, so aroused the membership that Farrington could not go through with his betrayal. This saved the entire union from disaster. What would have happened had the left wing in the Illinois miners been afflicted with the “cannot fight on two fronts” theory?


The recent strike of the New York Furriers was another instance of a successful mobilization of the membership by the left leadership to balk a menacing right wing treachery. The local Joint Board which actually conducted the strike was in the hands of the left wing led by Ben Gold. But the machinery of the International was controlled by the right wing. All through the strike the fight was sabotaged by the head of the International, Schactman. Finally, believing his opportunity had arrived to deal a decisive blow, he, in close combination with President Green of the A. F. of L., made a tentative agreement with the employers, the famous “eight points.”

But the left wing leadership rejected this agreement, mobilized the strikers against it and carried on the struggle till a much better settlement was arrived at. This was a major defeat for the arch-reactionary, Green. Powerful enemies of his among the upper bureaucracy of the A. F. of L. are now using it against him, claiming that he compromised the A. F. of L. badly by permitting himself to be so badly out-maneuvered by the Communist trade union leader, Gold.

If treacherous strike settlements are special danger points that the left wing strategists must guard against in their fight against the right wing, so also are those situations when the masses are in a state of great foment and the right wing leaders refuse to mobilize them for the struggle.

Cases in point were the failure of the Brotherhood chiefs to strike their men in common cause with the railroad shop mechanics in 1922: and the failure of Lewis to call out the bituminous miners in 1925 in conjunction with the strike of the anthracite miners. Both these failures, which amounted to treason to the workers, were disastrous. In one case the great shopmen’s strike was lost and the backbone of railroad trade unionism broken, and in the other the very life of the Miners’ Union has been threatened by the disintegration of its bituminous section.


The left wing strategists must find ways and means to force the hands of the right wing leaders in such critical situations by mobilizing the membership against them. This is a real test of our strike strategy, especially where the left wing has but little organization. In the past, in such instances, there has been too much recourse to the unauthorized, or “outlaw” strike, and dual unionism.

Sometimes, in especially desperate circumstances and after carefully weighing the situation, the unauthorized mass strike may be used with success, but in American labor experience it has been mostly a failure. In nearly every case where there is sufficient sentiment to call an effective unauthorized strike the same sentiment could be better utilized through the regular union channels to set the organization as such into motion.

A case in point was the so-called outlaw railroad switchmen’s strike of 1920, which completely paralyzed the railroads over great sections of the country. There was a tremendous volume of rebellious sentiment behind this ill-fated national struggle. With intelligent left direction the movement could have forced the Brotherhoods officially into action and probably would have driven numbers of the bureaucrats from power. But the leadership of the “outlaws” was afflicted with utopian dual union illusions and the great movement went down to crushing defeat.

In the coming Spring the left wing will have a severe test of its strategy against the right wing in the Miners’ Union. Its task will be to force Lewis to call out all the bituminous miners and then to hold them out till a victorious settlement has been secured. At every step in the struggle it will have to defeat the most ruthless and corrupt bureaucracy in the American labor movement, the John L. Lewis machine.