William Z. Foster

Published by the Trade Union Educational League


Chapter IV.


THE most fundamental phases of our strike strategy relate to the mass of workers now unorganized. Great battles will be waged by these workers in the future, and in the process of which they will be mobilized into labor unions. This will have the most profound effects upon the trade union movement. It will proletarianize and revolutionize it. It will shift its leadership radically to the left. It will transfer the center of gravity of the movement from the skilled trades and light industries to the unskilled and semi-skilled in the key and basic industries. It will strengthen the position of the union movement by stripping the employer of their great weapon against it, the masses of unorganized workers. Hence the whole question of the organization of the unorganized is of the most vital concern in the development of our strike strategy. (In my pamphlet, “Organize the Unorganized,” published by the Trade Union Educational League, I have dealt in detail with the many phases and problems connected with the organization of the unorganized masses.)

The left wing must consciously and aggressively take up the task of organizing the unorganized, which is the major work now confronting the labor movement. There is no other group in the unions other than the left wing that has the understanding and initiative to do this basic task. The right wing, which represents the interests of the skilled workers, is opposed to the organizing of the unorganized unskilled masses, and the so-called “progressives,” although they do lip service to the necessity of organization, are too spineless and wavering to really do anything about it except under the general leadership and stimulus of the militant left wing.


The left wing must carry on this work in the keenest realization that organizing campaigns are the preliminary phases of strikes. Such campaigns in American industry under present conditions are not only in themselves more or less open fights against the employers, but they are also efforts of the workers to mobilize their forces and to secure advantageous strategic positions for the bigger strike battles that loom certainly ahead.

Employers in the big industries will not permit their workers to peacefully organize and then negotiate trade union agreements. They will and do fight all along the line, against the organization of the unions, and against conceding their demands. Hence, when the left wing embarks on organization campaigns in the big industries, whether under the auspices of the A. F. of L. or independent unions, it must carry on its organization work as part of its strike strategy based on the strikes that are just ahead.


Before going into a major organizing campaign, which means, if it is successful, an eventual hard-fought strike, the left wing strategists must first make a careful survey of (1) the state of the industry, (2) the strength and disposition of the enemy’s forces, and (3) the general political situation. In short, they have to make a complete Marxian analysis of the whole problem. This is fundamental. It has to do with the vital strategical questions of how to hit the enemy at his weakest point, and at the time when he is least able to stand the blow.

(1) It is of real importance to the success of strikes that they be waged at periods of the greatest industrial activity. This means that we must always know accurately the state of production and the prospects for the immediate future. It is the policy of the employers, when they foresee unavoidable strikes, to force them to take place in the slack seasons. Their policy in this respect is embodied in the agreement in the bituminous coal fields, which the employers have arranged to end in April, when the demand for coal is light and when they can best stand a strike. By the same token, the employers try to force premature strikes in organizing campaigns during slack periods by terrorizing and discharging their workers.

The left wing strike strategists must know how to defeat such tactics and to make strikes occur in the busy seasons. They must learn how to speed up their organizing campaigns, by the adoption of drastic measures of stimulation, when this is necessary to catch the busy season; or to slow them down in order to avoid the struggle at an inopportune time. Often the latter policy demands the greatest courage from the leaders and the greatest sacrifices from the workers who are harassed and victimized by the employers. But the left wing strategists must try to carry it through. They must avoid fighting at the inopportune time. In this they cannot always succeed. Often the employers, in spite of all, will force the workers into untimely struggles, when, of course, the challenge of battle must be accepted and the fight waged aggressively.

(2) The workers must know exactly with whom they are fighting. This involves a close study of the employers’ organizations, including the degree of trustification, of the given industry, the relation of the various companies to each other and to outside combinations, the financial condition of the companies, etc. This study will enable the working class strike strategists to gauge the strength of the enemy, to know where and when is the best place to hit him, and to learn, in the course of a strike, whether he is being seriously weakened or not.

In organizing campaigns and strikes the workers must carry out many flank attacks against the big capitalist combinations of the industry by the organization of the independents, etc., but they must also know when and how to deliver the real thrust at the heart of the opposition. The employers are careful to protect themselves against such deadly thrusts by splitting up the workers’ army and making it waste its forces in isolated engagements, a policy in which they are helped by the craft and localist conceptions of the reactionary craft union leaders.

In the steel campaign of 1918-19, for example, the Cambria Steel Company, working no doubt in close understanding with the United States Steel Corporation, tried to force a strike in its big Johnstown plans by ruthlessly discharging some 3,000 of its workers for belonging to the unions. The workers, 22,000 strong, under local leadership (which later proved to be permeated with company agents) voted almost unanimously for a strike.

But the national leadership knew that a strike in Johnstown must fail and that it would ruin the whole national campaign. We realized further that the real enemy to be defeated was the United States Steel Corporation and that the battleground had to be in its mills all over the country. Therefore, we refused to take up the gage of battle offered us at Johnstown. We ordered the Johnstown workers to take the company’s blow, to hold their ground at all costs for a few months until we could mobilize the steel workers nationally, who were then rapidly organizing.

This they did heroically in a most difficult situation and in the face of the bitterest opposition from the company. Thus we avoided this threatened serious breach in our ranks, and we were enabled, shortly afterward, to throw our whole army in one grand offensive against our real enemy, the United States Steel Corporation.

(3) The working class strike strategists must always bear in mind the existing or prospective general and local political situations. They are often decisive in strikes. In general forward movements of the working class, when the workers are in a deep-going state of political foment and in an expanding opposition to the employers, the left wing must be keen to take advantage of the favorable situation by militantly pushing its organizing campaigns and strike movements.

Often national election periods present favorable opportunities that must not be neglected. At these times the employers are seeking to mobilize the masses of workers, through various types and shades of political misleaders, into voting them full control of the government. Therefore, the slogan being to soft-soap the workers, the capitalist politicians seek to slough off the rough edges of the class struggle by slackening somewhat in the state pressure against the workers.

Movements culminating in such periods, if aggressively handled, have relatively favorable fighting chances. On the other hand, after the elections are over when the politicians no longer have the immediate thought of asking the masses for their votes, the capitalists are especially ruthless against striking workers. There are many complex features of the varying political situations that an intelligent strike strategy must take cognizance of and utilize to further the workers’ struggles against capitalism. Here I barely indicate the problem.


Organization campaigns and strikes must center around basic demands of the workers. Only the more advanced elements of the workers fully appreciate the value of organization as such. As for the great unorganized mass, they are interested in unions primarily for what they can get out of them immediately in the shape of real gains from the employers. They want to strike immediately they organize. Conservative labor organizers fail to accept this fact. There is too much fight involved in it to suit them. Hence their organizing campaigns are mostly abstract and lifeless. In a situation demanding the quick building of a skeleton of a union and the early launching of, a strike they waste their efforts trying to perfect an organization in detail before beginning the wage struggle. They overstress mere organization and understress the thing that labor organization is built for, the fight to defend the workers’ interests. To quote from my pamphlet, “Organize the Unorganized:”

The future trade unions of the great unorganized industries will be born in the heat of the struggle against the employers over the demands of the workers. The organization campaign which does not voice the demands of the workers and envisage an early struggle in defense of them is doomed beforehand to failure.

Programs of demands for organization campaigns and strikes must be concise, expressed in simple, understandable slogans, and must touch the burning grievances and necessities of the workers’ life in the industries. There is enormous organizational and inspirational power, for example, in such graphic and vital slogans as the 8-hour day and the 5-day week. As stated above in our discussion of the general strike, the workers, especially the backward American working class, will not fight militantly for farfetched demands that they do not understand or do not consider practical.


The workers have a sense of realism which must always be taken into consideration. While they must be taught the necessity for the eventual complete expropriation of the capitalists, and although they will accept this idea readily, it is no sign of good leadership to put forth as immediate demands propositions outside of the realms of possible achievement under existing conditions. The workers will give no serious support to a group, whether it be in control of the union or a minority fighting for control, which makes its appeal for their backing on the basis of immediate demands that are manifestly unrealizable under the given conditions.

The character of the workers’ demands is determined by the state of industrial activity, the power of the employers, the strength of the workers’ organization, the mood of the workers, the degree of their ideological development, etc. In time of industrial activity the workers ordinarily go into a more or less general offensive, demanding more wages, shorter hours, better working conditions, and the right of organization. But in slack periods they usually have to face an employers’ offensive, and their chief fight is to preserve existing standards: to defeat wage cuts, to prevent lengthening the working day, and to maintain their unions.

Under present conditions in the United States, with the final capitalist crisis still far off, the workers make their hardest fights when they are defending standards that are already in existence. The most desperate strikes in American labor history have been against sweeping wage cuts and other attacks upon the workers’ standards. Strikes for higher standards are ordinarily much less militant in character.


In organizing campaigns and strikes the workers should make demands not only upon the employers but also upon the reactionary bureaucrats where these control the unions. This is a very important consideration for the strike strategist to bear in mind. When unions are about to plunge into a great struggle or are already in the midst of it, their weaknesses are apparent and demands for the strengthening of the organization by amalgamation, by taking in the unskilled, by democratization, or by the elimination of corruption, are especially forceful.

For example, just on the eve of the great national strike of the railroad shop mechanics in 1922, the T. U. E. L. raised the demand for amalgamation of all 16 railroad unions. The need for such a consolidation of forces in the face of the bitter attack from the companies was manifest. The rank and file understood it at once. The sentiment for amalgamation swept the ranks of the railroad workers like a prairie fire and it also became a great living issue in the whole labor movement. Only the autocratic control of the unions by the bureaucrats defeated the movement.

Another example, when the 24 unions were embarking upon the big campaign to organize the steel workers in 1918, it was easy to get them to join hands in a gigantic federation and to adopt many measures undoubtedly leading in the direction of an industrial union of metal workers. In such cases the demand for the strengthening of the unions is linked up so closely with the actual struggle that it becomes very powerful. The present struggles in the needle trades, for example, should be utilized to bring about the amalgamation of those unions.

In times of great struggle the real strike strategist will not fail to press home demands upon the bureaucrats for the building of the unions into real fighting bodies. Then these demands have greatest force among the masses, and it is then that the reactionary officials are least able to withstand them.


An important question of strike strategy is that relating to the matter of preliminary organization of the workers in the now unorganized industries before the precipitation of strikes. This raises the problems of how much we can depend upon the spontaneity of the workers and how far we can and must stimulate and organize them before they can go effectively into action against the employers.

Less and less can the strike strategist depend upon the spontaneity of the masses to bring them into revolt against their exploiters, more and more he has to figure on substantial preliminary organization, conceived plan fully and carried through almost like a military strategy. Within the past 15 years American employers have become very able and skillful in checking spontaneous mass revolts amongst their workers. To this end they have developed a whole arsenal of weapons which may be summed up under the general heads of concessions, of duplicity, and terrorism.

Today, when the powerful employers see a threatening discontent among their workers, which manifests itself by a spreading spontaneous strike or an active organizing campaign, they commonly seek to check the agitation by granting concessions to their workers in wage increases, welfare systems, etc. This they are able to do because of the enormous super-profits of imperialism which they are reaping of late years. Only a few years ago the employers were financially unable to bribe such movements into stillness, consequently they often developed into big struggles.


The way the Steel Trust combatted the big campaign of 1918-19 was typical of the new tendency. This gigantic corporation, seeing that the organizing work was succeeding, granted four large increases in wages and the basic 8-hour day to its workers in the course of the campaign in order to block it. The “independents” followed suit. This naturally made the work of organizing incomparably more difficult. The spontaneity of the workers was weakened.

When the strike came it followed closely the lines where intense organization work had been done. In those mills, such as the Duluth plant of the U. S. Steel and the Aliquipa plant of the Jones & Laughlin Co., where it had been impossible to carry on any agitation or organization, no strike whatever took place in spite of the gigantic character of the national movement.

Duplicity and terrorism. In the old days when an employer proceeded to cut labor costs radically he did it openly and brusquely, usually in the form of a sweeping wage cut going into effect on a certain date. Result, always a universal protest and indignation on the part of the workers and often a bitter strike. But now the employers cut their labor costs in much more and subtle ways. Often they accomplish the same ends as a wage cut by speeding up their workers, which is easy for them to do in present-day industry. And where they actually do put a money wage cut into effect they commonly do it piecemeal, instead of sweepingly as before. They cut department after department, spreading the wage cutting campaign over months. Or else they discharge a steady stream of workers and then hire them back at reduced rates.

Such methods dissolve the opposition of the workers. They prevent the sudden outbursts of discontent and the rapid intensification of working class solidarity that used to be caused by the sweeping wage cuts of pre-war times. And in addition to these methods of duplicity and concessions the employers carry on a stark terrorism against all workers who dare to make a protest, discharging and blacklisting them in a way unknown in previous times.


This policy of concessions, duplicity, and terrorism, coupled with the fact that the industries in general have been active for, the past few years and have provided at least a modicum of work for the workers, weakens the factor of spontaneity. Determined, organized effort becomes increasingly more necessary, although an occasional spontaneous strike still occurs. Hence our strike strategy must contemplate the carrying on of militant and aggressive organizing campaigns, carefully planned and skillfully executed.

In my pamphlet “Organize the Unorganized” I have described in detail the manner of conducting these campaigns by “open” methods in those industries where it is possible for the unions to function publicly; and in “closed” industries (by utilization of workers’ clubs, shop committees, Workers Party shop nuclei, company unions, etc.) where the militant “open shop” attitude of the employers prohibits preliminary open union organization.

Advantage must be taken of the company unions. The employers have established these organizations to increase the workers’ efficiency and to check the growth of class consciousness and trade unionism among them. Nevertheless the workers’ impulse to organize and struggle often manifests itself in these boss-controlled bodies. Our policy must be to stimulate these tendencies by precipitating the demands of the workers in the company union committees, by putting up in the company union elections lists of candidates who are committed to the formation of trade unions, etc.

Our ultimate aim must be to set movements on foot, both inside and outside of the company unions, which will shatter these organizations and result in the establishment of trade unions. A skilled leadership will often be able to utilize the company unions for the launching of effective strikes.


The question of how to secure preliminary organization of the workers in the great unorganized industries and to determine just how much organization is necessary in a given situation before the strike should begin constitutes one of the real problems of strike strategy.

In impending strikes of unorganized workers, conservative labor leaders habitually overestimate the importance of organization and underestimate the spontaneity of the workers. They smother the fighting spirit of the workers by a dry-as-dust campaign for excessive organization. On the other hand, a common tendency of left wing leaders is to underestimate the necessity for a certain degree of preliminary organization and to depend too much upon the spontaneity of the workers. The result is abortive strikes. The history of the I. W. W. is full of such mistakes.

Our problem is to know just how to combine the two, spontaneity and organization; to learn to strike the blow when the workers’ spirits are at their highest and when they have enough organization to effectively mobilize them into the strike.