William Z. Foster

Published by the Trade Union Educational League


Chapter V.


UNDER present conditions in the United States strikes are the very heart of the class struggle. They are brutal and open fights between exploiters and exploited. It is in strikes that the conflicting interests of the two classes are most manifest. The employer in his limitless greed and desire to exploit the workers even more intensely than the present unexampled rate, seeks to break their spirit and to force them to work upon his terms. To this end he employs a formidable array of weapons: hunger, terrorism, duplicity, illusory concessions.

On their side, the workers have as their great weapon the cutting off of the employer’s supply of labor-power. They seek to keep his plants shut down until his greed for profits, or the pressure from other capitalists who need his products, compels him to come to terms. But in order to do this they must be able to maintain an unbroken solidarity in the face of all the employer’s many attacks, open and insidious. This is the chief objective of strike strategy during the heat of the open struggle.


In all situations where the fighting qualities of human beings are called into play the question of morale assumes great importance. Military leaders understand this thoroughly. They know that the strength of an army is not to be measured simply by its numbers, or even by its favorable strategic situation. The question of the degree of fighting spirit among the troops, their morale, is a factor of decisive weight. Hence, during wars, strategists devote the closest attention to this matter of morale.

Never was this better illustrated than during the world war when, not to mention the oceans of propaganda that were poured out, whole military campaigns were carried through with the special plan of improving the morale of the respective armies and home populations and of weakening that of the enemy. The leaders knew that if the fighting morale broke, the war would be lost.

Strike strategy, no less than military strategy, must give close concern to the question of morale. This is because strikes, like military campaigns though in a lesser degree, are tests of the courage and endurance of their participants. The tenacity, durability, discipline, and general effectiveness of a strike largely depend upon the morale of the workers involved. The power of resistance of a body of strikers, like that of an army in the field, can be measured pretty much by the state of their fighting spirit.

The question of morale is especially important among inexperienced, unorganized workers where the discipline bred of trade union experience is weak. “Soulless” strikes such as conservative leaders conduct among the organized crafts, when morale is at a low ebb and chiefly the organization sense of the workers holds them together, would be absolutely fatal among the great masses of unskilled now unorganized.

The question of morale is, therefore, a fundamental one in strike strategy. Our problem is how to create and maintain it. This determines the whole character of our strike strategy. Propaganda is not enough. True, it is a very vital means to give the workers hope, inspiration, and understanding. But more is necessary. The whole strike strategy must be so calculated as to infuse the strikers with courage and an indomitable fighting spirit. Everything that tends to make the strike effective tends also to raise the spirits of the strikers. A good morale is not a thing by itself; it is the product of a generally successful strike direction.


For the building of a strong strike morale we must base our strike strategy on the theory of fighting upon the offensive. We must attack always, or at the worst be preparing to attack. This theory applies as well to the class war in industry as to military war on the battlefield. The workers, like soldiers, (and they are the same human beings and subject to the same psychological laws) fight best on the offensive. They are then fired with a sense of power and victory; defensive fighting demoralizes them and fills them with defeatism. Every good striker leader, like every good general, must take this basic fact into consideration.

This contention that workers fight best on the offensive is no contradiction to the statement previously made that most of the desperate strikes in American labor history have been to ward off attacks of the employers. The general aim of the war or strike may be defensive, such as a defense of the homeland or against a wage reduction (when soldiers and workers both fight the best) but the tactics in the struggle itself must be based upon the theory of the offensive.

Conservative labor leaders habitually follow the wrong policy of surrendering the initiative to the employers and of backing up before their attacks. They fight on the defensive. Their cowardly retreat in the British general strike was a classical example of this false strategy. A real strike strategy must pursue the policy of the offensive. When the employers take the initiative from us we must take it back with a counter-offensive. If they force a lockout upon us we must turn it into a strike, placing counter-demands and involving more workers.

The offensive does not mean a reckless attack, but a calculated increase in our fighting tempo and a sharp assault upon the enemy’s weakest point. It may take many forms, such as a strike of additional workers, an intensification of picketing, a greater stimulation of support from the labor movement at large, aggressive publicity maneuvers, calling out of maintenance men in coal strikes, etc., based upon whatever means are in hand and what opportunities are present.

The nature of the offensive will change with the varying conditions in the strike. An offensive by the workers in Passaic now, after nine months of bitter struggle and when they are so much weakened, is a very different thing than it was in the opening months of the historic struggle when they had their full resources in hand. But the theory of the offensive is just as valid now in Passaic as it ever was.

From time to time our forces will be so defeated that we will be confronted with little Brest-Litovsks. But we must understand them as Lenin did his, as offering breathing spells during which we shall rally our shattered battalions for the next offensive.


Especially must the strike strategist understand how to apply the theory of the offensive in the early stages of a struggle that has the earmarks of becoming far-reaching and bitter. We must learn how to start strikes successfully. In strikes, as in many other things, “Well begun is half done.” In all kinds of fights an effective first blow is often decisive. Hence, an initial shattering attack must be a fundamental part of our strike strategy.

When workers are about to strike in a plant, a sort of strike fever runs among them from department to department. They are carried away with this overmastering spirit of revolt and class solidarity. They strike enthusiastically in a body. In the early stages of great struggles (such as those of the railroad shopmen, Lawrence and Passaic textile workers, etc.), something of this same burning wave of solidarity sweeps through vast categories of workers not directly in the fight. The dramatic struggles going on in their industry inspires them with a sense of their own wrongs, fires them to fight to redress their own grievances and those of their class brothers already in the fight. It is a strike contagion, a spreading revolt of the workers.


Our strike strategy must know how to mobilize these active reserves in such times and to throw them into the struggle. If such a situation occurs among organized workers (as in the case of the railroad workers at the time of the national strike of the railroad shop mechanics in 1922), we must draw the various industrially related unions into the strike wave-fashion, one after the other or in groups, pooling their demands against the companies and breaking the resistance of the conservative leaders.

If the spreading revolt is among unorganized workers it must be extended rapidly from mill to mill and city to city along the lines of the industry or industries. This does not mean that formless masses of workers of all industries shall be drawn helter-skelter into the struggle. This may be necessary in certain deep-going struggles, but ordinarily our aim should be to bear closely in mind the economic relationship of the groups we strike, with the plan of bringing the real pressure towards our given objective. (Strikes of related groups of unions present many difficult problems which must be studied and borne in mind In our strike strategy. For example, the I. L. G. W. strike in New York weakened the Passaic strike in one respect by shutting off the market for dress goods, thus relieving somewhat the pressure on the Passaic manufacturers.)

A great danger during such psychological upheavals among the workers is a tendency of the leaders, including left wingers, to fail to realize the importance of quick action in order to swing the masses into a general offensive against the employers. The workers must be definitely committed to the active struggle in this first flush of revolt and solidarity by bringing them out on strike.

Once on strike they will fight loyally. But if they are not mobilized immediately and led into the struggle they grow cold. Their desire for action evaporates. They finally refuse to strike. Time and again in great upheavals amongst the unorganized in a given industry the left wing leaders (and of course the reactionaries) have failed to take advantage of it by organizing these masses into the first shattering offensive against the employers. Consequently their strikes have paid for it in their later stages.


A strike strategy based on the theory of the offensive often gives the workers the advantage of the element of surprise. Military strategists are keenly aware of the value of surprising their enemies. They are constantly seeking to catch them napping, and to deliver attacks against them when they are unprepared. Strike strategists must bear the same principle in mind, for the class struggle offers many opportunities to the workers to strike unexpected blows against the employers. For example, the rapid extension of a strike along the lines above indicated often produces social conflagrations entirely unlooked for by the employers.

A good illustration of how the employers can be taken by surprise was seen in the campaign to organize the steel workers in 1918-19. From long experience Gary had gained a justified contempt for the organizing ability of the A F. of L. leaders so far as the steel industry was concerned Hence, when another campaign was announced in 1918 he paid little attention to it. But this campaign was carried out on new lines, the effect of which he completely underestimated.

The original plan of the campaign was to make a swift organizing drive simultaneously in all steel centers. The situation was such that, with just a few weeks of work as proposed, such a grip could have been secured on the mass of steel workers that Gary, taken by surprise, would have been unable, when he did realize the effectiveness of the new tactics, to take any counter measure sufficient to defeat the campaign.

But the trade union leaders, partly through ignorance and partly because they were opposed to organizing the steel workers anyway, refused to support such a swift, national offensive against the Steel Trust, which they had every means in hand to carry out. They confined the opening of the campaign to the Chicago district. There it proved highly successful. In two weeks of actual work the masses were either in the unions or under their direct influence. The same thing that was done in the Chicago district could have easily been done all over the country, had it not been for the reactionary leadership of the unions.

Gary quickly woke up after he saw what had happened in the Chicago district. His company gave the workers the basic 8-hour day and checked the movement. Thus we lost the advantage of surprise in this case where it would have been decisively favorable for the workers. The real working class strike strategist will always keep this question of surprise in his mind when working out his policies.


An essential of good strike strategy under present day conditions in the United States is to lend a dramatic character to strike and organization campaigns, especially those among unorganized workers. These see in a dramatic strike a living strike, and they are not far wrong. This dramatization may be accomplished in many ways, such as mass picketing in the face of police terror, mass violations of injunctions, free speech fights, marches such as those of the Kansas and West Virginia miners, spectacular exposure of the workers’ poverty and the employers’ riches, militant resistance to violence, transfer of strikers’ children from the strike district, nation-wide relief campaigns, national and local protest meetings, state investigations, parades, pageants, tag-days, etc., etc.

Good strike dramatization is closely related to militant fighting on the offensive. Classical examples of dramatic strikes were those of the steel workers in Homestead in 1892, of the Colorado coal miners and Lawrence Textile workers in 1912, and the present struggle in Passaic.

Dramatization is equally as effective in organizing campaigns as in strikes. Often it can be strikingly accomplished by the simple expedient of transacting with a fanfare of trumpets and mass participation union business and maneuvers which, were no dramatic effects desired, could be handled easily and shortly in committee, such as the formulation of demands, .election of negotiation committees, taking of strike votes, etc.

For example, in the steel campaign of 1918-19 one of our best organizing strokes was the holding of a national conference of steel workers in Pittsburgh for the express purpose of considering and acting upon the critical situation in the industry. The actual legislative business of the conference we could have transacted, had we been so minded, in 10 minutes in committee. But we advertised the conference so widely that the workers of all the industry had their eyes focused upon it. It dramatized their hopes and aspirations in the struggle. It had splendid organizing results.

Likewise, when we came to decide on the question of a strike, which we could also have done in committee, we did it dramatically by taking a spectacular mass strike vote all over the country. This exercised an enormous effect in acquainting the steel workers with what was going on and in rallying them into the struggle.

Just another example from the 1917 campaign to organize the packing workers: The campaign, in its early stages, had come to a halt. It threatened to collapse. The workers, discouraged from long years of oppression and union misleadership, refused to respond to ordinary organizing methods. They wanted a definite sign from us that we had some power and that we meant business.

We sensed this, and in response announced the holding of a national conference of packing house workers in the near future to formulate demands to be presented to the packers. This was blazoned in the capitalist press as presaging a national general strike in the industry. The effect upon the workers of this dramatic maneuver was electrical. They poured into the unions in tens of thousands. It was the turning point, the thing that made this historic campaign a success. It was also a good example of effective offensive tactics.

Strike dramatization, when skillfully carried out and not of a character which merely provokes capitalist counterattacks, is highly beneficial in many ways. It enormously stimulates the morale of the strikers. It tends to rally masses of other workers to support the strike morally, financially, and otherwise by making the class character of the struggle stand out in graphic clearness. It often checks the attacks of the employers who, preferring always to work in silence and darkness in crushing the revolts of their workers, usually shrink back from the blaze of publicity, unless they are of the most powerful capitalist combinations. Strike dramatization is a necessary feature of our strike strategy.


It is not within the province of this booklet to outline a complete system of the special organization machinery necessary for the carrying on of strikes successfully. Nevertheless it is timely to state a few of the general principles of organization and to indicate some of the more urgent necessities.

The strike committee, whether the regular executive board or a special body, is the general staff of the strike and it must be properly organized to carry on its work. It must be divided into sub-sections to correspond with its various tasks. If the strike is national in scope the strike committee must contain various departments, Finance, Relief, Legal, Publicity, etc. The local strike committees must have sub-committees on Policy, Picketing, Publicity, Defense, Halls, Speakers, Finance, etc.

In the case of unorganized workers every effort must be made to establish a real basis of trade union organization. Too often the only organization of the masses in such strikes is in the strike meetings. This is a mistake. The masses must be brought into active strike work. It gives them a sense of responsibility and a feeling that the strike is really their own. To thus draw them in, the numerous committees should be built on a broad scale, T. U. E. L. formations of various sorts may also be used to actively enlist the livest elements*in the conduct of the strike.

The picket committee, in most industries, is the very heart of the strike. It is the cutting edge of the workers’ organization. It is the first line of defense and attack. It must be developed to the highest degree of militancy and efficiency. It should be made up of the very best fighters among the workers. The left wing will do well, in the organization of its picketing, to beware of employing professional gangsters. The right wing leadership has thoroughly discredited this system. The gangsters not only tend to move in and capture the unions after the strike is over, but they poison it to the heart with their very presence. They are a constant source of corruption.

The legal committee is also essential, but the left wing must always be careful to hold the lawyers in check. They have a rather fatal habit, once they are engaged, of trying to run the whole strike as well as their legal department. If they succeed in this they soon strip it of all militancy and reduce it to a state of impotent legalism. They are also notoriously poor fighters at the conference table.

The publicity committee is very vital. To give out the news of the strike is fundamentally important, not only for the information of the workers at large, whose support is wanted, but also for the strikers themselves, whose solidarity must be maintained. Yet in almost every strike, whether conducted by rights or lefts, the publicity arrangements are primitive and inadequate in the extreme.


Good discipline is as necessary in a strike as in a battle. It is the task of the strike committee to maintain this discipline. To do this it must carry on its work in a spirit of firmness, decision, and resolution. It must give careful attention to detail work as well as general policies. Violations of instructions and failures in duty must be swiftly punished. Incompetent corruptionists and weaklings must be eliminated from official positions.

The whole strike organization must be shot through with a spirit of determination and seriousness. Bosses, strikers, scabs, and all others connected with the strike directly or indirectly must be given to understand unequivocally that they have to deal with a body of real fighters. Then the vital, necessary discipline will prevail among the strikers. The workers will respect their leaders and follow their directions in the battle.


The strike strategist, in an important strike, must look upon labor’s forces pretty much as a military strategist does his army; that is, as active fighting troops and various classes of reserves. It must be his aim at all times to maintain his active fighting force at its maximum strength and to utilize his wide variety of reserves to the utmost.

Considered from this angle, strike reserves are of several classifications. First, there are those active reserves, the workers who are economically most closely related to the strikers and who can often be drawn directly into the struggle. In previous pages we have said much about the mobilization and activization of this class of reserves, so nothing further is necessary here. Then, there is another great class of reserves, less fluid and less available, the broad masses of organized and unorganized workers, economically not closely related to the strikers, who cannot be got to actually take part in the struggle, but who, nevertheless, can be made to help in various ways.

The strike strategist must know how to draw fully upon these important strike reserves. This he can do through financial contributions, protest meetings, the boycott, etc. If the strike is of especially great importance or is of the highly international type, such as of seamen, miners, etc., he must undertake to draw similarly upon the strength of the world labor movement. The left wing must understand always to utilize these demands on the labor movement at large for the purpose of establishing itself ideologically and organizationally among the masses.

An important class of strike reserves which must be utilized to the utmost are the womenfolk of the strikers. Ordinarily conservative leaders pay little or no attention to this element. But the left wing must enlist the women. The womenfolk in a strike can be either a great help or a great hindrance. Strikers’ wives out of sympathy with the struggle and ignorant of its significance can destroy it. Or, militant supporters of it, they can be its very soul.

Hence, in all strikes our strike strategy must aim at enlisting the co-operation and active participation of the women. They must be inducted into the strike machinery and the general strike activities; they must be organized into housewives’ unions. Thoroughly aroused women possess an indomitable spirit. They make strikers unconquerable. Innumerable strikes among the miners and textile workers testify to their splendid fighting qualities. No strike can afford to dispense with this important reserve.

The co-operatives must also be considered and utilized as strike reserves. In European countries the co-operatives are many and large and powerful. They are often important depots of supplies for strikers. In this country, however, the co-operative movement is very weak and conservative. Nevertheless it must be utilized in support of strikes wherever the opportunity presents. Likewise, the labor banks, although not real co-operatives, should also be called upon to assist in strikes by making loans to the embattled unions.


Finally, there is a certain element of strike reserve in the lower middle class elements; farmers, professionals, petty business men, etc., which must not be neglected. Ordinarily these groups, under present conditions in the United States, look rather askance at the organized workers and their struggles. Often they are frank supporters of the “open shop” campaigns of the employers. But in cases of bitter, and spectacular conflicts, especially where the striking workers are desperately poor, where the employers ruthlessly violate the so-called civic liberties, or where a gigantic and hated trust is involved, they are often moved somewhat in sympathy for the strikers. Their petty bourgeois sentiments of humanitarianism, legalism, and competition are touched. But even in such strikes they give little or no active support. Their chief contribution is to help create a “public opinion” favorable to the strike.

Right wing trade union leaders enormously overestimate the value of such a sympathetic public opinion. In order to secure it they always cut the heart out of their strikes, catering to every petty bourgeois conception. The left wing will make no such mistake. While realizing that a favorable public opinion is a valuable asset and while maneuvering skillfully to create it, the left wing must never forget that the strike can only be won by a successful fighting policy. It will not sacrifice the substance, a real fight, for the shadow, a favorable public opinion.

In their anxiety to pursue this shadow of “public opinion” right wing leaders make a fetish of legalism, and cringe before this fetish, apologetic and timid, often even joining the capitalists and their controlled press in attacking the workers’ disregard of the property rights of the employers. The workers, however, when aroused to struggle in strikes, often take little account of capitalist-made legal “rights,” and American labor history is filled with instances of militant action of strikers. More than in any other country, perhaps, has sabotage been used by American strikers in their bitter battles with the employers.