William Z. Foster

Published by the Trade Union Educational League


Chapter VII.


THE class war between employers and workers over the product of Labor goes on without letup. “Settlements” in wage movements, whether these are accompanied by strikes or not, are at best only truces in the ceaseless struggle, only turning points where the struggle takes on new forms. The employers will continue to try to destroy the workers’ standard of living and break the unions; the workers will continue to build their unions and to advance their interests. Organization campaigns, strikes, settlements and their aftermath, are but various phases of the one great process of class struggle under capitalism.

In making strike settlements this key fact must always be borne in mind. Such must be handled in the sense of preparations for new campaigns in the class war. The right wing reactionaries have a wrong conception of the whole Capital-Labor controversy. They believe that the normal relationship between employers and workers is one of harmony and collaboration. They look upon strikes as deplorable misunderstandings. Hence, they consider strike settlements as real settlements. Thus they disarm the workers for the intense struggle that goes on in many forms after the settlements.


A comprehensive strike strategy must include not only effective means for carrying on strikes, but also for settling them. Fundamental it is for the left wing to learn when and how to settle, no less than when and how to strike. Settlement proceedings, whether before or after strike movements, constitute real danger spots, genuine tests of leadership. It is then that the employers are keyed up to the highest pitch with their policy of splitting the workers’ ranks; it is then they have the closest working alliance with the right wing labor leaders.

The settlement policy of the left wing clashes directly against that of the right wing. The right wing wants to agree with the employers to establish peace in the industry, which means that the workers shall give up the struggle. But the left wing maneuvers in settlement conferences in order to secure better positions from which to go on prosecuting the class war more vigorously than ever.

The left wing must become a past master at conference strategy. Many a battle, industrial as well as military, has been well-won in the field and then lost at the conference table by inexpert, corrupt, cowardly negotiators. A prime essential to successful conference strategy is exact information as to the balance of forces. The workers’ representatives must know the actual state of both the employers’ and the workers’ organizations and resources.

This is of decisive importance. The workers are always confronted with the practical question, “Are we in a position to strike successfully, or must we settle?” This vital question can be answered correctly only if they penetrate the employers’ elaborate system of bluff, get a line on their real position, and thus base their policy upon actualities. A correct grasp of the forces at play is the foundation of strategy, no less at the conference table than in actual strikes.


The workers’ negotiators must be honest, informed, experienced, determined, and flexible. They must be on watch against a maze of dangers, and yet be prepared to utilize every possible advantage. They must know the relative value of their own demands and also those of the employers. They must understand which are “bargaining points” and which are fundamental in the given situation. They must learn how to advance their main demands by sacrificing non-essentials, and how to prevent the employers from doing this. They must avoid secret negotiations and understandings, which betray their case to the employers and compromise them in the eyes of the rank and file workers. They must take the masses into their confidence as to the progress of events.

Where the right wing is in control, the left wing must insist upon open negotiations and frank publicity. And when the reactionaries try to sell out the workers at the conference table, as Lewis did the heroic Connellsville miners at the close of the 1922 strike, the masses must be mobilized, through referendum votes, protest meetings, etc., against the settlement to prevent its endorsement. And naturally, where the employers seek to bring about strike settlements through the company unions, as the meat packers did in 1920, the left wing must fight against it to the last ditch.

In strike settlements it is necessary to guard against the right danger of grossly over-estimating the employers’ strength and consequently of weakly abandoning the struggle, and also against the ultra-leftist danger of over-estimating the workers’ forces and` thus leading them into hopeless struggle when much could be saved by a settlement.

Then there is the grave danger of “second” strikes. Often these occur immediately after formal settlements. They are usually brought about by misunderstandings at the conference table, sudden provocative attacks by the employers, or over-militancy on the part of the victorious strikers. Such “second” strikes rarely get the hearty support of the masses of workers. They nearly always result in failure. The fatal national packing house strike of 1904 was typical. The employers, knowing the weakness of such strikes, sometimes deliberately provoke them.


An important question in connection with strike settlements is whether or not partial settlements shall be made; that is, whether it is a good policy in strikes to make settlements with those employers who are willing to “sign up.” For many years the left wing gave a categorical “no” answer to this question. It advocated the policy that all employers must settle at once or none can be signed up. It declared that partial settlements are organized scabbery.

In arriving at these conclusions the left wing was moved principally by (1) the disastrous effects of the policy of craft treachery of the reactionary labor leaders, (2) the fact that the left wing based its policies chiefly on the big trustified industries where partial settlements are manifestly impossible.

But the general conclusion that there shall be no partial settlements under any circumstances is wrong. It is ultra-leftist. In certain situations the workers find it advantageous to make such partial settlements. The problem is to find out when and under what circumstances they may be made profitably.


When partial settlements serve the general strategical aim of splitting the ranks of the employers and enable the workers to play off one section of them against the others they are tactically advisable. Then it is a case of making one group of capitalists scab on the rest. But when these settlements weaken or divide the workers’ ranks, or compromise the political purposes of a great strike they must be rigidly avoided.

Industries still in a highly competitive state, such as clothing, building, printing, etc., are the ones in which the method of the partial settlement is applicable. Often in such industries, by signing up individual employers, independent associations, or split-offs from the main employers’ organization, the balance are so fearful of losing their present trade and permanent markets that they abandon their resistance.

Partial settlements at critical moments in competitive industries also sometimes stampede the main bodies of employers and break their associations. And by the same token, often the workers involved, seeing the employers’ ranks thus crumbling and receiving financial aid from the workers who have settled, are encouraged to fight the harder.

But partial settlements carry with them many dangers which must be carefully guarded against. There are dangers of scab work being done in the settled shops in spite of all precautions; of lockouts of their workers when the main association remains undefeated; of so supplying the burning needs of the market that the hardest pressure is taken off the employers generally, of weakening the picket committees by making it difficult to tell which are really settled employers and which not; of robbing the strike of its mass character and thus its throbbing solidarity spirit; of creating an antagonism of interest between those workers who have gone back to work and those who remain on strike.

But even in the competitive industries, because of the generally growing strength of the employers, the value of the partial settlement is a diminishing quantity. More and more it is becoming necessary to defeat the employers en bloc, and to do this must ever be the left wing’s chief aim.

In industries which are thoroughly trustified or in which a few large combinations of capital dominate, such as steel, packing, rubber, textile, automobile, etc., the value of the partial settlement has vanished. It is virtually out of the question to play off one set of employers against the others. They are too firmly united together, financially and industrially, for this. The workers must win against them as a whole, either upon a local or national scale, mostly the latter.

An impermissible form of partial settlement is that often practiced in the coal industry, where the reactionaries sign up some of the mines of certain companies and let the rest remain nonunion. This puts a premium upon nonunionism and gives the employers in question a terrible weapon to use against the organization. All they have to do in the slack seasons or other periods of active offensive against the workers in order to defeat the union, is to transfer production from their union to nonunion mines. This they have done many times with disastrous results.


Likewise, in great strikes of workers in basic and key industries, such as the railroads, coal mining, etc., partial settlements are usually unwise and often disastrous. They destroy the political effect of such strikes. They are a confession of weakness, of failure to achieve the original aim of the strike, which was to defeat the government, or the whole body of employers.

Had Farrington succeeded in his previously mentioned plan of signing up a state agreement for Illinois in the midst of the 1922 strike it would have ruined that great struggle, not merely because of the flood of Illinois coal thrown on the market, but especially because the settlement would have signalized the failure of the union to get control of the whole central competitive district. The employers very much favored Farrington’s treacherous maneuver. As a rule, in strikes of a broad and marked political character partial settlements are only justifiable in case of bad defeats, when it is a case of merely trying to save the pieces.

A form of partial settlement that the employers often favor follows along craft lines. These settlements enable them to pit the skilled workers against each other and against the unskilled. Right wing leaders habitually make partial settlements of this character. The left wing must resolutely oppose them. They are fatal to the growth and progress of the labor movement.


Strike strategy under present conditions in the United States must include definite policies regarding the making of trade union agreements. For many years the ultra-leftists, best typified by the I. W. W., have emphatically opposed in principle the signing of any trade union agreements whatsoever. They maintain that such documents constitute agreements of the workers to abandon the class struggle for the periods they are in force. They advocate merely oral agreements.

This incorrect attitude, which is one of the many forms of the ultra-leftism which has prevented the I. W. W. from expanding, is a reaction against the wrong policies of the right wing trade union leaders in making trade union agreements. The latter, with their class collaboration conceptions, believe that such agreements actually end the struggle for the while. They hold trade agreements to be sacredly inviolable. By signing up their various craft contracts to expire at different dates they use them as justification for one union scabbing upon another. Thus they have tended to discredit trade union agreements in principle.

But the strike strategy must not be determined by such flimsy arguments as those of the I. W. W. Trade union agreements do not and cannot put an end to the class struggle, not even temporarily. The struggle between workers and employers goes on under such agreements, although it takes different forms than strikes. We must realize this fact and learn to fight effectively under these agreements. Under present conditions trade union agreements are technically necessary to the maintenance of organized relations with the employers.

It is idle to speak of mere oral agreements in connection with such vast and complicated industries as railroads, coal mines, and many others. What the left wing must learn is how to prevent the many evils often connected with trade union agreements and how to fight the employers successfully even while in contractual relations with them.

The A. F. of L. upper bureaucrats make a fetish of the sacredness of trade union agreements. They never cease harping upon the solemn obligations of the workers to live up to their contracts scrupulously. Nor do they stop at open strikebreaking where the workers, goaded by the employers, strike before the official expiration of their agreements. Some of the worst betrayals in American labor history have taken place this way. Recent cases in point were Berry’s furnishing men to take the place of the striking New York union pressmen, and Lewis’ treachery in driving the Nova Scotia coal miners back to work to scab on the striking steel workers of the British Empire Steel Corporation.


The contract policy of the reactionary trade union leaders plays directly into the hands of the employers. It keeps the workers bound hand and foot by the union agreements, while the employers violate them whenever the opportunity presents itself. The employers consider trade union agreements cold-bloodedly from the sole standpoint of expediency. They are not swayed by the sentimental rubbish about the sacredness of contracts, which our conservative leaders eternally make so much of.

When the employers find it profitable to fulfill the terms of such agreements they do so. If not, they break them and the union too, if they can. Their present widespread violation of the so-called Jacksonville agreement in the bituminous regions is typical. In the deep-going coal crisis of the past couple of years the operators have seen an opportunity to get rid of both the Jacksonville agreement and the miners’ union, and they are doing so brazenly and unashamed. They are entirely unmoved by Lewis’ interminable and impotent pleas that they live up to their promises solemnly made to the union.

The workers must become equally “practical” in their attitude towards trade union agreements, and realize that such agreements are not worth more than the paper they are written on unless the workers have powerful organizations to enforce their fulfillment. As for the “sacredness” of these documents, the workers, taking a leaf out of the book of the employers, should never let them stand in the way of the advancement of their own interests. Agreements must never be allowed to keep workers on their jobs to scab upon strikers; they must never be used to drive strikers back to work.


The left wing must always fight for elbow room in trade union agreements by insisting upon “no-scab” clauses of various kinds. Wherever several unions are involved, we must demand joint agreements or, at the least, the expiration of all agreements at the same time. The experience in the British general strike, when vast groups of workers struck in spite of their agreements, proves that a militant working class will never let such faint treaties with the enemy stand in its way of fighting this enemy effectively when the opportune time arrives.

In the question of whether there should be long or short term agreements the workers and employers have different interests. Ordinarily employers propose long term agreements (three to five years or more) when they are dealing with strong unions, except when there is a near prospect of a rapid fall in wages because of industrial depression.

Such long term agreements favor the employers in several ways. They make for “peace” in the industry, and the checking of the workers’ developing offensive and growing class consciousness, which are vital considerations. Moreover, they enable the employers to figure further ahead about their costs, and also give them opportunity to make better preparations to defeat their workers in the next wage movement. For the workers, short term agreements (one or two years in length) are the best. They make for struggle, for the development of the workers’ consciousness, for the strengthening of their unions. They also result in winning more concessions from the employers.

Reactionary labor leaders, who always want to avoid the struggle, support the employers in demanding long term agreements. The abandonment by the United Mine Workers of its old-time militant policy of yearly agreements and the acceptance of long term agreements in both the anthracite and bituminous fields was a surrender to the operators. It was a startling symptom of the deep crisis in which the U. M. W. of A. now finds itself.

The left wing must always fight for the best terms possible in its agreement with employers but it must never rely upon these pieces of paper. It must ever and always place its reliance in powerful trade unions, clear-seeing and militantly led. These are the workers’ only guarantee for the fulfillment of the employers’ contracts.


Strike strategy must deal with the question of arbitration. Arbitration in strikes is almost always a weapon of the employers against the workers. Only in rare cases can the workers make effective use of it. Arbitration is a cornerstone in the general structure of class collaboration. It is based upon the anti-working class principles of class peace and a harmony of interest between exploited and exploiters. It kills the spirit of struggle among the workers. This is to the employers’ advantage. It also saves the employers from making concessions which they would otherwise have to give up in open strike struggle.

Employers capture the “add” or decisive man on arbitration boards with almost uncanny regularity. Conservative labor leaders are nonplussed by this, to them an inexplicable phenomenon. Time after time they place “friends” of labor on arbitration boards, only to have them turn tail and support the employers. The reason for this is simple. These “friends” are always members of either the middle or capitalist classes (for the employers will not accept workers) and they have class and personal interests more closely allied to those of the capitalists than to those of the workers. Hence, when the test comes they simply support the interests of their closest class affiliates, the employers.

This process goes on continuously, with the reactionary trade union leaders being constantly disillusioned by their “friends” on arbitration boards. Yet their hope springs eternal. A typical situation exists on the railroads, where the workers’ leaders have accepted Edgar C. Clark as one of the two “odd” men (the other “odd” man is a capitalist) on the board to arbitrate the demands of the conductors and trainmen on the eastern railroads. Clark was formerly Grand Senior Conductor of the Order of Railroad Conductors, but now he is a railroad corporation lawyer. The railroad union leaders believe Clark is their “friend,” but the railroad company officials know he is in their service.

A favorable outcome of this arbitration is already assured for the companies. And so it is always. This certainty of controlling the “odd” men, whether selected by agreement with conservative union leaders or appointed by the government, makes the employers ardent advocates of arbitration, voluntary and compulsory.

Employers usually offer arbitration to strong unions in key and basic industries, and refuse it to unions which they believe they can defeat in strikes. An offer of arbitration from the employers is always an evidence of the strength of the union involved.

Employers are anxious to establish arbitration in such industries as coal mining, railroads, etc., especially when the workers have secured good unions. Such strategically placed unions are capable of delivering heavy blows. These the employers are keen to ward off by arbitration. It is in such situations that the “odd” men on the arbitration boards are most reliably active in protecting the interests of the employers, which they conveniently identify with the interests of society as a whole.


The right wing trade union leaders commonly support the employers’ policy of foisting arbitration upon the workers. They accept it as a vital part of their general class collaboration program. But the experience of the American labor movement with arbitration has been so bad and there is such a widespread opposition to it among the workers that these leaders are careful about too openly endorsing it.

In industries such as printing, building trades, etc., where the unions are strong and where their strikes usually have no sharp political character, the reactionaries often make a show of opposing arbitration, but wind up by accepting it. But in key industries they actively advocate arbitration, and for pretty much the same reasons as the employers. Typically, Lewis co-operated with the coal operators in forcing the anthracite miners to accept arbitration in their present agreement.

The latest act of treason of the bureaucrats in this respect was the passage of the Watson-Parker railroad law, brought about by them in open alliance with the great railroad magnates. This law, which practically saddles compulsory arbitration upon the railroad workers, is a menace to the progress of the entire American labor movement.


The left wing opposes arbitration in principle as well as in practice. It stands for a policy of open negotiations with the employers. This makes for the best clarification of the issues involved, for securing the most material concessions from the employers, for the greatest stimulation of the workers to struggle, and generally for the best development of the trade union movement.

In some cases, however, even the left wing will find it expedient to arbitrate. This is when the workers are especially poverty-stricken (which sometimes favorably affects “odd” men) or when their weak unions, hopelessly outmatched by the employers’ organizations, must grasp at any straw. Thus it is conceivable that the left wing might refuse arbitration offers from the employers at the beginning of a strike when the union is strong and yet accept arbitration at the end of the same strike when the union is practically defeated. In such desperate circumstances something may sometimes be saved by arbitration.

When going into arbitration, it is of great importance to try to have basic points in controversy, such as recognition of the union, etc., agreed to beforehand, and only points of lesser importance referred to arbitration.


Military strategy would be a futile thing if it took into consideration only the factor of victory. It must also contemplate the policies to be followed if defeat occurs. And so it is with strike strategy. Lenin said:

“You must know how to retreat. It is necessary to understand, and the revolutionary class learns to understand through its own bitter experience, that we cannot have victory without knowing how to advance and how to retreat carefully.”

When the unions are heavily defeated and broken up by the employers in an industry, as often happens, the conservative labor leaders commonly abandon the field in hopeless rout. They leave to their fate the workers who have loyally supported the strike, with the ultimate disastrous effect of alienating these workers completely from the unions. Such precipitate, disgraceful retreats the left wing must avoid. It must, when compelled to retire before superior forces, strive to make its retreat systematic and organized. Thus it will be possible the sooner to renew the offensive against the employers.


A common mistake of reactionaries, in case of a lost strike, is not to officially call off the strike. They usually let it drag along interminably, long after it has ceased to exert real pressure against the employers. The consequence is that many loyal workers, who have fought valiantly while there was even a slight chance to win the strike, are forced back to work with the odium of scab upon them. They then are largely lost to the trade union movement.

A far more intelligent course is to call off the strike officially when it is manifestly lost, and let the fragments of the defeated army go back to work with honor. This was the course pursued at the end of the 1919 Steel Strike. It facilitates greatly the reorganization of the workers. It is an important detail in developing an organized retreat.

In cases of lost strikes a first duty is to take care of the wounded, that is, the jailed, the blacklisted, and the hungry. Legal and other assistance must be extended to the militants who have been arrested during the fight; efforts must be made to find work for the strikers left jobless because of their loyalty to the strike; relief must be continued to the most needy cases. To do these things is not beyond the power of a trade union movement with 3,500,000 members.

For example, when the steel strike of 1919 had been officially called off we kept the great commissary system going for another three weeks to take care of the thousands of workers left hungry and workless after the strike. This simple act of solidarity (which was sneered at and opposed by conservatives) did more to endear the unions to the immigrant workers than almost anything that had occurred in the whole strike.


Another thing deeply appreciated by the defeated and victimized strikers of the steel strike was the distribution of “Honor Cards” to all those who had remained on strike from the beginning to the end of the bitter struggle. The distribution of these cards after the strike was made the occasion of great, enthusiastic mass meetings, which were held in spite of the Steel Trust’s terrorism.

Besides saving whatever organization there is to be saved in such disastrous situations, including remnants of the trade unions, and of such other bodies, political, T. U. E. L., defense, etc., that were built up before or during the strike, it is fundamental, in organizing the retreat, to maintain organized ideological contact with the defeated strikers.

It was to organize our retreat that we elaborated an enormous propaganda organization after the ill-fated steel strike to keep in touch with and influence the ex-strikers. The plan was to publish a weekly bulletin and distribute 150,000 copies of each issue, for which a crew of a dozen organizers was to be kept in the field stationed in the important steel centers. Money sufficient to finance the campaign for at least three years was in hand, left over from the strike fund.

The plan was adopted and the campaign started. But the reactionaries killed it by deliberately breaking up the committee in charge. With such a gigantic propaganda campaign in effect the steel workers would have realized that the unions had not abandoned the struggle, the fighting spark among them would have been kept burning and, at the end of a year or two of systematic effort, eventually fanned into a great flame of organized resistance.


To consolidate the victory in case of success is no less urgently necessary for the workers than to organize their retreat in the event of defeat. It is not enough simply to win good settlement terms from the employer at the final conference table. Such terms amount to little unless they are followed up by the thorough organization of the workers involved and the systematic utilization of their victory to stimulate vast masses of other workers into action.

More than once the left wing has won major strikes only to find later that they have degenerated into little more than Pyrrhic victories. In a few months hardly anything of them but the memory remained. This was because of failure to consolidate the victory.

The great I. W. W. strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912, was a classical example of such failure to make the best of the victory. This historic strike, brilliantly fought, resulted in a great success. Hundreds of thousands of workers in New England were deeply stirred by it and made ready for action. But almost nothing was done to swing them into strikes against the employers. Indeed, not even the Lawrence workers themselves were organized solidly in a union. Consequently, in a very short time the I. W. W., in spite of its great victory, lost not only its small traces of organization in Lawrence but also its influence throughout New England. It was a golden opportunity lost.


Our strike strategy must guard against such disastrous anti-climaxes. This can be done by a proper understanding and systematic application of the theory of the offensive. Two special periods in big struggles, particularly of the unorganized, offer exceptionally good opportunities to draw masses into the struggle. These are: just at the beginning of great strikes, when the workers everywhere are inspired by the fight, and just after a big victory has been scored. The left wing must understand how to take complete advantage of these favorable opportunities. Then, above all, is the time when it must carry through militantly the offensive against the employers.

The first element in consolidating the victory in a given strike situation is to solidly unionize the workers involved. Often this is a difficult task because unskilled and inexperienced workers have very little understanding of the value of permanent trade union organization. Nevertheless, the union must be built and maintained at all costs, otherwise, disaster is certain. The union building must be carried on energetically during the strike. No matter how bitter or difficult the strike, this basic task cannot be neglected.

The next element is to firmly establish among the workers the left wing organizations necessary for their ideological development, political, industrial, cultural, etc. And finally, there is the urgent necessity of systematically exploiting the victory by initiating great campaigns of organization among workers in the same or allied industries.

An example of how to consolidate the victory by applying the theory of the offensive is seen in the big organization campaigns in the meat packing and steel industries in 1917-19. The movement began in the packing industry. Here we won an important victory, establishing the 8-hour day and greatly increasing wages. This defeat of the rich packing trust enormously stimulated the workers everywhere, organized and unorganized.


We followed up the victory systematically throughout the entire packing industry by firmly organizing the unions, not only in Chicago but also in every packing center throughout the country, big and little. Next came successful campaigns to bring in the workers in subsidiary branches of the general packing industry, such as those in butcher shops, soap works, butterine factories, fertilizer plants, etc.

Then we further followed up the packing house victory by extending our offensive into the steel industry. We inaugurated our big organizing campaign there. This was facilitated greatly by our success in the packing industry. The steel workers were stimulated to fight; the progressive trade unionists felt that if the Packing Trust could be defeated why not also the Steel Trust.

It was the plan, in the event that the steel strike had succeeded, to immediately capitalize this victory by setting up a great organizing committee to carry on a national campaign to mobilize the workers of all industries into the unions. Victory in the steel industry, by tremendously heartening every section of the working class, would have given life and success to this gigantic organization campaign.

In military strategy it is a basic principle to follow up the victory by pursuing and destroying the defeated and disorganized enemy. All great generals of history have been masters of this strategy of the militant offensive. Working class strike strategists, patterning after the brilliant Lenin, must also learn to apply its general principles in the class struggle. It will be by the supreme application of this strategy some day against a weakened and demoralized employing class that the American workers will take their first great step toward emancipation, by abolishing the capitalist system.