Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Workers’ Viewpoint

Broad Horizons–Blitz Campaigns: The Trade Union Education League

First Published: Workers Viewpoint, Vol. 2, No. 8, September 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The proletariat needs a firm grasp of the revolutionary theory of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-Tung Thought and a deep sense of our own history to make revolution. This is especially true for the U.S. multinational working class because the U.S. monopoly capitalists have suppressed our heroic history for so long to suffocate our revolutionary will.

To beat back this trend and establish a strong tradition, we are starting a regular column on labor history. The first article focuses on the methods of organizing of the Trade Union Education League (TUEL) members, using their two early campaigns in the packinghouse and steel industries as examples.

Our main emphasis in the trade union work at this point must be to build deep and strong rank and file caucuses to build up and take, back 1he unions. We must have broad and sweeping campaigns, but they can only yield fruit when built on good and solid rank and file base-work. Building up rank and file caucuses through taking the lead in immediate struggles, and rallying the advanced and activists is the main way to push our trade union work ahead. Only through building up the rank and file caucuses inside the unions, and winning the advanced and active, militant workers, can an organization such as the TUEL be built. And in turn it will serve to further deepen and broaden communist work in the trade union and working class movement.

But there are many other lessons and aspects of the TUEL as well as other parts of labor history which we will go into in the future columns.

The packinghouse and steel campaigns were carried out under conditions of political flow period.

The higher fusion between the communist movement and the working class movement because of the established Communist Party at the time of TUEL’8 existence was one reason for the high level of principles of unity of the TUEL and the relative ease of doing mass campaigns. The conditions of World War I and the intensified exploitation of the U.S. workers were another reason for the political flow.

The political character of the TUEL and its active role in taking up struggles in mining, textile and garment (which were the strongholds of TUEL), the relation between the TUEL and the United Front Committee of Textile Workers and the United Textile Workers, the relation between the TUEL and the national Save-the-Union Committee when the United Mine Workers of America was under attack in the ’20s – all these will be addressed in later articles.

Last month, at the height of the heatwave, workers’ anger was boiling over the inhuman working conditions. Walkouts not only hit the auto Big Three but other industries as well, such as chemical plants. Meanwhile, steel and copper workers were out on strike fighting for a better contract and miners are wildcatting against cuts in health benefit and virtually closed down all soft-coal mining.

In all these struggles, communists, advanced workers and active militants took up the actual work of organizing their fellow workers to fight the grievances. They make up the heart of broad rank and file groups at the different mines, mills and factories.

The sum-up from these working class battles shows the urgent need for organization and correct leadership as the key to successful actions and to make sure the fight continues till victory. The Party, as the headquarters of the proletariat must use correct forms to provide leadership to all these different battle fronts. The long and rich labor history in this country provides invaluable lessons for the present situation and today’s struggles.


In the 1920’s, a nationwide organization called the Trade Union Education League (TUEL) took up the task of organizing, uniting and supporting work for the working class movement.

The TUEL was formed in 1920 based on the lessons summed up from the experiences of the packinghouse campaign of 1917 and the Great Steel Strike in 1919.


Workers in the packinghouse industry had been terribly neglected by the American Federation of Labor and were totally unorganized except for the teamsters. But the demand for workers was high, so the time was ripe for an organizing campaign, especially with a world war going on. The campaign was initiated and carried through by communists like William Z. Foster and rank and file militants like Jack Johnstone who gained respect and won the love of the masses of workers through hard-hitting campaign after campaign.


Foster, through the Chicago Federation of Labor (a progressive group within the AFL machinery), called for a joint organizing campaign of all trades in the Chicago packing industry by the local unions even though most of these were half-dead. They formed the Stockyards Labor Council, a federation of existing locals of Butcher Workmen, Railway Car men, Machinists, Electricians, Carpenters, Office Workers, Steam Fitters, Engineers, Firemen, etc. The Council was a concrete step in fighting both the left dual-unionist deviation of setting up a totally new and separate “one big industrial union” outside of the existing unions as well as the narrow craft-unionism of the AF of L. The workers welcomed this industrial plan. They had learned from their own bitter experience in the 1904 strike which had been s-mashed due to disunity among the several craft unions.


The militants launched a vigorous organizing drive. But workers were coming in only by the hundreds and not en masse by the thousands. So the organizers took out their weapon of a militant strike, convinced that workers were open to striking despite Gompers’ sellout “no strike” program during the war.


When the Chicago press came out with flaming headlines of “Strike Looms At Yards”, the effect was electrical. The ’masses of workers practically broke down the doors to join the unions. The movement spread like wildfire. Tens of thousands streamed into the AF of L locals.

Fearing a nationwide strike by the packinghouse workers which would bring the distribution of much-needed foodstuffs to a grinding halt, the AFL leadership collaborated with the federal government to head it off. They called for government mediation. Because of the organized militancy and unity of the rank and file, they had to give in to a majority of the workers’ demands – 10%-25% wage increase, 8-hour day with 10-hours’ pay, equal pay for equal work, guarantee 5 days’ per week during slack season, time off with pay for lunch periods, right to organize and to present grievances, principle of seniority in employment, no discrimination, and many others.


Workers greeted this great victory with enthusiasm. They poured into the unions around the country and built solid organizations in every plant. But the campaign did not end there. The militant organizers began their job of “mopping up”. They swept through hundreds of small packers and many subsidiary sections of the industry, such as retail butcher shops, independent soap, washing powder, glue, canning, butterine, fertilizer, cooperage, etc. The contagious organizing fever also spread to other local industries like machine shops and car works.

200,000 workers had come into the unions, many of them unskilled, immigrant workers as well as native born. 25,000 of the new members were Afro-Americans. The victory was significant in that it was the first mass-production, highly monopolized industry ever to be organized by the trade unions at that time. Also it affirmed the correct policy of working within existing trade unions and of boldly taking advantage of the war situation to organize the unorganized.


Building on the victory and lessons of the packinghouse campaign, Foster immediately launched into the next big, unorganized and most monopolized of all industries – steel. Again the scope of the plan was broad, its aim ambitious yet realistic. It called for a nationwide AF of L joint campaign of all the unions having jurisdiction over workers in the steel industry. It was based on a broad industrial movement, covering the whole industry from the workers who produced the raw materials like the coal and iron miners to those who delivered the finished products to the railroads like the switchmen.


To take full advantage of the war situation, Foster drew up a hard-driving, practical plan based on a concrete assessment of the actual situation and capabilities of the unions. His proposal called for a whirl-wind campaign of organizing simultaneously in all important steel centers. Huge mass meetings, noted speakers, bands, parades, full-page newspaper ads, etc. were all to be used to set the masses in motion. The financial and labor support would come from each union pledging 25 cents for each of its members from its funds, and allocating 3 or more organizers. This would yield several hundred thousand dollars and a hundred or more organizers which were necessary for the bold but feasible nationwide campaign. With these resources, the campaign could wrap it up in 6 weeks, after which the organized workers could send a committee to the steel trust with their demands and the threat of a strike if the demands were not met.

This sweeping proposal was rejected by the Gompers leadership. Despite this sabotage from within, the rank and file activists went ahead as best they could with the available resources. The result of the limited campaign showed clearly that the original proposal was’ correct.

The actual organizing campaign had to be confined to the Chicago district, but the organizers applied the exact same methods outlined in the proposal for a national campaign. They scored immediate success. 15,000 steel workers attended the 1st meeting in Gary and there were similar mass turnouts in South Chicago, Joliet and Indiana Harbor in the same week. Steelworkers were ready and open, joining the unions by the thousands. They could have easily struck the steel mills in the Chicago district in a month’s time. And they could have repeated the same feat simultaneously in every important steel town across the country if not for the treachery of the trade union leaders.

After 14 months of bitter struggle and in the face of the most vicious weapons from the arsenal of the ruling class (spy system, wage concessions, company unionism, terrorism) at least 250,000 workers were organized in key plants in the main steel districts. Then came the 4-month strike by 365,000 steel workers in 1919 –a paralyzing strike of such magnitude that the industry has never before or since experienced. Although the strike ultimately failed, all these accomplishments testified to the correctness and reaffirmed the lessons of the packinghouse campaign.


Aside from the correct policy of working within existing unions, the other major characteristic of Foster’s and other activists’ method of work was their impressive hard-hitting campaigns. One thing can be said about their plans and their implementation – they were bold and ambitious and they carried through with it. Because the boldness was based on sober and cold assessment of the objective situation. It was a case of looking far and aiming high but with both feet planted firmly on the ground.

This lesson we must grasp to set our sights further and broader. Of course this does not drop from the sky. We must develop this confidence and train ourselves to acquire a feel for the practical movement, to tune into the wavelength of the masses of workers. The best way to do this is to get into the immediate struggles. Foster was able to formulate his bold plans by getting into the thick of class struggle.

The purpose of the TUEL was twofold: First, to work within and not outside of conservative unions to put them back into the hands of the rank and file and get rid of the corrupt and treacherous union leaders, like Gompers of the AF of L. Second, to have a strong organization of militant, active elements to push forward the work of the first task. The TUEL acted as a temporary base of operations since the reactionary top union leadership was entrenched in the official union machinery.


The TUEL was the appropriate organization form to clothe the content of the work the militants were carrying out. It was a concrete step in correcting a gross weakness in the packinghouse and steel campaigns. In both cases, there was no organized form for the militants to link themselves up nor to link up with the rank and file workers in other plants. The result was that while the rank and file activists gave the whole stimulus and militant leadership to the national campaigns, the actual control of the international unions involved remained in the hands of reactionary AFL officials. They had to rely on the union bureaucrats to get in touch with the mass base.


The policy of the TUEL showed that it took this lesson to heart. The TUEL was an organization for the militant activists in the working class movement. It was not a mass organization but its work was among the masses and in mass organizations like trade unions. The militants were kept among the masses at all costs. They carried their propaganda right into the midst of the workers’ organizations and struggles. They aimed to secure the support of the mass of workers by taking the lead in all their battles, by showing in the heat of class struggle that their theories, tactics, and organization forms were the best for the whole working class movement. In this way, the grip of the reactionary bureaucracy who now straitjacket and paralyze the trade unions will be broken, and the control of these organizations will pass into the hands of the militants who will stimulate and develop them.

The militant activists were a minority but they were of supreme importance to the labor movement, carrying on the vital activities when the great masses of workers were usually inactive. This militant minority was the thinking and acting part of the working class. It worked out the fighting programs and took the lead in implementing them. It was so at that time and it is still true today. The militant minority is the heart and brain and nerves of the labor movement not only in this country but all over the world.

In England, Germany and other countries with strong labor movements, the militants have remained within the old trade unions and acted as the practical teachers, stimulators, and leaders of the masses. Therefore they have been able to communicate to the masses something of their own understanding and revolutionary fighting spirit to make their movements flourish and progress.


Some of these active workers are advanced workers. They have inquisitive and philosophical minds, and actively seek out socialism, and are open to studying the revolutionary theory of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung Thought and to following communist leadership. Their scope is broad and can see beyond their own oppression, link it up with other workers, oppressed nationalities and oppressed people around the world.

But there are others who are middle but nevertheless staunch trade union fighters. They are not immediately down to check out what’s socialism. In this period, given the state of fusion between the Party and the working class movement, they are not necessarily willing to go under communist leadership. But these workers are down to get workers to join the unions, to build them up. They fight the bosses to make them stick to the contract. They fight the union hacks to give workers their say at union meetings and the right to vote on agreements. They will lead walkouts and strikes. They are the stable cores of mass caucuses and committees in the workplaces. They’ll take up grievances of workers and workers will come to them when they’re laid off or harassed by the foremen. Many are shop stewards’. They are fighters for trade union democracy. They have organization consciousness in the form of a staunch class stand which can develop into communist consciousness under the leadership of the Party.

The priority of the Party in this period is concentrated at the advanced. But these other active workers must also be treasured, nurtured and developed. They will work as hard as advanced workers to build the caucuses and really make them broad through their ties and networks with the masses of workers. They also help draw out other advanced workers.


Communists like Foster and other militant activists like Johnstone came out of and were firmly rooted in the trade union movement of their time. Through their active participation in that movement they helped to build the prestige and fighting reputation of the TUEL on which it launched its later organizing work. Their history of work and the strong ties they have with the masses of workers accounted for the success of the TUEL. There is no shortcut to winning the confidence and love of the masses.

The same is true today. These struggles in the past and today make up the working class movement. It has a rich history with many milestones like the Flint sitdown strike, the San Francisco general strike of 1934, Haymarket Square Incident, the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement and produced working class heroes like Bill Haywood, and William Z. Foster. The demand for the 8-hour day was a national and international movement of the working class, and the struggle for industrial unions was a national working class movement. Just as consciousness against national oppression forges national movement together, so the spontaneous trade union consciousness forges the working class movement together.

There is a labor movement in the mines and mills around different issues, mainly around struggles for economic demands. At the head of this movement is a group of active militants. They must be identified and worked with through getting involved in this movement.

Laying the basis for an organization like the TUEL should begin now. Building rank and file caucuses through taking the lead in the battles of the class, rallying the advanced and activists is the only way to pave the way for the formation of such an organization. This will in turn serve the growth of the working class movement, in taking back our unions, and in organizing the unorganized. Hardhitting and sweeping campaigns like the ones in the packinghouse and steel industries can succeed only where they’re built on good, solid rank and file base work, done over a period of time. It is through entrenching among the masses and digging deep in the day-to-day work and immediate struggles that broad campaigns will yield fruit.