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Present and Future of U.S. Labor

Ben Hall

Present and Future of U.S. Labor

(September 1953)

From The New International, Vol. XIX No. 5, September–October 1953, pp. 249–254.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In twenty years the character of the labor movement in the United States has been radically transformed. Compared to the European movement, it remains backward, dedicated to capitalism and attached to bourgeois parties. In Europe, the term “labor movement” automatically includes the labor and socialist parties, parties which in most cases took the initiative in creating unions as part of a broader struggle for working-class emancipation.

In the United States, however, the labor movement is restricted almost exclusively to unionism. But it has already seen the birth and ascendancy of a radically new unionism which has carried it far from narrow concentration on trade conditions to politically conscious unionism, a peculiarly American type of social reformism. It has created a new type of labor officialdom, with far-reaching aspirations and a corresponding ideology; while not at all union leaders share this outlook to the same degree, and some not at all, its prevalence and dominance is now unmistakable.

A momentary lull in the class struggle obscures the emergence of new features; in these, its days of doldrums, the unions are incapable of meeting the key issues of the day – domestic political strategy, foreign policy, and war – and so, are unable to rouse their own members, much less the people as a whole, beyond a moderate pitch of boredom. The calm is relative and temporary. Even in the most placid periods, the struggle does not vanish; spectacular routine-busting strikes are replaced by smaller little publicized conflicts which persist and repeat. And even these serve only as a preface to big strikes and quasi-political actions in which the labor movement reveals its nature, as in the immediate post-war years.


In the previous stage of its development, the dominant craft section of the old AFL determined the character of unionism. Now, the AFL has risen to a claimed membership of 8 million outdistancing the CIO with its 5 million. But this AFL revival by no means signifies a rebirth or re-invigoration of old line unionism: the growth takes place in a new atmosphere. When it arose, the CIO was the prototype of the new unionism, which went far beyond a new form of organization to a new class orientation. With time, the AFL has been slowly forced away from its old positions toward that of the CIO. In this sense, while the CIO has not supplanted the AFL it has in fact conquered it and the triumph is final and irrevocable.

Unions are not merely bigger and more powerful; they are changing in their outlook. The affect of this change is curiously reflected and noted in the sequestered circles in which academicians and scholars move. In professional journals sociologists and their research workers detect important sociological phenomena in every commonplace of union life, translating them into their own trade jargon complete with charts. This is itself a sociological phenomenon. Professors write books proving that unions are altering the whole fabric of society, however they may disagree on the causes and significance of their discoveries. In their own way, they reflect the impact of modern unionism on American intellectual life.

In the winter of 1951, the now defunct Labor and Nation, published by what has been termed the “labor intellectuals,” devoted most of its issue to a symposium re-evaluating the Perlman-Commons interpretation of the labor movement. This school of thought which dominated the thinking of non-socialist liberals for decades saw the labor movement as inherently job conscious rather than class conscious, basically non-political and pro-capitalist; consequently they recorded the doom and futility within it of all socialist aspirations. Its old-guard defenders in the pages of Labor and Nation are hard pressed to fit the CIO into such a pattern. One stresses “the inner likeness of the unions in the two labor camps” without troubling to inquire whether the AFL which resembles the CIO today resembles itself of yesterday. Another writes:

“But the term, job interest, cannot be interpreted too narrowly. The worker does not operate in a social and economic vacuum. His position in the shop is influenced, not only by the political climate in the community but also by government and social policy.”

Here is the crux of his difficulties, for once “job interest” is linked with broad political and social questions it crosses over into working-class consciousness. In his own contribution to the same symposium, Selig Perlman is constrained to refer, in passing, to the Reuther General Motors strike program; but he dismisses it simply as “keen public relations.”

In only one aspect does there remain even an apparent verification of their theses; the weakness of socialism in America.

Socialism in the United States has in fact dwindled from a mass movement into a group of uninfluential sects. The causes of this disintegration, however, are to be sought not in any putative “nature of the labor movement” but in the concrete effects of world and domestic politics upon the working-class movement. The victory of fascism in Germany weakened the self-confidence of socialism and labor; the New Deal revived faith in the potentialities of capitalism just as Stalinism succeeded in plagiarizing the name of socialism, on behalf of an anti-labor totalitarianism. Thousands of former socialists drifted out of the movement, so imperceptibly that it is impossible to record when their membership and dues lapsed, to take positions inside the labor movement, in its officialdom or paid staff. In the UAW they literally dominate its leadership. But in abandoning their socialism they did not simply revert to the old AFL ideology which so dominated the thinking of the Commons school. The process of adaptation could be so natural and painless because the new labor movement augered a wide scope for a peculiarly American version of laborism, a social-democracy devoid of its socialist form and content. Thus, socialism disappeared as a mass force but the ground was cut from under the Commons thesis simultaneously.

And this is remarkably demonstrated by the critics who reject this thesis in the pages of Labor and Nation, even though they are not quite sure what must replace it. The present stage of development is so clearly a phase of evolution toward a new class policy that they approach with diffidence any effort to evaluate and define it.

The most obvious aspect of new unionism is the industrial form of organization. The battle for industrial unionism has been won, against employers outside and opponents inside the labor movement. As unity negotiations between the AFL and CIO proceed no one dreams of suggesting the dissolution of mass production unions. Old craft unions themselves have modified their methods to accommodate industrial organization.

In the dispute over form, a deep cleavage over the class content of union policy was revealed. Historically, American unionism began among craft journeymen; out of a multitude of experiments in organization, the AFL arose with its fundamental basis in the crafts and a corresponding craft ideology, despite the attachment of industrially organized miners and clothing workers. This form of organization proved viable in the ebbs and flows of 40 years; for decades, apart from the socialist movement, the AFL and its similars remained the labor movement. But the rise of mass production created a new working class- semi-skilled and unskilled outside the AFL which was isolated from it. The AFL became increasingly a narrow privileged minority stratum divorced from the class. In the crisis of 1929, industrial unions in mining and clothing were all but obliterated, clinging with difficulty to a shattered skeleton organization. It was after the ordeal of this near-fatal crisis that these unions faced new possibilities in the favorable climate of economic upturn. They recaptured their power but the mass of workers remained organized.

At this critical turning point in the history of labor, a decisive question was posed: shall the organized minority of the class remain preoccupied with its craft interests, seek a niche of undisturbed safety, and, in contemptuous disregard for the wider needs of the class majority, avoid the risks of battle against powerfully entrenched monopolies. Or, shall the organized minority prepare for a life and death struggle, as a vanguard of the class, to organize the whole class, or at least its decisive sections? In taking up this challenge, the CIO became a great social movement, transcending “unionism” in the narrow sense, enlisting hundreds of thousands of hitherto voiceless, disorganized workers in a popular crusade for unionism – and democracy, attracting thousands of intellectuals and liberals. In a wave of organization and enthusiasm, an American labor movement was founded anew, not the organized minority but the organized class. In the end, the CIO did not become the labor movement but it created it; and in the process, the AFL was reshaped and altered. Unity between the two federations would be a belated official expression of this historic achievement and the triumph of the CIO.

From birth the new unions confronted government. They were caught up in a spreading network of labor boards and then faced with government wage-fixing and virtual compulsory arbitration, during the war. Labor, just mobilized for union action as a class was immediately impelled toward political action as a class. The full significance of this simple truism deludes alike sociological investigators far from the scene and union officials in direct personal charge of political action.

Diligent research into facts cramming newspapers’ front pages leads one sociology professor to detect an exceptionally persistent labor activity in the field of politics; he concludes that unions act much like any “pressure group” concerned with advancing its own pet schemes for private advancement – say, a real estate lobby for higher rents or a sportsmen’s council for striped bass conservation. In the momentary confusion following Eisenhower’s election, George Meany, newly elected AFL president, abjured the role of political “opposition” for labor and promised to continue in the future, as in the past, the traditional AFL “non-partisan” policy, i.e., no ties to any political party. Labor’s League for Political Education, recently created political arm of the AFL, in announcing an intensified political action program, imagines that it revives and perpetuates the old Gompers policy which regrettably had been permitted to atrophy after his death. In their touching memorial to Gompers, they do not notice that his policy is dying away labor official by labor official, and that they themselves have already passed it.

In the depths of the depression, the AFL steadfastly refused to demand a national system of unemployment insurance, lest the worker, having received a bounty from government, lose his union loyalty. The fact that unemployed outnumbered employed unionists ten to one and that the organization of the unorganized was not remotely within the purview of its limited imagination made little difference so long as those who were union members were union members. When at last, it endorsed this demand, its action was hailed as a radical new departure, a turning point for the AFL. Twenty years later, it is almost impossible to discover an important public issue on which the AFL will not take a stand, good or bad.

The old AFL was never strictly non-political, but its political demands were restricted. Political action consisted in year-round lobbying and election day endorsements for a series of closely defined labor measures. To win these demands, it impartially supported candidates of either party without over-concern for their actions or views on broad social questions. The formula, “reward your friends; punish your enemies” guided its skirting sallies on the fringes of politics. It strongly opposed the formation of any labor party; this hostility was but one facet of a general reluctance to be identified with any political party. Such was its “non-partisan” character. But to define its attitude is to make it seem more definite and consistent than it ever was in life. Actually, it followed even this line in a wavering and contradictory fashion.

Labor’s new political policy perpetuates hostility to a new party and, formally, supports candidates of either old party. In this lies the similarity of the old policy and the new, a similarity which permits labor officials to genuflect before the memory of Gompers and depict themselves as nothing more than modest continuators of a hoary tradition. “In politics,” comments the U.S. Department of Labor’s Brief History of the American Labor Movement, “both the AFL and CIO, as well as most of the independent unions, officially continue to adhere to Gompers’ slogan of reward labor’s friends and defeat labor’s enemies.” This superficial glance at surface facts ignores 20 years of class struggle, a world over, the rise of a new unionism, and the evolution of labor’s politics.

As far back as 1936, Matthew Woll, AFL Vice-President, wrote in Liberty, that labor in America “differed from the labor movements of most other countries” and was content to support the prevailing parties. “But now that the government has become our biggest employer of labor, employing one out of every seven people in the United States, and has therefore assumed a position of new and possibly dangerous importance to labor as well as to industry, labor may be compelled to form new political alliances and attachments.” In the same article, appeared this oddity: “Dictatorship by anyone should be avoided. But, naturally, if there is any dictating to be done in this supposedly free country, labor is going to have something to say about who does the dictating. Labor abhors all the principles and implications of dictatorship. But labor is compelled frequently to adopt the line of action which promises to be effective.” It was a curiously phrased portent of the new line.

With the New Deal, labor stirred in politics on behalf of a social program of radical reform; it soon formed an organized wing in bourgeois politics attaching itself to the New Deal-Fair Deal section of the Democratic Party. Its occasional endorsement of Republicans ceases to express “non-partisanship” but merely indicates that to a certain extent the program and alliance it seeks cuts across established party lines. It is no longer content with the expression of a friendly attitude by politicians for its scattered requests. It seeks nothing less than a recognized voice and real influence in determining all state policy on every important question. This striving for a share in government is its own “struggle for power.”

(The last flare-up of the old policy on a grand scale fizzled in 1940 when John L. Lewis vainly tried to switch labor’s allegiance from Roosevelt to Willkie. Although by 1943, their irritations with Roosevelt had become public knowledge and led labor officials to withhold endorsement of the fourth term until the last minute, they remained loyal to the New Deal as a political tendency. Lewis’ sally into the Willkie camp, to punish an enemy, Roosevelt, was a move with no long range perspective and began his era of grand isolation.)

In its election platforms, the CIO ranges far beyond “pure” labor questions, taking its stand on foreign policy, civil rights, farmers – every question of the day. In 1951, when a United Labor Policy Committee led a walkout from Truman’s war boards, a simple struggle over wages and prices was immediately transformed into a union political demonstration for a change in the course of national domestic policy, a demonstration supported by all wings of organized labor.

With persistent regularity, one labor leader or another threatens to form a new party. Dave Beck, Meany, Walter Reuther, Emil Rieve – to mention a few. For some, it is a momentary open expression of a vague ultimate goal; for others, a mere blackmail threat to extort political concessions from the party in power. In either case, the ease with which they slip into the threat reveals how little the concept of a labor party is excluded by any formal adherence to “non-partisanship.” On the contrary, the founding of a new party is the logical and inescapable next step in the process which leads from the organization of the class into unions, to its constitution as a wing in bourgeois politics, to its independent organization in a class party.

A story that crops up perennially tells of a prominent labor leader who confounds his interviewer, traveling companion, or poker-party guest with a logical defense of “free enterprise,” brilliant beyond the capacities of any businessman. The tale is the same; only the hero changes as it is tailored to fit the official who breaks into current newspaper headlines. With one unanimous voice, the union officialdom proclaims undying devotion to the capitalist social system. But in their capitalism, mills are made of marble and machines of gold. It is the steady uninterrupted rise of living standards; it is the perpetual growth of union power; it is ever-expanding democracy; more security, more rights for the common man; even peace! They ask so much of capitalism that they annoy the capitalist class. Some politicians, businessmen, or economists gingerly suggest that perhaps in some unknown future we must adjust to economic downswing or that perhaps the possibilities for progress are somewhat limited ... labor leaders unhesitatingly denounce such pessimists for lack of confidence in the American way of life.

But they themselves suspect that the future may hold gloomier prospects. Their public speeches are compounded half of warnings of what may come and half of warnings against those who warn of what may come. Is the unprecedented era of prosperity founded upon war and pre-war economics; what of the Taft-Hartley law and its injunction provisions; the rise of McCarthyism and the power of Dixiecrats in the Democratic Party? And every now and then, their discontent with the dwindling liberalism of the Democratic Party breaks through their official optimism. They support capitalism because they expect so much from it but they understand this much: what they get will ultimately depend upon how hard they are ready to fight in strikes and in politics. Their official optimism will not block the way to a new policy in the long run. The labor leader, full of faith in capitalism and making demands upon it, will travel the road to a new party.

The new unionism has succeeded in organizing the main body of the American working class. Its intervention in politics has injected modern democracy with whatever vigor it possesses but its inadequacy is fully revealed in this: the “main drift” of society away from democracy, the legal and extra-legal undermining of civil liberties and the rights of labor continues. Nevertheless, there is one limit beyond which democracy cannot be whittled and chipped away: modern unionism stands as the bedrock foundation from which a new beginning and a new advance is always possible.

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