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H.W. Benson

Organization and Consciousness
of the American Working Class

(Summer 1956)

From The New International, Vol. XXII No. 2, Summer 1956, pp. 106–120.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

To what extent is American industry unionized? What is involved is not a mere statistical query but an investigation into the very nature of the working class. Marxists often refer to the “backwardness” of the American labor movement, a term which is accurate but only relative. Backward compared to what? In every industrially advanced country where democracy prevails, generations of workers have given allegiance to socialist and labor parties, or, in the case of the Communist Party, to a party which appears to them, however mistakenly, as a class party. Except in the United States. Here, the labor movement rejects in principle the formation of a class party and supports bourgeois candidates. It is organized essentially as a labor-union movement and in this respect remains in the first stages of its political evolution. Nevertheless, though it does not exist as an independent party, the working class does exist as an independently organized class. Twenty-five years ago, only one generation, the American working class was disorganized, except for a small minority; today, it is overwhelmingly organized. It appears backward compared with the social needs of our times and measured against its own future. But look at its past and a giant advance in organization and in consciousness is obvious.

In 1954, the total membership of labor unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was no less than 18,000,000. An impressive total. But bare membership figures only hint at the pervasive influence of unionism. If we estimated an average immediate family of 3 for each member, the total population directly linked to organized labor totals 54 millions: one-third of the national population. This is disconcerting because there is no space reserved for classes in American ideology; perhaps a happy middle class but nothing so vulgar as a working class. There is mutual cooperation; there is balance of forces; there are no classes; there is no class struggle; all chant this litany; industrial statesmen, once known as capitalists; labor statesmen, once known as workers’ leaders; in between, writers, editors, lecturers, educators.

Yet unions are class organizations par excellence. Membership is nearly everywhere open only to those who work for an employer; and employers are strictly barred from holding membership and denied the right to speak at union meetings of their own employees. What cements the union together in the first place and then holds it together in good times and bad, what distinguishes it from all other organizations is the fact that it draws workers together in the workshop, mobilizes them to improve their daily conditions and organizes them strictly, even narrowly, as wage-earners.

The union begins by drawing a sharp line between worker and employer. To. the extent that they enroll large sections of the working class and enlist their conscious and active loyalty, to that extent class lines are deepened. But since this simple truth is not permitted to circulate as a free citizen, an annoying problem is posed for official sociology. How to interpret this labor movement? To put it more bluntly, how to explain it away?

But must it be explained away? There are other possibilities. Reactionary Democrats and conservative Republicans are not particularly concerned with delicate sociological legerdemain. For them it suffices, without philosophical speculation, to act as though unions represented one class and they another. Their unstated theory is expressed in deeds: Taft-Hartley laws; “right to work” laws; illegalizing labor political action. All aimed at curbing and restraining the power of unionism. But there is a limit: if you make us second-class citizens, warns George Meany, we will be forced to form a labor party.

The labor movement cannot be wiped out by any devices available and conceivable today. Intelligent ideologists of capitalism cannot permit themselves to understand the class position of American unionism, much less proclaim it publicly lest the labor movement be pushed into recognizing itself.

It is impossible to explain away the class struggle without explaining away the modern labor movement. Here lies the importance of analyzing our most powerful union movement.

Labor leaders grope their way unperturbed by thought processes. They reject a labor party on the grounds that it would create class division.. A moment later, they “divide” workers from bosses by unionizing them. It is not that they notice no contradiction; they simply don’t think about it.

Just before helping to create the biggest and most powerful labor union movement in U.S. history, George Meany told the printing industry:

“Now, as to those who fear the merger, I would say that there is no possible fear of this so-called labor monopoly, because even when we get merged we will have less than 25 per cent of the total work force of the nation and that will certainly not look like a monopoly.”

His intention is innocent enough; by pointing to labor’s weakness, he hopes to silence those who want to curb its power. The basically underprivileged position of labor lies not in lack of organization but in the monopoly of industry by a small class of owners. Workers must work to live; they can forego wages in strikes but not forever; the owner has enormous resources and great powers that go with ownership. No matter how strongly unions succeed in organizing, the power of the working class remains limited compared to the power of ownership. But Meany cannot do much with such an argument; it reveals too much about capitalism, the limitations of its democracy and its built-in class rule. Instead, he points, not to labor’s limited social rights, but to its presumably limited organization. But look up at the mountains! What stands out is towering unionism, intensive and wide-ranging.

What is the degree of organization in the various industries? Such a question would seem readily answerable in passionless statistics. We should already be forewarned, however, that the subject is overladen with political and sociological preconceptions.

Take a passing comment from American Labor and the American Spirit, a pamphlet issued in 1954 by the Department of Labor and distributed widely in unions.

The necessarily limited role of present day unions is indicated by a comparison of union membership with the entire labor force – the labor force is nearly four times as large as the number of workers in unions. The term labor force as used in the United States includes self-employed workers; salaried workers as well as wage earners; casual and temporary workers; and those who are not at work but looking for jobs.

The comparison between the size of the organized working class and the total labor force is misleading. “Labor force” conjures up visions of men, sleeves rolled, hammering away with sledge and chisel. But beware! If the National Association of Manufacturers employs a director, who retains a firm of attorneys, who hire labor-relations advisors, who use a strikebreaking detective agency – with the aim of preventing or smashing unionism-all the individuals engaged in such unique human endeavors are duly recorded in the ever-patient and tolerant category of “labor force.”

If its statistical significance in society is to be judged, then the whole working class, organized and unorganized, must be measured against other classes. If the weight of the organized working class is to be compared, let it be gauged by the organizations of other classes.

The Department of Labor selects part of the working class, its organized sector, holds it up against all classes, organized and unorganized, and finds that one out of every four gainfully employed (all classes, all professions, all means of payment; employers, owners, storekeepers; city, town and farm) is a unionized worker. What hits the observer full in the face is the amazingly large section of the whole employed population already enrolled in unions.

But let us put this aside and consider another aspect of the question. Before labor can organize other classes, before it can lead the nation, it must organize itself. How far has it succeeded? What is its self-consciousness? We want to know something about the inner state of the American working class.

For this, we compare the organized working class, not with the population in general, but with the whole working class.

Naturally, our interest lies beyond the laudable desire for accurate statistics and pure information. The rise of socialism in advanced industrial nations, (and ultimately in all), depends upon the rise, organization and class consciousness of the working class. And in time, history turned upon these factors – so it was in the past and will be in the future. We avoid, too, sociological generalities and precise definitions of what is included and what is not in the term “working class.” The impact of the labor and socialist movement is linked to tendencies among workers in industry: those engaged in manufacturing production, in transportation, in mining, and in construction. Here lies the heart and spine of the modern working class.

From various political and social standpoints it is argued that other classes or sections of classes are growing at a relatively greater rate than the industrial working class. Sometimes this thought is linked to notions of the rise of bureaucracy and administration in general, or to a new middle class, or to automation, or to atomic energy. But regardless of what looms in the somewhat shadowy future, we begin with what we have. The political and social tendencies of new social strata will be shaped by the most powerfully organized class of modern times: the industrial proletariat; and the social results of new techniques of production and science will be determined by what this class does or does not accomplish. In terms of its self-consciousness and organization, the industrial working class is rising, consolidating, viable and decisive. Leo Wolman, in the 36th annual report of the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that union membership rose 148.8 per cent between 1939 and 1953, from 6,500,000 to 16,217,000. The percentage of trade union membership in non-agricultural employment rose from 21.5 per cent to 32.6 per cent in the same period.

In 1953, Daniel Bell, writing in Fortune on The Next American Labor Movement, minimizes the impact of the labor movement and underlines, as he sees it, its basic adjustment to capitalist society. The following statistical fragment is a piece of the whole:

“In 1946, US unions had organized about 15 million – 48 per cent of 31 million potential members, since 1946, the working population has expanded but union membership has remained stationary.”

We note a more impressive ring: from 25 per cent of the “labor force” to 48 per cent of the “potential members.” Still, Bell emphasizes stagnation and limitation.

Three years later, Bell is even firmer in his view, reiterated now in the context of AFL-CIO unity. Fortune, June 1956:

“In the past ten years, membership gains, as the AFL-CIO has admitted, came ‘primarily from economic expansion in establishments and industries already organized.’ And even this growth, a membership rise of three million or about 21 per cent in ten years, has barely kept pace with the percentage increase in the American labor force over the same period.”

And the chief lesson:

“But the basic fact about the labor movement today is that it has lost its elan. Its leadership is aging; its rhetoric is dulled and unconvincing even to its own orators, its emotional appeals, such as Reuther’s speeches to the AFL-CIO convention, evoke response primarily because of sentiment about the past. In part this is a paradoxical ‘loss through victory.’ The fact is that American business today is pledged to an expanding economy; once management became committed to annual productivity increases in wages over and beyond rises in cost of living, unionism lost much of its fire power.... Vast changes within labor reflect not labor’s efforts to change the economy but changes in the technology of America and in the location of industry.”

And concluding, “blue collar unionism has been and will remain a phenomenon of American industry and ... in the changing aspects of American life – the rise of services, recreation, research – it will play no great role in economic organization.

We fear that a bubbling lack of enthusiasm tempts Bell to exaggerate his own underestimation. Note his contention that between 1946 and 1953 “the working population has expanded but union membership has remained stationary.” This conclusion is directly contradicted by a study of union membership 1897–1953 by Irving Bernstein in the June 1954 American Economic Review. According to Bernstein, the change between 1946 and 1953 was as follows:





Union Membership
as % of Entire
Labor Force







These figures demonstrate a big advance in total membership and an appreciable increase in relative membership.

Bell detects many little things but misses what is big. He is under a compulsion to highlight, underline and emphasize everything that reveals weakness, stagnation, limitation, triviality and passive adaptation in the union movement. The grand evolution, the main line of development escapes him completely. In a maze of detail he hits upon the “basic fact” in loss of “elan.” But consider his introduction to a graph of Union membership: “U.S. union growth ... occurred largely in the 1935–45 decade ... But this growth was largely under hothouse protection: first of the NRA and the Wagner Act; later, the War Labor Board.” It is incredible that Bell cannot see the obvious. His own “Hothouse” theory (which this writer contends is misleading) emphasized not stagnation but spectacular advance. Bell leaves the impression of a labor movement that could hardly stand alone and leaned on crutches of government help. But contrast the fate of unionism in two wars. During the first World War, it rose truly under “hothouse” protection only to be driven back after the war was over. Now, the hothouse is gone; the glass panels shattered, the steam heat turned off. Instead of the Wagner Act, icy winds blow: Taft-Hartley; right-to-work laws; curbs on union political action. Yet, the union movement holds on to every position; it grows; it unifies, it intends to grow even more. The “basic fact,” demonstrated in the last ten years, is this: the American working class is fundamentally, permanently, organized; its unions are deep rooted and ineradicable. This is clear and obvious for the first time; a powerful, newly-organized class has taken its place on the political and social arena; such an event must decisively affect the nation’s history. Unless this “basic fact” is clearly understood, every discussion of union problems will bog down in trivia.

Bell’s finger remains pointed at the loss of “elan”; his doubts remain on its ability to organize the South or to expand into new fields. But is the stagnation inherent in the very nature of labor organization today? Is it rooted in the basic long term power of capitalism? Is it linked to the limitations of the role and consciousness of America’s working class? Or is it a transient phenomenon, a passing stage in the growth of unionism and the rise of working-class consciousness, destined to be overcome as labor moves on to a new stage? Is it deeply rooted in the very nature of our society or is it a phase of labor’s political evolution?

In answering such questions, we need a rough picture of what the American working class looks like.

SINCE WE ARE CONCERNED HERE with the state of the industrial working class, we will compare two figures.

  1. The number of production workers in a given branch of industry with,
  2. the size of unions in that field.

Our figures are rough with no claim to statistical refinement. As we noted, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not publish figures on the degree of organization by industry.

The Auto Workers Union, for example, organizes thousands of workers outside the strict limits of its stated field of operations. The Machinists Union spreads over almost every branch of every industry. The Carpenters Union with its base in the building trades takes in furniture workers, lumber mill workers and others. We take one precaution in order not to exaggerate the total picture and list each union under only one heading, a device which will tend to exaggerate the degree of organization in some areas by minimizing it in others. Figures on union membership are almost all from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Directory of Labor Unions which lists claimed membership in 1954; figures on employment are from approximately the same period.


According to the estimate of A.H. Raskin, labor editor of the New York Times, three-fourths of all workers in manufacturing are organized: out of 13,400,000 production workers, more than 10,000,000 are in unions. But even this impressive figure understates the real spread and power of unionism. The more basic the industry, the stronger is unionism. By this fact, unionism exercises vast social power and makes its ideological impact even upon workers who are not organized or only weakly organized. Consider the expanse of unionism in the industrial heartland of the U.S.

Primary Metals

Workers employed: 1,140,000 of which 700,000 are employed on production in the basic steel industry: foundries, mills, furnaces.

Union membership: The Steel Workers Union alone 1,200,000. Part of this membership covers metal fabrication. On the other hand, thousands of workers in basic aluminum, copper and other non-ferrous metals are organized into other unions. This industry is virtually 100 per cent organized.

Transportation Equipment

Workers employed: 1,400,000 of which 1,100,000 are employed in auto and aircraft plants.

Union membership: The UAW alone accounts for 1,239,000. Part of this membership, however, is employed in agricultural implement plants and others in assorted metal fabrication. On the other hand, a large section of the aircraft industry is organized by the International Association of Machinists. Virtually 100 per cent unionized.

Clothing Industry
(Apparel and other finished textiles)



Union membership:

United Garment Workers








Glove Workers


Hosiery Workers


Lace Operatives




Paper and Allied Industries




Union membership:

AFL Paper Makers



CIO Paper Workers


Pulp, Sulphite and Paper Mill Workers




Leather and Leather Products



Union membership:

Fur and Leather Workers Industrial Union (defunct)


Leather and Leather Goods AFL


Shoe and Allied Workers


CIO Shoe Workers


AFL Boot and Shoe







Union membership:

Tobacco Workers Union


Cigar Makers




Stone, Clay and Glass



Union membership:

Brick and Clay Workers


Cement, Lime and Gypsum


Glass Bottle Workers


Clay and Ceramic Workers


Flint Glass Workers


Potters Union




Lumber and Wood Products




Union membership:

CIO Woodworkers Union



Here it must be noted that the AFL Carpenters Union which is listed under construction is not included although it has a large membership in lumber camps and sawmills.

In the Northwest, this industry is completely organized. In the South, however, it is only 15 per cent unionized.




Union membership:

Upholsters Union


Furniture Workers




Here, too, we omit thousands of members of the Carpenters Union.




Union membership:















Food Industry



Union membership:

Packinghouse Workers and Amalgamated Meat Cutters




Brewery Workers


Distillery Workers


Grain Millers




These figures show about two-thirds organization but that would be misleading. Packinghouses are totally organized. The two big unions in the industry, United Packinghouse Workers, formerly CIO, and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters, formerly AFL, are about to merge. Once this merger is finally consummated, a vigorous organizing drive is inevitable. Independent unions which have a sizable membership are not counted at all.

Rubber Products




Union membership:

United Rubber Workers Union



Textile Mills




Union membership:








This is a relatively poorly organized industry. Yet well over a third of the workers are organized.





Union membership:

AFL Chemical Workers



CIO Gas, Coke and Chemical Union




The low degree of organization in this industry is generally recognized. Large unorganized plants in the South must still be unionized. Yet close to one-third of the workers are already organized. In the Atomic industries, whose workers are scattered among many unions, A.H. Raskin estimates that 75 per cent are already organized.



Oil mining



Products of petroleum and coal




Union membership: The former Oil Workers Union, which merged with the Gas, Coke and Chemical Workers, claimed more than 100,000 members and was the backbone of union organization. But unionism in the oil industry is not yet consolidated and membership is spread over a host of small independent unions not listed here. In early 1954 an abortive unity conference attracted 149 delegates from 31 oil unions representing a claimed membership of over 212,000. Unionism is firmly established but not unified. Bell estimates that independent unions have a membership of 100,000.


Bituminous and Anthracite Coal



Metal mining


Non-Metallic Mines and Quarries




Union membership:

The United Mine Workers did not report its membership to the BLS. Our figure is an estimate. The Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union has declined sharply in membership but its losses have represented not a decline in union membership but a transfer to CIO unions.

United Mine Workers



Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers




Obviously, these 500,000 members are not all miners. District 50 of the UMW organizes chemical workers and others. MMSW organizes smelter workers and its membership figures are probably exaggerated. But, on the other hand, these figures omit metal miners organized into the Steel Workers Union.

Despite all qualifications, the picture is clear: unionism dominates the mining industry.

Construction Industry



Union membership:
(almost all in Building Trades Dept. – AFL).

Asbestos Workers








Electrical Workers


Elevator Construction


Operating Engineers


Granite Cutters


Hod Carriers


Iron Workers




Marble Workers










Sheet Metal Workers


Stone Cutters




Obviously union rolls include thousands of workers who are not employed in construction. On the other hand, thousands of others who should be listed are not. The Teamsters, for example, who organize construction drivers are not listed at all. In small towns, building trades workers are weakly organized; but this doubly emphasizes the fact that in the great industrial centers, where the basic character of the working class is established, they are almost 100 per cent organized.




Union membership:



Firemen and Oilers


Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen


Bro. of Maintenance of Way


Pullman Porters






Railway Telegraphers








Railway Clerks




Locomotive Engineers


Railway Patrolmen


Transport Workers Union


All Maritime Unions [1]




Note: This list omits the International Association of Machinists
which organizes railroad machinists.

On the periphery of the organized labor movement, unionization is relatively weak. Of the 5,750,000 workers employed in the Service and Miscellaneous industries, A.H. Raskin estimates that it is “doubtful that more than 1,000,000.” In finance, insurance, real estate, he guesses that less than 5 per cent are in unions. Of 11,000,000 in the wholesale and retail trade, he thinks about 500,000 are organized. Government workers are perhaps 10–15 per cent organized, and agricultural workers negligibly so.

Organizing the unorganized is not a matter of simple administrative efficiency and energy. In organizing the South, labor will have to examine its political line and its relations with the Democratic party, dominant one-party in the non-union South. To organize white collar workers, labor must create an atmosphere of sympathy for unionism among the people; that too is a political question.

But in grappling with its problems, labor begins with 18,000,000 organized workers; while it is true that thousands among them are indifferent to unionism and its goals, other thousands among the unorganized workers are undoubtedly eager for unions. It would be a miracle if the organized body of 18 million hadn’t made its impact on the minds of all, organized and unorganized. Where it is weak, unionism does not begin with nothing. In such areas as chemicals and textiles 25 per cent at least are already organized. Among government workers and retail clerks, thousands are already in unions. Such footholds, backed by the resources and influence of a united labor movement, become the starting point for an inevitable expansion of unionism in the United States.

The majority of the industrial working class is already organized. So, far, our statistics only tell us where they arc. The next question is: what do they think about their unions? For them or against?

WHO CAN PROBE THEIR MINDS or test their enthusiasm? The National Association of Manufacturers campaigns for the “Right to Work” convinced that men are “coerced” into joining, herded by mighty “union bosses” and “labor monopolies,” unwilling shanghaied victims. Sponsors of the Taft- Hartley Law, in revolt against “labor dictatorship,” rose in public indignation to give good Americans, imprisoned in unions, a chance to shake free. The closed shop was, and remains, outlawed. At first Taft-Hartley also ruled out a union shop unless a majority of those eligible to vote in any collective bargaining unit elected for it. By its provisions, those who failed to vote were in effect counted as voting against the union. The results were startling.

In 19 years (1936–54) since the adoption of the Wagner Act, workers were given the chance to express their private feelings in secret government elections of three types:

  1. collective bargaining elections;
  2. union shop elections under the Taft Hartley Law;
  3. strike ballots under the wartime Smith-Connally Act.

In all types of elections during these years, more than 19,000,000 ballots were cast. In actuality, at one time or another virtually the entire organized working class voted in secret. Here, in the dark privacy of government protection they could, if they so desired, lash out against the unions. Almost 16,000,000 votes were cast for unions, or 82.7 per cent.

Most impressive were the union shop elections under the Taft-Hartley Law. These voters were no raw recruits to unionism; they were not swayed by momentary illusions or passing promises; as old-time union men they had to decide whether to make membership compulsory for others and for themselves. Between 1948 and 1951, over 46,000 union shop elections were conducted; more than 5,500,000 votes were cast; of these, over 5,000,000, or 91.4 per cent went for the union!

Union Shop Elections Under the Taft Law
(in all tables figures are by fiscal year ending June 30)


Votes Cast


For Union


% for Union

July 1–Oct. 22, 1951
























The law was defeating its purpose! Instead of “freeing” workers from “compulsory” unionism, the elections became a weapon for mobilizating [sic] pro-union sentiment. Pressure was built up for the union shop where it never had existed before. Congress hastened to expunge this provision from the law in 1951.

In 1944, in an atmosphere of wartime strikebreaking, the Smith-Connally Act was passed making it illegal for unions to declare strikes without a government-sponsored vote. In 2½ years, over 2,000 elections were held. Close to 2 million votes were cast; of these nearly 1,600,000 or 82.8 per cent voted for strike as (in most cases) recommended by their union.

Smith-Connally Strike Votes



Votes Cast


For Strike


% for Strike









July–Dec. 1945








But the most far-reaching and continuing test came in nineteen years of NLRB collective bargaining elections. More than 11½ million votes were cast; more than 9 million or 78.7 per cent for the union. The totals are even more impressive than they appear. As the years pass, most large factories are organized; elections take place in anti-union strongholds and small shops. By 1954, 56.7 per cent of all collective bargaining elections took place in units of less than 40 workers; and 84.7 per cent in units of less than 100. Unionism begins to reach down where workers are most influenced by petty personal relations with their boss, most easily intimidated and influenced by trivial considerations. In 1948, a sharp drop in the percentage of pro-union votes is noticeable, opening the Taft-Hartley era. The employer is granted new means of intimidation; he can call meetings against the union on company property; he can threaten to move out of town; he can turn his workers into a captive audience. Yet, elections continue to go pro-union by a large majority:

NLRB Collective Bargaining Elections


Valid Votes Cast


For Union


% for Union

















































July 1–Aug. 21, 1947








(Under Taft-Hartley Law)



































Grand Total 1936–1954




Summing up the results of the balloting in all types of elections, we see the emerging picture of an organized working class, overwhelmingly loyal to its unions.

Composite Results of Labor Elections


Total Votes


For Union


% for Union

Representation Elections 1936–1954




Union Shop 1948–1951




Smith-Connally Strike Votes 1944–1945








These are majorities that any politician would envy. The results are so preponderantly and consistently one-sided that it would be difficult to pick out free elections of any other type for comparison.

WHEN THE NOON HOUR WHISTLE blows and the noise of machine, motor and drill are silenced, millions of union workers in every town, city and state pull up stools to the nearest bench and, in little groups, chat over lunch. Their conversation continues on the way home in cars, buses, and trains. Or at the bowling club, on the fishing trip, at the union meeting, at the bar, at home visits. Naturally, among other things, they talk about their union, their work, politics, the events of the day. Sometimes a big event takes place: a strike, an important election, but not often. In this ceaseless, endless, permanent exchange of views, arguments, ideas, opinions, prejudices and thoughts the union consciousness of the American working class is being created.

Some of them are just union members, dues payers who tolerate the union, perhaps among the 75 per cent who have voted for a union in NLRB elections. Others are definitely and positively pro-union, perhaps among the 91 per cent who voted for a union shop in Taft-Hartley elections. But there are still others:

There are those who are not merely members of a union; not merely intensely loyal to the union. They are the ones whose attachment to the union is part of a whole outlook on politics and social problems; they are the living embodiment of the emerging traditions of the workingclass; their unionism is part and parcel of their general social consciousness; they are the union conscious cadres of the American working class, the tangible, unifying, human force that cements together the modern labor movement. And they number, conservatively, in the hundreds of thousands.

How do these men and women think about political and social questions? We can watch the labor movement in its daily routine; its resolutions, its strikes, its conventions, its conferences, its official pronounciamentos, its elections. We live, however, in an epoch of polls, surveys and samplings, an era when few self-respecting analysts can feel at ease without a buttressing mass of evidence gathered by public opinion interviews, social research workers and sociologists.

A uniquely valuable survey is now available, published in June under the title When Labor Votes. [2] This study of the attitude of auto workers in the 1952 elections, prepared by three Wayne University sociologists, is based upon detailed interviews with randomly selected UAW members in the Detroit area. Eight hundred and twenty-eight unionists were questioned once before the elections; of these, 351 were interviewed a second time after the election results were known. Detroit auto unionists are not exactly the “average” worker, or even the average organized worker. They belong to the most progressive wing of the labor movement. But neither are they peculiar or atypical. They resemble millions of others, especially in the mass industrial unions. If they arc more advanced, their attitude today foreshadows the labor movement of tomorrow. From them we get a roughly accurate picture of modern union consciousness. Their reply to one question gives us the key to everything. They were asked: “If you were asked to use one of these four names for your social class, which would you say you belong in: the middle class, lower class, working class, or upper class?” Only one replied, “upper class,” and two, “lower class.” But 206 said that they belonged to the “working class” and only 72 to the “middle class.” Union consciousness bring a realization of an identity with the working class. This generality, the survey fills in with ample detail.

Three out of every four voted for Stevenson, most of these on the straight Democratic ticket. Of 678 UAW registered voters 80 per cent indicated that they were Democrats or leaned toward the Democratic Party. Only 13 per cent voted a straight Republican ticket. Why so many Democrats? The survey points to “frequent mention of the interests of workingmen, the view that Democrats and Stevenson are for unions and labor, whereas Republicans are for business and similar reflections of belief in opposed group interests” (p. 103).

Should labor have more influence in government? Fifty-five per cent answered, yes; Should business? Only 19 per cent said, yes; 41 per cent said, no. The authors point out that a “source of surprise is that so many Eisenhower voters thought that business should have less to say.” And, “substantial numbers of Eisenhower voters were in full agreement with the Stevenson-supporting fellow members in wanting to see the political influence of unions increase and that of business groups decrease.” If the responders are measured by their degree of trust versus distrust of the political recommendations of various groups we find that:

  • They trust unions 4–1;
  • They distrust business 4½–1;
  • They distrust newspapers 5–1.

In sum, “the reasons predominantly express belief in opposed group interests and a sense of belonging to or being identified with one side.” One of the most frequent explanation for political sympathies was, “They’re my class of people; I’m a labor man; they represent my interests.”

Naturally, not all union members are equally union conscious: this commonplace is frequently decked out in multifarious disguises to prove that there is no labor vote, no general union outlook, no working class. The Wayne study helps sift the membership into categories. By posing a series of revealing questions (the full questionnaire is reprinted in an appendix) the authors differentiate broadly between degrees of attachment to the union and participation in its activities, with these conclusions:

Strong union attachment







Similarly, opinion on union political action and policies is grouped as follows:

Strongly for union political action





Not for or against


Looking more closely at the strong 55 per cent, the authors conclude, “The evidence suggests that most of these people see the political world in terms of opposed goals and group interests as between organized labor and business.” And in general, it is the members most closely attached to the union who support its policies most firmly.

Fundamentally, the social influence of the union depends upon this stratum which reaches 35-55 per cent of the membership. This is its basic union conscious cadre.

There is “little doubt that a large sector of the membership (approximately one-half of all members) feels that they have political interests opposed to those of Business and Newspapers, interests that they can protect and advance by supporting the union’s position on the political front ...” The authors are impelled to report the same fact again and again; under one heading, then another. As:

“The predominant political outlook or ‘philosophy’ is clearly one that conceives of workers’ and union’s goals as opposed at many points to those of business and wealthy groups. This is not translated as ‘class consciousness,’ belief in ‘class struggle,’ or a desire to overthrow the ‘capitalist system.’ We shall return to this important distinction in the final chapter. Contrary to common assertions, moreover, a majority of these unionists trust union organizations and leadership on the political as well as on the economic front.”

We can hardly wait for the “final chapter,” anticipating a refutation of class consciousness,” or at least an attempt. We seek in vain; what the authors promised, they forgot. Perhaps they became too engrossed in what they actually saw; for their last chapter cautions not against the concept of class consciousness but against the view that organized workers are becoming “middle class” in outlook.

Let us grant, however, that the advanced union worker is not class conscious. If asked, he would probably nod his approval of the capitalist system and disavow the class struggle. But he is intensely union conscious and that union consciousness is no bulwark against class consciousness. Quite the contrary, in union consciousness lies the underlying elements of class consciousness that must in time assert themselves.

THE UAW IS COINING a new slogan: “First organize them: then unionize them.” It is intended to underscore the “education” of new members; actually it points up a profound idea: workers come into unions as raw recruits but in time their whole outlook tends to change. At any rate, that is the union’s aim.

From a few hundred thousand in the heartland of the auto industry, Detroit and Flint, the UAW expanded to over a million. The industry decentralized; the union grew and extended its jurisdiction until two-thirds of its members were outside the two old centers. These hundreds of thousands who flocked into the union knew little of its early militant struggles and hardly comprehended its deep significance. Physically, they were organized; it remained to “unionize” them, i.e., to change their way of thinking. The union sought to teach them a new language and code of solidarity; a new attitude toward the boss and fellow workers; it aimed to deepen their interest in politics. In short, the membership had to be lifted from the level of mere dues payers to conscious unionism. And it is this union consciousness which, in one degree or another, pervades the organized working class; its future history begins with union consciousness not only more widespread and deeply rooted than ever but permanent.

IN UNION ORGANIZATION is the consolidation of the American workers as a class; and in the spread of union consciousness, the emerging understanding of its class position. This we see without idealizing the labor movement as it is. Bureaucracy still weighs down rank and file democracy; union leadership is reinforced by a narrow-minded machine of paid officials; in politics, continued attachment to the patronage apparatus of bourgeois parties; in foreign policy, a basic identification and defense of the “bi-partisan” Democratic-Republican line. There is prejudice, there is pettiness, there are superstitions, there is racketeering. Before the labor movement can become what it will become, the instrument for reconstructing society on the basis of full democracy it has a long way to go. Its internal regime must be revamped and its policies reoriented.

Nevertheless, in all our criticism we remember that we are dealing not with a sect; not even with a movement of a hundred thousand like the old Socialist Party. This is a movement of millions. Normally, the changing of their ideas and condition of organization takes place slowly but upon a massive scale. We are witness to a great movement; the consolidation of a class, its emergence onto the political scene; its developing consciousness.

Twenty years ago, the traditions of the labor movement lived on only in a small minority of the working class. American labor made its first mass effort to organize industrially as a class after the First World War; but despite the sweep of its strikes, the greatest in the nation’s history, it was defeated and unionism reduced to impotence in the twenties. Its minority, undefeated in spirit, was able to inspire the rising CIO movement a decade later. The decisive change in the spirit of our times lies in this: unionism is now deeply implanted in the minds of the great majority of our industrial working class, not in the minds of thousands alone but of millions. The creation of a working class consciousness is a long and difficult process, especially in the United States; it is the product of the experiences and traditions of generations, handed down from one to the next. That process is at last under way in American life.

* * *


1. Maritime Unions:













2. When Labor Votes: a Study of Auto Workers, by Arthur Kornhauser, Harold L. Sheppard and Albert J. Mayer, 1956. 352 pages, $5.00. University Books, Inc.

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Last updated: 24 October 2019