Paul Mattick

The American Federation of Labor and the Present Crisis


Published: in International Council Correspondence Vol. 1, no.5, February 1935, pp 19-22.
Source: Antonie Pannekoek Archives
Transcribed: by Graham Dyer

With the beginning of 1935 much rumor is heard about a possible major offensive by the A.F. of L. in a number of basic industries. Some superficial observers already see the threat of a nation-wide general strike to be initiated by textile, steel and automobile workers’ unions. Vague statements about Labor's awakening, uttered by the pious Baptist who heads the A.F. of L., further alarm the backwoods shopkeepers, and 1935 opens with generally evil forebodings to the middle class and the small business men.

We say middle class and small business men, because big business does not fear the A.F. of L. It knows that no general strike will be countenanced by the labor leaders and even such dangerous consequences as might arise from a textile or steel strike will be curbed before reaching their objective.

It is not merely that Green, Woll & Co., are cowardly, vacillating and reactionary that leads to this conclusion - it is that the A.F. of L. as an organization, lock, stock and barrel, is not by its nature inclined to take any risks.

The structure and history of the A.F. of L. are such that it can never engage in any struggle that endangers the existing order – and in these times any major action by the workers will have just that effect.

Organized in 1881, the A.F. of L. represented at that time the revolt of the skilled aristocracy of labor against the contemporary primitive labor organizations. The Knights of Labor, most powerful organization in the eighties, with all its faults had crystallized a potentially powerful movement of unskilled workers. Reactionary officials were unable to stem the tide. “Orderly” strikes developed into major revolts of gigantic proportions. The workers, despite the pious pleadings of reactionary leaders, fought as only the completely disfranchised could fight - with any and all means at their command.

The Gould strike, waged by the Knights of Labor in 1885 in which they whipped the most powerful railroad combination in the United States, was an example of working class revolt that involved skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled laborers on the basis of the slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all”.

The elemental character of the movement which swamped the Knights of Labor is borne out by the membership figures during the growth and decline of the eight-hour agitation. For this period the membership figures for the Knights of Labor and the A.F. of L. were:

Yr. 1881 1882 1883 1884 1885 1886 1887 1888
K. of L. 19,422 42,517 60,811 104,066 702,924 510,351 259,578 220,607
A. of L. 40,000 65,000 76,000 105,000 125,000 138,000 160,000 175,000

 The slow but steady growth of the A.F. of L. shows the substantial development of a movement of skilled workers, whose preferred position was not conducive to radical, revolutionary sentiment. They had banded together to take advantage of that position to secure further concessions - concessions that an expanding capitalism could well afford to grant. As they consolidated their position they became less inclined to risk it on any “wild revolutionary or socialist schemes”.

America, the growing industrial giant, presented certain conditions that constantly frustrated a revolutionary labor movement. The continuity that characterized European movements was absent here. The possibility of rising into the petty bourgeoisie, of becoming farmers, etc., coupled with recurring crises of a violent character submerged completely recurrent labor organizations. Added to this the comparative scarcity of skilled labor in the United States enabled the latter to enjoy a standard of wages and living much higher than the unskilled or any of the European workers could boast of. The violent recurring strikes of the unskilled workers imposed sacrifices on the skilled which the latter were unwilling to make.

The American Federation of Labor represented above all things the effort of the skilled labor aristocracy to break away from the lower strata of labor. They were unwilling to submerge their interests to those of the whole. They wanted to occupy a preferred seat at the capitalist table at the expense of their less fortunate fellows.

Thus, while the growth of the A.F. of L. was slow, it was predicated virtually upon a property interest. Its growth was more substantial, making up in essence what it lacked in numbers. The Knights of Labor disappeared from the field. The eight-hour movement, fought courageously by the rank and file and betrayed miserably by the leaders came to a bloody conclusion in the murder of the Haymarket “Anarchists”; but the A.F. of L. succeeded in keeping its hands unsullied by any radical activity at that time.

By 1894 Eugene Debs had organized the American Railway Union and in the Pullman strike of that year the class struggle flared anew, only to be suppressed with federal troops. The A.F. of L. repudiated the A.R.U. strike.

The Western Federation of Miners at this time developed a militant movement which broke away from the A.F. of L., and by 1905 resulted in the organization of the I.W.W. Until shortly before the world war the I.W.W. represented the best and most militant elements of the labor movement. The ignored and submerged unskilled workers saw reason for new hope, but the A.F. of L. kept its hands off except where it was possible to break “Wobbly” strikes and assist vigilante mobs in lynching-bees.

When the United States entered the world war, the A.F. of L. entered into an industrial peace pact with the master class and concentrated on sending American workers into the European slaughter. The I.W.W. was destroyed; its leaders sent to jail by the hundreds, and the A.F. of L. exulted with the rest of the jingoes at 20 year sentences handed out to “Wobbly” organizers.

With the close of the war, the revolutionary upsurge in Europe had its reflex in America in the growth of radical sentiment. Heeding reluctantly the insistent demands from below, the A.F. of L. entered upon a campaign to organize the steel industry. The steel workers responded enthusiastically only to be attacked on two fronts - by the forces of the national, state and local governments, and by the old-line A.F. of L. union of skilled steel workers, the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Tin and Steel Workers, who sabotaged the strike to the extent of scabbing. Jurisdictional disputes between the affected crafts played a good part in making the strike ineffective. The strike was lost.

When the present depression broke, the A.F. of L. had no plans to offer. The bureaucracy at the top was out of touch not only with the broad masses, but it was out of touch with its own membership as well. Its membership fell off. Already the possibility of complete collapse appeared when Roosevelt II saved the tottering structure. The decline in membership had been going on at a terrific pace. Dropping from four million members in 1920, it declined to two and one-half million by 1932. But with the help of the NRA, workers were again herded into the A.F. of L.

The president’s attitude may have been surprising, but there was nothing extraordinary about his action in view of the conditions. The world chaos threatened by the never-ending depression left its mark on American politics as it did on those of Europe. The capitalists of the world are preparing for two eventualities - war and revolution. In each country they prepare for this in their own way: Italy with Mussolini, Germany with Hitler, and the United States with Roosevelt and NRA. The differences of approach and method do not alter the fundamental nature and purpose of this movement. In each case the capitalist class of each country consolidates its forces against the coming war and revolution, and in each case that process of consolidation may accurately be called the process of fascization. This process calls for the utmost concentration of the forces of the national capitalist class as a whole. This accounts for its nationalism. Individualistic and reckless capitalists must be curbed, subordinated to the interests of the whole class; thus the socialism of fascism.

The workers must be controlled or their organizations destroyed - and since working class organization can never be entirely destroyed under capitalism, machinery is set up to control them. Here the A.F. of L. presents itself, offers itself as the willing and eager henchman of capitalism. No doubt even it will become superfluous or bothersome, or too ineffective in time to be of further use to the masters. But at this time it is usable. Mr. Roosevelt holds out glowing vistas to the labor skates. Their mouths water as they peer into the promised land. Only one cent per month per member flows into the A.F. of L. treasury from members of affiliated international unions. But there is a chance to organize the unskilled into “federal Unions” paying 35c a month per capita, and the president had practically told them to go ahead and organize to their hearts’ content.

Roosevelt’s friendly smile and naive radio talks might indicate the good natured clown, but his policies are those of a far-seeing capitalist who uses all methods necessary to prolong the existence of the present order. In this period of chaos and collapse, the most exploited and starving layers of the working class form a distinct menace of revolution. He hands out relief to the starving and lets the A.F. of L. take care of the exploited. The unskilled are to be herded into the A.F. of L. AND KEPT IN CHECK THEREBY.

The labor skates have delivered. They throttled the militant miners in the East. They surrendered to the steel industry; they scotched an attempt at an automobile industry strike and joyously broke the ‘Frisco general strike from within.

With a reactionary history to its credit, a form of organization susceptible to no changes, an officialdom so firmly intrenched as to be immovable, a rank and file that is either impotent or as reactionary as its leaders, the A.F. of L. at this time is much too useful to the master class to be discarded. lt is expected to fulfill the work in America of the Nazi “labor front” in Germany, and so far it has realized all the hopes Roosevelt placed in it. Its job is to prevent strikes, to regiment and curb the workers, to duplicate the Fascist labor organizations of Europe.

General strikes are not a part of Fascist routine. So a question whether the A.F. of L. will initiate a general strike movement in 1935 is indeed laughable.


Last updated on: 6.15.2018