Paul Mattick

Capturing the A.F. of L.


Published: in International Council Correspondence Vol. 1, no.8, May 1935, pp 22-26.
Source: Antonie Pannekoek Archives
Transcribed: by Graham Dyer

The development of the American labor movement has been different from that of Europe and England in several respects. The trade union movement here not only refrains from independent political action, but actively supports the capitalist parties. Repeatedly the socialist and communist movements have tried either to capture or to destroy the American Federation of Labor. These tactics have fluctuated between “boring from within” to outright organization of dual unions. The history of these efforts is interesting.

The developments of trade unions during and since the world war necessitate a complete revision of the earlier conceptions by Marxians. The expectations of the Communist Manifesto have not been fulfilled. Hopefully as the unions were greeted in 1848 and as lately as 1870 in the days of the First International, they have now definitely assumed a reactionary character.

Although the American movement shows considerable differences in development from that of Europe, the trade unions of Europe and America alike demonstrated their reactionary character. The Socialist unions of Europe were no less enthusiastic in their support of the mass slaughter than Gompers and his cohorts in America. The reaction of both sprang out of their inherent qualities, from their preferred positions in capitalist society, from their fear of losing their treasuries and “achievements”, from their general satisfaction with the status quo.

The trade unions of Germany were as conservative an influence on the German labor movement as were the revisionist Bernstein, and the agrarian Vollmar. They insisted on and established the principle that they be not expected to come into action for any revolutionary purpose, and were as autonomous of the German workers’ political movement as the A.F. of L. was of the American Socialist movement. The opportunism of the German Social Democracy winked at and even encouraged the reaction of the unions. The Socialist concessions to the unions ensured Pyrrhic parliamentary victories, and the lesson so clear to American revolutionists at an early date - that the predominant unions were reactionary and hopeless - was not learned by the few revolutionists in the European movements until too late. As a consequence, the German unions paved the way for Hitler. They were unwilling to risk their existence on “revolutionary adventures”. They actually preferred Hitlerism to communism, for they were much more aggressive against communism than against Hitlerism.

The Austrian trade unions likewise hesitated and temporized, and like the Germans paved the way for the politicians who finally destroyed them.

The British trade unions, unwillingly were precipitated into the 1926 general strike and then recoiled in horror at their own temerity. Now they are passive while dole and wage cuts are proceeding apace.

A review of American trade union history will show the development of this reactionary tendency to a point where it becomes obvious that the American Federation of Labor - the junction of unions under the constitution and laws of that federated body - must be destroyed as a definitely counter-revolutionary force. Its form of organization is not susceptible to change. It is so removed from rank and file control that even a severe crisis arousing the members of the unions composing it would keep them helpless and powerless. It is essentially an organization of officials whose comfortable, well paid jobs and political connections have reconciled them to the capitalist system, and who would fight to the bitter end against proletarian victory as a direct threat to their positions. A real proletarian victory is possible only after this bulwark of reaction has been destroyed.

While history is but the recounting of the dead past, the history of the attempts to change, reform, and displace the A.F. of L. will enable us to form a correct estimate of the A.F. of L. and to formulate the position of revolutionary workers in relation to it.

These attempts may be roughly divided into four actions: first, the organization of the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance, 1895; second, the organization of the I.W.W., 1905; third, the Great Steel Strike, 1919, and the subsequent organization of the Trade Union Educational League; and fourth, the organization of dual unions by the Communist Party from 1928 onwards.

The first major conflict between the A.F. of L. and the Socialist movement occurred in 1890. At the Detroit convention of the A.F. of L. in that year, the Central Federated Union of New York was refused a charter because it admitted delegates of the Socialist Labor party to its deliberations. Bitter conflicts continued at succeeding conventions until 1895 when the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance was organized. This was in effect a dual union in opposition to the A.F. of L.; but it never prospered. It never developed beyond the stages of a propaganda organization. Within the S.L.P. it engendered a conflict that split it in 1899 and resulted in the organization of the Socialist party in 1901. The S.L.P. (De Leon) carried on a vigorous campaign against the A.F. of L. while the Socialist Party (Hillquit, Berger, Debs) hoped to win over the federation by education and propaganda.

It was believed at first that the corruption of the (then declining) Knights of Labor was a main factor in the organization of the S.T. & L.A. The Socialist Labor Party’s National Executive Committee’s report at the 1896 convention, however, already had framed the “political-economic” dualism that ever after stamped the De Leonite S.L.P. Its declaration reads in part:

“The pure and simple union is no longer an organization that even pretends to better the condition of its members by fighting the boss … it is content to fight the poor devil of a fellow worker who happens to be out of work…

“But the class antagonisms in modern capitalist society will sometimes bring about collisions between the opposing forces … when they do, the political supremacy of the capitalist class created and backed up by the votes of the workers soon asserts itself with disastrous effect …

“But there has appeared a silver lining in these black clouds; the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance is born. To the superficial observer it may seem that this organization was formed only because of the reeking corruption among the general officers of the once powerful Order of the Knights of Labor.

“Yet this was only an incident, the lever, as it were, to relieve and set free the pent-up disgust of so many workers with the inactivity, the impotence of the fakir-ridden older organizations.

“It is to be hoped ... our party will give notice to the labor fakir that he had better stand from under, thus making it clear to all that the Socialists and new trade unionists have joined hands and are coming ... to put an end to … that artificial barrier between the economic and political phase of the American labor movement … “

The Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance was endorsed in the following resolution introduced by De Leon:

“WHEREAS, Both the A .F. of L. and the K. of L., or what is left of them, have fallen hopelessly into the hands of dishonest and ignorant leaders;

“WHEREAS, These bodies have taken shape as the buffers for capitalism, against whom every intelligent effort of the working class for emancipation has hitherto gone to pieces;

“WHEREAS, The policy of propitiating the leaders of these organizations has been tried long enough by the progressive movement, and is, to a great extent, responsible for the power which these leaders have wielded in the protection of capitalism and the selling out of the workers;

“WHEREAS, No organization of labor can accomplish anything for the workers that does not proceed from the principle that an irrepressible conflict rages between the capitalist and the working class, a conflict that can be settled only by the total overthrow of the former and the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth; and

“WHEREAS, This conflict is essentially a political one, needing the combined political and economic efforts of the working class; therefore be it

Resolved, That we hail with unqualified joy the formation of the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance as a giant stride towards throwing off the yoke of wage slavery and of the robber class of capitalists. We call upon the Socialists of the land to carry the revolutionary spirit of the S.T. & L.A. into all the organizations of the workers and thus consolidate and concentrate the proletariat of America in one irresistible class-conscious army, equipped both with the shield of the economic organization and the sword of the Socialist Labor Party ballot”.

This action of the S.L.P. was the forerunner of the organization of the I.W.W. The resolution laid down that peculiar and distorted interpretation of political action that typifies the S.L.P. to this day. The overrated De Leon could never understand the class struggle as anything else than a ballot struggle reinforced by “economic action”.  The comic-tragic element of his interpretation appears when it is realized that this “economic action” was adopted by the syndicalist wing of the I.W.W. later as being all sufficient - a direct reaction to confusing parliamentary action as the sole form of political action.

But it was not yet the time for the organization of the I.W.W. De Leon and Gompers both were stationed in New York. The center of industrial activity was farther west. Both had their major followings among the “genteel” trades. The horny handed, sweating and crude industrial workers in mines, mills and other basic industries were outside the influence of either.

The railroad brotherhoods were outside the A.F. of L. and Socialism became known to them considerably later.

In 1877 Eugene Debs attended his first convention as delegate to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. In 1880 he accepted the position of secretary-treasurer and editor-in-chief of the magazine at a time when the order was so weak that no more conventions were expected by most. By 1892 he faced the B. of L.F. now a strong, vigorous organization, with his resignation. Despite a loyal following and a splendid reputation as an organizer, he felt that organization was lacking in true solidarity and hampered by craft prejudices. He differed too much with the organization to remain any longer at its head.

Following his resignation, Debs organized the American Railway Union. It was to embrace all railway workers – engineers, firemen, switchmen, brakemen, shopmen and track-walkers. Within one year the A.R.U. had 150,000 members. In April, 1894 trouble broke out on Jim Hill’s Great Northern Railroad and the A.R.U. had its first test. By May 1st they had wrung practically all their demands from the road.

On May 11, 1894 the workers in the Pullman shops at Chicago came out on strike. They called upon the A.R.U. for support and got it in the form of a boycott on Pullman cars. Twenty railroads and 125,000 workers were affected. Chicago-ward traffic was paralyzed. Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to break the strike, the federal courts cited and sentenced Debs to jail for contempt of court, and the A.R.U. passed from view on the heels of this defeat.

Debs served six months in jail and upon his release tried to restore the wrecked A.R.U. He failed in this, but he was turning more and more toward Socialism. By 1897 a convention of the A.R.U. wound up its affairs and reorganized as the “Social Democracy”.

Debs’ entry into the Socialist movement is significant because he represented no white-collared intelligentsia, but came fresh from contact with the workers of a basic industry. He carried into that section of the Socialist movement which had broken away from De Leon and the S.T. & L.A. the idea of fighting the old craft unions. Hardly had the “safe and sane” socialists rid themselves of De Leon, than they were saddled with Debs. And the latter was much more formidable at that time than De Leon. He was illogical, sentimental and unscientific - the direct opposite of De Leon. But he was fiery, aggressive, and had a tremendous reputation and following. The Socialist Party had to reckon with him.

It was a strange combination that later materialized in the I.W.W. - Debs, De Leon, Haywood, A.M. Simons, Mother Jones, Untermann, Hagerty, Sherman and Bohn. It probably never would have been organized but for Debs’ venture with the A.R.U. and De Leon’s efforts to fight the A.F. of L. with the S.T. & L.A. These two efforts represent the prelude to the I.W.W. The S.T. & L.A. represented the theoretical differences of the Socialist movement. with the A.F. of L., the realization that the limitations of craft unions and the narrow viewpoint arising therefrom were inimical to Socialist interests. Debs’ movement represented the revolt of workers in industry who saw themselves betrayed and forsaken by the labor aristocracy. Both elements fused for a time in the organization of the I.W.W.

In future issues, the I.W.W., the T.U.E.L., and the communist unions will be discussed.


Last updated on: 6.15.2018